The Cooper River and lakes Marion and Moultrie have thriving blue cat populations, and you can catch your share of these blues now! (December 2006)
Photo By Ron Sinfelt
It was a rather warm day for mid-winter, even in South Carolina. The high temperature had peaked at just over 60 degrees and the forecasted low was projected to be in the upper 30s that evening.
When I pulled into Michael Bernard's driveway in Summerville that afternoon, he met me with a big grin and the comment that it was a perfect evening to go catfishing. There was a time a statement like that in mid-winter would have caught me off guard. But not now.
Catfish are considered by most anglers to be primarily a warm-weather species of fish. Not that they aren't caught in cool, or even cold weather, because they are. But most anglers don't expect to catch large numbers, or large sizes, of the bewhiskered fish as they might at other times of year.
Through the years, however, I've learned that some outstanding winter catfish angling does exist in South Carolina. In fact, for numbers and sizes of fish, December and January rank near the peak time, if you know what you're doing. While we'll also be discussing the sensational cold-weather catfish action in lakes Marion and Moultrie in this feature, we're first going to look at a bonus fishery that I didn't discover until last winter. That was when I hooked up with Mike Bernard.
Bernard, through good ol' trial and error, has worked out a cold-weather catfish pattern that holds together well on the Cooper River. He's heard about all the big catfish being caught below the tailrace canal below Pinopolus Dam that impounds Lake Moultrie. The fishing for outlandish-sized catfish was known to be great in the spring and summer.
"So why not in the late fall and winter, too?" Bernard asked himself.
Thus, he began experimenting, but he did most of his fishing far below the dam. In fact, he fishes a number of different spots, but most of them are far down the river.
"I've found that by fishing some of the deeper holes, most of them found on the outside bends of the river channel, my buddy and I hook into some really big catfish on a consistent basis. And it seems like really cold weather and low water temperatures don't hurt the fishing a bit. One night in December of 2005, with the temperature dipping to 23 degrees, we caught three blue catfish weighing over 30 pounds each. That same week, we caught fish up to 42 pounds on another trip. Another night, we had eight fish with all of them over 20 pounds.
"Moreover, we seldom have any competition from other boats fishing for catfish. We've kind of got it all to ourselves," Bernard added.
I suspect one reason they have little if any competition is that they fish solely at night. The daytime fishing just doesn't stack up against what they catch at night.
"If you prepare for it, nighttime fishing isn't too cold most of the time. I will admit the night it dipped to 23 degrees before we left, ice was forming in the guides and it was somewhat cold. We rig a top on the boat and use a heater to help keep us warm on the really cold nights. However, if the fishing is good, as it usually is, we don't have a lot of time to worry about getting cold. Those big blues and flatheads keep us busy," he said.
While Bernard has learned where a number of the best spots are, his basic pattern is to key on deep water. He prefers the outside channel bends.
However, that's not the only kind of structure that is worth fishing, he noted. For example, a junction of a tributary creek entering the Cooper River is also a potentially excellent spot.
To fish a spot, he'll get the boat over the preferred anchoring location and gets anchors set solidly so there's minimal boat movement. He spends ample time on the boat setup so he can place his baits properly. Boat position and bait placement are crucial to his success and he will take the necessary time to get it right.
His basic rigs are heavy-action long rods with heavy reels. You can use either baitcasting or heavy spinning reels. However, be sure the tackle you use can withstand the pressure of huge fish in a river current situation, Bernard advised.
He uses heavy line, in the 50-pound-test category, with hooks in the 6/0 to 8/0 size. His favored bait will usually be a very large chunk of cut bait or whole fish. The night we fished, he had a diverse selection of bream, white perch, crappie and shad.
"All of these make excellent live or cut bait," he said.
He added that flatheads seem to prefer the live bait, blues the cut bait. But fresh cut bait will also take flatheads. He fan-casts around the boat with flatline rigs, using a heavy sinker to get the bait to the bottom and hold it there. The size of the sinker will vary with the amount of current and depth, so you may use anything from an ounce to several ounces of weight. Rods are positioned around the boat to cover areas that are both up and downstream of the boat, as well as out to the middle of the channel.
The night we fished, he used all of the above types of bait, plus he had a gizzard shad that weighed over a pound hooked on as bait in one whole chunk. That was a whopper of a bait that we figured only a behemoth catfish would inhale. That bait resulted in our first hookup of the evening, a monster fish that finally got off, but not before forcing Bernard to brace against the side of the boat as it ripped the drag off the reel at will.
Yes, there are some outlandish-sized fish in that river.
"I usually like to anchor the boat on the dropoff, the ledge that falls into the main-river channel. That way I can fish the top of the shelf, along the edge and along the bottom. These ledges seem to be the main travel route of the big fish," he said.
He'll give these fish plenty of time at each spot.
"The fish have preferred areas they'll hole up in, but overall, they're moving around the river, too. If I stay in a good place long enough, it will usually produce good action. Sometimes that action will start right after the lines are set out, sometimes I may have to wait a while. But moving is an option if I don't get any fish action after a couple of hours. But now that I've learned some good places, getting plenty of catfish bites is usually not a problem. Many nights I end up in the same place I start," he said.
You don't have to go far dow
n the river to catch big catfish in the winter as Bernard does. Mike Bernard prefers this downriver area because it is not far from his home; he catches plenty of big catfish and he is able to avoid much of the boat traffic. However, big catfish are found all along the Cooper River below Lake Moultrie. And you can catch them, plenty of them, in cold weather.
While this is the newest cold-weather catfish hotspot I've been clued in on, the first one I sampled many years ago still ranks at the top of the productivity list. Moreover, you can hook up with big catfish there as well.
My first sample of wintertime catfish on lakes Marion and Moultrie was with professional guide Gus Woodham about 20 years ago. Cold-weather catfishing did take me by surprise then, but it didn't take but one trip to convince me I'd been missing something special.
I remember my first conversation regarding catfish with Gus.
"Go catfishing with me tomorrow and I'll literally work you to death catching fish," was the promise from Woodham.
"Son, you're on," I replied. Actually, I had met Gus before and I knew he would almost certainly be able to back up his promise. One reason was that a couple of days earlier, I had seen him unload a catch of over 100 catfish caught in less than five hours near the Wilson Dam right in front of Randolph's Landing.
The reason the action can be so great here and in places like the Cooper River is that catfish are voracious feeders. Their reputation for chowing down on a large variety of baits is well established among anglers familiar with them. Even when the water temperature dips into the 40s in the Southern states, catfish still have the need to forage. But their feeding habits are somewhat restricted since they are not as active during colder weather.
The blue catfish in particular exhibits a trait that makes it very susceptible to anglers in the Lake Marion and Lake Moultrie area during the coldest months of the year.
This trait is their affinity for threadfin shad.
During the cold months, the threadfin mass into huge schools and are easy prey for the foraging blues that usually travel in very large schools. When the blues move in on a school of shad, they do so for one reason: to feed. If an angler happens to be in the same spot at the same time and knows what to do, he can literally catch all the fish he wants.
That's exactly what I planned to do when I met Gus on the morning of our trip. Soon after getting onto the open water, the graph displayed a solid reading from the surface down to the 14-foot depth. This was a mass of baitfish, according to Gus. As we continued over the school of shad, the recorder indicated we were also passing over an underwater hump. The graph drew the unmistakable inverted "Vs" indicative of larger fish below the shad. In fact, the unit recorded so many fish it was almost scary.
"Better loosen up the old muscles, 'cause you're about to start working out," came the warning from my partner. "And remember, you're on your own, I'm not planning on doing anything but watch," he continued.
Once the rods were rigged and the baits lowered, all was quiet for about three minutes. Gus just sat in the front of the boat smiling. In retrospect, I know now what he was thinking.
First a rod to my left took a nosedive toward the water. As I snatched it, a rod to my right arched down, then the one where I was originally standing took a deep bow. Within a couple of seconds, I had managed to miss all three fish. Before I could re-bait any of those rods, another one went down and I managed to set the hook solidly into a nice catfish. While playing that one, I missed strikes on the remaining two rods.
"I'd have to give the first round to the cats," Gus said. "One catfish caught, five missed. You're gonna have to average better than that," he said.
After all the rods were re-baited, I dropped the shad down again and the process of fast strikes was repeated, only this time there wasn't any waiting time. At one point I had three fish hooked, and two of the other rods were bent down with fish I couldn't get to. To shorten this story, I did catch all the catfish I could handle and I was hooked on cold-weather catfish action for good.
This extraordinary fishing isn't a freakish occurrence: It happens annually when the water temperature reaches a certain mark on its downward plunge. This type of action has become an accepted pattern of fishing during midwinter for the last several years at lakes Marion and Moultrie.
Another guide who has fished those cold-weather catfish for years is Don Drose. Drose specializes in stripers and catfish on lakes Marion and Moultrie. He notes that during the fall and early winter, when the striper fishing begins to slow, the catfish begin to crank into high gear.
"It's good timing for fishermen in that when the water gets cold enough, then the striper action, particularly topwater schooling action, slows. The shad get so congregated and sluggish the catfish really begin to gang up on the threadfin schools. Not only blue catfish, but many big flatheads are taken during this time of the year as well," Drose said.
The keys to success are simple but strict, according to Drose. A combination of underwater structure, such as hump or channel ledge or dropoff, and shad are the primary keys to locating the huge schools of catfish. During this time of the year, locating the structure and bait together creates the best chance for success. Structure alone will hold some fish, as will a large school of shad drifting over open water. But the potential to score the heaviest catches, Drose notes, occurs when forage and structure are found together.
These schools of shad may be several feet thick, and at times will saturate the area from top to bottom, even in 20 feet or more of water.
If the water is calm, you can often see the shad dimpling the waters surface. With the aid of a graph recorder, you can quickly tell if there are any larger fish present as you ease the boat directly across the school of baitfish. Usually the fish will be either under the shad, or around the edge of the school. In some cases, a large school of shad will block out readings of fish under the school.
If this occurs, and the shad are situated over a bottom change, such as a drop or hump, odds are very good there will be some catfish present.
The majority of the action will be in relatively deep water, usually 20 feet or deeper. The fish may suspend just under the school of shad, or they may orient directly to the bottom structure, moving in to feed when ready, then returning to the bottom.
The use of a graph helps speed the fish-finding process up quite a bit. Drose notes that you have to be precise in locating and fishing for them. Haphazard drifting or randomly anchoring is not likely to produce anything other than random fish,
and almost certainly won't produce catfish action with any consistency.
Most anglers begin each trip by catching the bait for the day. This is a simple procedure that consists of locating a school of shad and throwing a cast net in the midst of it. The best bait size is generally a 2- to 3-inch threadfin shad. Larger ones will work, but the smaller variety will result in more hookups than the larger ones based on the experience I've had.
After locating the fish, move upwind and drop anchor. Allow the boat to drift back over the fish before cinching the anchor rope down, thus getting right on top of the fish without disturbing them.
Since the water is typically 20 feet deep or deeper, most guides prefer to fish vertically in a tight-line manner. The basic rig consists of a very sharp 1/0 hook tied to the end of the line. About 18 inches above the hook is a 1- to 2-ounce weight. Favored rods are 6- to 7-foot medium-action rigs with baitcasting reels loaded with 20-pound-test Trilene line.
Drose and Woodham will normally hook two small shad on each hook, running the hook through the eye sockets. If the fish are suspended at a particular depth, then drop the bait to that depth or just slightly above. In most cases, the fish will be near the bottom and you'll be able to free-spool the bait to the bottom and then reel the rig up just a bit. It's very important to keep a tight line, as your reaction to a strike must be immediate or you'll miss the fish. Fishing with a slack line with the bait lying on the bottom will generally cause you to miss bites.
This midwinter catfishing technique does require considerable effort on the angler's part. To stay on fish, it's necessary to spend considerable time looking for the combination of forage fish and structure during the course of a day's fishing. It's not unusual to catch several catfish from one spot in a matter of minutes and then have the action suddenly stop. The reason is often quite simple. A quick look at the depthfinder will usually indicate the school of shad has left the area, and the catfish have either stopped feeding or left with them.
In either case, it's time to look for another active school of catfish. Pull anchor, turn the graph back on and let your electronic bird dog start hunting. Once the catfish are located again, repeat the anchoring and fish-catching procedure. If you're willing and able, odds are you can continue to catch catfish until you are literally arm weary. The cold weather doesn't take too much zip out of the cats; they're full of energy and usually are pot-bellied from eating so many shad.
You'll have an excellent opportunity to hook into some really huge catfish, both blues and flatheads, in excess of 30 pounds. In addition, in these two lakes, you'll usually catch plenty of fish in the 6- to 15-pound class as well.
Catfish are already a favorite eating fish of mine, but taking them when the water is cold and they're so plump, makes for some truly outstanding catfish fillets.
This year, don't miss the great cold-weather catfishing action.
Find more about South Carolina fishing and hunting at: