The Pee Dee River stretches from the Uwharrie Mountains of North Carolina to the South Carolina coast. Along much of its route through North Carolina, the river system is dammed for hydroelectric power, however, after the flow exits Blewett Falls Reservoir northwest of Rockingham, N.C., the river maintains much of the character it had in the days when the Pee Dee tribe relied on it for its livelihood. 

Today, the river is highly regarded in both Carolinas for its natural beauty and scenery. For one North Carolina kayak angler in particular, it’s also a spectacular place to catch trophy sized catfish.

Mike Curtis of Rockingham and his family discovered the fun of paddling and catching catfish from the river several years ago. Unlike most diehard kayak anglers, the Curtis family forgoes all of the gear and tackle normally associated with kayak fishing, especially catfishing, and opts for a more simple approach.

Meat market bait

This fact is best illustrated by their bait choices, which are more readily found in a grocery store than the local bait shop.

“My favorite bait for catfishing in the river is fresh, raw chicken breast,” Curtis said. “We cut it into racquetball-sized chunks and let it float in the current.”

The Curtis family fishes from a fleet of varied cockpit-style touring kayaks, without the myriad of rod holders normally associated with catfishing. One paddler, one rod is the favored approach. Curtis explains how the family catfishing pattern came into existence.

“For the most part, we just float the river and cast the bait either out front or to the side,” he said. “I rig the baits on an 8/0 circle hook and float it under a large slip cork. I just let the current carry the bait in front of me, and we cover water. Every so often, I’ll cast along the bank, just like I was bream fishing with bait under a cork.”

Unlike bream fishing, Curtis’s standard gear is a Shakespeare Catfish Ugly Stik and a Penn 4500 reel spooled with 55-pound braided line.

Curtis said the fishing is either float down and paddle back or, if there are two cars available for a longer float, the family will park one downstream at the take-out and float a stretch.

“I’m sure the catfishing is just as good across the line into South Carolina, but from the Pee Dee ramp you have plenty of river to fish in North Carolina. It’s 3 miles to (US) 74 and then from (US) 74 to Diggs Landing is another 6-mile stretch, and then another 5½ to 6 miles to the state line.”

Shallow cats

Curtis views float fishing for catfish similar to noodling. The catfish get extremely shallow in the river, especially right before dark, when they may be in only 2 to 3 feet of water. It’s for this reason he sets the slip float very shallow when he’s casting into likely looking spots.

“When they take the bait, it’s not a nibble,” he said. “When my daughter hooked her first catfish, she laid the rod down in her lap to paddle, and the fish hit so quick and so hard it yanked the rod right out of the boat.”

Tailing monster

Curtis said the biggest catfish he’s caught from the Pee Dee River was a 65-pound blue he caught while floating the river with his daughters. They were paddling 2 or 3 miles downstream from the US 74 bridge when they came upon some old Indian weirs, a series of stacked rocks designed to funnel fish into choke points. 

They saw catfish tailing in the shallows, digging mussels from around the rocks — like redfish tailing on coastal flats. The girls urged him to try and catch one.

“All I had was a bass rod and an ultralight outfit, so I caught a hand-sized bream on the ultralight and hooked it on the bass rod,” he said. “I opened the gap on the bass hook a little and started casting the bream toward the bank.”

On his third cast, dropping the bait upstream and letting it float down, Curtis saw a huge splash where the bream had drifted just before the line started peeling off upstream.

“One of my daughters captured the whole thing on video on her iPhone,” said Curtis. “I believe that’s the fish that got me hooked on floating the Pee Dee River.”