Lake Wylie, which straddles the border between North Carolina and South Carolina, has developed into one of the premier catfishing reservoirs for both states. Based on research from the N.C. Wildlife Resources Commission this already highly productive lake is still in the “boom” stage.

Biologist David Goodfred of the Commission said Lake Wylie has developed into a sensational catfishing resource.

“The catfishing at Lake Wylie is outstanding and the blue catfish population in particular is expanding, with their numbers and sizes increasing,” Goodfred said. “All fisheries stabilize at some point, but for Lake Wylie I’m not sure when that will be. But for now, it’s just getting better and better.” 

Veteran catfish anglers who call Lake Wylie home already know it’s an elite destination. When targeting big catfish, Wylie is a winter wonderland.

Dieter Melhorn and Jeff Manning have watched this lake blossom from an excellent channel catfish lake to a trophy fishery for blue and flathead catfish.

Melhorn, 47, who hails from Cramerton, N.C., was one of the first fishermen to catch a 50-pound catfish from Lake Wylie years ago. That fish brought plenty of attention to the lake, attention that’s grown exponentially. Manning, 48, from Gastonia, N.C., holds the unofficial lake record of 82 pounds with a huge blue catfish he caught last January. Their experience on Wylie makes them ideal sources of information for anglers hoping to hit a home run with a trophy catfish this winter. 

Their preferred technique differs, but both quickly adapt to whatever is working. Melhorn favors drift-fishing tactics for much of the year, and Manning is a staunch advocate of anchoring down for big cats. A key to their success is that both are a mere heartbeat away from changing to whatever works on any given day when hunting big catfish.

Manning has an incredible record for winning and placing near the top in Catawba Catfish Club and other catfish tournaments. A construction contractor, he devotes a lot of time to searching for big fish and said January is a favorite time to catch big fish from Wylie.

“January is great for big fish, yet decent for numbers of catfish,” he said. “Huge catfish at Lake Wylie are an overlooked resource. Another exciting factor is the explosion of catfish by size and number throughout the lake. Great fishing exists in both North Carolina and South Carolina waters in January. I often launch at Buster Boyd Bridge, and it’s a tough choice whether to turn left or right when heading out. 

“A few years ago, going left toward North Carolina waters was an easy choice. That direction led toward more current and the warm-water discharge around the Allen Steam Plant. Now the catfish population has exploded, and both directions lead to huge wintertime catfish.”

Manning said water conditions and recent productivity are keys to his decision. He prefers plenty of current if he heads uplake or if he’s been catching fish uplake on recent trips, that direction gets the nod. When current flow is less or he hasn’t fished for several days, he’ll often go south toward deeper water to begin the day.

“Truth is, either direction will produce under most weather and water conditions,” he said. “With lots of fishing experience on Lake Wylie, I’ve found productive spots in both states under most conditions. The fundamental strategy is to target specific places for wintertime catfish, not expansive areas.”

Both anglers begin the search for winter catfish looking for forage.

“Big catfish are going to eat, and that’s true during the winter, especially for big blue catfish,” Melhorn said. “I rely on my graph, but I am always watching for seagulls. If I see them bunched in an area, you can bet shad are present and also white perch. Big catfish feed on both the shad and perch. Gulls will get me in the right area, and then I fine tune the exact place to fish using electronics.”

Manning said wintertime fishing and forage are as tight as a hand in a glove.

“During much of the year, the forage will be scattered throughout the lake; maybe 100 percent of the forage will be scattered over 80 percent of the lake,” Manning said. “During winter, I think 80 percent of the forage may be packed into 10 percent of the lake. That 10 percent is the crucial area to fish.”

Melhorn said those specific places are often not very large, and wintertime catfish locations can be quite specific.

“Big catfish get very picky where they hang out during January,” Melhorn said. “I rely on my graph to mark individual fish because I’m looking for big fish, and they may hold in relatively small target areas in January. When drift-fishing during January, I often target small, specific areas.”

Melhorn said when warmer weather or a bit of warm rain hits, the catfish will get spread out a little more, move shallower and become more aggressive. 

“Drift-fishing enables me to cover more water, and on these days, I’ll catch more fish and have a good chance of presenting the bait to a big fish,” he said. “I slow the drift rate down, keeping it at .5 mph or less. A ledge with a series of humps and deeper holes provides an ideal setup for longer drifts, but it’s not a random drift.  I target specific places where I’ve marked forage and catfish on the graph.

Melhorn will focus on specific spots, even if he must routinely pull his baits and re-drift an area. 

“If I’m catching fish in a small area — but one I think is too large to effectively fish from an anchored positon — I’ll gladly do the extra work,” he said. “I like to be busy either catching fish or trying to catch fish.” 

Manning said it’s difficult to beat drift-fishing on warm, cloudy days, even if he prefers anchoring.

“I may drift in that situation during winter if I’ve had success doing that recently,” he said. “But for me, my basic strategy is anchoring and looking for a few bites from really big fish. 

“Anchoring can still be very productive even if fish are shallower during January,” he said. “I’ll find the big concentrations of shad and see perch as well (on his depth finder). The addition of big catfish arches means it’s a great opportunity to catch those fish. But unlike on most January days, I will give the fish in shallower water less time to bite unless I’m catching good fish.”

Manning said his bread-and-butter pattern is to fish the cold, dreary, frigid days and give a spot up to 90 minutes depending on how much he likes what he sees on the graph.

“I will often fish deep water during January, 50-foot water and deeper on some days,” Manning said. “I mark the forage and fish, and my ideal setup is to find a high spot — such as a hump — a point or ledge with a steep drop into deep water on two or three sides. I’ll gauge the wind and current and spend what may seem an inordinate amount of time getting anchored in precisely the place to effectively fish multiple targets from one position. If I see plenty of big fish, stacked right against the bottom of the steep drop with an abundance of forage, I’ll set up camp.”

Manning said success for catching big catfish at Lake Wylie can be as simple as locating a promising site, proper positioning and being patient enough to let good things happen.

“My philosophy on big catfish is that I must be willing to fish all day for very few or even no bites,” he said. “I am willing to fail if necessary, but I believe the reward can be a state-record catfish.” 

Exactly where to fish is a day-to-day decision; Melhorn has specific criteria he relies on during the winter.

“I look for something different on the bottom, in conjunction with the forage,” Melhorn said. “Even when fishing up the lake in a river setting I look for something different. I prefer to fish an area with a defined depth change such as a channel ledge or underwater stream junctions. Even a small depression or hole that is just a little deeper that the surrounding area can be a prime target in the upper sector of the lake. Current flow and eddies or underwater high spots or holes will create current changes. Seek these specific targets when fishing the upper part of the lake during winter.”

Manning said being site specific is necessary on the deep end of the lake.

“I’ve found scads of humps, ledges, points, holes and channel junctions where big catfish congregate,” he said. “I spend a good bit of time using my graph to check potential fish patterns. I am a structure fisherman, and that entails looking for both cover and topographic bottom-contour changes. I’ll look for stumps, logs and other wood or rock features on a target. 

“That’s another reason I feel a good anchor setup is crucial,”he said. “I literally plan to cast some of my rigs to specific stumps or logs that have big fish marked beside them. I also want to have baits right at the base of the drop, right where it bottoms out. That’s where the forage, even in deep water in the lower end of the lake, will be funneled, and the biggest catfish will be waiting. “

Melhorn and Manning agree that the primary winter targets are big blue catfish, but big flatheads are also caught, along with some good channel catfish. Melhorn said targeting specific species is a function of the bait used in many cases.

“”Warmer weather is certainly the best time to target a big flathead, but big flatheads are caught during January,” Melhorn said. “Most flatheads prefer live bait, so I’ll use that on a rig or two. If I’m not targeting just big fish, I may have a couple rigs with smaller baits for smaller fish, typically channel catfish and smaller blues. For big blues, I like big baits.”

Manning said just to cover all the bases, he’ll use smaller baits, but he’s convinced big baits consistently produce bigger catfish.

“I have caught big catfish on small strips of perch or shad,” he said, “but I don’t believe that if a big blue or flathead catfish swims by my live, 8-inch white perch, it thinks ‘Nah, I’m gonna eat light today.’ Big catfish doesn’t have human thought processes; they simply find forage, eat it and during spawning time, they make more catfish. That’s their story.”

Manning said the odds of catching a big flathead improve if he’s anchored and uses a big, live bait close to woody cover on a steep drop.

Manning and Melhorn use similar rigs for drifting or anchor fishing. They prefer 7-foot rods and baitcasting reels loaded with 20-pound Ande line, with a 50-pound test monofilament leader. They prefer 8/0 Gamakatsu hooks and a 3-ounce cylindrical sinker for anchor fishing. When drifting, they’ll rig a 2 ½-inch float about 18 inches above the hook. 

North Carolina and South Carolina don’t have a reciprocal license agreement on Wylie, and Melhorn said you’ll need licences from both states to consistently catch catfish.

“Weather, water conditions and even angler preferences will determine where you catch fish,” he said. “Be prepared to fish up the rivers, or all the way to the dam and everywhere in between. 

DESTINATION INFORMATION

HOW TO GET THERE — Lake Wylie is southwest of Charlotte and north of Rock Hill on the Catawba River; with plenty of water in both states. The pubic boat landing at Buster Boyd Bridge where NC 49 crosses the lake at mid-lake offers access to both ends of the lake. For a complete list of public ramps, visit http://www.lakewyliemarinecommission.com/boating-public-access.htm.

WHEN TO GO — January is a prime month for catching both big catfish and big numbers at Lake Wylie, especially blue cats.

BEST TECHNIQUES — Drift or anchor down with 7-foot rods and matching reels spooled with 20-pound mono, with 50-pound leaders, 8/0 circle hooks, and 3-ounce cylindrical weights. Live bait produces more flathead catfish; cut perch and shad are killer baits for blues; the bigger, the better.

FISHING INFO/GUIDES — Jerry Neeley, Jerry’s Fishing Guide Service, 704-678-1043, www.carolinasfishing.com; Rodger Taylor, Catfish On! Guide Service, 803-328-9587. See also Guides and Charters in Classifieds.

ACCOMMODATIONS — Lake Wylie Chamber of Commerce, http://discoversouthcarolina.com/products/5185.

MAPS — Duke Energy, https://www.duke-energy.com/pdfs/wylie.pdf; Kingfisher Maps, www.kfmaps.com; Fishing Hot Spots, www.fishinghotspots.com.