This article was originally published on December 14, 2008. To view the original comments to the article visit: http://messageboard.scfishingreport.com/viewtopic.php?f=376&t=1475.
Friday, December 14 was a cold crisp morning, and even though it was technically still late fall it felt like winter. It’s not every day that you get to fish with a state record holder, but I was getting to accompany Captain Rodger Taylor of Catfish On! Guide Service (“Catfish ON!” here) on a scouting trip on Lake Wateree. Captain Taylor holds the state record for the largest white perch – a 1 pound, 15.2 ounce fish he caught last winter on Lake Wylie. Today, though, the only interest we had in white perch was as our bait, and we were on a winter catfish pattern.
Lake Wateree is home to a thriving population of non-native Arkansas Blue Catfish, and Captain Taylor believes that December and January are the best times of the year to pick up large numbers of these fish. As he has previously written on these pages, in late winter the juvenile blue catfish follow the baitfish and group up in the lower part of the lake under the schools of shad and herring. When striper tear through the schools it can create a feeding frenzy, but at other times the action is steady. Some big catfish are mixed in, too, and it is not unexpected to catch a 30 or more pound fish.
Captain Taylor said he wasn’t sure what to expect from the fishing this Friday, as Wednesday and Thursday had been uncharacteristically warm and rainy with temperatures in the upper 60s and 70s. Several inches of rain had been dumped on central South Carolina both days, too. In contrast Friday was a bluebird clear, cold morning, and temperatures wouldn’t get much above 50 degrees all day. A strong, steady wind blew and created white caps, and with all the rain that had come into the lake the water was heavily stained to muddy, and there was debris floating everywhere. Between all the freshwater that had entered the lake and it being the first day of a high pressure system and a cold front we knew we risked having some tough fishing.
Feeding blue catfish are usually not picky about what they will eat and Captain Taylor says that a variety of different cut baits will work. His go-to baits are white perch and gizzard shad, but he will also make use of other cut bait including herring, mullet, and bluegill (which he believes are stronger in warmer temperatures). In case the catfish are finicky, though, he likes to have a couple of different baits on hand, and some days there is a noticeable difference in how well they will pick up one or another. Fresh bait is always better than frozen bait, and he likes to catch and fillet some fresh white perch the day before a fishing trip. Gizzard shad can be picked up in the cast net the morning of a trip, particularly around bridges, but on this particular day the current was moving too fast and there was too much flotsam in the water for effective netting.
Although the best place for sheer numbers of fish is the lower part of Wateree in late fall and early winter, the best chance for a big catfish remains the top of the lake in the Cedar Creek area and Captain Taylor likes to try this pattern first thing. Here you are fishing in the old Catawba River and it looks and feels a lot more like river fishing than lake fishing. The water was downright muddy moving towards chocolate milk, and debris littered the surface.
Debris all over the surface
Having fished this area extensively for many years Captain Taylor knows the bottom contours very well, and he had several holes and ledges that we tried, including the one where he caught a sixty-two pound blue cat. I assumed the plan was to get in the middle of a deep hole, but actually the sloping sides are often better. We would use the same tackle all day, and I understand it is fairly standard catfish tackle.
Captain Taylor likes a medium action 7 foot Shakespeare Ugly Stik E Glass rod that has a slow tip so that the fish can pick up the bait without feeling the rod. He pairs that with Abu Garcia 5500 C3 reels for drift fishing, although when he is targeting big fish or fishing in an area where needs more backbone he will often pair a heavier Ugly Stik Tiger Rod with an Abu Garcia 6500 series reel. His standard line is 20 pound test Offshore Angler line available from Bass Pro Shop for only $6 or $7 for a 900 yard spool, and he uses fluorescent, high visibility yellow line. This line is easier to see and avoid tangles with, and the fish don’t seem to mind the higher visibility main line. For leader material he uses clear 50 pound Ande line or 60 pound Triple Fish – he doesn’t mind cheap leader material.
We anchored and fanned out several rods behind the boat and waited for a big fish to come. The bottom rig was a fairly standard Carolina rig with a two ounce “no roll” sinker, and behind that was a swivel and then a couple of feet of leader line and then a big Gamakatsu circle hook. For drift fishing Captain Taylor likes a 6/0 circle hook, but for anchored fishing he uses a bigger cut bait, or a gizzard shad head, and likes an 8/0 circle hook. It’s very important to make sure that the point of the hook is exposed.
Rod, reel, line and bottom rig
No big fish came but we could see several smaller fish playing with our bait, likely smaller channel cats, and we picked up one juvenile channel cat, distinguishable by spots on its body. We probably would have stuck with the big fish pattern a little longer but the water level continued to rise and some really large tree limbs and even logs started to move down towards us, and it seemed to be approaching hazardous conditions. We suspected that the spillway at Cedar Creek Dam had been opened because some really large stuff was coming through, and so we decided to move onto the predominant late fall/ winter pattern.
The juvenile channel cat
Over the rest of the day we would concentrate our efforts on fishing in the middle and lower part of the lake drifting; we started in the June Creek and then moved down to Colonel Creek and below. To locate productive areas to drift fish you want to look for 22 to 30 foot deep water; much shallower or much deeper than that and the area will not hold fish, and 28 feet is ideal. However, more important than depth is locating the schools of bait because the catfish will not be in areas where there is not bait. Another good rule of thumb is to look for striped bass (and striped bass fishermen) as the striper are following the same schools of bait as the cats and often tearing into them and dropping pieces of fish to the bottom. Captain Taylor will customarily leave two down rods over the side baited with large live shiners when the striper seem likely to be around. Finding the birds is another giveaway of where the bait and catfish are located.
The ideal drift is ½ to ¾ miles per hour, and this allows the bait to be slowly dragged along the bottom where the catfish are feeding. On days where there is little or no wind Captain Taylor will use his trolling motor to achieve the desired speed, and on these days he will set 6 rods out of the back of the boat, staggering the bait depth to avoid tangles. On days when the wind is blowing he will drift sideways with the rods staggered along one side of the boat with about 100 feet of line out on all of the rods. Some other experts like to drift with even more line out behind (beside) the boat. When a fish hits the high visibility line really helps to avoid tangling the lines. On some days the wind blows the right speed to naturally move the boat along at the target speed, but on windy days one or two drift socks needs to be employed over the side of the boat. The day we fished was definitely a two drift sock day.
One of our drift socks
The basic rig for drift fishing is similar to a flounder rig although it involves a ¾ ounce “slinky sinker” about three to four feet ahead of the bait. This sinker can be bought but they are expensive, and so Captain Taylor makes his own by using a roughly 4 to 6 inch section of parachute cord and filling it with homemade buckshot. This sinker looks like a worm and kicks up a little bit of dirt and mud on the bottom, and is virtually snag proof. Behind the sinker are several feet of line and then a small cork to lift the bait and exposed hook up off the bottom. He uses a much smaller section of bait on the 6/0 circle hook for drift fishing, and the bait is so durable that even after catching a fish it often does not need to be changed.
The drifting rig
The drifting set-up
Not only is the rig effective for getting bites but it is also very effective for hooking the fish. On circle hooks and with the boat drifting the fish generally hook themselves, and it is best to wait a few seconds for the fish to pull down hard on the rod before striking back. This day we had a good number of bites but lots of the fish were biting very short and only mouthing the bait without ever taking it. Nonetheless we caught between 10 and 12 catfish, including lots of one and two pound blues, a 6 or 7 pound channel catfish, and a 9 pound blue cat. The next day, after the fish had a chance to settle into the weather pattern, Captain Taylor took a party out and caught about twice as many fish up to and including a twenty-five pound blue catfish. This is still slow for this time of year, and in stable conditions 50 or 60 fish days are not uncommon.
The channel cat
The bigger blue catfish
A nice fish the next day
The twenty five pounder caught Saturday
For the next month and a half to two months the best pattern for catfish will be drifting in the Colonel Creek area, and this lower lake pattern will continue into February. As it gets closer to spring and the dogwoods start blooming the catfish will steadily make their way up the lake until most fish are in the Cedar Creek area in the upper ¼ of the lake in March. From mid-March to mid-May is the hottest time of the year for catching big catfish, and at the same time of the year that the striper are moving up the river to attempt to spawn the catfish will be in the same areas. While the catfish spawn in late May and June there will be a couple of rough weeks of fishing, and the fish will look pretty beat up coming out of the spawn. After that the summer pattern will begin where the fish drop back to Lake Wateree State Park and Captain Taylor drifts for them on the flats in 9 to 15 feet of water. Just like 28 feet is the ideal depth now 11 feet will be the target depth by then. Late September and October will be a transition period as the fish move deeper and into the creeks, and in November the cycle will start back over as the fish move into the late fall/ winter pattern again.
To schedule a trip with Captain Rodger Taylor visit his website http://www.catfishon.com, email him at firstname.lastname@example.org, private message him at “Catfish ON!” here, or call his phone number – (803) 328-9587. You will not find a friendlier captain more willing to teach his customers about catfish and show them the tricks and even spots he fishes, and a Lake Wateree catfishing trip with Captain Taylor would make a perfect family outing to give kids plenty of action and get them excited about fishing. There is also the chance to catch some really big catfish, and catfishing provides the best chance to catch a big, hard pulling inland fish – there aren’t a lot of other fish swimming around South Carolina’s lakes weighing 30, 40, and 50 pounds on up. Captain Taylor prefers to take out customers willing to release big catfish over twenty pounds, although he’s more than happy to help people catch enough juvenile fish for a good fish fry. He also guides on Lake Wylie and offers summer night trips, and for the ultimate in fast action would be willing to take people fishing for white perch on Lake Wylie. Captain Taylor already has one state record on the books, and maybe one of his customers fishing out of his boat will add another one!