Winter Catfishing on Lake Wateree with Captain Rodger Taylor
In December of 2008 I went on my first “serious” catfishing trip – a guided trip with Captain Rodger Taylor on Lake Wateree. Since then I have fished Lake Wylie twice with Rodger, and he has given me periodic fishing reports on both major Catawba Chain lakes, but until this winter I had not had the chance to fish Lake Wateree with him again. Then, around the time that 2014 turned into 2015 I had the opportunity to join Rodger and fellow catfish enthusiast Dieter Melhorn for a follow-up trip. Rodger and Dieter together finished #7 in the Cabela’s King Kats Eastern Championship event last fall, so I knew I was in good company. I learned that a lot has changed with Wateree catfish in six years! More accurately, a lot has changed about what expert catfishermen understand about Lake Wateree catfish in the last few years – it’s quite possible the fish have changed a lot less than the fishermen’s knowledge of them.
Six years ago the winter pattern involved running up the river and anchoring for a big bite, then moving down the lake and drifting (or anchoring) in the 22-30 foot depth range. Now there are more options. To use the football metaphor that Rodger employs to describe a well-thought out fishing trip, the quarterback’s playbook has grown a lot since then and Rodger is now running some plays that he wouldn’t have dreamed of running five or ten years ago.
Located downriver from Lake Wylie, and just below the less well known reservoir Stumpy Pond, Lake Wateree is the most southern lake on the Catawba River chain. Below Lake Wateree the river is known as the Wateree River and joins with the Congaree to form the Santee Cooper lakes. Lake Wateree was created in 1920 with the construction of a 3,380-foot dam and the Wateree Hydroelectric Station, and it is still managed by Duke Energy for hydroelectric power generation. Slightly larger than Lake Wylie, the lake’s surface area is just less than 14,000 acres and it has around 242 miles of shoreline. At full pool the lake’s elevation is approximately 225.5 feet, and its deepest point is around 90 feet. To purchase a map of Lake Wateree with information about marinas and landings visit here.
A very fertile lake with a healthy baitfish population and a relative lack of development compared to more urban lakes, Lake Wateree is known to anglers as one of the premiere all-around fisheries in South Carolina. The popular species targeted by fishermen on the lake include largemouth bass, striped bass, crappie, bluegill, white perch, and catfish. Despite the presence of striper fishermen there is not a dominant population of blueback herring in Lake Wateree, and the main forage base is threadfin and gizzard shad.
With a healthy population of baitfish it should be no surprise that Lake Wateree is considered one of the strongest catfishing lakes in South Carolina, and the lake is now a draw for local, regional and national catfishing tournaments. While the lake has channel, bullhead and probably a few flathead catfish, anglers are not looking for them. Non-native Arkansas Blue Catfish are king on Lake Wateree.
Winter Catfishing on Lake Wateree
Wintertime is a peak period for blue catfish on Lake Wateree. The cold months see better than their fair share of monster catfish come out of Lake Wateree, but winter is probably the best time of the year for catching sheer numbers of fish out of the lake.
The Angler as Quarterback
As a sports enthusiast, coach and parent to a Division One college baseball player, it is no surprise that Rodger uses ball sports analogies when he analyzes fishing. When Rodger conceives of a fishing trip he compares the angler’s role to that of a football quarterback, and he points out that just as a quarterback steps up to the line of scrimmage with a play and a series of options within that play, an angler also needs to run through his “check-downs” on a given trip.
1st Check-down – The River
In the winter the first check-down for a Lake Wateree catfisherman is looking to catch a big fish up the river. Although it is not the best place to catch sheer numbers of fish on Wateree in the winter, the best chance for a big catfish remains the top of the lake in the Cedar Creek area. Accordingly, like many times of the year most winter fishing trips start up the lake in the old Catawba River. The fishing looks and feels a lot more like river fishing than lake fishing. I will not repeat the description of technique, tackle and bait Rodger uses up the river, but you can read the 2008 article that gives the details here.
2nd Check-down – Mid-depths on the lower end
In the winter the second check-down for a Lake Wateree catfisherman is fishing the mid-depths on the middle to lower end. Back in 2008 Rodger and I spent most of the day drifting the main lake on the lower end after we left the riverine portion of Lake Wateree. A productive depth range for drifting is 22-30 feet of water, and 28 feet is often ideal. It is certainly possible to anchor fish this area as well; however, drifting does allow anglers to cover more water as they try to locate feeding blue catfish. Catfish will be near schools of bait, and birds, visible feeding striper, and striper fishermen can all point the way to feeding catfish. For more information on technique and tackle for winter drifting the middle to lower portion of Lake Wateree see the 2008 article.
3rd Check-down – The Backs
When I met Rodger and Dieter at the landing in one of the major, named creeks on a cool winter late-morning Rodger cranked up the engine and headed out towards the creek channel. I assumed that we were heading towards deep water, and so I was very surprised when we headed towards the back of the creek – even though the water temperature was only around 50 degrees. Instead of going out towards the big water we were heading shallower and shallower.
Rodger (and Dieter) were up-front about the fact that in previous years they would not have thought to catfish in very shallow water on Lake Wateree in the cold months, and after our trip I found this line in the 2008 article: “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.” The third check-down definitely breaks this mold!
When we finally reached our destination it could only be described as a “backwater,” and in fact we were as far up the creek as it was possible to go. Instead of dropping out an anchor Rodger employed his unique shallow water anchoring system which involves 16-foot fiberglass poles stuck in the lake bottom on both ends of the boat. Over the course of the day this method kept us totally stable in water up to ten or twelve feet deep. Next Rodger proceeded to fan-cast a series of rods out the back of the boat using his standard anchor (and drifting) rigs. We only used cut gizzard shad this day when we fished, but as discussed in the 2008 article Rodger will also use cut white perch in the winter. Bluegill is mainly used as a cut bait in his boat during the summer.
Dieter surveys the rods out the back
It was clear we were fishing in shallow water, but I didn’t realize how shallow we were fishing until the first rod bent over, I wound down, and a whitish-colored blue catfish immediately rolled on the surface (oddly, Rodger says fish in muddy water develop whiter pigmentation while fish in clear, rocky water are more bluish-colored). Rodger told me that the fish had bit in 3 feet of water, which was surprising considering that water temperatures in the back were 48 degrees. That fish weighed 10 pounds, and over the next two hours we caught another dozen fish in very shallow water from that size up to about 22 pounds.
Dieter with a nice one
And me with the 22-pounder
Standard winter conventional wisdom suggested that fish would be deeper when it was cold, and so it is a fair question why the fish are so shallow. One answer is related to water temperature. Even though morning water temperatures were probably a couple of degrees cooler in the creek back than out on the main channel, by the afternoon on a sunny day it is not unusual for the water to be five degrees warmer in the back than out in the channel. Rodger notes that for this type of warming air temperature has very little to do with it, and it is the sunlight that is warming the water.
Catfish are also present in the backs because of baitfish, and as we headed up the creek Rodger cast his net several times and caught threadfin shad on each throw. Even without the net the birds provided a clue that bait (and predatory species) would be around, and flocks of loons and gulls were thick where we were fishing. Rodger points out that birds sitting on the water are not always a great sign, but diving birds are almost always a positive. Interestingly, when the bite finally slowed at our first spot the birds had mostly moved on.
Finding the Right Shallow Spots
Lake Wateree has an enormous population of blue catfish, and so there is certainly the chance that anglers can pull up on most any shallow backwater in any of the major, named creeks during the winter, fan cast out a series of cut baits, and catch fish on any given day. However, the reality is that certain spots will out-produce others, and even among the top-producing areas they will hold fish some days and not others. Over the last several years Rodger has pinpointed some favorite creek backwaters for winter catfishing, but for anglers looking to find their own repertoire of winter spots Rodger offers some useful advice.
Some fishermen are extremely reliant on their electronics to locate actual catfish, but Rodger prefers what he refers to as “the algebraic method.” This makes extra sense in shallow water where standard electronics have limited capabilities. He reasons that if the variables that catfish are seeking are present then catfish themselves will be present, and so he strongly advises spending time looking over the bow instead of just at an electronic screen. As mentioned earlier feeding birds greatly increase the chances that catfish will be present, and wind direction can also be a crucial variable. If the wind blows the same direction for several days then baitfish are also likely to blown with them. Finally, for some reason (possibly sun direction, bottom composition, topography, or some other reason) areas with the presence of cattail reeds seems to be better shallow spots in winter.
Finally, time on the water is invaluable. The last place we fished was somewhere Rodger had noticed on a recent trip but never fished before, and it had all the hallmarks of a productive spot. However, in an hour and a half we only caught one good fish from this spot and so it will have to remain in the “maybe” category. On another day it might produce, but on this day we had limited success there. Even once you have some possible spots, there is still no substitute for experience and time on the water to figure out if and when they will produce.
Settling on a Winter Pattern
The day that I fished with Rodger this winter it should be obvious from my description that creek backwaters were actually not our third check-down, but in fact the first spot we fished. This was because Rodger was trying to show me a new technique. Despite our success on this day, if we had been fishing a tournament Rodger said we probably still would have started out up the river hoping for a big bite, particularly if some water were being released. However, after stopping up the river it would depend on the day where we headed second, and anglers need to be flexible.
In the winter Rodger says there is little point in rushing out to fish early (with the exception of targeting a water release), and the best bite is almost always found after lunchtime. On a warm, sunny day where the temperatures in the backs spike upwards it may well be the best option to look shallow before heading out to big water, and cloudy days can still offer some excellent fishing in the backs. However, on a cold, rainy day when most of the birds have retreated out to the main channel that is a likely indication that it is better to start out fishing on the channel, instead of in the backs. And even if you decide to fish in the creeks it is still worth being flexible within the creeks. The day I fished with him Rodger was still able to keep the bite going even when the fishing seemed to slow down in the very back by moving a half mile further up the creek into ten feet of water.
Seasonal Patterns and Conclusion
The winter bite – including the shallow bite – should remain strong for the next couple of months, with the caveat being that if water temperatures get too cold then a major shad kill could hurt the fishing. If water temperatures drop into the mid-40s and there is some shad die-off that could turn on the catfish, but if they drop much further and there is too much of a die-off the catfish may binge and then basically stop feeding. If that does not happen then both the shallow creek pattern and the mid-depth pattern should continue to produce until March, when large numbers of fish will begin to head up the lake. The 2008 article offers an overview of seasonal catfish movements on Lake Wateree, but it is wise with a species as prolific as blue catfish on Lake Wateree not to rule anything out. Dieter points out that anglers are just beginning to crack the surface of understanding blue catfish. One thing that makes them such an exciting fish is that anglers can pursue them casually and still have a good chance of getting a rod bent, or they can employ more and more sophisticated techniques in the hopes of controlling their fishing destiny. And both categories of anglers still have the chance to catch a monster – while the current world record 143-pound blue catfish was caught from a boat, a previous world record was caught by a bank fisherman!
If there is one overall lesson for me from this experience, it is that what makes a great fisherman is not that he knows all the answers. Instead, it is that he is constantly evolving and learning new things about the species he targets. If I had gone fishing with Captain Rodger Taylor this winter and he was still doing the same thing he had been doing six years ago I would have still enjoyed the trip, but the fact that Rodger is still learning is much more impressive. He can still catch catfish all the same ways he was catching them a few years ago, but now he has a whole new weapon in his playbook. The creek back pattern makes him a triple option quarterback in the winter!
Always cerebral, Rodger reflects that in some ways he has regressed and in some ways he has progressed as a fisherman. The regression is that he has gotten back to basics, putting away the rattling bobbers, fancy hooks and other fads that attract fishermen but usually not fish. The progress is that he continues to add new patterns to his arsenal. He has learned that “from dam to dam, if there is food there will be catfish. They are adaptable and will live in most any condition.”
Rodger believes the future for Lake Wateree is very exciting, and that its peak is still ten years or more down the road – before the lake finally plateaus. Today it is possible to catch lots of 8-15 pound fish, but soon that population will be in the 20s. For an angler armed with an inquisitive mind and a love of fishing it is an exciting time to be a Lake Wateree catfisherman.
To schedule a trip with Captain Rodger Taylor visit his website www.catfishon.com, email him at email@example.com, private message him at “Catfish ON!” on the message board, or call his telephone 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. A Lake Wateree catfishing trip with Rodger 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. Rodger 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. Captain Taylor already has one state record on the books, a 1 pound 15 ounce white perch, and maybe one of his customers fishing out of his boat will add another one!
Rodger fights a nice one