South Carolina Catfish Best Bets

Try these destinations for the best catfish angling in the state.

South Carolina Catfish Best Bets

Lake Wateree has become a hotspot for all three of the Big 3 catfish species. (Photo by Ron Sinfelt)

South Carolina, catfish and summertime combine in multiple lakes and rivers to offer outstanding fishing across the state for both trophy-sized catfish as well as the opportunity to fill large coolers of these great-eating fish.

By June anglers can effectively target blue, flathead and channel catfish and often they’ll find all three available on the same lake or river.

Here’s our selection of destinations across the state for great catfishing in 2019 — and odds are great you can find one near you.

LAKE WATEREE

Lake Wateree has developed into a prime catfish destination; the lake presents not only a good chance for anglers to catch trophy fish, but also to fill their coolers with fish in the 10- to 25-pound class.


In addition, Wateree has morphed into a fishery for all three of the big three catfish species — the blue, channel and flathead catfish.


Wateree was an excellent lake for channel catfish long before the blues were introduced, and now flathead catfish are beginning to be caught in the lake with some consistency. The channel catfish fishery is still excellent for fish that weigh 1 to 5 pounds. Most anglers believe the flatheads are simply moving down the Catawba River chain of lakes from Lake Wylie, where they’re found in big numbers and sizes. Flatheads are not caught in big numbers yet but are an increasing part of the catch as the lake continues to grow as an all-around catfish resource.

Lake Wateree Guide Justin Whiteside said during the warm months of 2018 he caught flatheads more often than past years, with some fish weighing 10 to 20 pounds class. He caught most of them while targeting blue catfish.

“I can see them becoming a significant part of the fishery in the future,” he said.

But Lake Wateree is primarily a blue catfish destination and by June most of the fishing success will relate to the main river channel and some of the deeper areas in major creeks. That’s due to where the majority of the forge is located, primarily threadfin and gizzard shad.


Top catfish targets include points, humps and channel ledges — places that provide some contour change at the lake bottom.

Whiteside (803-417-0070) said he uses his graph to check the areas for the presence of forage as well as big fish marks on or near the bottom.

If he’s fishing a point or hump he’ll often anchor and fan cast around the boat. He’ll give an area 45 minutes to produce and if he’s catching fish he stays until action slows; if not, he pulls anchor and hits another spot.


Drift fishing is an extremely popular tactic at Lake Wateree and using either the wind or an electric motor to maneuver the boat exactly how you want to fish is an excellent technique.

“Often the pods of shad and fish are scattered over a wider area and drift fishing is the best technique to catch fish,” Whiteside said. “I’ll typically drift around 0.5 miles per hour, but I will sometimes speed up a bit during the summer. By June and throughout the summer we often have days with little wind so having an electric motor to move the boat is required if you want to drift. Plus, with an electric motor, I can keep the boat right on the targeted depth I want to fish.”

The best baits for blue catfish during the summer at Lake Wateree include most of the natural bait in the lake. Gizzard and threadfin shad, as well as whole or cut white perch and bream are excellent baits for the larger blue catfish. For smaller blues and channel catfish, live worms, minnows and stink bait will all produce.

SANTEE COOPER – LAKES MARION AND MOULTRIE

By June and throughout the summer months, the Santee Cooper Lakes of Marion and Moultrie produce outstanding catches of catfish. And it’s an excellent time to pursue all of the “big three” species — blue, flathead and channel catfish.

The key is fishing versatility in how, when and where you choose to fish. Tournament catfisherman Jimmy Ledbetter said the variety of fishing patterns enhances the opportunity to load up on catfish.

“I love the warm weather months from June right on through the summer for catfish,” Ledbetter said. “Lakes Marion and Moultrie are loaded with catfish and the warm water presents opportunities to fish effectively by day or night. Plus, depending on where and how you fish, the bite can be great in shallow or deep water.”

Ledbetter said top baits can vary but he likes an assortment of gizzard shad, white perch and bream. He notes that threadfin shad are also good but are often prone to getting bites from smaller fish.

Ledbetter said he will usually drift fish deeper water by day, but he’ll graph areas until he sees what he likes in terms of forage and big fish. Drift fishing enables him to cover more water. When he finds a productive spot he’ll work it repeatedly until the action slows. Then he’ll look for something similar elsewhere.

Ledbetter said the decision to fish at night usually means fishing shallower water from an anchored position.

“One of my favorite methods for night fishing is to anchor fish at night in the shallows around the Diversion Canal or in the Diversion Canal over bottom contour changes,” he said. “I’ll begin with a variety of baits and tend to use live baits a lot at night. Large white perch hooked through the back will live a long time and are great for big flatheads and blues. Flatheads love live bait and blues will readily take it too. But I always use cut bait as well.”

He said that the nocturnal bite is often more aggressive than daytime because fish are often actively feeding and are often congregated in a small, but prime, feeding areas. This seems to create competition that triggers an aggressive bite.

Ledbetter said if fishermen want faster action they can downsize the bait and rigs and usually catch plenty of chunky channel catfish in the Canal. Most anglers opt to anchor at night when fishing the Canal and adjacent flats, but will drift fish by day.

COOPER RIVER

Many anglers think spring is the only time to catch big catfish from the Cooper River, but big catfish are available throughout the summer and fall.

The biggest change is instead of fishing close to the Pinopolis Dam that impounds Lake Moultrie, as is typical with spring fishing, now the entire river becomes very productive.

After the spawn when huge blue catfish migrate up the river to the vicinity of the tailwaters of the dam, the big blues and flatheads spread out along the river, usually holding near identifiable objects such as deep holes, drops from the edge of the river into the channel, bends in the river and creek intersections with the river.

The basic fishing techniques are not difficult, and the action is consistent (depending on water current). Fortunately, generation at Pinopolis Dam and the water it releases tends to be consistent.

Two types of current exist. Both are keys to success. First the water discharge from the Pinopolis Dam creates a good current situation. A tidal current also exists and a dropping or outgoing current is also very good. The key is that some water is moving.

This current is essential for one method: drift fishing along an edge where a defined drop exists into the main river channel. A depth change or ledge that drops from 10 to 15 feet into the main channel is ideal.

Because the catfish are accustomed to the current speed typically in the river, a productive drift speed can be much faster than anglers drift fish in lakes. The speed at which the forage is flowing along in the current creates a normal presentation for the big blues.

Most anglers will fish with four rods, all down rigs, not trailing drift rigs. The bait of choice will be gizzard or threadfin shad (or purchase some blueback herring and cut it into chunks).

Fish two rods with big floats set to drift the bait just off the bottom. That depth is determined by checking your graph. Let the rigs drift ahead of the boat and use the trolling motor to keep the boat, and thus the bait, in position. The other two rods are down rods with heavy weights fished vertically off the side of the boat. Keep the bait 2 to 3 feet off the bottom. You’ll need to watch the graph and make adjustments as necessary. Catfish will readily come up for bait presented like that and that helps keep the rigs from snagging on weeds and other debris. Heavy test braided line with 40-pound test fluorocarbon leader and a 7/0 circle hook works well for this fishing.

This fishing typically lasts throughout the summer and into the fall.

LAKE HARTWELL

Lake Hartwell offers surprisingly good catfish action for blue, channel and flathead catfish. The surprising part is that this clear-water lake is typically thought of as a striper and black bass Mecca, which it is. But the many catfish, some of which are huge, are often overlooked.

Presentation is a key because of water clarity. Fishing tends to be in deeper water at this lake than most of the top catfish lakes in the state. Also, the presence of lots of submerged standing timer throughout the lake impacts where anglers can effectively fish.

One tactic catfish anglers use for summertime fishing is to check the back of larger creeks for ample forage. When forage is loaded in an area where no standing timber exists, try a typical drift fishing setup. The depths will usually be deeper than on other lakes but the same Santee-type drift rig with perhaps as much as 2 ounces of weight may be needed. Best baits include cut blueback herring (readily found all around the lake at tackle shops). Also you can catch your own gizzard or threadfin shad, which make very good bait. Also white perch, live or cut, make excellent bait.

Use an electric motor to maneuver the bait in these areas, working along at 0.5- to 0.7-miles-per-hour. Watch the graph for forage, suspended or near the bottom, and for big fish marks near the bottom (these are typically catfish). If the area produces catfish, work it thoroughly. When action slows, move to another similar area in a different creek.

Anchor fishing on points, humps and ledges can produce. Again, minimize your potential problems by scanning the area with the graph to ensure you’re not casting rigs into standing timber. Scattered stumps on the bottom can be good, however.

To target channel catfish most anglers will target main lake points or points in major creeks from June throughout the summer. Favored baits to target these abundant channel catfish include stink baits, small chunks of shad or herring as well as nightcrawlers or catalpa worms.

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