Top-end predators, flatheads don't conform to catfishing stereotypes. This is where and how these big fish are targeted in South Carolina.
It was sort of like a yo-yo's motion, except backward. Terry Madewell had pulled the rod from a holder and set the hook hard in a single sweeping upward motion when the fish yanked the rod down as quickly as it had come up. Madewell struggled to regain fighting position and composure at the same time but eventually got things under control.
Not long after, veteran Santee-Cooper guide Don Drose was sliding the net underneath a 30-pound flathead catfish. Madewell's big cat was one of 10 flatheads, all 15 to 40 pounds, that we caught in a half-day of fishing. Most of the bites were packed into a couple extraordinary flurries of action.
As the top predators around, flathead catfish eat when they feel like it. Catfish guides commonly sit for an hour in a spot without a nibble, seeing big catfish on their graph the entire time and having a dozen live baits all around the fish. Then, without warning, one of the rods will surge down. Before an angler can even get the rod out of the holder, one or two more will plunge toward the water.
Flatheads hold little regard for catfishing stereotypes. They almost never scavenge a meal, as other cats are known to, and they are prone to relating to very specific structure and cover. They want live fish placed right in their living rooms, and they want it left there until they decide to eat it.
Of course, once a flathead gets hooked, a whole new battle begins. Hooked flatheads head straight for thick cover, which is usually nearby, and they fight with dogged determination. They don't make screaming runs, like big blues do. Instead, they fight with violent jerks and relentless, powerful pulling.
Not native to South Carolina, flathead catfish attract a lot of praises and curses. They get praised for their power and the flavor of their meat. Also, many serious catfishermen consider flatheads the ultimate adversary because of challenges associated with finding the fish, presenting baits where they live, getting them to bite and then getting them out.
Photo by Ron Sinfelt
On the other side of the equation, flatheads often have been cursed because of their ravenous appetites. In rivers all along the south Atlantic coast where flatheads have shown up, traditional redbreast fisheries have been declined. Biologists have promoted the flathead fisheries, encouraged harvest of the fish and even instituted removal programs or special regulations favoring their harvest in places.
For better or worse, though, flatheads are solidly established in several South Carolina waterways. Therefore, anglers who like big fish and a big challenge ought to learn the specialized approaches for finding and catching these heavyweight cats. Beyond Santee Cooper and the rivers that feed the two big Santee-Cooper lakes, the Great Pee Dee, Edisto and Cooper rivers all have thriving flathead catfish populations. Let's look first at the lakes and then at the rivers.
SANTEE-COOPER Anglers targeting flatheads ought not overlook South Carolina's most famous catfishing destination. The Diversion Canal, which links lakes Marion and Moultrie in the heart of the Santee-Cooper system, produced two new state-record flathead catfish in 2001, and several previous record flatheads came from the Wateree River, one of Lake Marion's two major tributaries.
Jessica Preston of Gilbert caught the current state-record flathead on May 11, 2001 while fishing in the Diversion Canal with her dad, Dean Preston. The giant flathead, which the Prestons actually teamed up on to land, weighed 79 pounds, 4 ounces. David Butler of Forest City, N.C., had caught the previous state-record flathead only a month earlier, also from Diversion Canal. His fish weighed 77 pounds, 3 ounces.
Flatheads, along with blues, were stocked in the Santee-Cooper lakes in the 1960s. The fish, which were attained in a fish trade from another state agency, were only stocked once, and only a handful of fish were put into the 170,000-acre system. Apparently both big species liked what they found, because it didn't take long for the big cats to become prevalent and to start growing extra large in the big reservoirs.
Anglers who want to catch Santee-Cooper flatheads should begin by considering one important thing about flathead behavior. Flatheads are river fish by nature, and they remain river fish, even when several feet of water inundate the old riverbed. While flatheads are not always in river channels, they are almost always caught close to a major creek or river channel.
With that in mind, an angler can start with a lake map and identify potential flathead-holding areas by following major channels and looking for holes along channel bends, points that stretch close to channels, channel bends that push against banks and creek and river-channel confluences.
Don Drose, who has been guiding on the Santee-Cooper lakes for more than 30 years, focuses most of his attention on channels of the Little River and the Santee River at the lower end of Lake Marion, usually among the trees. Drose follows the old channel edge, which he knows as well as his own driveway, looking for fish along the way.
Drose has found that in midsummer the fish won't be quite as stacked up as they tend to be in the fall, but he does still like to find at least a few fish in an area before putting down lines. He also has found that flatheads will often be on the shallow side of the drop or holding among trees just out of a channel in midsummer, when dissolved oxygen levels sometimes get pretty low in the deepest water.
For most fishermen, following winding channel edges from marker to marker, using a topographical map and a graph to stay along the channel and search for fish, takes a lot of time and effort. However, flatheads don't typically move around a lot in search of meals, so studying structure and searching for fish are a better use of time than camping out in a spot and hoping a big flathead will come roaming by.
Once Drose finds a spot, he sets up precisely over the fish, using two anchors, and then puts down several lines. He uses heavy conventional gear, spooled with 130-pound braided line and basic Carolina rigs with 2-ounce egg sinkers. He baits up with live bream, white perch or crappie, depending on what's abundant in the areas he is fishing at the time. While flatheads will eat almost any kind of fish, they do seemingly favor the species they see the most of in a given place and during certain seasons.
While Drose does most of his flathead fishing in the vicinity of Santee Dam, the Santee River twists
and turns through the length of Lake Marion, often among stands of cypress, and numerous tributaries have well-defined channels that flatheads will relate to. The Red Banks area, the Dead Forest, near Santee State Park and the Santee River, and upstream from the railroad tracks are all excellent flathead areas, as are various spots along the Wyboo Channel and the Channel, which cut across the lake.
Lake Moultrie also has good flathead areas over inundated canals and various basins. However, its bottom is much more complex than Marion's. Plus, except at the mouth of the Diversion Canal and along the dam, near the powerhouse, spots are far more difficult for newcomers to define and locate.
In between the two lakes, the Diversion Canal should not be overlooked. Long before the two record fish were caught, the Diversion Canal had a big reputation as a great place to catch trophy flathead and blue catfish on Santee-Cooper. Many anglers just put out several live baits, either on the bottom or under slip corks, set to suspend the baits just off the bottom. For this tactic, one spot is pretty much the same as the next, as the canal has a very even bottom.
The only exception is the Rockpile, where rubble stretches across the bottom and is piled on both banks. The Rockpile was established when the canal was dug for the purpose of begin able to cut off the canal in a hurry in an emergency.
Other anglers fish with only one rod, which is baited with a good lively bait on a cork rig. They work down the banks of the canal and put the bait into cuts in the banks and among branches of deadfalls. The Diversion Canal's banks are littered with downed trees, and flatheads love to hang in those trees.
Drose, like most Santee-Cooper guides, does all of his fishing during the day. However, flatheads are more nocturnal than other kinds of catfish, and many catfishermen believe they increase their chances of getting the big fish to bite by going out after dark.
To fish with Don Drose, give him a call at (888) 478-2536. For more on the area, log on to www.santeecoopercountry.org.
RIVERS Three major Coastal Plain rivers - the Great Pee Dee, Cooper and Edisto rivers - offer outstanding flathead prospects, especially through midsummer. Each river is distinctive in some ways, but their flathead fishing is quite similar.
The Great Pee Dee River may be South Carolina's best-kept catfishing secret. Jumbo-sized flatheads, blues and channels all abound in this winding river. The Great Pee Dee actually begins as the Yadkin River in North Carolina and is already a fairly good-sized stream by the time it enters South Carolina. Once within the state's borders, it twists and turns from near Bennettsville all the way to near Georgetown, where it feeds Winyah Bay.
The Pee Dee's flatheads actually came from North Carolina, where they were stocked many years ago. Flatheads were never stocked in the South Carolina portion of the river system, but they have been abundant from the state line well into tidal waters since the early 1980s. In creel surveys conducted in the early '90s, flatheads made up more than 60 percent of the total weight of catfish harvested from the Great Pee Dee.
The upper portion of the Great Pee Dee, roughly from the state line to the Interstate 95 crossing, has pretty scattered access, and abundant sandbars and shoals make access to many stretches difficult. Of course, anglers who are willing to navigate these sections carefully in johnboats can find waters that get almost no fishing pressure. Numerous ramps through the middle portion of the river provide plenty of places to drop in a boat.
The Edisto River, unlike the Great Pee Dee system, was never officially stocked with catfish. Biologists believe they came from a fishermen's stocking, sometime in the 1980s. Wherever they came from, flathead numbers and sizes are big through most of the Edisto River, and their numbers and range seem to be expanding farther into the river's tidal reaches.
Catfish up to about 40 pounds are pretty common, and fish in the 15- to 20-pound range are extremely common, based on biologists' shocking surveys and fishermen's catches. Most cats are between Canadys downstream to the edge of the brackish water, with the section from Givhans Ferry State Park to Cottageville being the best big-cat waters.
Eight boat ramps between Colleton State Park and U.S. Highway 17 provide plenty of access to the best areas for fishing. Boaters should be cautious of ever-shifting sandbars in all parts of the river and should be aware that downed trees sometimes block much of the river near Canadys.
The Cooper River is best known for jumbo blue catfish and for double-digit-weight largemouths, but in recent years, it has really come on as a trophy-flathead destination. Flatheads abound from the swift waters of the Tailrace Canal well into tidal waters.
Through the summer, the cats sit tight to shoreline cover in the Cooper, primarily in the middle and lower portions of the freshwater run. Splits in the channel that cause deeper cuts, undercut banks on bends and breaks in rice fields at the lower end of flathead territory are all likely to hold fish.
The Rembaert C. Dennis Access on Wadboo Creek and the William Dennis Access on the Tailwater Canal provide access to the upper end of flathead waters. Farther downriver, the Durham Creek access is actually on Durham Creek, which connects with the river just upstream from where its east and west forks split.
On all of the rivers and pretty much all parts of them, flatheads and therefore flathead fishermen seek out the deepest holes they can find, ideally with shallow water nearby, current running beside eddies and plenty of cover. Conveniently, all the important elements tend to come together on the outside of hard river bends, where currents scour deep holes, eddies form and eroding banks cause trees to topple into the river.
Unlike on Santee-Cooper, river fishermen often cannot see individual fish on a graph, because of the thickness of the cover or because the hole is not deep enough to look at from directly above. Therefore, river catfishermen have to seek out the best holes they can find and then try them out, trusting there are flatheads around.
Through summer, most river flathead fishermen do almost all their serious catfishing at night. They scout in the afternoon, set up a while before dark and fish into the night or even all night long. Depending on the character of the section they are fishing and the number of good holes they have located, some anglers will move a time or two during the night.
Most anglers use live sunfish of some sort for river flatheads. They are the cats' prevalent natural forage and are tough to beat as bait. Some fishermen prefer a big gizzard shad or even a carp. Live and big are the key words. Some fishermen use Carolina rigs, which they cast downstream to leave on the bottom. Others lay their lines out with large slip corks and weights, setting the corks to suspend their offerings just off the bottom
. In very deep holes throughout the lower reaches of all these rivers, anglers can set up right over the fish, just like they would in a lake.
Even more so than in lakes, river fishing for flatheads calls for heavyweight gear. Beyond the size and the strength of the fish, the flatheads are usually within a quick lunge of very thick cover in river settings. Plus, sometimes-strong currents require heavier weights to keep baits in the strike zone.
Most anglers like heavy-action fiberglass or e-glass rods, conventional reels with low gear ratios and at least 50-pound-test line. Weights used range from an ounce to 6 or 7 ounces, and hooks range from about 5/0 to 10/0. Some anglers like circle hooks.
Whatever the style and size, hooks must be a heavy gauge. Finding flathead lairs, getting baits among them and then getting fish out of those lairs is simply too much work to end up with a straightened hook instead of a jumbo flathead.
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