“It might rain on us, we might get wet, but we’re going fishing and see what happens,” said Kevin Davis of Black’s Camp in Santee Cooper Country. The weatherman warned against it, but we all took Davis’ suggestion and went anyway. The weatherman was wrong. The overcast day was perfect for fishing, and along with a cooler full of eating-sized catfish, we caught the fish-of-a-lifetime – a 76-pound blue catfish with Capt. Gene Crawford, as well as a cooler full of eating-size cats.
After a number of warm-up fish that ranged from 5- to 25-pounds in 45- to 50-feet of water, we hooked a couple of small fish. Crawford checked his Lowrance electronics and immediately saw the problem. “We’ve drifted into 39-feet of water. The better fish are in the deeper water. Now we can stay here all day and catch a hundred of these smaller fish, or we can get back into the deeper water and try for some bigger ones,” he said.
Between Jeff Burleson, Stacy Atkinson, and me, we didn’t hesitate. “Let’s get back in the deeper water,” we all said. Crawford motored us back to his preferred spot, tossed out two drift socks, and set his Mercury outboard just above idling speed in reverse. “The wind has quit, so we’ll use the outboard to help us back-drift. The drift socks will help slow us,” said Crawford (843-209-3086), who likes to clip along at about 1/2-mile-an-hour when fishing this way.
After casting out six rods with cut bait on each one, Crawford put the rods in Driftmaster rod holders, and within a few minutes, the big fish hit. Crawford uses Gamakatsu octopus circle hooks and had instructed us not to set the hook. “Just leave the rod in the rod holder and let the circle hook do its job. Once a catfish gets a taste of that bait, he can’t help himself. He’s got to eat it,” he said.
We watched the rod double over – and stay doubled over. Atkinson, who had a camera in one hand, picked up the rod and handed it to me. I began reeling, and felt like the fish was a bigger one than those we’d caught earlier, but even the small catfish can fool you sometimes, so I wasn’t sure. Of course, that was before the catfish realized he was hooked, because a few minutes later, we all knew this fish was something special.
With the butt of the 8 1/2-foot Ugly Stik buried in my gut, I followed Crawford’s coaching, reeling when I could, letting the catfish take line when it wanted, and simply holding the rod up when there was no give-or-take. “He will wear himself out. Just keep doing what you’re doing. Keep the rod up, reel when you can, let him run when he wants to,” said Crawford, who believes this is when a lot of anglers make the mistake of trying to force the fish in while it has too much energy.
After about a 15-minute fight, we got our first glimpse of the fish. A few minutes later, Crawford got the net under it, but the fish didn’t cooperate at first. Another few minutes later, Crawford was able to get the fish completely into his net, and with both his hands, one of Burleson’s, and one of mine, we hoisted the fish onboard Crawford’s pontoon boat. What a beast! Catching a fish like this definitely takes a team effort. We all high-fived and celebrated a minute, then Crawford switched gears.
“Let’s get this fish back to and in the bait tank. If we go now, we can keep him alive,” Crawford said. We covered the fish with a damp drift sock, and as rain drizzled down during the ride back, the catfish stayed good and wet.
Once we got the fish in the bait tank at Black’s Camp, it took just a minute or two for the catfish to begin swimming upright, and just a few minutes after that, it was swimming normally. Once it appears healthy enough, Davis will release it back into the lake, ready to give other anglers a shot at their fish-of-a-lifetime.