February may be considered a slow time for many fish species, but that’s not the case for blue catfish at Lake Wateree. Certainly, the air is likely to be cold and the water temperature near its lowest point of the year, especially early in the month, but that doesn’t seem to bother blues, because the action for big fish is as good as any time of the year.
Reports from expert anglers back that up. Action can be fast-paced, but it can also be slower, with a bite here and there on occasion. But in February, the odds that the next bite might be a 40-pound or larger catfish is as good as they get on this lake.
Two anglers who call Lake Wateree one of their favorite catfish lakes are 28-year-old Jason Knight, who lives on the lake, and Clay Henderson, a 35-year-old from Rock Hill. Catfish is the species of choice for both; they enjoy tournament fishing as well as just fun-fishing with a big blue as the target, and both agree that the opportunity to catch a big fish on Wateree in February is special.
Knight and Henderson fish the Catawba Catfishing Club Trail, among others, sometimes fishing together and sometimes on different teams. But when they get together to fish for fun, big blues at Wateree are their favorite targets, and they are disappointed if they don’t land at least one 40-pound fish.
“If you want to catch really big catfish, specifically catfish in the 30- to 50-pound class, February and into March is typically among the best times of the year to catch them,” Knight said. “I’ve lived on and fished Lake Wateree for years and have experimented with every technique, and I’m solidly convinced that the best and most-productive way to hook a huge catfish at this time of year is by anchoring — when conditions are what could be termed normal.
“We caught several catfish in the 30- to 50-pound class in February 2013, all from an anchored boat. Some fishermen will certainly do well by drift-fishing, and we drift more at other times of the year. It is a good technique, and in the right place at the right time, it’s hard to beat, and that can include February. But if I can have my preference with weather and water and get a normal February pattern, that is big-fish time at Wateree, so we drop anchors and hook up.”
Henderson said that drift-fishing may sometimes produce more fish, but he thinks big fish want baits stationary in February.
“I’m convinced that drifting the bait over a big cat doesn’t give the big fish enough time to check out the bait, especially when the water is so cold,” Henderson said. “It’s not that you can’t catch big fish on a drift in February; we do it, and we have a lot of tournament-fishing friends who are successful drift-fishing at this time of year. And if the water conditions are right, it is effective. But overall, for a normal February at Lake Wateree, with typical rainfall making the water dingy, we’ve found the anchor bite to typically produce the best results for really big catfish.”
Henderson said that patience is a real key when fishing for big blues, especially when anchoring and waiting.
“I often mark a lot of fish and forage in a specific area and anchor up,” Henderson said. “But sometimes it’s 30 minutes or considerably longer before I get a bite. When a fish does bite, it’s sometimes like flipping a switch to ‘on,’ because we often catch two or three big fish in rapid succession. I think the big catfish literally check a bait out for a while before biting. But the activity of hooking one may put others in a feeding mode. When that action is over, and I go for a while without another bite, it’s time to move.”
When anchoring, Knight said where he anchors is crucial.
“I certainly like to see forage fish in the area I’m fishing, and that’s pretty much a given,” he said. “But blue catfish are also very structure-oriented in terms of bottom topography. While you can anchor anywhere there is forage and fish marked and probably catch fish, we’ve found that targeting specific structure can be a real key to consistently hooking very big fish.
“Most of my mid-winter fishing centers around the main lake and the Catawba River channel,” Knight said. “I’m not necessarily fishing in the river channel, although that is good at times. Usually, I set up right beside it, along the edge of the channel. This seems to serve as a travel route for the big fish, and that’s where I want to be.
“One good example of a good setup spot is the beginning and end of a bluff. There are places where the river channel will bump against the shoreline, and there is a very steep bluff. These are found from the Wateree Dam from the lower end all the way up the lake. But where the channel bends in and then breaks away from the bluff, there will be a flat adjacent to the channel. This can be a key area.”
Henderson said that fishing near a river-channel ledge is good, especially if a spot has some unique characteristic.
“There are several sceneries that present good opportunities,” Henderson said. “One is a high spot adjacent to the channel — an area that comes up a bit more shallow than the surrounding areas. Another good place is where a creek or ditch intersects the river. Also, a bend or turn in the channel can create a good situation. Look for forage in conjunction with a place like these or anything else you may find, and you have a potentially good place.
“The key is to find something different that both the big catfish and you can identify. Then, it’s worth setting out the anchors and giving the big fish time to take the bait.”
Henderson said several kinds of bait will work well, but he has preferences for big catfish.
“Gizzard shad and white perch are typically the most productive this time of year,” he said. “Other baits will work, and often it’s a personal preference, but we go with the shad and the perch. Since Wateree is loaded with white perch, it’s not difficult to get plenty of bait, and they are a natural food for the blue catfish, especially the big blues.
“Also, we bring plenty of bait and will change the bait frequently,” he said. “Having fresh bait will make a big difference for big fish, probably for any fish, but certainly, we’ve seen it on the big fish. Of all things considered in a trip for big catfish, bait is cheap in a sense, if you’re after huge catfish, so just keep fresh bait on the rigs. That means you need to keep your bait stored in a cooler and protected (so) it remains as fresh as possible until you’re ready to use it.”
Knight said adaptability is another key to February success on Wateree.
“I’m fishing mostly main-lake structure, including channel ledges, humps, points and bends in the river,” he said. “But the places we’ll find fish may change each time we go in terms of lower-, mid- or upper-lake areas. Under normal conditions, the mid- to lower portion is usually very good in February. I may be fishing from 20 to 40 feet deep on one trip, but perhaps somewhat shallower the next, depending on weather conditions.
“During February, conditions are usually changing because of active weather patterns such as frontal passages and getting rain, wind and even sleet or ice. So change is the norm in February, and we accept that and adjust accordingly. When it’s rainy, we’ll often have dingy water up-lake or throughout the lake. Also, the water may be rising or falling, and sometimes we get warm rains and the water temperature makes a quick jump late in the month. That can really turn fish on. The key is that the fishing patterns will change, and I’ll adapt to where I fish each time I go.”
When they decide to fish a spot, Knight and Henderson go to great lengths to ensure the boat is solidly anchored and won’t move.
“If the boat moves or drifts when anchor fishing, it gets all the baits out of position,” Henderson said, “Then, if you hook a fish, you’re in for a tangled mess and (will) likely lose the fish. It may seem like a lot of trouble to some, but we have big anchors on the front and back of the boat, the type that dig into the bottom and are weighed with chains. We’ll drop the back anchor, for instance, and motor forward slowly until we have a lot of line out. Then, we’ll drop the front anchor and pull back on the other anchor rope and get both very tight and firmly locked into the bottom. Only then do we tie them off. When we do this, the boat will say where we anchor it until we’re ready to leave.”
Knight said it’s also a key to understand that big fish may be holding all over the structure you’re fishing.
“Catfish move around on any given structure, so we’ll cast a bunch of rigs out all around the boat to cover as many depths of water as possible,” he said. “I may suspect the fish will be in 30 feet of water on the ledge of the drop, for example, but until I confirm it with some hooked fish, I’ll cast toward the shallows on the flat, up and down the channel in front and behind the boat in different depths and into the deepest water I can reach — as well as my prime target area. I’ll let the fish tell me where to focus my efforts.”
Knight and Henderson use a variety or rigs, but typical would be 7-foot, medium-heavy Shakespeare Ugly Stick Catfish and Tiger Rods mated with baitcasting reels, mostly ABU. The reels are spooled with 40-pound test main line and 50- to 60-pound fluorocarbon leaders with 7/0 and 8/0 Gamakatsu hooks.
“In addition, we will often use a float on the leader, as you would when drift-fishing, but just cast it out and let it work,” Knight said. “We’ll have some rigs with floats and some without floats, because some days the big fish seem to have a preference. When we figure out what’s working best, we do them all the same way.
“Another thing about the use of a float is that if we are fishing deep, the bait will get muddied up when sitting on a soft bottom, and we’ll have to change bait more often. So the float helps in that sense as well, but it also places the bait about eyeball level — just off the bottom — for a big fish. We’ll use two to three ounces of weight, depending on depth, current and how aggressive the fish are biting.”
HOW TO GET THERE — Lake Wateree is divided between Kershaw, Fairfield and Lancaster counties and can be accessed from many directions. From Camden, take SC 97 up the east side of the lake, where access points are numerous. From Lugoff, take Longtown Road, turn right on SSR 151 and right on River Road to Colonels Creek Landing. Lake a left on River Road to several other landings, including Lake Wateree State Park. Access from the north and west is easy via I-77. At Exit 41, go east on SSR 41 to the junction with River Road. From Camden the other side of the lake is accessible by taking US 521 north to SSR 97, which will lead to Clearwater and Beaver Creek landings.
WHEN TO GO — February is big-fish time for blue catfish on Wateree. The big-fish bite can occur early, late or mid-day or all of the above. Fish as long as you can — as if you were hunting for a trophy deer; the longer you stay, the better your odds.
BEST TECHNIQUES — Anchor your boat and fish specific target areas near the main channel. Some anglers will catch fish drifting large flats, as long as they have plenty of shad scattered over them. Big baits — cut gizzard shad and white perch — are best for big fish.
ACCOMMODATIONS — Kershaw County Chamber of Commerce located, Camden, 800-968-4037; Quality Inn, US 1S, Lugoff, 803-438-9441; Travel Inn, US 1S, Lugoff, 803-438-4961. Camping is available at Lake Wateree State Park, 803-482-6401.
GUIDES/FISHING INFO — Rodger Taylor, Catfish On! Guide Service, 803-328-9587; Colonels Creek Market, 803-337-2100; Lake Wateree State Park, 803-482-6401. See also Guides and Charters in Classifieds.
MAPS — Duke Energy, www.duke-energy.com/lakes/facts-and-maps/lake-wateree.asp; Navionics Electronic Charts, www.navionics.com; Delorme’s South Carolina Atlas & Gazetteer, 800-561-5105, www.delorme.com; Kingfisher Maps, 800-326-0257, www.kfmaps.com.