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Winter Catfishing on Lake Murray with Captain Chris Simpson

  • by Jay

Several years ago I had the opportunity to fish for monster blue catfish on Lake Monticello with Captain Chris Simpson, and I gained an appreciation of the nuance of fishing for monster catfish on that lake.  The payoff is tremendous if you coax a 30-60 plus pound monster to bite, and Lake Monticello has fish much bigger than that, but its huge catfish are finicky.  They can guard a piece of cut bait for an hour or more before deciding to eat it.  A couple of years later I had the opportunity to fish with Captain Chris on Lake Greenwood, and the experience was as different as night and day.  While we were unlikely to hook a monster fish, the sheer numbers of hard-fighting, healthy 5-8 pound catfish that we caught was memorable.

At the tail end of last winter, however, I got to take a trip that combined the best of both worlds when Chris took me out on Lake Murray.  Lake Murray also has a very strong population of channel catfish – with an average size bigger than Lake Greenwood’s – and in addition it offers the chance to scrap with blues up to 40 or more pounds or a big flathead.  The action is fast, the fish are big, and so it’s no wonder that today Chris does more guiding on Lake Murray than on any other lake.
A nice Lake Murray blue
A nice Lake Murray blue
A nice Lake Murray channel cat
A healthy Lake Murray channel cat
Lake Murray
Owned and operated by SCANA Corporation, the parent company of South Carolina Electric and Gas, Lake Murray was build in the 1920s and 30s to provide hydroelectric power for Midlands residents.  The approximately 48,000-acre lake with roughly 650 miles of shoreline lies just to the northwest of the capital city of Columbia in the four counties of Richland, Lexington, Saluda and Newberry.  Today it is difficult to imagine the area without this important source of recreation for a region known as “Lake Murray Country.” The lake is oriented in an east-west direction, with the town of Lexington on the southern side of the lake and the town of Chapin on the northern side.  To the west the lake is fed by the Big and Little Saluda Rivers, and on the east side of the lake is the Lake Murray Dam.  Below the dam the Lower Saluda River is formed from the depths of Lake Murray and flows into the city of Columbia.  The full-pool elevation of Lake Murray is 360 feet above sea level, and at the deepest points near the iconic intake towers the lake approaches 200 feet deep.
Fishermen target Lake Murray’s populations of striped bass, largemouth bass, crappie, bream, and several species of catfish.  Lake Murray has both gizzard and threadfin shad, but the baitfish that may have the most effect on catfish (and other major predator fish in the lake) are blueback herring – which are like nutrient-rich candy to fish.  Captain Chris tells me that the Department of Natural Resources says they never introduced blue catfish and flatheads into Lake Murray, but as far back as 10 years ago when Chris started spending lots of time fishing on Lake Murray blues were already abundant, albeit generally smaller.  Other catfishermen tell Chris that they started catching blue catfish in the lake 15 years ago.  Significant numbers of flatheads started to show up 7-10 years ago, and today both species are reproducing in the lake.  It’s uncertain how they first arrived.  These days Chris is encouraged to be catching more 2-pound blues than ever before.Lake Murray also has a very healthy population of the third of the “big three” species of catfish, channel cats, and Chris has found that the average size of Lake Murray channels is bigger than on Lake Greenwood – which he says used to be known for its large channel catfish. However, Chris has watched the large channels slowly disappear on Greenwood over the years, and he believes heavy jug fishing is responsible.  Since jugs are not allowed on Murray, Chris is hopeful the same will not happen on the lake.  The final significant species of catfish in Lake Murray is white catfish, which are native to South Carolina and were no doubt here when the impoundment was dammed.   The state record white catfish of 9 pounds 15 ounces was caught on Lake Murray, and Chris suspects that it has been broken many times by someone who thinks they have caught a channel.  Chris’ boat caught this 9 pound 1 ounce white catfish earlier this year.
The 9 pound white catfish
The 9 pound white catfish
Seasonal patterns
Lake Murray catfish follow some fairly predictable seasonal patterns which dictate the strategy that Captain Chris follows throughout the year.  From April to September Chris is mainly focused on channel catfish, and his go-to method is anchoring and fishing with cut herring, shrimp, and dip (stink) baits.  The scent of dip bait disperses well in the water during the hot months, but a few of Chris’ clients have found that it can be productive in the winter, too – albeit slower.
April and May is basically pre-spawn period for channel catfish, and in late May, June and much of July some fish will be spawning.  Throughout this period it is generally possible to catch pre-spawn, spawning and post-spawn fish, with the obvious exception that early in spawning season there will be very few post-spawn fish and at the end there will be very few pre-spawn fish.  Mayfly hatches, grass shrimp explosions or extreme temperatures will slow the bite at times, but in the summer it is often possible to catch ten fish off of a single spot.  In hotter weather fishing at night is often more productive than daytime fishing as the fish may feed better and move shallower, and it is also more comfortable for fishermen.  Early and late are the best daytime periods.
Overall the technique is very similar to his Lake Greenwood warm weather pattern, and during late spring and summer Chris targets depth changes in approximately  5 – 25 feet of water.  To read the Lake Greenwood story click here.  Chris mainly concentrates on the upper third of Murray because it is closer to his home, but he will also fish off humps and islands in the lower half of the lake.  Most islands have at least one point with a good depth change for catching summer channel catfish.
In September and October Chris is still mainly targeting the upper third of the lake, and in mid-September he will generally start drifting again.  Creeks, flats and shallow humps in 10-30 feet of water are his prime spots, and as the water cools and then turns over he will be fishing deeper.  In November deep flats and humps such as those that top out at 30 feet and are surrounded by 50 feet of water will be productive.
Fall is the time of year when Chris will start to catch a mix of catfish species.  September and October are the best flathead months on Lake Murray, but at least so far there is no time of year when Chris will be specifically targeting flatheads on Lake Murray.  September through December is also the period when he catches the most striper.
By late December Chris finds that the fish will be concentrated in the channels, particularly when water temperatures are below about 53-55 degrees.  In the late fall and winter the herring and gizzard shad move into the river channel and use it as a highway, and they do the same with the creek channels.  All four species of catfish also move into the channels, and striper do the same – although they will also go way up the river following bait which is following the current.  The catfish stay deeper and in the dead of winter they become confined to deep water in the 50-70 foot range.  When temperatures are below 50-52 degrees they become very concentrated, and when temperatures rise above the 53 degree mark they start to scatter out.
As winter ends and early spring approaches, when temperatures climb back into the mid-50s channel catfish start to move towards points and humps in 5-25 feet of water.  Around this time the blue catfish seem to essentially do what Chris calls a “Houdini act.”  It may be that large numbers of them go up the rivers because this is the period when limb liners catch a lot of blues.  Chris’ catches of blues slow way down, but he is also not targeting them because the channel catfish action is so fast.  When water temperatures hit about 60 degrees the dip bait bite gets hot again and the cycle has come full circle.
Cool weather drifting technique
Areas and locating fish
In the near future Chris may spend more time in the winter anchoring for blues as more 30 plus pound fish show up, but for now the winter is drifting time.  Again Chris concentrates his efforts in the upper lake, and if he were fishing the lower lake he might have had to develop more of an anchored pattern because of the abundance of timber and stumps.  Although he will fish deep feeder creeks, in January and February Chris finds that the main river run in 40-60 feet is hard to beat.  The way he fishes the channel varies, and at times he may drift along the middle of the channel, drift across it at a bend where he can cross from one side to the other and back, or he may drift parallel to the channel.  If fish are holding very tight to the channel he will try to stay in it and not move up on the sides, but at other times fish can be on flats just off the side of the channel.  Chris is pretty much exclusively fishing on the bottom, but at times catfish will suspend and striper fishermen can catch them at various depths.
While Chris has a good guess where the fish might be on a given winter day, to actually locate them so he can start fishing he utilizes his electronics.  Finding bait can be useful, and in the late fall and early winter he looks for bait and fish, but by far the most important thing Chris looks for prior to beginning a mid- to late winter drift is the presence of arches marking catfish.  In fact, finding arches without bait can be a good sign, as it may mean that catfish are hungry!  The day Chris and I fished together there were a few pockets of bait but mainly we were targeting areas where Chris had marked fish.  He speculates that there is something that has the fish roaming the area, but it is not a ton of bait like can be found way up the rivers.
It is interesting to note that during the summer Chris also looks at his electronics but is generally not marking fish.  Instead, he is looking for depth changes.  It is not until fish move back into an 18-20 foot range that he starts marking them again and focusing on his graph.
Technique, gear, feeding times, etc.
In the fall Chris may drift at .7 or .8 miles per hour, but during the winter he wants a slower drift.  The target speed is usually in the range of .3-.6 miles per hour.  Chris uses the trolling motor to help with the right speed and direction, and he may also make use of a 10-foot wind sock to slow the boat’s speed.  Chris generally fishes 6 rods out of the back while he is drifting, but you can also fish the same way off the side of the boat.
Rods out the back
Rods out the back
Because he is battling with big catfish Chris likes a stout, medium heavy Ugly Stik catfish rod.  His reel preference is an Abu Garcia Ambassador 6500 or 6600 series closed face spooled with 25-pound test line.  He uses a swivel to attach a 50-pound test leader, a slinky weight, a float and an 8/0 circle hook.  Gizzard shad, white perch and probably other baits will catch catfish in the winter, but there is really nothing better than fresh cut herring.  It is rare for Chris to use anything else.  He has found that gizzard shad get three times less bites than herring, and frozen herring generate about two-thirds less bites than the fresh variety.
As far as hooking the fish, blue catfish generally pull the rod tip to the water and hook themselves on circle hooks.  Channel and white catfish may be more finicky, and they do not always immediately engulf the bait and go.  Anglers can crank the reel until the rod loads up, but Chris finds that if you let them keep on playing with the bait they will usually pull the rod down eventually and the circle hook will do its job.  Although flatheads will sometimes strike cleanly like a blue, at other times they will engulf the bait and swim along with the boat without pulling the rod down.  At those times cranking is usually a must to hook them.
At certain times of year there are fairly reliable daily feeding patterns, and in the summer early, late and at night will usually yield the best action.  During the winter there are less reliable patterns, and time of day generally does not matter as much.  Chris does find that a full moon will often make for an off and on bite.
The day before Chris and I went fishing the fish shut down at mid-day after feeding well in the morning, but we had the opposite experience.  We experienced a steady bite all morning long, but in the early afternoon the fishing all of a sudden opened up about 2:00.  We caught a 10 ½ pound channel catfish approaching a hump that tops out at about 40 feet, then we caught a 6 pound white catfish on the top of the hump, then we picked up a teen-sized blue catfish back in the channel, and then we caught a 14 pound 6 ounce flathead when we pulled the bait through trees – to complete our grand slam!  This last fish was especially surprising because of the still-cold water temperatures.  It was a remarkable 15 or 20 minutes, and we suspected that if I had been able to stay longer the hot afternoon bite would have continued for some time.  Achieving a grand slam is always a memorable event, but to achieve it such a short time was remarkable.
The flathead
The flathead
And a view of his mouth
And a view of his mouth
A healthy channel and blue cat
A healthy channel and blue cat
Trajectory of the Lake Murray catfish population
The Lake Murray catfish population is one of the most exciting fisheries around.  There is a population of channel catfish that seems to be unmatched anywhere in the state for fish over ten pounds, and last fall a 19-3 and a 21-1 fish were caught on Chris’ boat.  There is also a growing population of hefty blue catfish which offers anglers the possibility to catch a trophy.  Chris notes that there are lots of 14-18 pound fish in Lake Murray, lots of 24-28 pound fish and a sizeable number of 30-34 pound fish.  Chris suspects that they are growing fast.  A couple of years back a 48-pound fish was caught on a trotline and sent to DNR, and their biologists calculated that the fish was 16 years old – meaning that it had grown an average of three pounds per year.  Chris believes this monster may have actually been a slow growing fish, and that others may be growing at the rate of 5 or 6 pounds a year!  The lake has a good baitfish population, and the importance of the presence of high-nutrient herring cannot be underestimated; Chris says that it is because of big skipjack herring that the Mississippi River and its tributaries have such big catfish.
Our big blue of the day
Our big blue of the day
For the time being, if anglers want Chris to take them fishing for a monster blue catfish then Lake Monticello still may be the best place to go.  However, Monticello trophy cats seem to know that they have the run of that lake and are famously finicky.  While Lake Murray blue catfish do not seem to top out quite as big – yet – they are less likely to turn down an offering of fresh cut herring, and particularly during winter when fish are grouped up in the channel runs the numbers can be outstanding.  Meanwhile, Lake Murray also offers the chance to catch a monster channel catfish and excellent numbers of them – pound for pound the hardest fighting catfish.  And there is always the chance to catch the third member of the “big three,” a flathead – or a state record white catfish.
Whether you are looking to fill a cooler, fight big fish all day, or both, a guided trip with Captain Chris Simpson is hard to beat.  Chris is relaxed, friendly and very knowledgeable, and he takes a great deal of pride in making sure his clients catch fish.  Guided trips are available on Lakes Greenwood, Monticello and Murray, and for more information visit his websites,  To contact him call 864-992-2352, email or private message him on the message board at “chrisblue.”