A perfect sidearm cast sent a Chatterbait toward the tree-lined bank, and just before the lure snagged in the low-hanging branches, it hit the surface, then skipped several times like a stone, before sinking close to the bank. As soon as he had engaged the reel, but before he actually started reeling, Drew Gregory set the hook. His rod bowed and he began reeling, fast. In a few seconds, a disturbance on the surface sent water splashing onto Gregory’s face as the largemouth bass made a run, letting him know this fight wasn’t over.
With a nervous smile, Gregory reeled when he could, let line go when he should and landed the bass after a short but spirited battle. Gregory lipped the 4-pound fish, held it high and let out a victory yell. It was a typical June scene on the Catawba River for Gregory, who has caught literally thousands of bass from the river.
Gregory is a professional kayak angler from Charlotte, N.C., so the Catawba River suits him perfectly. The South Carolina section of the river starts at the base of Lake Wylie Dam and flows downstream to Lake Wateree, and the nature of this section keeps the fishing pressure low and the bass activity high.
“The bass-fishing reputation of the Catawba is good, and it seems to be relatively unpressured due to difficult access and the fact that most people are fishing in the many lakes the river creates,” Gregory said.
That’s a plus for Gregory and any other angler willing to put a small boat into one of the few landings on the Catawba.
“The uppermost landing is right at the base of the dam, and the fishing starts immediately,” said Gregory, who fishes from a Jackson Coosa, a kayak he designed specifically for fishing rivers like the Catawba.
Gregory said the river has everything a bass angler could want, and that it’s tough to find any place in it that doesn’t look like a good place to cast.
“Big rocks, rolling water around the rocks, eddies, downed wood along the banks, deep holes…. At any point in this river, you could stand up and cast 360 degrees around you, and you’re likely to get hooked up,” he said.
Baitcasting gear is Gregory’s weapon of choice, and he uses a variety of artificial baits. Chatterbaits, jerkbaits, spinnerbaits and topwater plugs like the Zara Spook are all part of his arsenal in June. He likes to stick with rods in the 6-foot-6 to 7-foot range, and he likes to keep at least three rods at the ready with different lures already tied on. If a bass short-strikes a lure, he will often pick up one of the other rods, make a cast to the same spot and get hit again.
“They’ll almost never hit if I throw the same lure they just missed, but having something different to cast right away is often all it takes to get that fish hooked,” he said.
It is good, said Gregory, to learn how to skip certain lures because of the overhanging limbs that line the river’s banks. Anglers who cast just to the edge of the limbs are missing out on some of the best fishing in the river.
“These bass hang out under those limbs, and they get enough to eat under there that they don’t need to come out. You have to get the lure to them, and sometimes skipping is the only way to do it,” he said.
While Gregory said fishing on the Catawba is good year-round, one thing that makes June special is that the water levels are fairly stable. When a big rain does come along, and the river swells out of its banks, he said that just opens up another dimension to fishing that no angler should overlook. It’s a lesson Gregory learned while fishing a tournament last June.
During that competition, a snagged lure forced him to paddle under the tree branches, and he was surprised to see the water flooded way up the bank and forming a small slack-water creek. One cast was all it took to land a 5-pounder, and he used the same technique later that day on a different stretch of the river to land another 5-pounder, as well as one that pushed the 7-pound mark, propelling him to a first-place finish in the tournament.
When the water is at a normal level, shoals are more prominent throughout the river, and these are always good spots to target. While it may seem unconventional to anglers who don’t fish rivers regularly, Gregory won’t hesitate to throw a buzzbait or a topwater plug and retrieve it across the current in these shoals. It will get swept downcurrent some, but with a fast retrieve, it will create a disturbance that is obvious to any nearby bass. This often results in some of his biggest bites on the Catawba.
Up and down the river, after a long stretch of rocky shoals, deep holes with calmer water are often present. These are perfect places for Gregory to cast his Chatterbait or a spinnerbait. He lets the lure get down deep, then works it with a slow retrieve. Anglers who keep these lures tight to the rocks, banging into them throughout their retrieve, draw more attention to the lures and get more bites than those who avoid such contact.
With the limited access, anglers will have an easier time fishing the river if they use two vehicles. Leaving one at either Landsford Canal State Park, Riverwalk Launch, or the River Park Launch, anglers then launch at the base of the Lake Wylie Dam, then float and fish until they reach their takeout point. Small john boats with trolling motors will work, but outboard motors won’t fare so well with all the rocks and shallow areas. Most anglers use kayaks or canoes, and Gregory said they are the easiest craft to fish from on the river.
Gregory starts fishing at the base of the dam, trying to cast as close as he can to the big structure, then he hits all the shoals, deep pockets and tree-lined banks he can on his float. He said the clear water makes it easy for anglers to see what is under them, and it’s important for them to see it. In some areas, huge boulders show just underneath the surface, with open water in between. These boulders are important to pay attention to, as bass will hang out around them waiting to ambush prey. Don’t hesitate to run your lure right into them, said Gregory.
One of the reasons Gregory likes fishing the Catawba is because of how quickly the habitat changes. One day, he’s catching fish in familiar spots, but just as quickly as rain falls or Duke Energy releases water from the dam — or holds back more water than usual — the river level rises or drops, changing its look, the mood of the fish and the areas they will hang out in. This same detail discourages some anglers, especially when the water drops low enough that they have to pull their boat through some riffles that are normally flooded.
Gregory said all those conditions are what keeps the bass in this river, and what keeps him coming back.
“The conditions that force anglers to do this sort of work are the same conditions that make the fishing so good here, so it’s always worth it,” he said.
HOW TO GET THERE — The Catawba River ‘s headwaters are in North Carolina’s mountains west of Old Fort, but the first section available to fish below the South Carolina border is downstream of Lake Wylie Dam near Clover. A handful of launch sites are available along the river downstream to the SC 9 bridge. I-77 is the key to reaching most of them. To reach the Fort Mill Launch, take exit 83 off I-77, go north on SC 49 to New Gray Rock Road, take a left, then another left at the sign for the access. To reach the Riverwalk launch, take exit 82 off I-77, take US 21 north, left onto Dinkins Ferry Road into Terrace Park. To River Park, take exit 79 off I-77, and SR 122 east to SR 50 into Quality Circle. To Landsford Canal Launch, from US 21, take SR 327 east, turn left onto SR 590 into Landsford Canal State Park.
TECHNIQUES — Fish areas around shoals, deep pockets, eddies and shorelines. Don’t overlook the shorelines, especially in areas with downed trees. Baitcasting gear spooled with monofilament or fluorocarbon is best-suited for the river. Crankbaits, jerkbaits, spinnerbaits, Chatterbaits, topwaters and soft-plastic jerkbaits are the lure tickets.
FISHING INFO/GUIDES — Hunt-Fish-Paddle, Lake Wylie, SC. 803-831-0251, www.huntfishpadde.com; Nichols Store, Rock Hill, 803-328-9792, www.nicholsstore.com; Catawba Tackle & Marine, Rock Hill, 803-366-7998; Cabela’s, Fort Mill, 980-337-2600. See also Guides and Charters in Classifieds.
ACCOMMODATIONS — Courtyard Rock Hill. 803-324-1400; Quality Inn & Suites. Rock Hill. 803-329-3121; Ramada. Rock Hill. 803-329-1122; Holiday Inn, Rock Hill. 803-323-1900; Hampton Inn, Rock Hill 803-325-1100.
MAPS — iCatawba Riverkeeper Foundation, 704-679-9494, www.catawbariverkeeper.org; DeLorme’s South Carolina Atlas and Gazetteer, 800-561-5105, www.delorme.com; South Carolina State Trails Program, 803-734-0173, www.sctrails.net.