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Nighttime's the Right Time for Carolina Cats

Nighttime's the Right Time for Carolina Cats

Nocturnal by nature, catfish bite best after the sun goes down. This guide will help you find after-dark cats on several of our best waters.

By Jeff Samsel

Quiet summer nights turn quickly chaotic when big cats bite. Rods rattle, clickers scream and fishermen scramble to grab the right rod. Occasionally, the fish destroy perfectly good catnaps, but few anglers ever complain. By the time most folks have battled a jumbo catfish to the boat, they are wide awake and ready for more action.

For many fishermen, South Carolina's summer days make them want to fish at night. Afternoons get blazing hot this time of year, and competition from water skiers and other pleasure boaters can become intense.

Catfishermen have even more motivation to start fishing about the time the sun goes down: Catfish are nocturnal critters, overall, and they turn even more to nighttime activity through the summer. Although anglers catch plenty of catfish by day all summer long, the night bite truly does tend to be better - and many veteran anglers contend that nights produce bigger fish.

With that in mind, let's dig a little deeper into South Carolina's after-hours catfishing scene. Relying on the expertise of veteran guides and biologists, we'll look at where to find the best night-fishing and how to approach the cats when we get to each destination.

Photo by Ron Sinfelt

"Lake Monticello is the best-kept big-catfish secret in the state," said Darryl Smith of Capt. Darryl's Guide Service. Smith, a full-time guide who fishes several rivers and lakes in the Santee River watershed, targets big catfish hard. He has guided or put anglers onto a handful of line-class world-record catfish, including a 100-pound, 8-ounce blue.

Smith and other Monticello regulars believe this lake may someday produce an all-tackle world-record blue catfish, as it already now produces 60- and 70-pound cats.

Part of what keeps Monticello so good is that few anglers seriously target the lake's blue catfish, according to Smith. Most anglers instead fish for crappie, channel catfish or bullheads. In addition, Monticello is unlike most other catfishing waters in South Carolina, and catching fish here often calls for a unique approach. The lake is deep, clear and very open, and the bulk of the blue cats spend their days suspended in the open water.

Most nights, Smith will go out a little before dark and spend time cruising, just looking for baitfish and catfish on his graph. If most of the cats are holding at a certain depth, which is the case more often than not, he will set his lines to suspend the baits about 10 feet shallower than that and drift. He will make long drifts over Monticello's wide-open waters and will fish over a large variety of bottom depths.

The baits just hang down on free lines or with just enough weight to keep the lines roughly vertical as the boat drifts.

"Often we'll be fishing with our baits 30 feet deep over 100 feet of water," Smith said.

Smith cautioned fishermen to use the least light they can get away with on Monticello, noting that the fish aren't used to seeing much light and are very spooky in the ultra-clear water. "We only use black lights," he said, "and we use fluorescent line so we can see it really well with the black lights."

If Smith doesn't locate many fish suspended over the open water, he will turn to shallow water and still-fishing tactics, anchoring in shallow water and spreading baits out on the bottom. For shallow fishing, he looks for hard clay points that have clam beds on them and sets up nearby. He likes points - Monticello has dozens along its edges - because he can spread his baits in a variety of depths.

Two boat ramps, both operated by South Carolina Electric & Gas, provide access to Lake Monticello.

"Don't be scared to go shallow," said Capt. Steve Shipley of Ships Guide Service, who turns to night-fishing during the summer on Santee-Cooper. "I'm talking only inches deep. Big blues will grab baits in less than a foot of water on summer nights."

Shipley said that nighttime trips commonly yield 300 to 400 pounds of catfish total. "That's when we catch our biggest catfish," he said, noting that last summer's night trips yielded two 70-pound-plus flatheads.

Shipley begins summer trips late in the afternoon and targets blues in the shallow water until about 10 p.m. At that point he moves a little deeper, usually to a channel edge in about 15 feet of water, to target flatheads for the rest of the trip, which winds up at about 2 a.m. The blues generally serve up the fastest action, but some monster flatheads show up on summer nights.

For blues, Shipley concentrates on shallow waters over and around mussel beds, especially beds that are exposed on the tops. Lower lake levels, which are common in the summer, expose the tops of some beds, causing mussels to die and to break off from wave action. Shipley has found that the blues congregate around those areas at night.

"We'll often catch eight or 10 catfish that average 30 pounds from those spots," Shipley said.

He will anchor about a cast's length from the exposed top of the mussel bed, always double anchoring to get the best positioning, and spread 10 lines all the way around the boat. Those baits that he casts toward the bed often will land in just a few inches of water.

Shipley's favorite bait for summer-night blues on Santee-Cooper is a piece of cut white perch. He strings big chunks of bait on 7/O Kahle hooks attached to 3 feet of leader and rigged with 2 ounces of weight. He also ties a tiny balloon, blown up to the size of a quarter, to the line about 6 inches from the bait. That suspends the bait off the bottom, Shipley explained.

When Shipley switches to flathead fishing, he makes two major adjustments. The first change is to move out of the really shallow water. The second is a switch to live perch, instead of cut perch. For flatheads or blues, Shipley fishes with 50-pound-test line, medium-heavy rods and heavy-duty baitcasting reels with excellent drag systems.

Shipley strongly encourages the release of all catfish over 30 pounds, and he requires it for all fish over 50 pounds. "We're mostly catch-and-release. We have to conserve this resource if we want to keep catching these fish," he said.

To book a trip with Capt. Steve Shipley, give him a call at (803) 854-4727.

Moving upstream from the Santee-Cooper lakes, Darryl Smith fishes extensively in the Congaree and Wateree rivers. He grew up fishing the rivers, and they are his favorite places to spend summer nights. Both rivers produce a tremendous number of big cats.

Smith noted that fishing is best, by far, on both rivers when water levels are stable. "If the river is rising, you might as well put your boat on the trailer and go home," he said. "If it's going down, the fish will scatter, which makes them much tougher to locate."

Given stable conditions, Smith loves catfishing on the rivers. He does almost all his fishing along outside bends in the rivers, where the deepest holes form and the most cover piles up. He will look for the deepest water or thickest cover he can find and try to set his boat directly over the hole.

"Never drop your anchor right in the hole you want to fish," he warned. "Either tie off to a tree limb or anchor well upstream and use a lot of rope to let the boat settle where you want it."

Once Smith gets set up over a hole, he generally puts his baits straight beneath him, usually on the bottom. He uses cut bait and likes to offer the fish a variety of flavors. Smith's favorite bait overall is gizzard shad, but he will also use some herring on most trips and will usually carry light tackle to fish for bream or crappie or whatever other kind of fish he can catch from the area. Some days, he finds that a certain kind of bait gets all the action.

Smith rigs up with heavy gear for river fishing. He matches rods rated for 30- to 60-pound-test with "saltwater type" conventional reels. The reels are spooled with 60-pound-test line, and the drags are locked all the way down.

"You usually have 20 or 30 seconds before the fish fully realizes it is hooked, and you have to get it out of that tree during that time," he said.

Moving farther up the same river system, Lake Wateree is another one of Smith's favorite spots for nighttime catfishing. Wateree isn't really a big-cat destination - not yet anyway - but it yields big-time action, and anglers enjoy a catfishing smorgasbord, according to Smith.

Channel cats dominate the catch, followed by blues and two species of bullheads. The blues haven't been in Lake Wateree for many years, Smith pointed out, so none have reached heavyweight proportions.

Smith does most of his summer-night catfishing in the middle section of Wateree's main body, and he will either drift or set up on top of a point. The drifting here, unlike the drifting he does on Monticello, is with his rig dragging along the bottom. He uses just enough weight to keep his offerings down and casts them well behind the boat when he drifts. He also adds a small float between the weight and the hook, which keeps the hook from hanging nearly as much.

Smith likes areas that have a lot of depth changes for drifting and he will drag baits from the bottom of the channel to the tops of points and back into the deep water again. "You'd be surprised how much action we get drifting when our baits are in only a couple feet of water," he said.

If the cats don't respond well to drifting, Smith will pick a main-lake point that stretches out to the main channel, anchor fairly high up on it, and fan baits both atop it and all around it. He might use chunks of cut bait or live bait, but his offering of choice on Lake Wateree is a filleted shad.

"I don't know what it is about filleted baits on this lake, but I've seen again and again that the cats often will take them much better than they will take the same kind of bait cut in chunks," Smith said.

A half-dozen boat ramps provide access to all parts of Lake Wateree. Lake Wateree State Park is convenient to the middle portion of the lake, where Smith does much of his summer-night catfishing.

To learn more about fishing with Capt. Darryl Smith, log onto or give him a call at (803) 324-7912.

"You have a chance at catching a really big flathead catfish at Lake Thurmond," said Wade Bales, fisheries biologist over the lake for the South Carolina Department of Natural Resources (SCDNR).

"While I don't have any (hard) data to back it up, the flathead catfish population appears to be doing really well," Bales said. Bales has no flathead data because a very large percentage of all flathead fishing that takes place on Lake Thurmond is done with limb-lines or by "noodling," which refers to reaching (by hand) into cavities where big cats are apt to be spawning and wrestling the fish out.

Bales hears enough reports to know without question that there are a lot of heavyweight flatheads in Lake Thurmond, however. Noodlers and limb-line anglers generally enjoy very good success, and they catch some real giants. Jug-fishermen and trot-liners also do extremely well on Thurmond, primarily with channel catfish, but again there is no formal data regarding their catch and there isn't a lot of hook-and-line activity for channels.

Channel cat numbers are high throughout Lake Thurmond, and anglers can do well using the same drifting and still-fishing tactics that Smith uses on Wateree. Drifters should be aware that anglers have sunk thousands of brushpiles throughout Lake Thurmond, especially in its creeks.

Anglers who want to catch Thurmond's flatheads need to target these fish specifically. The best places to look for flatheads are along the edges of the channels of the Savannah River and major tributaries, especially where the old rivers and creeks bend, and around tangles of brush. Live bait is best by far, with crappie, white perch and bream all being good bait options. Stout tackle is essential.

A reciprocal licensing agreement between Georgia and South Carolina allows anglers properly licensed by either state to fish anywhere on Lake Thurmond. Access to all parts of the lake is very good, with 40 public boat ramps.

A final option that shouldn't be overlooked, especially by anglers who don't own boats, is fishing some of the small lakes that are managed for fishing by the SCDNR. Most of these lakes, which are scattered throughout the state, are open only a few days a week and closed at night. Some remain open all the time, however, and a few of these offer extra-good prospects for summer night catfishing.

Lake Edgar Brown in Barnwell stands out among the state lakes as a night-fishing hotspot, and it is one of the only lakes in the program that anglers can go to and enjoy the legitimate prospect of hooking up with a trophy catfish. Lake Brown has been stocked with blue catfish for several years and produces a lot of big fish.

Beyond being a very good fishery, Lake Brown has fabulous bank access almost all the way around it, and parts of the lake's banks are even lit. A levee that separates that managed portion from the main flow of Turkey Creek has mown grass atop it, and a trail along it. Plus, the dirt for the levee was dug from right beside it, and the ditch that was formed holds a lot of catfish.

A couple of other good SCDNR lakes for nighttime catfishing are Lake John D. Long in Union County and Lake Paul Wallace in Malboro County. Both lakes get stocked annually with high numbers of cats and offer very good access for shoreline anglers. Lake Long gets stocked only with channels, but produces occasional big blues from past stocking efforts. Lake Wallace gets stocked with channels and blues.

The catfish limit is three fish on lakes Edgar Brown, John Long and Paul Wallace. Regulations for SCDNR lakes are detailed in the Rules and Regulations pamphlet, which is available through all license dealers.

Jeff Samsel is the author of Catfishing in the South, which will be released later this summer. For information, including release dates or ordering information, e-mail him at

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