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3 Top Lakes For Summertime Catfishin'

3 Top Lakes For Summertime Catfishin'

Lakes Monticello, Murray and Hartwell are well worth fishing this time of year for anyone interested in the strong fight of big catfish. (August 2009)

Anyone that keeps up with the sport of catfishing has learned that Mr. Whiskers can be caught practically year 'round. But the traditional favorite time of the year for many is still the good ol' summertime.

During the hot weather months of July and August, anglers also have a choice of fishing by day or by night because of warm weather. This option certainly enhances odds of success. Plus it significantly expands the number and types of techniques and tactics available to anglers.

While good catfish action is available on many lakes and rivers in South Carolina during the summer, there are a few that really stand out. Some of the better options are lakes with fairly clear water, which might surprise some anglers. But the key to these lakes is to fish at the right depths depending on the weather and time you fish. Typically, that means fishing deeper on bright days and shallower at night.

Lakes Monticello, Murray and Hartwell are all very productive catfish producers during this time of the year -- if you understand the basic patterns that lead to success.

Lake Monticello is becoming known as a trophy blue catfish fishery. During the day, anglers looking to hook a bruiser blue should focus on deep water. Although the fish are not always found in the deep water, they will generally be orienting with respect to it.

There are a couple of very interesting items that anglers need to know about Lake Monticello summertime fishing, according to professional guide Chris Simpson (864-992-2352; Simpson, who guides on this lake (among others) year 'round, rates summertime as a very productive time for outlandish sized blue catfish.


"First, because of the unique type of lake that Monticello is, there is a real opportunity to catch fish over 100 feet deep during the summer months," Simpson said. "The reason is because the lake is constantly having water pumped into and out of it. This apparently creates enough water turnover that a thermocline does not develop, at least not down to 120 feet deep. And second, because of this situation and the very clear water, we do catch fish that deep, on the bottom, during the summer months."

Simpson does his fishing on the lake bottom during this time of the year. He said about 75 percent of his fishing time he anchors and fan-casts around the boat. About 25 percent of his fishing time will be drifting, but drifting with bottom-bumping rigs, not suspended.

"The drifting I do will be on the lake bottom," he said. "Some fishermen will drift the open water and fish for suspended fish and they can produce really well at times, but sometimes they can be hard to get to bite. I tend to have better luck fishing for the really big catfish that are marked on the bottom. A good graph is very important to my success on Monticello."

Simpson said the fish tend to be very deep during the daytime and the key is to find identifiable structure on the lake bottom.

"I'll look for main-lake humps, ridges and long points," he said. "There are some places where there's a saddle of deeper water between high spots. That can be a great place to drift across or anchor."

Darryl Smith is another catfisherman that has fished the lake many times for blue catfish during the summer months. He does not guide on Lake Monticello (he does guide at Santee Cooper lakes -- another great blue catfish destination -- 803-324-7912;

Smith has two reliable patterns for day or night fishing on this lake during July and August, and they are quite different. The daytime pattern is such that he relies heavily on his electronic graph to help him figure the right pattern.

"One of the primary ways I'll fish is to drift during the summer months," he said. "I use my graph and literally motor along and look for big fish to be marked on the graph as well as baitfish. It's not unusual at all to be fishing in water that's over 100 feet deep, often as deep as 120 feet in some areas," he said.

"Most of the time I'll mark fish suspended in the 20- to 40-foot water depth range, but it will vary based on water conditions and weather," Smith said. "The trick is to identify the right depth for that day and lower the bait to within just a few feet of where they are holding on that particular day. I always try to keep the bait slightly above, and not below, the depth they are marked on the graph. This is precisely why having a good graph is so critical during daytime fishing."

One other daytime technique that Smith said has produced some huge fish is to free-line live bait behind the boat with almost no weight at all.

"I'll use a double-barreled swivel and a smaller 2/0 J-style hook," he said. "I'll take a live bait, hook the bait in the nose and let it just swim along behind the boat. I've caught some huge blue catfish doing this. Even though the fish may be holding deep at times, they'll come up very shallow to take that bait rigged like this."

According to Smith, the pattern does change at night on Lake Monticello. Smith said that because of the clear water, the fish don't move shallow very often during the day. But at night, they often get to 10 to 20 feet of water and sometimes all the way to the shallows.

"At night, I like to get in the coves or on shallow points," he said. "The big blues will often come in very shallow at night. I'll fish all around the boat and cover a lot of depths of water, but it's always a good idea to cast a couple of rigs toward the shoreline. Sometimes a big blue will get into very shallow water at night during hot weather.

"In fact, a fisherman can be very successful here at night by fishing from the shoreline at times," he said. "I do almost all my fishing from a boat, but during the summer, fishing at night from the bank could be a good technique for fishermen to hook a big blue catfish."

Since Smith specializes in big catfish, he uses appropriate tackle to handle the fish. However, because of the clear water in Monticello, he advised fishermen to be conscious of line size when rigging.

"I think having too heavy of line can hurt your success on big catfish," Smith said. "I always use the lightest line I think will handle the fish I'm trying to hook. My line size will vary depending on where I fish. If I'm in open water, I'll often use only 30-pound-test line. However, if I'm fishing right over the top of trees left in the water when it

was impounded, I may go as high as 60-pound-test. I'll have to have more strength to keep the fish out of the debris. Because of trying to keep my lines straight down as I drift, I'll often have to use a 2- to 3-ounce sinker. I generally use a 5/0 circle hook."

Smith's basic rig is much like a Carolina rig, with the weight above a swivel and then a 2-foot leader. However, Smith is adamant about using a fluorocarbon line for his leader.

"I strongly believe in using a fluorocarbon line as my leader," he said. "These big fish are smart, and in clear water, I want a line that is as invisible as possible. It does make a big difference."

Smith's nocturnal rig is similar to what he uses by day; however, because he is fishing shallower water, he will use much lighter weights, often only 3/8- or 1/2-ounce weights.

Bait is always a key to any catfishing success and Simpson and Smith prefer to use gizzard or threadfin shad. The baits can be rigged live, whole dead or cut. Lake Monticello is also full of white perch, also a good blue catfish bait.

Lake Murray is quickly becoming known as an excellent blue catfish fishery and a lot of sizable blue catfish have been taken. Murray guides like Simpson say the future there is very bright.

"This lake has unbelievable potential for catfishing," Simpson said. "The blues are here in good numbers and are growing very fast. A lot of hefty fish are already being caught and there are lots of mid-range fish, in the 10-pound-plus category.

Simpson said that one good summertime strategy is to fish the upper third of the lake and focus on the humps, flats and ledges that are at about the same depth as the thermocline. Simpson said wherever the thermocline is located, that's the key depth to fish, or just shallower.

"I recommend drift-fishing using cut shad, perch or herring," he said. "The basic drift rig is similar to other lakes, a 2- to 3-foot leader with a 8/0 circle hook. Above the swivel, I use a 2-ounce slip-sinker to keep the rig in contact with the bottom. I look for a place where there's a lot of baitfish and big fish marked on the bottom, right at the thermocline level."

Quite often, once an angler zeros in on the right depth and structure combination, he'll find that catfish in nearby areas can be caught wherever that combination occurs.

Another catfish angler on Lake Murray is Tony Alexander. Alexander is a serious catfisherman, spending about 160 days a year pursuing the Lake Murray catfish. During the hot weather months, Alexander spends most of his fishing hours after dark.

"I worked at Lighthouse Marina, so I keep up with fishing reports anyway," he said. "Because of the clear water and boat traffic on the lake, fishing at night is by far the best alternative for me. The catfish do seem to get much more active at night during this time of the year."

Alexander said he has a couple of primary patterns that consistently produce plenty of catfish during the summer.

"My No. 1 pattern is to fish island points," he said. "The lake is full of islands, some are round shaped, some long and narrow. I fish the long and narrow islands because those points on each end will often drop into deep water. They may stretch out a long way before dropping off, but that's a very good thing. Also, as you learn the lake, you can key on these points that have mussel bottoms. They are certainly the prime places.

"I'll typically anchor in about 20 feet of water and fan-cast a dozen rigs around the boat," he said. "I'll use 1-ounce sinkers on a 20-pound-test line, and I also use 20-pound-test fluorocarbon leader. Even at night, I'm convinced the invisible leader is crucial on Lake Murray."

Although he fan-casts the rigs around the boat, Alexander said usually most of them will be 20 feet deep and shallower.

"At night the fish move up onto these points and flats to feed," he said. "Often, I'll get bites on the deep-water rods first. Then as that action slows, the rods toward the shallow water will start going crazy with bites.

"My No. 2 type of spot is long main-lake points that drop into deep water," he said. "I will focus on the points with hard bottoms and shellbeds. Typically, one of these two patterns will work throughout the summer months. For fishermen not familiar with the lake, it would be good to get on the lake for a while before dark and learn the area where you're fishing. Generally, I'll get about 30 minutes before dark and get set up. Often right at dark the bite will be on."

Alexander said he catches an assortment of blue catfish, channel catfish and white catfish. Sometimes they'll all be mixed together, sometimes one area will produce one predominant species.

He said that he typically fishes the lower half of the lake because he feels he'll catch more big fish in that area during the summer months.

"My No. 1 bait during the summer is cut bream and shellcrackers, specifically the heads," he said. "Also white perch is very good, as is fresh-cut herring."

According to Alexander, Lake Murray is a prime target to catch big blue catfish, as well as big numbers of channel and white catfish.

"I've caught a lot of big blue catfish out of the lake," he said. "During the summer, all of the big ones I've caught have come at night."

The final lake we'll look at for summertime fishing is Lake Hartwell. While known for largemouths as well as the striped bass and hybrid fisheries, Lake Hartwell is a real sleeper for catfish.

Chris Simpson doesn't guide at Hartwell, but has won or placed well in several catfish tournaments on this lake.

"A lot of fishermen don't realize that this lake has all three of the major catfish species," he said. "The fishing for blues, flatheads and channel catfish is good. However, the clear water does impact the summertime fishing for me. For the blues and flatheads, a good number of catfish in the 30-pound class and larger are caught and some in the 40- to 50-pound class occasionally. For the channel catfish, a good-sized fish is usually in the 5- to 6-pound class.

"I generally do most of my fishing in the upper end of the lake," he said. "The water depth is shallow enough I can effectively drift-fish it. Plus, there's not as much debris, such as standing timber as is found on the lower end of the lake. While the lower end will hold a lot of big catfish I'm sure, you've got to really be able to pick your fishing spots to stay out of the underwater trees."

On Lake Hartwell, Simpson said he will fish about 70 percent of the time anchored and about 30 percent drifting.

"One key will be long points dropping into the main channel," he s

aid. "Also, there are a number of other significantly sized creeks in the upper end of the lake that have excellent fishing. Some of the best ones are those with a bit of murky water if you can find it.

"Also, there are places where you can locate a small depth change-- even less than 2 feet that will hold catfish. Anchor away from it and cast to the slightly deeper water and along the edge. It can produce big catfish.

"When drifting, I'll work the flats next to the river or creek channels," he said.

Simpson said that live bream are excellent baits for the flatheads, but even fresh-cut herring can be good on them as well. For the blue catfish, cut herring and gizzard shad work well. Channel catfish can be caught on either live or cut bait, as well as worms or minnows.

Don't miss the great catfishing op­portunities we have in South Carolina this summer. These three lakes offer prime fishing opportunities. Whether you fish by day or by night, now's a prime time to go cattin' around in the summertime.

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