Summer Catfish: The warm season means great catfish action in the Palmetto State, where they grow large in numbers and sizes. Here are some top lakes for pursuing Mr. Whiskers.
Catfish are a year-round target for South Carolina anglers as well as out-of-staters looking for a huge hook-up — and with good reason. But summertime remains the traditional period when more anglers pursue catfish.
Catfishing has developed two distinct opportunities for fishermen in South Carolina: one is to hunt truly world-class, trophy-sized specimens; the second is to catch scads of catfish that provide outstanding table fare.
Ample opportunities exist within for both within reasonable driving distance of all anglers in the state.
In this article we'll examine the very best places for both types of fishing.
Lake Hartwell, also known for its striper fishery, has a solid foundation of all three of the "big three" catfish species — the channel, blue and flathead catfish. Anglers can catch all three in the summer, but many catfish anglers simply don't realize the potential upside of this lake for producing catfish in both trophy sizes and huge numbers.
Guide Seth Owens is one of the few guides that target catfish on Lake Hartwell. While he also guides for stripers, Owens knows anglers are increasingly targeting Hartwell as a prime catfish destination.
"I've been guiding for catfish for a few years and despite the lake's reputation as a striper destination, many fishermen are really excited about catfish," Owens said. "The action for different species has peaks and valleys, but during the summer all three species of channels, blues and flatheads are caught. Both blue catfish and flatheads offer big-fish opportunities, with the blues the better choice earlier in the spring when they are shallow during April and May. Flatheads crank up in the summer, but at the same time anglers still catch big blue catfish and by working deep water."
Owens (864-909-7388) said that his specialty from June throughout the summer for fast catfish action and great eating fish would be channel catfish. Channel catfish are found throughout the lake in big numbers and decent sizes.
He says the blue catfish orient to deep water during the summer and options are a bit limited because of the abundance of standing timber in the deeper areas of the lake. Blues are still an option, but to catch them he has to focus on specific areas.
Flatheads offer an excellent big fish opportunity during the summer, although the best fishing is in reasonably shallow water at night.
"The potential for big flatheads is very good at night during the summer," he said. "We'll actually find flatheads in fairly shallow water, often on shoals in 8 feet or less of water. These spots are typically close to deep water and live bait is my preference for targeting big flatheads."
Owens says he typically prefers anchoring over drifting for all of the catfish species. Fishing from an anchored position enables Owens to work a precise spot and that's typically the best way to catch catfish on Lake Hartwell, especially during warm weather.
"Catfish get deeper as summer progresses and the standing timber in the deep portions of the lake limits the opportunity drift fish extensively," he said. "It's a good technique for earlier in the year but I've found that targeting small, precise targets where catfish congregate is a better formula for warm-weather success on Lake Hartwell."
Owens said blue and flathead catfish in the 20- to 25-pound class are reasonable expectations and fish in the 30-pound-plus class are not uncommon. The lake even has some much bigger catfish and Owns said he's seen flatheads larger than 60 pounds, but those fish usually have been caught "accidentally" by anglers fishing live bait for stripers.
"We have a great resource for catfish at Lake Hartwell and we're just beginning to really tap into it," Owens said.
CHANNEL CATS AT HARTWELL
Guide Seth Owens is very excited about the channel catfish fishery at Lake Hartwell for summertime action, and with good reason.
"The channel catfish on Lake Hartwell average about 2 pounds each, but we do catch quite a few in the 4- to 6-pound class," Owens said. "On most mornings I expect to catch 25 to 35 fish and that keeps action at a brisk pace and fun for all. The channel catfishing is a great family adventure."
Owens said he uses a variety of baits that work great on channel catfish, including worms and minnows. He said his preferred "go to" bait for numbers of fish is to fish stink baits using small pieces of swim noodles to hold the sticky goo on a leader with a slip weight above the swivel.
"I strongly recommend the Hoss's Hog Bait as my stink bait of choice for channel catfish," he said. "A friend and fellow guide, Capt. Bill Plumlee, taught me a lot about catfishing here and that's his favorite bait for channel catfish. That was one of the best bits of catfish wisdom I could get. It just simply works great." — Terry Madewell
Lake Marion, the upper lake the Santee Cooper twin-lake system, produces outstanding catfish action throughout the summer. Blue, flathead and channel catfish all provide excellent fishing and essentially it's an around-the-clock catfishing opportunity.
In most of the lake, fishermen work deep holes, ledges and humps with cut bait for blues and channels and live offerings for flatheads. But a unique fishery exists in the upper end of the lake that produces lots of big catfish and fast action.
Guide Steve Pack out of Packs Landing has found a unique and reliable pattern for catfish action during the summer.
Pack (803-452-5514) says the freshwater mussels die off during the summer — which happens to some degree annually — creates an excellent opportunity.
"As freshwater mussels begin to die off, they'll float to the surface and catfish take full advantage of this prized food source," Pack said. "The basic technique is quite simple but very effective, and a ton of fun."
Pack says to find the areas where lots of mussels are floating, generally not a difficult task during June and July. Typically they'll be visible in the open flats in the Packs and Elliot's flats area. The area from the railroad trestle at Packs Landing and down lake for a few miles is the prime target.
"I drift fish the open water areas where the mussels are floating because that food source will congregate the catfish," he said. "While blue catfish are particularly fond of mussels, the upper end of the lake is also loaded with big flatheads and channel catfish as well."
Pack said the depth to fish will vary but if it's cloudy or windy the fish can get quite shallow, often as shallow as 2 or 3 feet deep. He will have the boat drifting in 7 to 8 feet of water. When little wind is present and the water surface is calm, Pack will fish a bit deeper, but he still keeps the bait off the bottom.
"I'll be fishing about 6 to 8 feet deep in 10 to 12 feet of water, using an electric motor to move the boat on the calm days."
Pack said the rigs are the key to fishing in this shallow water area of the lake.
"We'll use a crappie-sized float, about 2 1/2 inches long, and a number three splitshot with the bait suspended below," he said. "The bait is usually shad or herring, but mussels of course make good bait. The catfish will be roaming the flats looking for the mussels and will readily take the cut bait."
Pack says anglers have a chance to hook some huge catfish and can reasonably expect to catch multiple fish in the 10- to 25-pound class on any given day.
"The generally shallow water depths we have in this part of Lake Marion are ideal for this fishing and big catfish in shallow water creates exciting fishing," he said. "We do most of our fishing during the day, with the first few hours and late afternoon the favored times because of the heat."
Pack said this fishing pattern will usually last several weeks usually beginning in June and going through July.
Lake Wateree is known as a true destination hotspot for big blue catfish, with plenty of fish in the 30-pound class frequently caught. But this Catawba River impoundment also produces large numbers of blue catfish in the 5- to 12-pound class. Meanwhile, there is also a strong channel catfish fishery.
Justin Whiteside, out of Rock Hill, guides on Lake Wateree says the summertime fishing at this lake is excellent for big numbers of catfish as well as trophy fish.
"Wateree is not a huge lake in terms of size but it offers a tremendous diversity of fishing opportunities for catfish," Whiteside said. "The lake is chock full of points, humps and channel ledges that serve as prime targets to find catfish during the summer. The primary species I fish for are the blue catfish. Wateree has a good population of blues (in a number of) different year classes."
Whiteside (803-417-0070) says fishing is good at night at Lake Wateree during the summer, but plenty of catfish are caught during the day.
"With the abundance of forage at this lake and with decent water color the daytime fishing stays good all summer," he said. "However the nocturnal hours are still very good for those looking for a way to beat the summer heat."
The best baits for blue catfish during the summer at Lake Wateree are as varied as the fish species in the lake. Typically most of the natural bait in the lake is excellent and 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.
Chuck Porter is a Sumter resident who enjoys targeting both blue and channel catfish during the summer months. Porter is an early-bird angler who loves to set up on a hump or point before dawn. He'll anchor in about 8 feet of water, but chooses spots near depths of 20 feet.
Porter and his buddies will fan cast rigs into different depths with cut perch or bream as well as chicken breast soaked in WD-40. Stink baits are excellent with Doc's Catfish Getter Stink Bait being productive for fast action on Lake Wateree. Use small pieces of sponge or pieces or swim noodles to hold the bait, which should be fished below a leader of about 18 inches. A circle hook or No. 6 treble hook completes the stink bait rig.
Porter will give the anchor setup an hour or two and by the time the sun starts beating down he usually has a good start, if not a full cooler, of blue and channel catfish.
Clarks Hill — Lake Thurmond — is a mainstream Savannah River impoundment that is an outstanding catfish factory. The huge lake is teeming with big blue and flathead catfish and both offer very good fishing during the summer. The lake also has an excellent, and perhaps under-tapped, population of hefty channel catfish.
By the time summer arrives most of the shallow-water action during the daytime has ended, but fishing mainstream points, drops and humps 12 to 30 feet deep will often put anglers in contact with any of the big three species.
Chanel catfish are likely the easiest to locate in big numbers and catching good numbers of 3- to 7-pound fish is quite possible. You even have a chance at hooking some that are considerably larger.
The key at Clarks Hill is to focus on humps and points where schools of forage are marked on a graph. Find forage with fish arches under the shad school. It can be difficult to distinguish between stripers/hybrids and catfish on a graph, but if you hook up with a few stripers it's just an unavoidable fish-catching bonus. More often, however, it's the striper anglers who accidentally drop their live bait down to hungry catfish.
A good tactic is set up on long points or humps surrounded by deep water and fan cast multiple baits around the boat. Using a wide variety of bait improves odds of hooking any of the big three catfish species. Use an assortment of live bait, including bream or white perch as well as herring and cut shad. With this assortment, fishermen have a realistic opportunity to hook any of the big three species. The blue and channel cats will typically prefer cut bait; flatheads generally prefer big live bait and the heavyweight blues readily engulf live or big chunks of cut bait.
Plenty of blue and flathead catfish are taken in the 25-pound class and every summer much larger fish than that are caught here.
Both drift-fishing and anchor-fishing setups are productive tactics, but most fishermen targeting catfish on this deep, clear lake seem to prefer anchor fishing during warm weather. It better enables them to pinpoint their bait presentation to specific underwater features.