Lance Larsen considers himself a "big-game" fisherman, which is why a particular summer night in 2001 remains forever etched in his growing bank of fondest catfishing memories.
In the span of a mere two hours, Larsen boated five flathead catfish totaling 120 pounds. Included in the mix were a 43-pounder and another weighing 37 pounds. It was one of those nights when it would've been nice to have a partner along to join in the fun - and the work.
"I was by myself, and I was exhausted by the time it was all over," Larsen said. "Of course, that's the kind of exhaustion you wish you could have all the time."
Larsen's big night began within an hour of sunset, which sparked an intense period of reeling and wrestling.
"By 10:30 my livewell wouldn't hold anything more - and I have a big live well," Larsen said.
Sounds like a pretty good evening of fishing at that legendary big cat capital known as Santee Cooper, right?
Nope. Try Lake Hartwell.
"I'm a trophy hunter," Larsen said. "I love to go to Santee Cooper, too, but I live right here - 3 miles from the Hartwell Dam. So why would I waste my time going anywhere else?"
And his boat's big live well isn't by mistake. Larsen is a big-fish aficionado - an expert in enormity, if you will - who pursues giant catfish (and occasionally super-sized striped bass) with fervor.
When he doesn't feel like traveling, Hartwell often satisfies his appetite for big catfish, although the sprawling Upstate reservoir in Anderson and Pickens counties isn't particularly noted for such. Larsen contends that's because Hartwell has long been a haunt for striped and hybrid bass lovers and tournament-following largemouth bass anglers.
Larsen likes it that way.
"There's no pressure (at Hartwell)," Larsen said. "There are only a handful of people who really do it. You'll see them fishing and working in the same spots at certain times of the year. They're always up in the creeks as the creeks start to warm up. They know that's what causes the shad to pour in there, and the cats to go up in there and just gorge."
Dan Rankin, a Clemson-based fisheries biologist for the South Carolina Department of Natural Resources, agrees with Larsen that Hartwell is a largely overlooked catfishing haven.
"The ones who do it catch some big fish," Rankin said. "I've heard of flatheads in the 40- and 50-pound range, and have actually seen some 20- and 30-pound fish during our electrofishing surveys. The folks who are after flatheads like that will fish with the size bream that I'd want to put in the frying pan."
This much is certain - the catfish at Hartwell don't lack for forage. There are ample supplies of blueback herring, threadfin shad and gizzard shad in the lake, and there's also a newcomer on the block - the hickory shad.
Hickory shad are now known to be reproducing in the reservoir, Rankin said, and their presence has both positive and negative possibilities.
"They've been introduced into the lake - not by us - and they're doing well," Rankin said. "They're providing some forage, but they get so large (up to 18 inches) that they're going to be out of the feeding range of some sport fish."
Notice he said some sport fish. Flatheads are no doubt relishing the newfound feasting opportunity, particularly since they have an affinity for inhaling live fishes rather than cut bait and chicken livers.
While flatheads are the gargantuans of the deep at Hartwell, channel cats are simply the everyday monsters. Particularly abundant up the reservoir's Seneca River arm - with the "Y Beach" and surrounding areas near Clemson being proven and productive hot spots - channel cats up to 20-plus pounds aren't uncommon.
"Channel cats are the most abundant species (of catfish) in Hartwell," Rankin said. "When you go up the Tugaloo arm of the lake, I'd say most anglers will catch more white catfish than anything. The big flatheads also tend to be caught up the Seneca River, especially from Twelve-Mile Creek and on up."
Larsen's personal best channel cat is a 15-pound fish, but then again he's typically targeting the monster over-sized flatheads.
Although Larsen considers fall the easiest time to catch flatheads at a large impoundment, he admits that he's caught them effectively throughout the year.
"I know quite a few people who have caught them in fairly deep water while striper fishing," Larsen said. "That usually seems to happen in the old creek and river runs rather than in the main part of the lake."
Larsen said he became inspired to delve into catfishing nearly 15 years ago, when George Lijewski hauled a 109-pound, 4-ounce blue catfish from the depths of Santee Cooper. That catch, which stood as a world record for several years, lit a fire in Larsen he still hasn't quenched.
Blue catfish, which boast the greatest growth potential, aren't as common at Hartwell as they are at Santee Cooper. In fact, Rankin said blue catfish seldom turn up during fish samplings at Hartwell, but Larsen is convinced that they're cruising around and growing to giant proportions in the reservoir.
"The old stories you hear - about divers seeing catfish the size of Volkswagens - those are blue cats that they're talking about," Larsen said. "I know that there have been 60-plus pound blues taken out of Hartwell."
In fact, Larsen is convinced that because blues remain more active and follow baitfish into deeper water during the cooler months, many striped bass anglers are marking catfish - not stripers - on their depth finders. And live and cut herring, the baits of choice for striped bass, prove just as delectable for catfish.
"I've caught some blues on live herring, but they don't seem to care if it's live or cut," Larsen said. "Sometimes it's just hard to beat a good 'ol piece of cut herring or cut shad.
"Flatheads, on the other hand, prefer live bait. Flatheads use vibration as much as they use smell. The blue relies more on their sense of smell. And channel cats are the ones that go for the really nasty stuff - all the rotten, stinky baits you hear about."
Larsen has caught three Hartwell flatheads that tipped the scale at more than 40 pounds, but he'll never forget the 15-pound channel cat he hooked during a striper tournament.
"He hit and ran the line off real fast like a striper," Larsen said. "It was a wonderful fight."
Larsen says that once channel cats grow large they begin to closely resemble the blue cat.
"Once they get so big, you've almost got to count the rays in the anal fin to tell them apart," Larsen said. "Smaller channel cats will have spots on them a lot of times and that sharper, pointy tail. But once they get big, their mouths seem to widen more like the blue and they come to resemble them in other ways."
Larsen has taken it as a personal challenge to figure out which fish are where and when, what draws them to those locations, and the best ways to get them to bite.
"On Hartwell I've got the flatheads figured out a bit better," Larsen said. "In summer I expect fish to be in the mouths of deeper creeks. The blues don't like warmer water, but they do like to feed, so they'll be wherever the shad and herring are."
That would mean that deep-water points and other underwater structures would be viable options.
"Blue cat fishing that time of year could be a lot like striper fishing - you might fish more on the bottom," Larsen said.
Channel cats may be found just about anywhere.
"I've caught them up in shallow creeks, although they like to have some 20-foot (deep) water they can get into quickly," Larsen said. "I've also caught them in 60 feet of water while down-lining for stripers at night. It's a bonus to me."
Larsen does make his regular annual pilgrimage to Santee Cooper - where in 2004 he caught and released a 95-pound blue catfish - but the bulk of his fishing fun has come at Hartwell. When hitting his "home" water, he adjusts his tactics and tackle accordingly.
"I go a little lighter with the lines at Hartwell than what I use at Santee because you don't have the current at Hartwell," Larsen said. "I'll use 30-pound test line, and occasionally 40-pound, at Santee, but at Hartwell I'll go with 20-pound test a lot. And if I'm fishing for channel cats, I won't use line that heavy."
Fishing for flatheads is definitely better at night, according to Larsen, with his favored fishing hours being from sunset to midnight.
"Channels can be caught any time, although they're probably a bit better at night, and with blues it doesn't seem to matter," Larsen said.
At Hartwell, Larsen is particularly fond of working the lake's numerous feeder creeks. His typical approach involves anchoring up on the edge of an old river channel and scattering his lines from 5 feet of water out to the middle of the channel, which is usually 25- to 35-feet deep.
"I like to cover a large portion of the creek channel," Larsen said.
He's caught big cats both shallow and deep, so he's not about to pass up an opportunity. Which may explain why he's so quick to hit the Hartwell waters at the drop of a hat.
"When I go to Santee, I'm expecting a monster," Larsen said. "At Hartwell it's a bonus because I'm not always expecting it when I catch a big one. But they're there. It's just a matter of going after 'em.
"The few people who do it know they're there, and are pretty secretive because they want to keep it to themselves."
Larsen said he's never met a cat he didn't like, although he admits getting into a pocket of water loaded with smaller channel fish can be frustrating at times.
"Sometimes it gets aggravating when 2-pound channel cats won't let you keep bait on your hook," Larsen said. "But if a cat is over 10 pounds, I'm always happy to see it."
Larsen is an avid conservationist when it comes to big catfish. He'll take a small fish home for the deep fryer as often as the next angler, but doesn't hesitate to release all of the large fish he catches.
"I'm a believer that you've got to protect the gene pool," Larsen said. "I don't believe in dragging out big spawning fish and killing them. Every fish isn't going to grow up to be an 80-pounder, so if I catch a really big fish, I want to keep those 'big-fish' genes out there."
What else would one expect from a big-game fisherman?