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Summer Catfishing on Santee Cooper with Captain Jim Glenn

  • by Jay

This summer I had a chance to make my second catfishing expedition on Lake Moultrie with Captain Jim Glenn, and for the second time I was blessed with unseasonably mild weather.  In the winter of 2008 we went on an unusually warm day where air temperatures bumped the 70 degree mark, and this summer we could have used sweaters until about Noon!   Besides catching fish the greatest commonality between the two trips was that I learned an incredible amount about catfish and the Santee Cooper lakes – a now-retired veteran of DNR Captain Jim Glenn is a wealth of knowledge.  The companion article to this one address his concerns that the blue catfishery is not as strong as just a few years ago, but there is little doubt that the blue catfish is still king of the cats on Santee Cooper.  Even though the lakes hold a good population of channel and flathead catfish, this article will mainly focus on fishing for blues during the warmer months and particularly the techniques Captain Jim Glenn employs on Lake Moultrie.

Known together as the Santee Cooper lakes (formally the Santee Cooper Hydroelectric and Navigation Project), Lakes Marion and Moultrie are joined by the 6 ½ mile long Diversion Canal to form a system with 160,000 acres of water and 450 miles of shoreline spanning parts of 5 counties – Berkeley, Calhoun, Clarendon, Orangeburg and Sumter.  From 1939 to 1942 the lakes were created in a hydroelectric project by the South Carolina Public Service Authority, commonly known as “Santee Cooper.”  The lakes were created to impound the Santee River, transform its power into electricity and create economic growth in rural parts of South Carolina devastated by the Depression, but few fishermen would dispute that in the process the most renowned freshwater fishery in South Carolina was created.  The lakes vary from shallow swamps at the upper end of both lakes but most famously Lake Marion to the vastness of Lake Moultrie.  While in fact the lakebed is heavily contoured and holds a great deal of underwater structure, Lake Moultrie is 14 miles across at its widest point and appears to be a great, open bowl.

Popular species targeted by Santee Cooper anglers include largemouth bass, a recovering population of striped bass, white and black crappie, bream (most notably shellcracker and bluegill), and several species of catfish.  In every category the lakes have produced state or even-world record class fish.  The co-state record largemouth bass was caught out of Lake Marion (16-2 caught in 1949), until 1993 the world record freshwater striped bass came from Santee Cooper (55 pounds), the state record white crappie came from Lake Moultrie (5-0 caught in 1957), and the state record shellcracker (5-7.5 caught in 1998) came from the Diversion Canal.  Among catfish the current world record channel catfish was caught in Lake Moultrie (58 pounds caught in 1964) and the current state record flathead was caught in the Diversion Canal (79-4 caught in 2001).  The current state record blue catfish (109-4 caught in 1991) was caught in the Tailrace Canal below Santee Cooper and held the world record until 1996.  No other South Carolina lakes can boast such an impressive resume.

As would be expected to support so many trophy-caliber fisheries, the Santee Cooper lakes have an extensive forage base.  The five major bait species in the lakes are gizzard shad, threadfin shad, American shad, blueback herring, and menhaden, which immigrate and emigrate from the lakes based on seasonal patterns.  Mullet are also present at times.

Blue Catfish

Like most fish species the biological imperatives for survival of blue catfish are that they reproduce and feed, but compared to other fish species the blue catfish is a very hearty creature that can tolerate a wide range of water temperatures and quality.  Blue catfish will continue to feed in water temperatures from the low 40s to the 90s.  I am reminded of redfish on the South Carolina coast which will stay in the same flats and feed year round, but in the winter redfish on the South Carolina coast are forced to stay very shallow to avoid dolphin whose prey options are limited during the cold months.  In contrast large blue catfish have few natural predators on Santee Cooper, and so outside of the spawning season their movements are determined almost totally by where the food is.  Much of the year blue cats will be found where the schools of bait are found.  Note: Even though blue catfish remain active in water temperatures from the 40s to the 90s, Jim notes that they do go through periods where they will be essentially dormant and lie on the bottom covered in mud.

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Seasonal patterns

Fishing during the warmest months will be the subject of this article and addressed later, and following the summer September seems to be a transition month.  Daytime temperatures generally begin to dip and there is usually at least one cool front in early to mid-September, but it may be longer and cooler nights which are most responsible for causing catfish to become more scattered.  Many fish may return to deeper water than their summer haunts, and Captain Jim Glenn will be a prospecting a variety of depths in the fall.  Drifting will be his primary technique as he searches for catfish.

After the first frosts of late October/early November, bait will often start to migrate deeper and catfish will usually follow the bait with some exceptions.  In the late fall and early winter Jim will be fishing some of those exceptions, and I remember catching the biggest blue of the day on December 20, 2008 in about 10 feet of water.  However, a general rule is that by mid-December when temperatures may be very cool in the morning fish will be deep early, although as temperatures rise in the middle of the day bait and fish could make a movement up shallower.  During the colder months a higher percentage of Jim’s fishing is anchoring as fish tend to move slower during this period.

At the first warm days of spring arrive and water temperatures start to move into the upper 50s and then hit 60, often in March, good numbers of catfish will make the move much shallower.  Jim explains that Santee Cooper is basically a big river system which lives and dies with its annual spring flooding, and he will be hoping for rain and rising water levels.  Shallow fishing can take place in as little as 2 feet out to 10 feet, and lots of fish will be around cypress trees in both lakes.  The upper end of Lake Moultrie has large expanses of shallow, swampy areas like Lake Marion is usually better known for having.

While anchor fishing around these cypress trees can be a year round pattern, Jim believes the best period for this style of fishing is in the spring.  Windy days are better than calm, quiet days and he employs a stealthy approach as only 40-50 feet of line will be out.  Tackle is generally heavier than for more open-water drifting.  Following the spring fish will move into a summer pattern, the main focus of this article.

Summer behavior

While other popular species such as crappie, bass and striper spawn earlier in the spring when water temperatures first start to rise, catfish are among the latest fish to spawn in Santee Cooper.  Like most species blue catfish do not all spawn at once, but the blue cat’s ideal spawning range is basically the period when water temperatures hit the mid-70s to just above 80.  Months are in imperfect indicator of the spawning period when, as this year, there is a very prolonged winter with a late spring.

Blue catfish are cavity spawners which invest a fair amount of time in seeking out and then guarding their nests.  Blues may spawn in a hollow log, rip rap, a metal sheet with an opening, under an old boat ramp, in sunken barrels and in underwater pipes.  The female goes in and deposits her eggs while the male will guard the eggs and then the fry.   At the very peak of the spawn when the largest percentage of blues are spawning there may be a somewhat slower bite, although as noted above not all fish spawn at the same time.  Spawning blues will also take a bait if it is put right in front of them.

Summer Fishing Locations and Techniques

In the summer Jim will employ a mixture of the major techniques of anchoring and drifting.  Over the course of a day he may do both, and early, late or at night is the time when he is the most likely to be anchoring.  (Jim has been doing less and less night fishing as he has found that evening thunderstorms disrupt such a high percentage of trips).  He may also combine the two techniques, and if a particular area produces on subsequent drifts he may anchor in that area.  Anchoring can be useful on particularly rough days when drifting rigs are getting jerked around by the waves, and it can also be used simply when the drift bite is not as good to see if a still bait produces.

With that said, drifting may be the most efficient summer time technique for presenting baits to fish as it allows an array of baits to sweep across all the nooks and crannies on the bottom.  Additionally, besides fish which are hungry and might seek out a bait to eat catfish are fairly aggressive and a fish may take a bait simply because it does not like having something drag by it.  From time to time catfish will crush the bobbers which Jim employs on his drift rigs to keep the bait off the bottom.

The basic drifting technique is to put out one or more drift socks to slow the movement of the boat, and the day we fished together Jim employed two 10 foot circumference socks which can effectively take a 12-14 knot wind and slow the boat to average speeds of ½ mile per hour or less.   Since it is so open Lake Moultrie can get very windy, almost like offshore fishing, and he employs up to four drift socks at a time on particularly windy days.  Jim generally fishes four rods off the front of the boat when he is drifting, but more can be used and it is also possible to drift off the side of the boat.

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As far as where to drift, conventional wisdom is that in the summer blue catfish seek temperature refuge deep during the day and move shallower at night.  Lots of Santee guides will not be found fishing much less than 30 feet in the day during the summer, but fish are scattered and they will not all be found at one depth.  Much of the summer Jim is unlikely to be found fishing more than 10 feet deep!  Shad do like to suspend deep but they will also migrate shallow and Jim finds that they will be found throughout the water column.  Depth is a personal choice and involves confidence, and Jim believes that you have to develop confidence that summer fish can be caught shallow, even in the heat of the day, in order to stick to it.  Section of the lake is also a personal preference, and catfish will be found throughout the system during the summer.  Fish can be at different depths in different parts of the lake, and the bottom line is that it is important to be flexible.  The summer day when Jim and I fished we caught blues as shallow as 8 feet and as deep as 34 feet.

By its nature drifting for Jim is generally about covering a lot of water and fishing where fish should be instead of where he is marking them, and whether he is fishing deep or shallow Jim is generally targeting subtle depth changes to get bites.  Fish will orient to old creek channels, humps, underwater hills, or most any other place where shallower water gives way to deeper water.  There is also a place for fishing flats as they are often loaded with mussel beds – actually Asiatic clams.  All blue catfish will eat these shellfish and especially in hot water cats will gorge on them, eating the shells and all.  Clams will open up in their stomachs and be digested, and even though they will often herniate the fish’s gut it will retract and make a full recovery.  The lakes are also loaded with snails which the catfish will also eat.

Tackle and baits

Captain Glenn uses 9-foot medium action Eagle Claw rods which have a relatively soft tip, while other anglers like to use much heavier “pool cues.”  He pairs the rods with Abu Garcia 6500 Series C3 reels spooled with 25-pound test Shakespeare Cajun Red line, which is stout and highly abrasion resistant.  Easy to see out of the water, red line is very difficult to see in the water.

On the business end of the line for drifting he uses his standard Santee-style drifting rig.  A barrel swivel connects the rig to the main line and to that he ties off a homemade “slinky sinker” which is a length of ¼ inch utility cord filled with buck shot.  A shoelace can also hold the weights.  The leader line is the same 25-pound Cajun Red line, although some anglers like to use a heavier leader up to 40 pound or more.  Jim typically uses about 3 or 4 feet of leader line to keep the bait 1-3 feet off the bottom, but if fish are suspended higher in the water column 8 or more feet of leader can be used to get the bait higher up.  A balloon can also get the bait even higher in the water.  A cork is placed about a foot above the bait to keep it off the bottom, and at the end of the line is a 4/0 wide bend hook.  Jim has fished circle hooks alongside wide bend hooks and discovered that the hook-up ratio is about the same, but he has found that by striking with a wide bend hook instead of reeling or letting the fish pull down a circle hook he gets a truer hook set higher in the fish’s mouth.  Jim usually runs this rig 80-90 feet out behind the boat, although some anglers will fish the rig 100 yards back which Jim does not find necessary.

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For bait Jim will drag a variety of different baits, and on certain days he finds that fish are much more interested in one bait than in others.  It is difficult to name a type of cut fish that has not been found on the end of Jim’s rigs at one time or another, but shad and herring are good choices year round.  Additionally, white perch are also available and abundant in the lakes, and in the summer Jim will often make a transition to a higher percentage of perch baits which are more resilient and do not have to be changed as often.  Yellow perch are also good bait, and I have seen Jim catch catfish on baits as off- the-wall as carp.  As important as the type of fish is that Jim likes to present the baits different ways, and he will mix head sections, fillets, chunks and whole fish hooked different ways on his lines to catch blue catfish.

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Other Catfish Species

Catching other species of catfish in the Santee Cooper lakes is the subject for another article, as is fishing in the Diversion Canal, but there are some general guidelines for catching flatheads and channels in the lakes.  Jim believes that the best technique to catch flatheads in the lakes is to fish deep drops and for example anchor in 32 feet of water on the edge of 45 feet of water just before dusk.  Very fresh cut bait but especially live bait is best, and this type of fishing is heavily reliant on the graph to locate individual fish.

Channel catfish are at the opposite end of the spectrum from flatheads as they are found much shallower and will take bait even further removed from live prey.  The most popular technique is to anchor in 4-6 feet of water and begin prospecting with prepared dip baits.  Fish may be found scattered out as deep as 25 or 26 feet although they are generally shallower.  Targeting channels it is quite possible to catch 100 or more fish in a day, and the day Jim and I fished (actually targeting blues) we caught and kept five nice channel catfish – including one that was on his line when I pulled up as he was casting for white perch at the boat ramp!   Channels are more active in warmer than cooler weather, and they do not take a hook well in the winter even though they do trap well.  While they do overlap with the period in which blues spawn the channel catfish spawn usually continues after the blue catfish spawn.

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Conclusions

Besides the seasonal differences in fishing in the summer versus the winter, one major change I noticed on Captain Jim Glenn’s boat in 2013 versus 2008 was his use of wide bend hooks instead of circle hooks.  Another, even more significant change is that five years ago Jim had no qualms about our taking home a cooler of blue catfish, and even believed that based upon where the fishery was at that time taking out some of the smaller fish was good for its health.  As noted in the companion article, however, since 2009 there has not been a strong blue catfish spawn on the lakes and so today his attitude is different.  I took home and ate five healthy, delicious channel catfish in the 4-6 pound range which were more than enough to feed my friends who enjoy catfish, but the blues we caught got released.  Time will tell if the fishery rebounds to the point where there will be no concern about the population of Santee Cooper blues.

In addition to his experience as a fishing guide and decades of experience on the Santee Cooper lakes, Captain Jim Glenn is a 22-year veteran of the Air Force (latterly stationed in Charleston) and a 22-year veteran of the Department of Natural Resources with a wealth of stories and experiences to share.  You will not find a guide who is more knowledgeable and cares more about the fishery he guides on that Captain Jim Glenn.  You will also not find a lake system where it is more important than on Santee Cooper to fish with a guide the first time.  As I noted five years ago, without being in Jim’s boat on Lake Moultrie I would have felt like I was adrift in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean. To schedule a trip with Captain Jim Glenn email him at fishfindersc@tds.net, check out his website www.fishfindersc.com, or give him a call at 843-825-4239.

Captain Jim Glenn with a Summer Blue Catfish
Captain Jim Glenn with a Summer Blue Catfish

 

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