Midsummer can serve up some blazing catfish angling at Marion and Moultrie -- if you use the right tactics and fish in the right places.
Fish like these keep anglers interested in Santee-Cooper catfish during the summer. A properly planned drift at the right depth can put some nice fish in the boat.
Photo by Jeff Samsel
What does it take to build a world-class catfishery? In the case of Santee-Cooper blue cats, it took only 825 catfish, each weighing about a pound, which were trucked in from Arkansas in exchange for striped bass in 1964 and 1965.
Of course, the habitat also helped. lakes Marion and Moultrie together offer 170,000 acres of highly fertile waters, an abundance of open waters for blue cats to cruise and six different shad and herring species to provide open-water forage.
Today, Santee-Cooper stands without question as one of the nation's elite destinations for trophy catfish, including flatheads and blues. Channels also show up in good numbers for anglers who target them. However, really big channels are somewhat rare, which is ironic since the world-record channel catfish came from Santee-Cooper. The 58-pound giant was caught in 1964, the first year the blue cats were stocked. Even today, however, some super-duper channels likely still get caught but are mistaken for blues.
One great virtue of the Santee-Cooper catfishery is that the fishing stays terrific throughout the year. Fishing guides book trips and enjoy fine fishing 12 months of the year, with each season offering unique challenges. Late summer is no exception. Catfishing can be outstanding, but anglers must understand how dog day conditions affect the cats' behavior and plan strategies accordingly.
GET THE DRIFT
The baitfish have a tendency to scatter when the water warms up, according to Eddie Covington, a long-time Santee-Cooper guide who fishes mostly for catfish and concentrates his efforts on the lower end of Lake Marion. When the bait spreads out, the cats spread out, so Covington looks for active fish by drifting.
Covington drifts the open water in far lower reaches of the lake. He prefers to drift close to edges of flooded timber, having found that the biggest cats tend to stay close to the trees. However, wind direction largely dictates whether he'll be able to drift parallel to a timber edge. Typically, he likes to drift over 22 to 26 feet of water during midsummer. That also varies, however, based on where he finds bait and catfish with his graph.
Before he begins his first drift, Covington typically does a fair amount of searching with his electronics. He looks for areas where there are good concentrations of baitfish or where he spots a fair number of larger fish that appear to be catfish. He then takes into account the direction and strength of the wind and other factors (such as stands of stumps and trees that he could not reasonably drift through) and then plans the best drift to bring baits through the area with the most fish.
He uses a drift sock to control the speed of his drift and to keep his boat running drifting sideways so his lines don't cross one another. He keeps the sock close to the boat if the wind is not blowing hard and puts out much more rope if it is quite windy.
Covington drifts with 1 1/2-ounce bottom-bumper rigs, putting a crappie cork on his leader between the weight rig and the hook. He uses circle hooks and baits up with gizzard and threadfin shad and blueback herring, always cutting the tails off the baitfish. If they aren't cut off, he believes that the catfish don't bite them as well.
Covington also has found that it is necessary to peg corks at the end facing the weight. If it's pegged the other way, water goes into the hole and causes the cork and the bait behind it to move erratically, again deterring catfish bites. In addition, Covington has found the position of the cork to be critical, and the best position varies daily.
"Catfish are at different levels in the water, and where the float is on the leader determines the level the bait will come through. I'll start out with them all set differently and then change them all after I get a strike," he said.
Unlike many guides, who spool up with very heavy braided line for drift-fishing, Covington uses 30-pound-test Trilene Big-Game. He does a lot of his drifting precariously close to the tree lines, where downed trees and stumps are a big part of the equation, and he finds it too difficult to break heavier line if multiple lines get snagged in the middle of a drift.
"I've found that 30-pound-test works well for getting fish in, so there's no reason for me to mess with the really heavy line," he said.
Pete Pritchard, another long-time guide on the Santee-Cooper lakes, also spends some of his summer days drifting, using the same types of tactics. Instead of drifting the open water in the lower end of the lake, however, Pritchard typically focuses on the edges of the Santee River channel, which follows the lake's south shore through much of the lower half of Lake Marion.
Pritchard has found that a lot of big blues will be down in the channel or on the ledge just above it. If winds are conducive to doing so, he'll plan drifts to pull baits across the flat on one side of the channel, down the slope and through the bottom of the channel. Of course, if he gets most of his strikes either on the ledge or inside the channel, he'll adjust his next drift accordingly.
While Covington and Pritchard fish mostly in the Upper Lake, as Marion is often called, many anglers who drift prefer the open waters of the Lower Lake. Unlike Lake Marion, Lake Moultrie doesn't have a forest beneath its surface. Therefore, drifting is much less frustrating for most anglers.
Drifting the wide-open waters of Lake Moultrie appears very random, but the areas that veteran anglers choose to drift never have anything to do with chance. Beneath Moultrie's surface lies a complex network of swamp sloughs, canals and slight hills that rise to divide the flooded swamps. The cats follow baitfish up and down the sloughs and relate to well-defined ridges and cuts in what looks like the middle of nowhere.
An angler who doesn't know the lake well can simply search an area for baitfish and catfish, using a map and a graph for reference, and then plan drifts to cross those areas that show the most promise. At times that approach can be very effective. However, guides and other Santee-Cooper regulars follow the movements of the cats and the baitfish daily and they begin their searches in very specific areas that they find with GPS units or in the depths the most cats have been pulled from in recent days.
Pritchard also spends quite a few summer days in the upper half of Lake Marion, anchored over humps and spreading flatlines onto the slopes around him for blue catfish. He's found that blues of all sizes will relate to the humps on summer days, and he can capitalize on the habits of those fish by spreading chunks of shad and herring around the boat.
Pritchard likes humps that top out in 5 to 10 feet of water and are surrounded by water that is 16 to 18 feet deep. His favorite area for this style of fishing is the lake's main body within a couple miles in either direction of the Interstate 95 bridge. "There are humps all over the place in that part of the lake," Pritchard said.
The blue catfish cruise the deeper water and move up the slopes between the top of the hump and the deeper water to feed. Therefore, finding baitfish in an area is more important than finding catfish. If Pritchard spots some bait on his graph, he'll anchor and spread out several lines. If the fish don't cooperate within an hour or so or they feed well and then quit, he'll move to another hump. One of the advantages in fishing this area is that with so many humps in close proximity, the travel time to the next spot is short.
RIVER CHANNEL FLATHEADS
"The flatheads will be down in the river channel during the summer," Pritchard said. "We'll ride the edge of the channel searching for them and then will fish vertically, anchoring directly over them, once we find them."
Flatheads make big marks on or very near the bottom, and they usually are close to a timberline or some other cover and right along the channel break. Often the best groups will be in channel bends or at the confluences of ditches or creek channels. Pritchard likes to find four or five good fish together before he puts down a single line.
Once he locates fish, Pritchard will double anchor to make certain he stays right over the fish and that the boat won't swing. Then he'll put rods in holders all the way around the boat, rig them all with live bream, white perch or shad, and drop them down. He'll let the baits go all the way to the bottom, reel them up a single turn, and lock the reels into place.
With the baits in place, the waiting game begins. As top-end predators, flatheads feed when they want to feed. It's not uncommon to have 10 baits dangling in the faces of five or six big fish for an hour without as much as a sniff and then suddenly have two rod tips get buried three eyes deep in the water almost simultaneously.
Pritchard rigs for bear when he flathead fishes. He uses stout rods, Ambassadeur 6000 reels and 65-pound-test Spiderwire.
When flatheads do decide to bite, it's important to grab rods quickly and start cranking hard. The endless-seeming trees that are visible from above the surface at Lake Marion are only a tiny fraction of the trees that are in the lake. Timber tangles cover the bottom in many areas, and if a flathead gets its head down into the cover, getting that fish back out becomes highly unlikely.
THE NIGHT BITE
Traditionally, most catfishermen have not done a tremendous amount of night-fishing on the Santee-Cooper lakes. Fishing always has been sufficiently good during the day that there has been no reason to take on the lake's potentially treacherous waters after the sun has stopped shining.
However, the brave few who did fish after hours enjoyed phenomenal success at times, and over time the word began slipping out. Most anglers still stick with the daytime approach, but night-fishing is becoming ever more popular, and at times the night bite can be really good.
Eddie Covington splits his time between days and nights during August. At night, he concentrates on shallow water, but always in areas that are close to the Santee River channel or other deep water.
"The catfish come up out of that deep water at night to feed," Covington said.
Covington finds that the fish feed very well right at dark and then there tends to be a couple of hours lull while the fish get acclimated to the night and the shallower water. When the action starts again, it can get frantic, with clickers screaming and lines racing out all around the boat.
Covington uses small pieces of cut shad and herring during the summer, having found that the fish are far less likely to get just a tail and miss the hook.
"People think you need a huge chunk of bait to catch a big fish, but that's not the case. During the summer, these blue cats eat a lot of mussels, which are very small, so a small piece of cut bait works well, and when he takes the bait, you have him."
When he fishes under the stars, Covington leaves his reels open with clickers on. When a fish makes the clicker scream, all an angler needs to do is turn the reel handle. The reel engages, and the circle hook does its job perfectly, Covington explained. You'll want to have a firm grip on the rod before you turn the reel, though.
Just to keep things interesting until the cats get going full steam, Covington often will bring along a few crappie rigs on night trips. He mounts a Hydroglow light to the roof of his boat to illuminate the rod tips without attracting insects, and the same light draws minnows and, consequently, crappie to the area.
Kevin Davis, who runs Black's Fish Camp on Lake Moultrie and guides on both lakes, does most of his midsummer catfishing at night, usually in the Diversion Canal, which links the lakes. Davis mixes up his offerings, using cut bait and live bait, with hopes of catching both flatheads and blues. South Carolina's state-record flathead and the record flathead before that one both came from the Diversion Canal, and night-fishermen do well with both big-cat species during the summer.
While the Diversion Canal is relatively straight and has a generally even bottom, subtle bends create bottom breaks and, more importantly, current breaks, that the cats really orient to. Davis anchors right along current breaks and casts his lines downstream. He rigs them all with Carolina rigs, using an ounce or two of lead, and baits some with cut shad or herring and others with live bream or perch.
The Rockpile, a mid-canal spot that's recognizable by its name, also creates a significant current break and holds a lot of catfish because of the huge pile of rocks that lies beneath the surface. Along with the canal itself, Davis noted the mouth of the canal as a very good area to set up at night. Just beyond where the Diversion Canal begins opening into Lake Moultrie, current and channel edges still exist, and fish really relate to the edges. Davis will put some baits down in the channel and others up on the ledge.
Of course, night-fishing is not strictly a big-cat game reserved for anglers who are equipped with heavy-duty gear. One extremely popular and effective summer fishing strategy is to drift the Diversion Canal, with each angler in a boat holding a single rod in hand and bouncing a piece of bait straight beneath the boa
t with a three-way rig.
Most anglers who use this tight-lining strategy gear up with bass-sized tackle and 15- or 20-pound-test and bait up with dip bait, chicken livers, shrimp or small pieces of shad. They catch mostly channel catfish and blues of less than 10 pounds, although occasionally they hook up with giants (which get away more often than not). Summer nighttime drifting action can be fast and furious.
WANT TO GO?
To fish with Pete Pritchard, give him a call at (803) 478-7533 or go to
www.santeefishingguides.com. To fish with Eddie Covington, call (803) 478-8826. Covington also can arrange lodging. To fish with Kevin Davis or other guides out of Black's Camp, call (843) 753-2231 or visit