Winter Blues: Top Destinations for Trophy Catfish

Want to catch the biggest freshwater fish of your life? Target blue catfish in winter.

Winter Blues: Top Destinations for Trophy Catfish

Tyler Schultz displays one of Gaston’s giant blue cats, which this time of year focus on cold-stunned bait in deep water. (Photo by Terry Madewell)

Most anglers have traditionally thought of catfish as a warm-weather species, but the trophy blue catfish boom over the last decade or so has changed that view among serious catfishermen. The best bite for trophy blue catfish is during the cold winter months, with December typically an excellent starting point.

Targeting the right place improves your odds of hooking a world-class catfish. We’ve found three hotspots that can offer legitimate chances at a giant blue catfish: Lake Gaston in North Carolina, the Santee Cooper lakes in South Carolina and Wheeler Lake in Alabama. All three have the potential to produce triple-digit fish, and 50-pound-plus blue catfish are a realistic goal for any given fishing trip.

Blue Catfish
Guide Jason Bridges embraces a big blue taken from Wheeler Lake. (Photo by Terry Madewell)

Here’s a look at how, when and where to find your trophy catfish at these prime destinations.

LAKE GASTON

Lake Gaston has produced multiple triple-digit blue catfish in recent years, along with scads of 60-pound-plus blues. Located near Roanoke Rapids, Gaston covers 20,000 surface acres.


Guide Zakk Royce is the premier catfishing guide on the lake and Royce said prime big cat season begins in December. Royce’s records back that up.


On Dec. 20, 2015 Royce landed a 91-pound blue, setting the new N.C. state record. He broke his own record the following day with a 105-pound blue. Back-to-back state record catches in December pretty well underscores the December connection to trophy blues. Since that time he’s caught two more 100-pound-plus blues, but his state record was broken, also on Lake Gaston, with a whopping 117-pound blue.

Royce said visiting anglers need topographic maps of the lake and good electronics to consistently be successful.

“It’s essential to mark the bottom and see schools of shad when hunting big catfish,” he said. “The next step at Lake Gaston is to find white perch feeding on the shad. Perch and shad are at the top of a blue cat’s preferred forage and are my favorite baits. I then look for big fish marks on the graph confirming big fish are in that area.”

Royce said one benefit of winter fishing is the forage will be concentrated in deep water (forage species are trying to avoid cold shock by seeking the warmest water they can find) at Lake Gaston. Large concentrations of bait in a few places narrows the search for big blues. Royce targets channel ledges, humps, creek and river junctions and other bottom topographic changes.


“I pull the boat with my electric motor to fish my targets and the preferred speed is 0.4 to 0.5 miles per hour,” he said. “I use multiple boards on both sides of the boat.”

Royce uses the basic Santee Catfish Rig, consisting of a sliding weight of 1 to 2 ounces, depending on depth, above a swivel. He rigs a 24- to 30-inch leader and uses either 7/0 or 9/0 circle hooks, depending on bait size. His favorite bait is white perch, which he catches himself. He use heads and body chunks or will use fillet strips. Gizzard shad is also an excellent bait, but harder to catch.

He uses plenty of large baits, but he will downsize several of his baits during the winter down to quarter- or half-dollar-sized chunks.


“Smaller baits produce well on big fish at this time of the year,” he said.

Royce (919-724-2474) said this time of the year is the most consistent for hooking huge blue catfish, but trophy cats are not caught every day.  

“Massive blues are here and with the right presentation, mixed with ample patience, anglers have a realistic opportunity of hooking a trophy,” Royce said.

Blue Catfish
All the expert guides in this story use a version of the Santee Catfish rig when they hunt big blue catfish. (Photo by Terry Madewell)

SANTEE COOPER LAKES

The Santee Cooper lakes system consists of lakes Marion and Moultrie, which are connected by a 7-mile-long Diversion Canal. The two lakes comprise over 160,000 acres of prime catfishing water. The state-record blue catfish, weighing 113.8 pounds, was caught from Lake Moultrie in 2017. Another blue was taken on a commercial trotline that weighed a whopping 136 pounds.

Kevin Davis is the owner of Blacks Camp, a premier lodging facility on the Diversion Canal providing easy access to both lakes. Davis said the winter season is prime time for big catfish.

“We’ll see a noticeable bump in big catfish catches beginning in November,” he said. “But December begins prime time for serious catfishermen to target trophy fish on both lakes.”

Find the best day and time to go fishing in your zip code

Davis (843-312-3080) said anglers looking for big catfish should fish areas where forage fish congregate. Threadfin and gizzard shad, along with white perch, are the favored food of blue cats.

“I’ll fish channel drops, humps and deep holes at this time of the year,” he said. “Most of the big catfish will be deep, and I’ll use my graph to find forage, and I prefer to see big fish marks below the bait. By December most of the big fish are taken in 25 to 30 feet of water or deeper, down to over 50 feet.”

Another veteran catfish guide at Blacks Camp is Linwood Thornhill. He says fishing shallower can produce good action, but most big fish are deeper.

Blue Catfish
Big blue catfish respond well to drifted cut bait, especially from local forage fish. (Photo by Terry Madewell)

“Sometimes fishing deep is difficult because when drifting the shallower water right before the bait drops into the deep holes we’ll frequently find hot action on smaller catfish. It’s not uncommon to catch a couple hundred pounds of decent-sized catfish, 5 to 20 pounds apiece, pretty quickly. But the best odds for hooking a trophy catfish are working the deep water.”

Thornhill uses a wide variety of bait but says cut mullet, white perch, blueback herring and gizzard shad all produce well.

“I give the fish options to determine what’s best on a daily basis,” he said. “Big catfish can be finicky, so I’ll lay out a buffet for them in terms of types and sizes.”

Thornhill and Davis prefer to drift-fish, and they keep their drift speed around 0.4 to 0.6 miles per hour. Using fresh bait is also very important, and having quality tackle to handle the big fish once hooked is crucial.

Davis and Thornhill can be contacted at Blacks Camp by calling 843-312-3080. For specific lodging information Blacks Camp at 843-753-2231.

WHEELER LAKE

Wheeler Lake is a mainstream Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) lake located on the Tennessee River near Decatur, Alabama. The 67,070-acre lake has been producing triple-digit-sized fish for years.

Jason Bridges is a veteran guide on Wheeler Lake and he says the late-fall and winter is a prime time for huge catfish. Bridges has two catfish over 100 pounds to his credit and has boated five more over 90 pounds. His largest, a 105-pound blue, was caught during December.

“Wheeler Lake is unique from some other big catfish destinations in that the catfish can literally be anywhere from very shallow to very deep water during the winter,” he said. “Sometimes the weather doesn’t get cold enough to drop the water below 50 degrees, and temperatures above 50 degrees means the fish will be scattered.”

He said if the water temperature is below 50 degrees, and the current in the river is moderate or less, he’ll anchor on mainstream ledges and creek and river junctions.

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“Cold water congregates fish on specific targets and I’ll anchor and cast bottom rigs all around the boat,” he said. “I’ll stay 45 minutes, but usually in 15 to 20 minutes we’ll have fish hooked if they’re in the vicinity.

“With warmer water, I prefer to drift-fish because the fish are scattered,” Bridges said. “I prefer a controlled drift using my electric motor to keep the boat where I want to present baits.”

He says knowing that strong current in the main river pushes catfish off the mainstream and into the coves and creeks is another major key to consistent success.

Bridges (256-738-9461) employs planer boards and works baits 300 to 400 feet behind the boat in shallow-water controlled drifts when fish move shallower.

The lake has an abundance of forage; the primary bait for big blues is skipjack herring.

He says skipjack are hard to get fresh during winter but frozen skipjack preserve well and make excellent baits. Big gizzard shad are also excellent.

“I’m searching for a few bites from huge fish during cold weather,” he said. “It is a lot like hunting a single, specific big buck in that you have to do everything right that you can do, then just be patient and let the process work out.”

Blue Catfish
Shutterstock image

Guide’s Guide to Information

All the guides noted here are full service, so they provide all tackle plus the bait. Clients must obtain their license and any food and drink they wish to carry.

Information on the Lake Gaston area is available through Lake Gaston Regional Chamber of Commerce at 1-866-730-5711 located at 2357 Eaton Ferry Road, Littleton, NC 27850.

Guide Zakk Royce (bluesbrotherscharters.com) recommends his clients stay at Stonehouse Timber Lodge (252-586-3012) at 154 Stonehouse Lodge Drive, Littleton, NC 27850.

Royce (919-724-2474) said the accommodations are excellent, and the facility has a launching ramp guests can use for access to Lake Gaston.

For Santee Cooper information, Contact Santee Cooper Country Tourism at (803) 854-2131, 9302 Old Number Six Hwy, Santee, SC 29142 or the website at santeecoopercountry.org.

Kevin Davis(843-312-3080) said guides, fishing information, lodging and an outstanding restaurant is available at Blacks Camp (843-753-2231) 1370 Blacks Camp Road, Cross, SC 29436. Check the website at blackscamp.com for more details.

For information on Wheeler Lake contact Guide Jason Bridges (256-738-9461) or view his website at wheelercatsguideservice.com. Bridges recommends fishermen stay at Joe Wheeler State Park, located near Wheeler Dam.

“It’s an excellent facility with everything an angler needs, including ramps for boats,” he said.

For additional Wheeler Lake information go to fishalabama.org/lakes/wheeler-lake/lodging/ and find lake information, lodging, dining and other local activities.

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