It's time to catch big catfish in South Carolina lakes Greenwood and Murray. Here's how one local guide puts big fish in the boat in winter. (December 2008)
Chris Simpson nets a nice Lake Greenwood channel catfish. Even for channel cats here, a big net can come in handy in the winter.
Photo by Terry Madewell.
Chris Simpson was a classic study in focused concentration. His eyes were constantly in motion, first studying the depthfinder, then scanning rod tips and then tapping the electric motor to fine-tune the drift pattern. Then he repeated the process . . . again and again.
"We caught some double-digit channel catfish here the other day," Simpson said. "We had one nearly 13 pounds right off this spot. That's a really big channel catfish anywhere in South Carolina. I think our luck may be about to change for the better."
From my perspective, our "luck" had not been bad at all. We'd caught numerous channel catfish, several in the 4- to 6-pound class and it was still quite early in the day. Simpson, however, was on a double-digit catfish quest. He wanted to demonstrate what he already believed: That Lake Greenwood is the best spot in the state to catch a trophy channel catfish.
Simpson is a fulltime fishing guide (864/992-2352) who specializes in big catfish. He'll fish his home Lake Greenwood much of the year, and he really focuses on this lake during the cold weather months. He also guides on Lake Murray and Monticello Lake.
"I know the blues and flatheads top-end at heavier weight than the channel catfish," Simpson said. "But I have catfished for years all around the state and I believe a 10-pound channel catfish is a trophy channel catfish. I also believe that Lake Greenwood is the best channel catfish lake in the state and the most dependable place to catch channel catfish consistently over 10 pounds."
Simpson acknowledges that there are several other lakes with excellent channel catfish populations, including lakes Marion and Moultrie and the Santee Cooper lakes where the current world-record channel cattish of 58 pounds was caught.
"I fish lakes Marion and Moultrie and I love the big blues and flatheads down there," he said. "But Lake Greenwood is my preference for trophy channel catfish and the cold weather months of mid-November and December right though March and April are prime times to catch the biggest ones of the year."
Simpson added that Lake Greenwood also harbors a healthy and growing populating of flathead catfish, and he's caught several blue catfish over 25 pounds as well. All of this action comes while fishing primarily for the plentiful channel catfish. It can make for a very interesting and productive fishing trip.
"Lake Greenwood has long been an outstanding catfish lake," he said. "But with the combination of the channel catfish we already have and the growing population of flatheads and blues in this fertile lake, I expect Greenwood to soon be considered one of the top all-around catfish lakes anywhere."
Simpson said one of the really good signs of the growing catfish population at Lake Greenwood is that he knows of several smaller blue catfish that were caught during the winter and spring of 2008. This, he said, signifies that the other catfish species are reproducing.
Trophy catfish come in all sizes and species. In recent years, much attention has been focused on the big blues and flatheads, and rightly so. They are terrific fun to catch and grow to outlandish sizes.
But sometimes forgotten in all this mix is the channel catfish, the one species in South Carolina that has literally been here as long as we've had fresh water. The average size of channel catfish is not as huge as the blues and flatheads top-end weight, and what they lack in overall size, they make up for in fighting spirit, numbers and sheer brute strength.
Right now is a prime time to take these tackle-busting fish in some of the largest sizes and biggest numbers of the year. While a trophy-class channel catfish is considered to be in the 10-pound-plus range, that catfish will generally fight much harder and longer than a significantly larger blue or flathead. Tangle with a big channel and you'll be hooked on these fish for good.
Simpson's intensity was soon rewarded. When one of his rods took the deep-arched nosedive into the water, he was solidly hooked into a big catfish.
"This one might make it," he said. "It's going to be close to 10 pounds, unless it is just a 20-pound blue."
He was only half kidding . . . I think. I had caught an 8-pound channel catfish on an earlier trip with Simpson that fought as hard as any 15- to 20-pound blue catfish I have hooked, and I do personally have a great respect for big blue catfish. But these big channel catfish are hard-fighting, rod-bending, drag-pulling fish to be sure.
When we slipped the net under the fish and the scales pulled down to over 10 pounds, I felt my eardrums pop. Simpson let out such a huge sigh of relief. "Now that the pressure is off, we'll probably catch another big one or two," he said.
And, of course, the guide was right. With the pressure off, less than 15 minutes later, we had another big channel catfish in the boat that pulled the scales down to over 11 pounds. And the fishing stayed good the rest of the day.
The 28-year-old Simpson has developed an excellent method for taking these cold-weather catfish from Lake Greenwood. He said that while the bulk of the fish he catches are channel catfish, the blues and flatheads are also caught. Each year the potential for more and bigger blues and flatheads get better as the number of fish continue to increase in the lake.
On any given trip, his clients have a very real possibility of not only catching a trophy channel catfish, but some huge blues and flatheads as well. His largest blue catfish on Lake Greenwood to date is 44 pounds and he's aware of flatheads up to 60 pounds that have been caught. However, this being his home lake, he knows plenty of big blues and flatheads are being caught.
Simpson has been guiding for four years but has fished Lake Greenwood all his life.
"Growing up, I literally lived on the lake and would take the boat out and go fishing all the time," he said. "That's when I really began to learn the lake. Then I got really interested in catfishing because I heard about all the big catfish being caught at Santee Cooper. So, I fished there some with a guide. When I caught a 28-pound flathead when I was about 12 year
s old, it was me that got hooked on catfishing. Since then, I've been more focused on catfish than anything else.
"I took what I learned over the years and I simply began to adjust the fishing techniques that I saw on other lakes for fishing specifically on Greenwood," he said. "From there, I did the same thing on Lake Murray, which is now becoming a great fishery for cold-weather blue catfish as well."
Simpson has two basic patterns for cold-weather fishing on Lake Greenwood. One is drifting, and the other is anchoring and fishing specific structures. There are times and specific conditions that make each reliable for different reasons.
The drifting pattern is his favored and most frequently employed method. Drifting enables him to quickly cover more water while looking for a big concentration of catfish. But when conditions are right, especially in very cold weather, the catfish will pull onto specific structures and hold close to brush, logs or other bottom debris. Under those conditions, anchoring and casting to the fish is the best technique.
"November and December can be really great for drift-fishing," Simpson said. "The first thing I key on is having plenty of fresh bait, specifically cut bait. This seems to be the very best bait for big channel catfish and for blues. If it's fresh cut bait, the flatheads will also take it readily, although they often prefer live bait, especially if the boat is anchored. However, on a drift, they'll take fresh cut bait readily.
"I think the specific bait can make a huge difference," he said. "The best bait will vary from one day to the next, so I usually have a selection of different types of cut bait. Threadfin shad, gizzard shad, cut white perch and cut herring will be highly effective on any of these catfish species."
The rig is a basic drift rig employed by many guides and hardcore catfish anglers. Simpson recommends using pretty heavy line, such as 30-pound-test main line with a 50-pound-test line leader. He uses circle hooks exclusively, usually in 8/0 size, since he's looking for big fish most of the time.
He will use a slip-sinker above a barrel swivel. The sinker weight will vary depending on the depth of water being fished and the speed of the drift. He'll use a parachute-cord-type drift-sinker in 3/4- to 1-ounce size when drifting. However, he generally opts for a 2-ounce slip-sinker when fishing from an anchored position.
"You need the rig to stay in contact with the bottom when drifting but not have so much weight that it digs in and doesn't allow a natural drift," he said. "When anchored, I can use a heavier slip-sinker."
He also has a 1 1/2- to 2-inch float about midway on the 30- to 36-inch leader when drifting. This helps keep the bait just off the bottom and it does reduce the number of snags. In addition, it seems to keep the bait right at eyeball level with those big catfish.
His rods are 7-foot medium action with quality baitcasting reels.
The depth he will drift will vary anywhere from shallow water, sometimes less than 6 feet deep, down to 15 to 20 feet deep during this time of the year.
"As the location of the forage fish change, so will the feeding habits of the catfish," Simpson said. "However, I'm usually on the lake several times a week whether I'm guiding or not, so I keep pretty close tabs on the location of the catfish. During this time of the year, there's an excellent chance to catch channel catfish over 10 pounds. The average size fish we'll catch is usually in the 6- to 8-pound class, which is an excellent size channel catfish. Also, on a typical day, we'll usually catch at least 10 to 20 fish, sometimes a lot more."
Simpson added that as for the flatheads, it common to catch 20-pound and larger fish.
Simpson will use his electric motor to keep his boat on course and at the speed of drift he prefers. Usually, a drift speed of less than one mile per hour is good, but a range of anywhere from a half mile per hour to three-quarters of a mile per hour is fine. He uses the GPS on his graph to monitor the speed. A hand-held GPS will also work.
"I like to cover a decent amount of water, but if I get drifting too fast in the cold water, the bite may slow down," he said. "Plus, on some days, it can be very crucial to have just the right speed, so I keep experimenting until I get the speed and depth pattern for the day. "
Simpson will sometimes drift adjacent to the old river or creek channels in the lake, especially if there are some humps and ridges along the way. But much of his fishing is over the flats between the shoreline and the inundated river channel. He prefers flats that have some depth changes on the bottom, to give the catfish some identifiable places to which they can orient.
"This also helps me stay on fish if I can identify a specific type of spot they prefer on a given day," he said. "If I can get on a pattern in an area that produces several fish and then the fishing slows down, I usually know several more places with a very similar bottom situation we can immediately go try. Usually that works out real well."
When the water temperature dips down really cold, especially during January and part of February, the best fishing can be from an anchored position. Simpson has found a number of places through the years that produce very well in this situation.
"When the water temperature really gets cold, the catfish won't move as much to feed," he said. "The big catfish will begin to orient to humps along the river channel ledge and will often get into some sort of woody debris such as brushpiles at this time of the year. I have very specific spots I'll anchor and cast to these specific targets."
Simpson is extremely precise in this anchoring technique. He has specific places stored on his GPS and he will use the wind and current, if any, to get his boat in the exact place he wants it and then he'll cast baits around the boat.
"The catfish will move some to feed, but usually they will not be real active most of the time," he said. "That's why patience is a big plus when fishing like this. Most of the time, I'll give a place at least 90 minutes before moving to another area. This is the part that messes a lot of fishermen up. They just don't have the patience needed for cold weather catfishing.
"Often we'll have to sit for a while with little action," he said. "Then we'll get several bites quickly and usually catch some good fish. On the other hand, sometimes I'll start hooking fish before I get all the rods out."
Simpson's pattern on Lake Murray is similar to what he does on Lake Greenwood at this time of the year, with drift-fishing his preferred technique.
"I'll generally fish the upper end of the lake, partly because it's closer to where I live and because the depth of the water is shallower than on the lower end of the lake," he said. "While I'll oft
en fish deeper than I do at Greenwood, I don't have to fish real deep to be successful. Plus, there's usually a lot of shad in the upper end of the lake during this time of the year and blue catfish love to feed on shad.
"There's good fishing for channel catfish in Lake Murray, but the blue catfish are the primary focus at Lake Murray for me," he said. "There's a good distribution of size-classes of blues in here, but in the winter of 2008, there were a lot of blue catfish in the 9- to 11-pound class. These fish usually grow at a rapid rate, so I expect the bumper crop of this size-class to be somewhat larger for the upcoming year. Plus, there's big fish potential for both blues and flatheads."
Simpson fishes and catches big catfish year 'round, but now is a great time to catch monster catfish at lakes Greenwood and Murray. You can contact Simpson at (864) 992-2352, or visit his Web site at www.fightindablues.com for more information on booking a trip.
Now is the time to get in on some great cold-weather catfishing, so get your gear and go now.