Few species in South Carolina bring more reliable good action to anglers than channel catfish. Here are some of the top spots in the state to try your luck.
Photo by Ron Sinfelt
By Jeff Samsel
"You'd better get him turned around soon," Steve Patterson called out with urgency, as line stripped off my reel. I knew he was right, having almost lost one cat in the brush already, but the fish was in control. The fish ended up finding the timber, getting wrapped and eventually getting off, without me ever knowing how bit it was. Later in the night, Patterson had one do the same thing to him.
We were set up near the Reedy River channel at the lower end of Boyds Mill Pond, watching rods in the moonlight and waiting for things that go bump in the night. The cats didn't go bump, though. They just took off running, and most headed straight for brushpiles. We did manage to win the battle with some of the lake's many cats.
Blue and flathead catfish earn a lot of acclaim in the Palmetto State because of the tremendous sizes they grow to. Channel catfish, however, remain South Carolina's most popular catfish species because they can be found virtually anywhere there is water. Creeks, rivers, ponds and lakes in every part of the state support good channel cat populations, and anglers who know how to target channels enjoy consistently good fishing success.
Picking prime channel cat waters is a tough call because so many waterways offer very good prospects. The waters listed below are clearly among the best, though. They are spread through all parts of the state and include rivers and lakes of every shape and size.
BOYDS MILL POND
Best known for the heavyweight largemouth bass it kicks out, Boyds Mill Pond also is a catfish factory. Channels abound in this fertile little lake, which impounds the Reedy River, just west of Laurens. Two factors favor big numbers of quality cats in Boyds Mill Pond. First, it is loaded with shad, which keep the cats fat and happy. Second, fishing pressure on the catfish is very light.
Steve Patterson, who lives in Gray Court, first discovered Boyds Mill Pond as a big-bass destination. Since discovering the lake's abundant cats, though, he has grown increasingly fond of setting anchor under the stars and putting out several lines rigged with cut bait.
Patterson does all his catfishing at night, typically anchoring over a point or a flat near the edge of a major channel. Steep banks that the channel runs close to and that have downed trees scattered along them also offer very good catfishing prospects on Boyds.
Patterson baits up with chunks of fresh threadfin shad, netting bait from the lake each evening before he beings fishing. He typically sets up close enough to a dropoff that he can lay his lines in a range of depths just by staggering the direction of his casts, and then he pays attention to which lines draw the most strikes.
"They might be down in the channel right around dark, but usually they will begin moving up as the night progresses," he said.
Boats can be launched for a small fee at a private landing. The road to the landing is located a mile or so west of the Reedy River bridge on state Highway 252. There is free access on the east side of the lake, but the ramp is primitive and extremely rough.
Deep and fairly clear, Lake Hartwell is not a prototypical catfishing destination, and the lake's cats get very little attention from most fishermen. However, Hartwell supports a high-quality channel cat population, and anglers who do go out with cats in mind typically do quite well.
The best catfish waters on the lake are in the upper third of its creek and river arms, well upstream of where the Tugalo and Seneca rivers join forces to form the Savannah River. The upper portion of the lake has more turbid water than the open lower main body, more flats and a better blend of overall habitat.
While no biologists' surveys target catfish, general sampling efforts and work done targeting other species give biologists a glimpse of the fine fishery. For example, spring shocking surveys always bring up several high-quality cats in the upper end of the lake's Tugalo River arm. Biologists have shocked up channel catfish up to 20 pounds in the area of the U.S. Highway 123 bridge, according to Anthony Rabern, a biologist for Georgia Wildlife Resources Division, which splits management duties for Lake Hartwell with the South Carolina Department of Natural Resources.
The highest numbers of cats, generally speaking, will be either in holes along bends in the buried channels or on flats that are adjacent to those holes. Confluences of tributary creeks with main creek or river arms and points that stretch out near those confluences also offer good cat-holding potential. Hartwell's forage base includes threadfin and gizzard shad and blueback herring. All three species sometimes work well as cut bait, as long as they are fresh. Arguably, the best strategy is to put out a buffet and let the catfish decide.
A reciprocal agreement allows anglers licensed by South Carolina or Georgia to fish anywhere on Lake Hartwell. Access to all parts of the lake is very good.
Moving well down the Savannah River into the Coastal Plain, the long, winding portion of the river between Augusta and the ocean is loaded with catfish, including a good blend of channels and white catfish. Unlike Lake Hartwell, the lower Savannah looks like catfish waters as it twists and turns between swamps and sand bluffs.
The best catfishing waters begin at the New Savannah Lock and Dam in Augusta, Georgia, where bank and boating access can be gained from the Georgia side of the river. The combination of currents, eddies, riprap banks and abundant baitfish keep catfish concentrated in this area, making it a very good bank-fishing destination.
Anglers fishing from boats generally concentrate on outside bends in the river channel. River bends scour out deep holes, eroding the banks and felling trees, and the results are ideal catfish habitat. Through summer, cats sit in the deepest parts of the holes by day and move to shallow waters just upstream of the holes at night. Anglers set up accordingly, anchoring upstream of where they want their baits and putting out several pieces of cut fish, usually on basic Carolina rigs. Fishing tends to be best when the river is fairly low, which typically is the case throughout the summer.
The Savannah also has numerous oxbow lakes scattered along its course, and these can be very good at times. Again, cats
sit in the outside bends, often right along dropoffs. The Georgia/South Carolina reciprocal agreement covers only part of these waters, however, so anglers who fish oxbows must either understand the law and have good maps or carry fishing licenses for both states.
There are 10 boat ramps on the South Carolina side of the lower Savannah, and they are fairly well spread along its course. Some sections of the river are quite remote, and bends through those areas see very little fishing pressure.
Lake Wylie is best known for its chunky bass and abundant crappie, but local anglers also know that this highly fertile impoundment of the Catawba River is also loaded with channel catfish. Between a dense population of threadfin shad and high numbers of Asiatic clams, the cats stay very well fed on Lake Wylie.
Lake Wylie spreads over roughly 13,500 acres along the North Carolina/South Carolina border, with roughly half the lake located in each state. South Carolina claims a bigger part of the lake's lower main body, plus several major tributary streams. Through summer, the highest numbers of cats will be in the vicinity of the old channels of the Catawba River and of Big Allison, Little Allison and Crowders creeks. However, they won't necessarily be down in the channels.
Prime areas include humps, which abound in Wylie's open waters, and points that stretch close to creek and river channels. Main-lake structural features tend to produce the most catfish if Duke Power is running water through Wylie Dam, which creates current in the lake. Lacking current, the creeks sometimes offer better prospects.
Anglers set up over the structural features, typically in areas where they have marked a lot of baitfish on their electronics, and put out lines in a range of depths. Because the cats are so abundant, most fishermen don't stay in any one area long. Local anglers consider clams, dug directly from the lake, the best bait for channel catfish. Cut shad also work well.
No reciprocal licensing agreement exists between South Carolina and North Carolina, so anglers either need to be licensed to fish in both states or stay on the proper side of the border. Three public access areas and two private marinas offer boating access on the South Carolina side of Lake Wylie.
Among the most interesting things about the Rediversion Canal, which is part of the Santee-Cooper system, is that it is a great bank-fishing destination. Few spots anywhere in South Carolina offer better catfishing action to shoreline anglers. In fact, bank-fishermen have the upper half of the canal to themselves, as no boating is permitted.
The canal contains a good blend of all three major catfish species, and any rod that goes down could have a 5-pound blue or a 50-pound channel cat on it. However, anglers who target channel cats often tap into outstanding action. To target channel cats, anglers often turn to manufactured dip baits, which send a scent line downstream in the current and draw the cats to them.
The Rediversion Canal, which is nine miles long, takes water from Lake Moultrie and returns it to the Santee River channel as part of a complex hydropower system. Rainfall, lake levels and power needs all affect the amount of water that is running through the canal, which in turn has a huge impact on the fishing. Fishing definitely is best when more water is flowing through the system.
Access to the Rediversion Canal between Lake Moultrie and the St. Stephen Fish Lift (the portion closed to boating) begins at bridge crossings. Pull-offs are well used and obvious. From those points, anglers walk up and down the canal. Serious anglers use carts of various sorts to carry their gear and get farther from access points. The Tailrace Rediversion Project access area, which is located at the canal's confluence with the Santee River, offers boating access to its lower end.
GREAT PEE DEE RIVER
Catfishing is the name of the game on the Great Pee Dee River, which enters South Carolina directly north of Cheraw and winds southeasterly through the Piedmont region toward Winyah Bay. Catfish make up as much as 90 percent of the total weight of fish harvested from this big coastal river, based on creel data.
The Pee Dee, which winds though endless big bends all tangled with timber, is best known for its big flatheads and blues. However, it also supports a very strong channel catfish population and serves up outstanding summer action. Like on the Rediversion Canal, anglers catch channel cats when they bait up for them. Again, commercial dip baits are tough to top for pulling channel cats from the current on summer nights. Other good baits include chicken livers, night crawlers and small pieces of cut shad.
Catfishing is so popular on the Great Pee Dee River that the SCDNR sometimes stocks cats, just to augment the populations. In the mid-1990s, they stocked 10,000 tagged channel and blue catfish, and the channel catfish tag-return numbers indicated that a lot of the fish survived long enough to be caught by fishermen.
The Great Pee Dee offers good catfishing from the state line all the way to the brackish water, near Georgetown. Boat landings and bridge crossings, which are scattered all along the river's course, provide numerous options for fishing the river. Through the summer, landings and bridges are popular with bank-fishermen, especially for nighttime cats.
The upper end of the South Carolina portion is somewhat treacherous and, in places, not navigable by most boats, because of shallow, rocky shoals. The most popular section among catfishermen is roughly between Florence and Pamplico.
SCDNR FISHING LAKES
Fishing is the main attraction on all of the small lakes that are managed with anglers in mind by the South Carolina Department of Natural Resources, and channel cats are a huge part of the equation. It's impossible to single out one of these lakes - or even to pick a few - because all are managed to sustain high numbers of fish and are stocked heavily with channel catfish.
Beyond being heavily stocked with catfish, most of the 20 or so SCDNR fishing lakes have outstanding bank access, providing very good opportunities for anglers who don't own boats. Most have mowed bank sections, handy parking lots and fishing piers. Some have access trails going all the way around them. Many of the lakes also have motor restrictions, making them good destinations for fishing from canoes or other small boats.
The smallest lake in the program is only 1 acre. The largest is 400 acres. All but two of the lakes are 100 acres or less. Along with being heavily stocked, several lakes are fertilized and some are equipped with automated fish-feeders. They also are managed with special regulations to keep the fisheries in good shape, despite heavy use by anglers. A daily limit of three catfish applies to most of the lakes. Many also have designated days that they are open to fishing and are closed to night-fishing.
On lakes that have automated feeders, the areas around the feeders are always good for picking up channel catfish. On lakes open 24 hours per day, the night-bite tends to be better during the summer. Sides of points, waters near steep banks and ends of laydowns are all good areas to fish. Generally speaking, however, anglers just pick comfortable spots around the banks, lay out a couple lines and wait for the rods to start dancing. Chicken livers and night crawlers fished on the bottom are tough to beat.
Because these lakes are very fertile and generally don't have a lot of water flowing through them, most stratify during the summer. The deepest waters, which are generally near the lakes' dams, sometimes have very low dissolved oxygen levels and are not good areas to fish.
A chart in the fishing regulation booklet lists all lakes, detailing things like size and special regulations for fishing and for access for each lake. The chart is also on the SCDNR's Web site at www.dnr.state.sc.us.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Jeff Samsel is the author of Catfishing in the South. To order, send a check for $21.95 (postage paid) to Jeff Samsel, 173 Elsie Street, Clarkesville, GA 30523. For more information, log onto www.jeffsamsel.com.
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