Our state is chock-full of great catfish holes. Here are the top Carolina catfish lakes and rivers for the 2007 fishing season. (June 2007)
Photo by Ron Sinfelt.
Whether you fish lakes, rivers or both, catfish are a common denominator in the fish population in South Carolina. While there's plenty of fishing pressure on largemouth bass and seasonally on crappie, the catfish is increasing in popularity based on the number of fishermen enjoying the sport. Luckily, catfish are found in a very high percentage of fisheries in South Carolina.
And it's no wonder so many fishermen enjoy catfishing. Fish are caught in huge numbers and sizes; they're great fighting fish, and are legendary as table fare.
However, not all catfish holes are equal. During some of the peak fishing time of the year, June and into July, there are some rivers and lakes that seem to really stand out in terms of being productive for Mr. Whiskers.
The Santee River is certainly one spot -- and the high-quality fishing here is often overlooked by nearby Charleston, Summerville and Moncks Corner anglers. In addition, Clarks Hill Lake (Lake Thurmond) and Lake Wylie in the Piedmont/Upstate area, and Lake Marion and the Congaree River close to Columbia, are among the best to be found anywhere, in or out of South Carolina.
Lake Wylie has a great population of hefty channel catfish and a growing population of blue catfish. All the rest of these lake and river catfish connections have another important factor in common. They all harbor big numbers of all of the big three species of catfish: the channel, blue and flathead.
This is a key component of these remarkable catfish fisheries. Because of the diversity of species of catfish, you can except to find catfish in many different water depths and structures throughout June, and frankly, the entire summer. For just about any kind of tackle, boat or bait you like to use, there are catfish waiting for you in these fisheries.
We'll begin our look at the Santee River. The part we'll consider will be from the Wilson Dam on Lake Marion down to the salt water, which is well below Jamestown. That's a long stretch of highly productive water for anglers to fish.
There's access to the river just below the Wilson Dam, plus a ramp at the Highway 52 bridge between Kingstree and St. Stephens. There is also access at the Highway 41 bridge near Jamestown. From these areas, you can motor to the hotspots found all along the river. Additionally, at the highways 52 and 41 access areas, there is some exceptionally good bank-fishing for bruiser catfish.
Using stout tackle that you can cast a relatively long distance, you have a reasonable chance of tangling with some huge catfish along the shoreline around these two bridges. Cut shad and bream are great baits for blues, and live bait, or fresh cut bait, seems best for flatheads, especially for the really big fish.
Night crawlers and stink baits will produce big numbers of decent-sized channel catfish, of course, but they are quite capable of attracting a few moderate-sized blues as well.
But if you have access to a boat, you're really in the catfish business. This river is ideal for the smaller boats and johnboats. Bigger rigs, such as bass rigs, are used here, but you need to do so with caution. In fact, caution is the word with any boat fishing the river. There are a number of areas along the river that are quite shallow, interspersed with deep holes. In addition, there are many logs, stumps and other debris in the river. The really big boats are not the best choice for this river. But if you're a johnboat fisherman, you'll think you are in catfish heaven.
I happened to be part of a gathering of johnboats last June at the Santee and saw first hand the sensational catfishing available in this river.
When Rev. Bob Matthews from Ladson told me to expect we'd catch 500 to 1,000 pounds of fish on our fishing trip to the Santee River, I thought that was a top-end estimate for the entire weekend. And I would have been thrilled with that total. I have no reservations about his honesty, as Bob is pastor at the Heritage Holiness Church in Ladson, and we met through a mutual friend, Mike Cox, while shrimping in Bulls Bay. Since then, we've developed a good friendship and have been fishing and shrimping together. He also owns a farm that backs up to the Santee River and he's a self-proclaimed "Santee River Rat." So, when I was invited for a fishing trip, along with several of the members from Bob's congregation, I jumped at the chance.
The fishing was so good that we hit and surpassed his total estimate the first night we fished. We were running trotlines, as well as fishing with rod and reel. While the trotlines helped in the big total of fish for sure, the sheer mass of catfish we caught was true testimony to the number of huge fish in this river. There were simply scads of blue and flathead catfish in the 15- to 30-pound range, with a few somewhat larger than that.
The key to the fishing here is to work the deeper holes in the river for the biggest fish. However, some prime areas are to be found on the adjacent sand or gravel bars that drop into the deep water. Cut bait, both bream and shad, are prime baits for both quality and quantity of fish.
Some anglers will work the sandbars with drift rigs while anchored in the deeper water. They will cast the rig upcurrent and allow it to slowly drift back down, along the edge of the bar right where it drops into deep water. This is very effective with cut bait, or with some of commercially prepared stink baits. From June forward into the summer, the stink baits are prime baits to get plenty of bites on this river. The flatheads seldom bite the stinky stuff, but the channel catfish and blue catfish will tear it up.
For big fish, use big hooks (6/0 or larger), heavy rods and big reels. You need enough muscle in your tackle to be able to horse a huge catfish away from logs and cover.
Plus -- and this is key -- use big bait for big fish. A good method is to begin your search by anchoring at the upstream end of a deep hole. Cast multiple rigs downstream and wait about 30 minutes. If you're not getting action, pull anchor, move down toward the tail end of the deep hole and try again. Keep repeating the process until you get into the larger fish.
Fishing is good both day and night; however, on our June trip, the nighttime fishing was absolutely sensational. According to Matthews, the fishing for catfish stays good all summer and well into the fall. But June is his prime month for catfishing the Santee River.
lie lies in both South and North Carolina, but there's ample catfishing water in our state on this lake for sure. The lake encompasses 13,433 surface acres of water and is on the Catawba River chain of lakes. It is the oldest lake on the Catawba system and has a great fishery for channel catfish and bullheads. In recent years, the blue catfish have flourished and now a number of blues in the 10- to 20-pound class are being caught.
Rodger Taylor is a professional catfish guide and Lake Wylie is one of his favorite summer hotspots.
"During the summer and certainly in June, I drift-fish the flats near the main river channel of the lake. It's not uncommon to catch 20 to 50 hefty channel catfish weighing 4 to 7 pounds each, with an occasional larger fish caught as well," Taylor said.
"These channel catfish, in that size class, seem to fight harder than any catfish of their size," he added.
He'll fish the flats along the edge of the channel and will use a circle hook on an 18-inch leader. On that leader will be a 2-inch cork float to hold the bait off the bottom and reduce the number of potential snags. Above the swivel, he'll use a sliding sinker.
"I'll wind drift if the breeze is sufficient. If it's not, I'll use my electric motor to keep the boat moving and covering territory. If we get into a good concentration of fish, we'll work that area hard," Taylor added.
To contact Taylor, visit his catfishing Web site at CatfishOn.com.
Another technique used by knowledgeable anglers is fishing mussels gathered from the lake in both Big Allison and Little Allison creeks.
This technique works well on channel catfish as well as big bullhead catfish, which are outstanding table fare. If you can get some mussels, they're great. If not, shrimp or a big gob of worms will work well, too.
Once you have your bait, it's time to find the catfish. Essentially, you need to be point hopping to be most productive. Anchor on or near a point that drops into deeper water and cast out multiple rigs. Give the spot 15 or 20 minutes and if you're not getting good action, move to another point and keep repeating the process until you get into some fast-paced action. June and throughout the summer is a great time for this fishing.
During June, you can expect to catch plenty of fish from the large creeks, but don't ignore the river channel. Some of the points where the creek and river intersect are outstanding.
Clarks Hill Lake is also outstanding for all three of the big three catfish species during June. This Savannah River impoundment has produced huge strings of channel catfish as well as outlandish-sized blues for a long time. In recent years, many big flatheads have also been caught and now comprise some of the best big-fish action in the state.
Clarks Hill is a huge body of water and the entire lake has the potential to produce good action during June. There are still plenty of fish in the creeks, but many big fish are in the main lake sector as well.
Points, humps and channel edges are all ideal places to find catfish. Catfish, like many game fish, are quite structure oriented; they favor places that have good contour relief under the water. They will congregate in places you can identify and mark with your electronic equipment.
The blues and channel catfish don't seem to mind clean bottom areas where there is a hump, ridge or drop. The big flatheads, according to local fishermen, like to hang out in areas of heavier cover.
Many catfish experts on Clarks Hill will fish at night if they are focusing their efforts on big fish. Night-fishing can be an especially productive tactic during the summer months because the water is often clear in this lake in summer.
One of the traditional hotspots for big blue catfish is the area around the intersection of Little River with the main Savannah River. This mix of water creates some unique, although sometimes subtle, current situations during the summer months that seem to attract big catfish. Look for long, sloping points that lie near the channel of either the Savannah River or the Little River.
Study the topographic maps and locate areas where the river makes sharp bends with a hump or high spot on the outside bend. This fast transition from very deep to reasonably shallow water gives the big catfish quick access to deep water, but a shallow foraging area for nocturnal use.
This lake is ideal for any size boat or rig. The small boats can fish the creeks and coves successfully even on a windy day. The lake, of course, is ideal for the big rigs as well, since there's plenty of room to run.
Lake Marion is the final lake we'll look at for June catfishing. As with the other lakes we've discussed, Lake Marion contains outstanding catfish angling in all sections of the lake. The lower end of the lake is a big, open-water environment where big boats are the rule. But the upper end of the lake has many out-of-the-way spots that are best reached by johnboat or other small craft. Almost anyone can find a perfect setting for his or her boat on this lake. Plus, not only is the fishing great throughout the lake, but some very good fishing can be had up the Congaree River, which flows into the very upper end of Lake Marion.
On the lower end of the lake, fishermen employ electronics a great deal to find fish. By June, the big blues and flatheads are being taken in the open-water sector of the lake. There are a number of professional guides that focus on catching the giant catfish this lake has become world famous for.
One technique they use requires patience, but is otherwise straightforward: Hunt the drops and channel edges until you mark fish on the graph, then anchor and fish that spot.
Another technique that has become popular in recent years, and that is very productive during June, is to drift-fish. Using herring as bait and rigging several rods to drift the baits behind the boat, an angler can cover plenty of territory.
With whole or fresh cut herring, you have a great opportunity to catch either big blues or flatheads, often both. While fishing with guide Don Drose on the lower end of the lake, I've seen first hand you can catch multiple fish -- both blues and flatheads -- over 20 pounds. The top end weight for either of these species in this lake is almost open-ended: This fishery supports some truly trophy catfish. In fact, because Lake Marion has plenty of tackle-busting fish, anglers should rig according to the size of the catfish that they hope to hook.
The upper end of the lake offers plenty of opportunity to hook big fish as well. However, you can get into more out-of-the-way places and catch many channel catfish using stink baits, small cut bait and worms as bait. It's not unusual to catch 30 to 50 channel catfish on an average day if you get in the right pl
Also, there are many public landings around the lake and most of these offer good catfishing from the shoreline during June, especially for channel catfish. The channels are scattered in the creeks and main lake, so odds of hooking into some decent sized fish is relatively good, even if you don't have access to a boat on Lake Marion.
In the Congaree River, you can fish using methods similar to those described on the Santee River. Look for the edges for the deep holes as you motor up or down the river.
The Congaree is an ideal place for smaller boats, but is also large enough, especially on the lower end, to handle larger boats. As always, when navigating any river, use common sense and caution.
Take advantage of the great catfishing opportunities on these lakes and rivers. There's some excellent fishing close to almost everyone and whether you are bank-fishing, fishing from a johnboat or have a big rig, there are great places to catch catfish in Carolina.