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Winter Catfishing with Captain Rodger Taylor

  • by Jay

When South Carolina anglers think of our state’s premier blue catfish fisheries Lakes Marion and Moultrie, Lake Monticello, and Lake Wateree probably come to mind.  But there is another lake that Captain Rodger Taylor believes should be on the short list, if it is not already.  With good tributary rivers and a defined channel, major feeder creeks, abundant baitfish and good depth,Lake Wylie is ideally suited to blue catfish – and the population is exploding!

Straddling the North Carolina/ South Carolina border near Charlotte and Rock Hill, Lake Wylie is located on the Catawba River chain south of Lake Norman and the smaller, lesser known Mountain Island Lake, and north of Lake Wateree. The oldest of the lakes on the Catawba River, the lake was first created in 1904 by a dam near Fort Mill.  In 1924 the dam was rebuilt, and today the lake’s surface area is approximately 13,500 acres with around 325 miles of shoreline.  Lake Wylie is managed by Duke Energy and supports both hydroelectric and nuclear power generation.  Since North and South Carolina do not have reciprocity a North Carolina fishing license, available atwww.ncwildlife.org, is required to fish in the North Carolina waters of Lake Wylie.  In the North Carolina areas different regulations may apply.

The popular species targeted by Lake Wylie anglers include largemouth bass, crappie, a large population of white perch (including the co-state record holding fish caught by Captain Taylor), bluegill, and of course catfish. Striped bass are not stocked in the lake and are extremely rare, but there are a few.  Probably because of the absence of striper fishermen, there is not a population of blueback herring in Lake Wylie, and the main forage base consists of threadfin and gizzard shad.

Lake Wateree and Lake Wylie catfish guide Captain Rodger Taylor tells me that all three popular species of catfish found in South Carolina can be caught inLakeWylie– channel catfish, flathead catfish and blue catfish.  In any month of the year there is a species of catfish willing to eat on Lake Wylie, and there are some typical seasonal patterns that hold from year to year.

Rodger usually defines full-blown spring on Lake Wylie as beginning around the third week of April, although some years it can begin earlier.  With a mild winter so far this could certainly be one of those years, in contrast to the very cold winters of 2009/10 and 2010/11.  The peak spring period for channel catfish usually lasts through mid- to late May, and the fishing for channel catfish doesn’t significantly slow down until the spawn begins in June.  The predominant pattern is drifting in the creeks in the 6 to 15-20 foot range, and it is typical to employ a trolling motor to get a good drift going.

By early summer Lake Wylie channel catfish can still be found scattered the length of the creeks in the morning, but by afternoon and later in the summer it is usually necessary to move out to offshore humps or rocks in the main lake or not too far off the river channel.  Fish may be within 10 feet of the surface on humps, or as deep as 25 feet.  It is difficult to know which side of the humps or rocks fish will be relating to, but looking near structure is a good bet.

The flathead catfish bite starts in earnest in May, and live or very fresh cut bait is the key.  The majority of Lake Wylie flathead catfishing is done in North Carolina, on the northern, more riverine part of the lake, and much of the serious fishing is done at night.   This can be as much an issue of comfort and avoiding boat traffic as anything, and fish can certainly be caught during the day.  Anglers anchor near current breaks like blow downs, bridge pilings, man-made brush piles or a combination of these types of cover.  Some cover is better than other, and Rodger says that catching territorial flatheads is like hunting for dragons.  You should never go out expecting to catch a dozen flatheads in a night of fishing, but catching a monster flathead is unforgettable.  Flatheads have a distinctive bite, where they mouth the bait, mess around with it, and then put a heavy bend in our rod.  It is worth noting that in May some smaller flatheads are typically caught anchored out in the current.

The flathead catfish pattern remains similar from the summer through mid- to late fall, and the fall usually offers some of the best flathead catfishing of the year.  Captain Taylor says that some people believe that flatheads become semi-dormant in the winter, but Rodger also points out that it’s hard to be sure.  Almost nobody is night fishing on Lake Wylie in December, January and February!  His boat does catch some flatheads drifting in the winter.

Fall is frequently another good time for channel catfish, and Captain Taylor says that this season may again offer some of the best channel catfishing of the year.  Similar to other species on Lake Wylie, channel catfish follow bait schools (especially threadfin shad) into the creeks in early fall.  The location of bait and catfish in the creeks is not constant throughout the season or even over the course of a day, and over the course of the fall fish will move from the front of the creeks to the backs and then out to the main channel again.  Over the course of a day fish may start out in the front third of the creeks and then move towards the backs in the afternoon, depending on factors such as light conditions and water temperature.  The fall creek pattern for channel catfish generally lasts from late September through the first major cold spell in December or even January.

Rodger catches blue catfish all year long, and it is not uncommon to catch blues from the same creeks and flats as channel catfish in the spring or fall.  And summer night-fishing trips for monster flatheads are also likely to yield one or two big blue catfish.  But when the weather starts to get cold Captain Taylor switches gears, and instead of targeting channel or flathead catfish and catching some blue catfish, Rodger switches gears and focuses his attention on the blue catfish.  Channels and occasionally flatheads become the by-catch.  “Winter time is blue cat time,” and since the fish are very active this is the best time of the year to catch big numbers of blue catfish.  8-12 pound fish are the average, but there are plenty of fish much bigger mixed in.

Their generally smaller relatives get the moniker “channel” catfish, but if you remember that Captain Rodger Taylor says that blue catfish should really be named channel catfish you will know much of what you need to know to catch blue catfish in the winter.  It’s all about the river channel!  Blue catfish will be caught in the channel itself or near it throughout the cold season.  This pattern will last from the first very cold snap until early April, when he will probably still be fishing a winter pattern at least some of the time.

Rodger catches fish both anchoring and drifting in the winter, although a slow drift is probably his predominant technique.  Conditions for drifting are usually not as good first thing in the morning, when the wind is likely to be very light or non-existent.  A typical winter pattern may be anchoring up early in the river channel and looking for a trophy, and then drifting later in the day after10:00or11:00when conditions are more favorable.  You can anchor anywhere in the channel that there is a good current, which generally means that more anchor fishing is done further up the lake in the more riverine sections.  However, after strong rains the current can be ripping down the lake, too, and when the current is very strong (and the fishing productive) Rodger’s boat may stay anchored all day.

Like anchor fishing drifting starts with the river channel, and the most typical pattern is to drift in or near the river channel in 30-55 feet of water.  Rodger generally aims for a north/south orientation to his drifts which tracks the river channel, and a lot of drifting is done out in the middle of the channel.  Another productive area can be at “T” intersections where major creeks run into the river channel.  The structure you are looking for is entirely underwater, and so you need to study a good map or graph to locate likely runs.

Targeting areas in or near the river channel leaves a lot of water to explore on a major reservoir like Lake Wylie, and to key in on productive areas Captain Taylor makes extensive use of his sonar.  While a general winter rule is that catfish will be near bait, finding schools of bait is not enough to locate blue catfish.  For example, last winter Rodger found lots of bait in the Crowder’s Creek area, but getting a bite there was tough.  Instead of just searching for bait on his graph, Rodger also looks for the presence of larger arches which identify catfish.  It used to be that blue catfish catches were pretty much confined to the more riverine region of Lake Wylie in North Carolina.  The fish may now be spread out more, more people in South Carolina may now be targeting them, or both, but whatever the reason blue catfish are now caught from one end of Lake Wylie to the other.

In winter a slow drift is necessary, and Rodger tries to keep the boat moving as slow as he can, and preferably around a .5 mile per hour drift.  At warmer times of year he will drift at closer to .7 or .8 miles per hour.  He drifts with four or more rods, and uses a Santee-style drifting rig with a slinky sinker, float and a big circle hook.  Cut bait including perch, shad, and crappie are all good choices for drifting or anchoring, and on the drift a smaller piece of bait is generally used than anchored up.  Another good bait is whole, fresh dead threadfin shad, which we used the day I was lucky enough to get out on his boat on Wylie.  (To read more about Captain Rodger Taylor’s anchoring and drifting technique, tackle, and bait choices visit [link to Wateree article]).

It is worth noting that blue catfish don’t simply follow “typical” catfish patterns in the winter, and they won’t always be found on the bottom.  They are predators and it is not uncommon for them to suspend or ran bait up to the surface, and the presence of feeding birds can mean blue cats are at work.  On a lake without a population of stocked striped bass,Lake Wylie blue (and channel) cats sometimes behave like striper traditionally do.  Last year in early January Captain Taylor found a strong catfish bite 11 feet down over 28 feet of water!

Last year I got out on the water with Rodger on a windy, late winter day, and there were constant 15-20 mile per hour winds as well as gusts over 25 miles per hour.  Instead of his small five foot drift sock we needed the 11 foot drift sock to slow the boat down adequately.  Despite the wind it was bright and sunny and the water temperatures had already started to warm a bit, and the concentrations of fish that had been biting in the channel just a few days before were no longer present and active.  A good captain is always flexible, and so we eventually left the 50 foot range and Rodger guided us over to a deep flat that ran from about 28-32 feet deep.  The water on the flat had warmed and feeding blue catfish had recently moved up, as was apparent from the fact that their bellies were still covered in mud.  We caught several nice blue catfish because of making an adjustment, which underscored a useful lesson – fish where the fish are, not where you want them to be!

It’s been about ten months since I took my late winter trip with Rodger, and there should be a couple of good months of peak winter fishing still ahead of us.  Blue catfish time on Lake Wylie is here, and I highly recommend a trip with Captain Rodger Taylor.  If Lake Wateree is closer to home, he guides extensively there, too.  To schedule a trip visit Rodger’s websitewww.catfishon.com, email him at rodon@comporium.net, private message him at “Catfish ON!” here, or call Rodger at (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 the spots he fishes.  Even though the water temperatures are cold, and sometimes the weather is too, winter blue catfishing onLakeWylie can be red hot! 

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