Using electronics that rival the equipment found on most tournament bass boats, two catfishermen search riverbend holes for bottom structure, bait and catfish. Once they identify the specific spot in one of the holes, they'll position the boat over an upstream bar with twin Power-Poles and cast big chunks of cut bait downstream with specialized catfishing rods and reels spooled with heavy braid.
The nature of catfishing has gone through quite a transition in recent years. Many fishermen still sit on banks or use a johnboat to cast night crawlers or chicken livers into any deep hole — and at times find good success by doing so. However, an increasing angler knowledge about how to target heavyweight cats has made for a much more specialized breed of sport catfish angler even as the number of trophy catfish fisheries has increased.
Some catfish can be found virtually anywhere there is water, and more rivers and lakes offer at least some good fishing for channel catfish.
Some waters stand out, though, especially for bigger-sized blue and flathead catfish. With that in mind we sought input from district fisheries biologists from the North Carolina Wildlife Resources Commission and have selected some of North Carolina's top cat waters. "Some" is an important word. There are really too many excellent rivers and lakes to cover all of them; the ones we include here are a fair representation of good spots to fish across the state, though.
CAPE FEAR RIVER
North Carolina's most famous catfishing destination also ranks among the best big-cat fisheries in the state — or along the entire East Coast for that matter. More than 100 miles long, ever twisting, tangled with timber, super fertile and full of diverse forage, the Cape Fear produces tremendous numbers of big catfish, despite heavy fishing pressure. The flathead fishery, began with the stocking of seven fish in the 1960s.
Not surprisingly, the Cape Fear holds claim to the state record flathead catfish. Caught in 2005 by Brian Newberger, the top flathead in the books weighed 78 pounds. Several previous record flatheads and blues have come from Cape Fear, and cats caught by means other than rod and reel over the years would have shattered records for both.
Good fishing is found from as far upstream as any given boat can navigate to well into tidal waters, but many anglers consider section between Fayetteville and the uppermost lock on the river as the river's premier section for large catfish. Dozens of bends within that stretch offer a great mix of depths, current-swept eddies and plentiful timber down in the water.
Michael Fisk, the North Carolina Wildlife Resources Commission biologist over the Cape Fear, said the commission will conduct major catfish research this summer and will have more details in a few years.
Parts of the Cape Fear and a few other coastal rivers represent the only place in the United States where hand-crank electrofishing is permitted for catfish.
"We are looking at how species assemblage, density, age structure, growth, mortality rates, and size structure differ in reaches where hand-cranking is and not allowed," Fisk said.
CAPE FEAR TRIBUTARIES
Although the main stem of the Cape Fear gets the lion's share of the attention, two of the river's major tributaries offer high densities of catfish with good quality blue and flathead catfish, according to Fisk. He believes the Cape Fear is still the best overall, but the Northeast Cape Fear and Black rivers might give the main river a run for its money.
Biologists will gain a better gauge on how the rivers compare from the catfish project. Preliminary findings will be available this fall. Final results of all the research won't be available until 2017.
Although these rivers are Cape Fear tributaries, both feed the main river very low in the watershed, so they are really more like parallel flows that all join forces. Like the Cape Fear, both rivers twist endlessly and are loaded with timber and therefore offer a tremendous amount of excellent catfish habitat. They're also similarly fertile and offer diverse forage. The biggest difference is that neither gets as much pressure.
Because of the diversity of forage, mixing bait types is a good strategy on the Cape Fear or its tributaries. Panfish, bullheads, shad and eels are just some of the things that make good bait for big catfish. Big blues will eat cut bait or live bait. Flatheads far prefer a live offering.
District 3 fisheries biologist Kirk Rundle points to Lake Gaston as the best overall catfish reservoir. Gaston actually supports channel, flathead, white and blue catfish, but for the past 10 years or so, blues have easily become the dominant catfish species, Rundle said.
Biologists catch a fair number of catfish when they net to sample striped bass populations at Gaston. Those used to be dominantly channel cats, but most catfish caught during sampling in recent years have been blues. The majority of the blue catfish are in the 5- to 30-pound range, but anglers sometimes catch much larger fish. Rundle suggested fishing with live or cut shad at night for blue catfish and focusing on deep water with current near channel edges.
Although flatheads are not nearly as abundant as blues, anglers can target flathead catfish at Gaston by fishing near wood cover in the lake's upper end.
Kerr Reservoir or Buggs Island, which is immediately upstream of Lake Gaston on the Roanoke River, probably warrants mention at least as a footnote. Although most of Buggs Island, including much of best water for cats, is in Virginia, a decent section of the lake is in North Carolina, and it's tough to completely ignore the lake that yielded the all-tackle world record blue catfish. In addition to the world record fish, Buggs produced a 135-pound blue, which was released alive, a little more than a year ago.
Rundle's river choice for catfishing in his region was the Tar River because of an excellent flathead catfish population.
"We do a lot of electrofishing for anadromous fish species in the Tar River during the spring of each year. We have noticed an increase in the number of flathead catfish in the upper Tar River over the past 10 years," Rundle said.
Flatheads can be found throughout the river; however, commission crews do the most sampling work in the area between Rocky Mount and just downstream of Tarboro, and they see quite a few flatheads in the 5- to 40-pound range.
"This is ideal habitat for them, with lots of submerged logs, debris and undercut banks. There is also plenty of forage for them from various sunfish species and bullhead catfish."
The Tar River also supports channel cats, and blue cats are beginning to show up. But Rundle said he would suggest targeting flatheads in this river.
From Falls of the Neuse Lake all the way to tidal waters, near New Bern, the Neuse River provides a tremendous amount of excellent catfishing, with quality channel, blue and flathead catfish all available. The NCWRC recently completed catfish survey work on the Neuse and they found good populations of all three species, according to District 2 fisheries biologist Ben Ricks.
Large holes with trees down in them provide excellent catfish habitat through most of the river, Ricks noted. Sampling confirmed good numbers of channels and blues up to about 20 pounds and plenty of quality flatheads, including fish approaching 60 pounds.
The Neuse River becomes notably more twisty downstream of Interstate 95, and hard bends in the river definitely create the easiest holes to recognize. Through the summer, the fish hold in the deep water along outside bends by day and then move to shallow timber-line banks at the upper ends of the same holes or on the inside bend at night.
Ricks noted the Neuse is a popular bank-fishing river. Anglers commonly set up in the afternoon beside holes formed by big holes bends to night-fish from the shore. A shoreline strategy is to fish chicken livers, shrimp or small pieces of cut bait on a medium-sized rod for channels and small to mid-sized blues and rig a heavy rod with a live bluegill or shad for flatheads.
Of course, the Neuse isn't strictly a bank-fishing river. The upper river is well suited for johnboats in most places, and eventually the Neuse broadens into a large river that lends itself well to access with larger boats.
Lake Wylie has long been an outstanding place to go for fast catfishing action, with super-plentiful channel catfish up to about 10 pounds serving up very dependable fishing. Wylie remains one of the state's best catfish lakes, but the nature of the fishing has changed with the fairly recent development of an outstanding blue catfish population.
"That fishery has exploded over the past five or six years with big blue catfish, said Chris Wood, a District 8 fisheries biologist. "I recently received a report of an 80-pounder, so big fish are present."
That fish, which was photographed, measured, weighed and released in good condition, was caught in January by Jeff Manning, the vice president of the Carolina Catfish Club. It was 50 inches long and had a 36-inch girth.
Members of the Carolina Catfish Club fish Lake Wylie regularly, and the club is helping the NCWRC get a better picture of the fishery by providing catch information. Collectively, club member diaries provide excellent information.
As often is the case when blue catfish show up in a new waterway — especially a food-rich waterway like Lake Wylie — they have thrived from the beginning and are continuing to expand.
The best fishing for blues is generally along the main river channel, and they bite best when a bit of current is flowing through the lake. One key to finding large blues is finding concentrations of bait. Once baitfish are located in the main channel or adjacent to it, a good strategy is to drift with cut shad.
Finally, it's important to note that Lake Wylie straddles the North Carolina/South Carolina border and that no reciprocal licensing agreement is in place. You must be legally licensed in both states or stay on the proper side.
Finally, we can't talk about North Carolina catfish without visiting at least one lake from the Yadkin River chain. These waters have been producing big catfish for many years, and Badin Lake holds claim to the current state record blue catfish, an impressive 89 pounds and was caught by Eric Fincher in 1996.
Badin Lake, which covers 5,300 acres, offers good opportunities for channel, blue and flathead catfish. Channels and blues are both plentiful, and anglers commonly catch them together, especially if they put out baits of varying sizes.
An old lake, Badin doesn't have defined channel edges anymore. Blues and channels tend use deep water in the open main basin during the summer. They also congregate in lake's far upper end, favoring the cooler water and currents that come from Tuckertown Dam. Many anglers drift in that area with good success during the summer, using big pieces of cut shad for blue catfish and shrimp, nightcrawlers or smaller pieces of cut bait channel cats.
Targeting flatheads calls for a more specialized approach, with live bait fished over points or other specific structural features. Either blues or flatheads require seriously stout tackle in Badin Lake, any fish that takes a bait could turn out to be a genuine giant.