Lake Greenwood is on Fire: Catfishing on Lake Greenwood with Captain Chris Simpson
When I went fishing with Captain Chris Simpson for trophy blue catfish on Lake Monticello, we anchored down and waited patiently for the big bite. It was an exciting waiting game, because nothing and nobody can tell a giant blue catfish what to do – or when to do it. At times they will sit beside a piece of food that they take a fancy to for an hour and a half or more before eating it, and then the angler can be richly rewarded with a 40, 50, 60 or more pound fish.
On Tuesday, July 20 I saw another side of Chris’ guide business. I was able to sneak away from the office to fish for channel catfish on Lake Greenwood with Chris, and I thought I knew what to expect. Chris told me that we would be anchoring for channel catfish, not unlike we had for big blues on Monticello, and as he fan cast six rods out of the back of boat to start the day I figured we were in for a wait. Before the last bait had even hit the bottom a solid 4-5 pound channel catfish doubled over one of our rods, and as I wound down a second fish bent over another rod. After a few minutes’ fight Chris and I had both of our fish boated, and I looked at him and remarked that this wasn’t what I expected. Chris laughed and said that “channel catfishing on Lake Greenwood is a whole different ballgame,” and over the next four or five hours I realized what a fun game it was. Besides the numbers of fish we caught being excellent, as Chris points out channel catfish fight pound for pound as hard as any freshwater fish. While they are smaller than blue catfish, they pack twice the punch for the size. Saltwater fishermen, think spottail bass – but relying on power instead of side to side runs, like a fullback instead of a tailback. Although the fish we caught stopped just short of double digits, Lake Greenwood has confirmed 20 plus pound catfish swimming in it, and perhaps some approaching or surpassing 30. After enjoying some of the best fights of my fishing life with channel catfish under 10 pounds, I can’t wait to take another shot at a fish topping that mark.
Lake Greenwood is located near the towns of Greenwood and Ninety Six, about an hour to the northwest of Columbia and around forty five minutes to the southeast of Greenville. The waters of the Saluda and Reedy Rivers come from the northwest and feed into Lake Greenwood, which was created between 1935 and 1940 with the construction of Buzzard’s Roost Dam. Lake Greenwood has 212 miles of shoreline and 11,400 surface acres of water, and today it is owned by Greenwood County. A relatively shallow lake, Lake Greenwood averages 18 feet deep and goes 60 feet down at its deepest point. The Greenwood County Lake Management Department controls permitting, camping, upkeep and maintenance on the lake, and the South Carolina Department of Natural Resources helps to manage the fishery resource.
Fishermen target Lake Greenwood’s healthy populations of largemouth bass, black and white crappie, bream and catfish, and specifically channel cats and flatheads. DNR also stocks striped bass in the lake, although not in the quantities which they put into Lake Murray, Clarks Hill and other major striper fisheries. White bass are also present in Greenwood, although they are increasingly being displaced by what Chris considers an out-of-control white perch population. The most significant forage fish on Lake Greenwood are threadfin and gizzard shad, and, although he has not caught any to date, Chris would not be surprised if blueback herring start showing up in significant numbers because of striper fishermen releasing them into the lake.
Lake Greenwood does have a very few blue catfish, and so all three major species of South Carolina catfish (blues, flatheads and channels) can theoretically be caught in the lake. However, the population of blue catfish is so tiny that they cannot realistically be targeted, even though Chris has caught a 29, 43 and 44 pound fish, and seen several other pictures of comparable sized fish. Like all of the blue catfish in Lake Greenwood, these were almost certainly transplanted fish released by fishermen, and DNR does not stock blue catfish in the lake. At this time Chris has not seen evidence of 1-3 pound blues in Lake Greenwood that would indicate the fish are reproducing, although with adequate numbers they theoretically could.
People often confuse male and large female channel catfish with blue catfish, and Chris has for years been getting reports from people that they have caught a “cooler full” of blues out Greenwood. Fishermen also commonly complain that they catch blue catfish out of Greenwood frequently, but never fish over 15 pounds. That is because they are actually male or large female channels, and particularly in the spring the two are hard to distinguish. Male channel cats are almost always bluish colored, and in the spring they will often turn very dark blue/ almost black around spawning time and be easily mistaken with blues. Mature female channel cats can sometimes also develop a bluish color, depending on water clarity and their diet, which is very similar to a blue cat. When Chris receives reports of blues being caught in Lake Greenwood, he makes a point of going and checking it out, and after analyzing the body shape, anal fin shape and counting the anal ray fins they always turn out to be channel cats – with a few white cats thrown in for the sake of confusion. One more note – male and female channels can usually be distinguished from each other by head shape, with the males having an oversized head proportionate to their bodies, and the females having a more aerodynamic head.
The second most popular species of catfish to target on Lake Greenwood is flathead catfish, and Chris has caught flatheads up to 40 pounds out of the lake. He knows of fish up to 62 pounds being caught (actually noodled), and he suspects that flatheads as large as 70 or more pounds are swimming around. The day I went out with Chris we did not target flatheads, and most fishing for them takes place at night.
The peak flathead fishing season runs from mid-summer until November or early December, and the most popular way to fish for them is by anchoring and fishing live bait near brushpiles. The best brushpiles are located adjacent to steep, near vertical drops along the edge of the river channel, and may be located in 5-15 feet of water beside a river channel that runs 30 feet deep. Live bream or perch are popular baits for flatheads, and a Carolina rig is a good way to present the bait. It is well known that flatheads bite better at night, when most specialists like to target them. Less commonly known is that daybreak is also an excellent time to target big flatheads.
Once cold weather arrives the flathead bite slows way down from December to May, because unlike blue and channel catfish, flathead feeding falls way off in the winter. Chris will pick up a few flatheads during the winter when he is anchoring cut bait in deep water for channel catfish, but he doesn’t actually target them again until spring.
Come April and May flathead fishing turns on again, and fish are generally caught on the same pattern as in the late summer and fall. Flatheads are feeding up in preparation for the spawn, and so this can be a very strong time to target them. Come late May and through June the fish are mainly thinking about spawning, and Chris spends very little time fishing for them again until the middle of July.
There is a healthy population of flatheads in Lake Greenwood, but without a doubt channel catfish are still king. A well known, prolific population of channel catfish brings in anglers from around the state, and, and, in addition to traditional hook and line anglers, particularly on the weekends jug fishermen also set out their lines for channel cats. (Lake Greenwood is among the only lakes in South Carolina which allows jug fishing.)
A tackle store operator once told me that catfishing on Lake Greenwood is always excellent, and, while that may over-simplify the fishery, there is no season when Chris doesn’t do well for channel catfish on Lake Greenwood. When winter starts to thaw, and early spring arrives, channel cats start to move around and then follow the bait shallower. At this time of year fishing is very water temperature dependent, and once surface temperatures hit the mid-50s, if the bait moves shallow channels will usually follow them there. Once water temperatures hit 65 degrees, channels are almost certain to be feeding in shallow water on threadfin shad.
From March to May Chris spends most of his time drifting in 2-15 feet, and he will mostly be drifting flats on the upper end of the lake. However, he will fish the same pattern in some of the longer feeder creeks with flats on the lower end of the lake. For drifting in the spring, a variety of fresh cut fish is the most popular bait, but shrimp will also work. Overall, late February to April is one of the best periods of the year for catching big fish from 8-12 pounds, and throughout the early to middle spring numbers can also be good as fish emerge hungry from winter.
In mid to late May the spawn begins, and it will usually continue through June and into July. Just last week Chris says that he saw noodlers on Lake Greenwood grabbing catfish out of their spawning cavities. Spawning catfish are generally not considered fishable fish, although they will sometimes take a bait that passes just in front of them. Although not all channel cats will spawn at once, the spawn is often considered a more difficult time to catch large fish because so many of the bigger ones will be spawning. In May and June Chris generally continues to target non-spawning fish on shallow flats.
In mid-summer the winding down of the spawn and the development of a thermocline, below which there is no oxygen and fish can’t live, changes fishing again. Even though cooler water might be located in 30 or 40 feet, there’s no point looking there because of the lack of oxygen. Right now the thermocline is located in about 22 feet of water on the lower end, although on the upper end it may be shallower depending on the inflow and other factors.
Once the thermocline develops in mid-summer, Chris will spend a lot of time fishing in areas surrounded by deep water but where fish can hold in shallower water above the thermocline. Since catfish generally orient to the bottom, they won’t just suspend higher in the water column – like striped bass might in the summer – but actually look for depths shallower than the thermocline. A good example of summer feeding spots include humps or hills that rise out of deepwater and top out above the thermocline, or points adjacent to deep water where fish can hold in sufficiently shallow water. Channels can also be found loaded up in the backs of creeks, where they can hold as shallow as 2-4 feet of water. They are most likely to found very shallow at night, although they will also hold shallow in the daytime if sufficient bait is present.
In the fall, often around mid-September, the highly oxygenated surface water cools and gets heavier, meaning that the deep, deoxygenated water becomes relatively warmer and lighter, and so the lake “turns over.” The previously deep water absorbs oxygen from the surface and so oxygen is spread throughout the system, and fish can anywhere in the water column. If bait schools go deep, the catfish may follow them, and often in late fall there is a run of bait up the rivers and into the main creeks. Essentially the catfish are scattered all over and roaming, and so drifting is the most effective way to target them. In the fall Chris likes to fish the edges of river channels, flats near the channels, and in the main creeks. Both cut bait and shrimp are effective.
By December there is usually a concentration of bait schools in the Saluda and Reedy River channels, and catfish will be holding near them in deep water. The bait and catfish will stay there until February or early March. A good winter range to look for channels is 12-30 feet, although Chris sometimes catches them as deep as 35-40 feet. Both drifting and anchoring will work. For drift fishing Chris likes to drift in and out of the river channel, and he mixes it up between drifting parallel to and across the channel. Particularly if you want to target big, 10 plus pound channels, anchor down with cut bait besides points and humps, but make sure that anywhere you fish is within casting distance of the main channels.
I plan to discuss Chris’ drifting technique in an upcoming article on fall drift fishing. For more information about general drifting techniques, check out the article I wrote with Captain Rodger Taylor on Lake Wateree or Captain Jim Glenn on Santee Cooper.
There’s no point in drifting an unproductive area, but, because you are covering more water, drifting can be more forgiving if you don’t pick the best starting point. In contrast, if you set down the anchor in a poor location, your only chance of catching fish is if they move to you. For this reason Chris spends a substantial amount of time reading his graph, looking for both catfish and bait, before deciding to put out the anchors and fish a location. The only time the graph is not especially important is in very shallow water, and on a shallow flat much below 10 feet it won’t show much because the cone is too narrow.
Once Chris finds the right spot he double anchors with a bow anchor and a stern anchor. The goal is to keep the boat as steady as possible; if the boat moves around then the lines out one side of the boat will be pulled tight, which is okay, but the lines on the other side of the boat will become slack – and bites on that side will be harder to detect. Even with double anchors, wind above a slight breeze makes it much more difficult to fish anchored rods.
For rigs Chris uses the same anchor rigs that he uses on Lake Monticello, with a 25 pound test main line attached to a Carolina rig with a big egg sinker, a swivel and 12-18 inches of 50 pound leader line above an 8/0 Gamakatsu circle hook. Channel cats have large mouths, and the big hook does not hurt the hook-up ratio. Most of the year cut bait is Chris’ go-to bait for Lake Greenwood channel cats, and in the summer cut bait is also very effective – especially if you are after big fish. However, in the summer the garfish are a huge hassle when you are fishing cut bait, and they will tangle your rods, cut your rigs and generally waste time. Interestingly, the rest of the year they don’t bother Chris. Shrimp are also a good bait choice, and I was surprised to learn that shrimp aren’t a totally foreign food to the catfish. While they don’t naturally eat big, saltwater shrimp, grass shrimp are a natural channel cat food in Lake Greenwood.
The day Chris and I were fishing we only used the bait that is his summer specialty, and Chris joked that we “were getting back to his roots.” In the summer Chris says that the scent of stinkbait disperses well throughout the water, and absolutely drives the channel cats crazy. (On other lakes stinkbait is also effective for small blue cats.) The best part is the gar won’t touch it. It is also worth noting that stinkbait cannot be effectively used to drift fish, because it comes off the hook too easily.
If you sniff the stuff Chris uses, it’s no mystery where the name stinkbait comes from. His bait is actually a mix of various commercial stinkbaits, and he says two of the best are Sunny’s and Team Catfish Secret 7. A variety of stinkbaits are available at Sportsmen’s Friend in Greenwood. Essentially, all of the stinkbaits are rotten-cheese based, which smells terrible to humans but really appeals to channel cats. Chris uses a spoon to apply the stinkbait to a one inch cube of foam, which he cuts off of a noodle swimming float. The stinkbait stays on the piece of foam remarkably well for up to 20-30 minutes, but if you miss a bite or wind in the bait it will almost always come off.
Putting it all together, the day I went out with Chris we started out fishing on a hill on the back side of an island, fan casting our rods into 10-18 feet of water. The channels came in waves, and after catching several fish there we went halfway up a creek and picked up a couple more fish. The action wasn’t as fast Chris would have liked at either spot, and so we looked around at a third spot for about 20 minutes before Chris decided based on the graph that it wasn’t worth fishing. Finally, we made our way a little ways up the lake and fished a deep point with a dropoff on each side. Action was fast with lots of hook-ups and even more pull-downs, and we stayed on that third/ fourth spot for a couple of hours, and left it with the fish still biting.
On the Tuesday that we fished Chris had not fished Greenwood for channel cats the previous day, but he had been out Sunday and almost every day the previous week. He had been catching 19 or 20 fish each day, and the majority of the fish were 12-18 feet deep. We caught five or six fish in that depth range in the first half of the morning, but it wasn’t until Chris adjusted and figured out that the fish were holding 19-22 feet deep near open water points that the bite really came alive, and we were able to get to that magic number of 20 fish. It would have been difficult for a weekend angler to have the fish patterned well enough to quickly find a steady bite and then make the subtle adjustments necessary to wear them out, but since I had the luxury of being out with a guide who knew the right moves to make I had a fantastic day.
As discussed above there is a lot of pressure on Lake Greenwood’s channel catfish, and jug fishermen (who are legally allowed up to 50 jugs per person) join hook and line anglers to catch a lot of fish. With no limits on catfish on any South Carolina lake besides Santee Cooper, jug and hook and line fishermen can and do take a lot of channel catfish out of Greenwood. Also, while the majority of jug fishermen are probably conscientious, Chris is concerned by how many jugs seem to be left out for 4, 5 and 6 days. The channel catfish which don’t wriggle free from forgotten or lost jogs generally die and get eaten by turtles. Chris would like to see limits of some type put on Lake Greenwood’s channel catfish, and he would also like to see jug fishing regulated more carefully so as to lower mortality. It is a real concern that less 10 pound range fish are caught today than a few years ago. Hopefully in the years to come anglers can put sufficient pressure on the Legislature to convince them to enact some meaningful laws to protect this fishery.
My trip with Captain Chris Simpson confirmed that the Lake Greenwood channel catfish population is one of the premier fisheries in South Carolina, and that it is certainly worth protecting. For anyone looking for fast action with one of the toughest fighting fish in freshwater, I strongly recommend that you get in the boat with Chris while the weather and fishing are hot. You’ll have a ball getting your rod bent by some strong, aggressive fish, and at the end of the day you’ll have a delicious meal ready for the frying pan!
Captain Chris Simpson guides for catfish on Lakes Greenwood, Murray and Monticello. Visit his websites, http://www.fightindablues.com andhttp://www.catfishtips.net, for more information. To contact him private message “chrisblue” on here, email to firstname.lastname@example.org, or call 864-992-2352.