Capt. Kevin Couick once lived to fish in the ocean.

He headed from his home in Waxhaw to Southport most weekends to fish for Spanish mackerel, king mackerel, flounder and sea bass. But since he discovered the excellent catfishing at the Santee Cooper lakes of South Carolina, he stays much closer to home.

"I don't travel to Southport as much as I used to," he said. "I can catch some really nice catfish closer to home.

"With gas so expensive, not only does it save the costs for highway fuel, I can fish all day on the lake for about $8 worth of gas in comparison with having to pay up to $150 for the fuel I'd burn during a coastal king mackerel trolling trip."

Couick uses the same 21-foot Henry O offshore fishing boat to ply inland waters and kept his same guide service's name, Fish Hunter Guide Service. Although the water's not as big, it's still big enough to get rough when the wind blows.

"You still need a big boat," Couick said. "The lakes get rough, and there's lots of standing timber. Thunderstorms come up without warning, and sometimes you have to stay out there on the water to wait them out instead of running for the dock.

"When a storm comes up, you have to decide pretty quickly whether there's enough time to make it back before it hits you. Sometimes, there's just not enough time. When you ride out a storm, you must have a big boat. The waves get big enough to sink small craft.

"The waves are especially bad if you're fishing in the timber at night. If you go faster than idle speed, you can hit something and damage your boat. If it's raining hard, you can't even see to get through the trees safely."

Couick launches from Randolph's Landing at Lake Marion near the dam at the end of Highway 261. He spends the night in the Randolph Landing Motel, eats breakfast at the grill, buys his bait and still has time to beat most other anglers onto Lake Marion by 6 a.m.

"I use live baits when I can," he said. "But catfish will hit the dead ones about as well."

The summer dawn was breaking as he slid his boat from a trailer. The ride through out through Wyboo Channel was scenic along a pathway cut through the timber. Markers showed where there was a high degree of safety for running a powerboat. Yet Couick watched constantly, ever vigilant against an errant floating log or submerged tree.

He picked a spot off to the side of the main navigation channel and throttled the motor speed to an idle. The trip of 5 miles to an area of standing timber local anglers call "The Woods" had taken only a few minutes because the water was glass slick.

The rod-holders at the back of the boat and T-top held baitcasting outfits - 7-foot Shakespeare Ugly Stick catfish rods with luminous tips matched and Pfleuger Trion 68 reels, spooled with superbraid lines.

A lot of the fishing Couick does at Lake Marion occurs after nightfall. The luminous tips of the rods help tell him what the fish and baits are doing. However, the stout catfish rods work just as well for fishing during the daytime.

"It's interesting how different conditions change the catfish bite at Lake Marion," Couick said. "When I first started fishing here, I stayed in instead of fishing after a hard blow.

"I thought one of the old-timers was joking when the wind layed out, and he said that was the best time to fish. But he went out and fished during the day along the edges of the water along the banks where the wind waves made the water cloudy. He caught more than 30 catfish that day, some really big fish."

Couick retrieved a blueback herring from a bed of ice in a cooler, hooked it through the nose with a 6/0 circle hook, disengaged the reel spool and tossed it behind the boat. A finger-sized cast-lead pencil sinker, bent upward to prevent snags on deadfall timber, carried the bait to the bottom in 30 feet of water. Tree tops extended above the surface in all directions, making frequent hang-ups seem a certainty.

"The sinker rides over the logs, and the circle hook isn't too prone to hang up," Couick said. "I use 150 yards of 80-pound superbraid line backed by all the 20-pound mono the reel will hold. If he gets 150 yards of line on you, there's no way you're going to turn him anyway. If he takes line down to the backing, it's just as well if he break's off. There are fish in the lake capable of doing that.

"But even a big cat is going to fight it out right under the boat. The trick is to get him up off the bottom from the first and then make sure to keep him coming."

Couick said he has caught blue catfish weighing 40 pounds at Lake Marion. Most of his catch is made up of blue catfish and channel catfish.

"The blue cats get bigger, but the channel cats are nice to catch and eat, too," he said. "When a big one hits, the hardest part is getting the rod out of the rod-holder.

"I fish with a tight drag; you have to horse him out of the stumps, and catfish are powerful fish. You can loosen the drag once he's up off the bottom as long as you keep him from wrapping a tree or going under a log.

"He can jolt the circle hook loose if it's only hooked in the membrane at the corner of his mouth. But if it's hooked in bone, it will usually hold even the biggest catfish."

Couick added baits to his spread until eight thawing herring were dragging the bottom under the slow power of a wind-drift. He set the drags tight, but sometimes the warning clickers would sound off when the sinkers hung on sunken wood.

To free a snagged rig, Couick would wind a couple of turns of the braided line around the reel body and hold. Sometimes the line would snap, but most of the time the rigs pulled free.

A rod tip bounced, came up, and shook as it bowed again. The clicker ratcheted as my wife, Carol, prepared to grab the rod.

"Wait," Couick said, "the fish will set the hook when he moves away."

He lifted the rod and felt the line tighten. Handing Carol the rod, which was now bouncing wildly, he grinned, and she grunted.

"Hang on tight," he said.

She felt the rod butt jabbing into her stomach as the fish headed for a stump on the bottom.

"Whoa!" she said, yelling. "This catfish thinks he's as bad as a cobia."

The fish bounced off some of the woody cover, the line hanging and the momentum of the boat slowing. Couick cleared most of the lines from the water to prevent the big catfish from tangling them and to keep them from snagging while the battle was underway.

The pressure of the drag and the drifting boat unwrapped the line from around the trunk of a standing dead cypress tree. A big blue catfish made slow circles under the boat. As Couick dipped the fish from the water with a landing net, it flapped its tail, showering water into the boat.

Carol put the clicker on and switched the reel into free-spool mode. She rubbed a red spot beside her belly button where the rod tip had dug into her stomach.

"That's a nice blue catfish," Couick said. "He weighs about 20 pounds."

Several smaller catfish came aboard during the drift. But eventually, the wind got stronger and forced a change of tactics.

Couick navigated the boat through a gap in the trees he said had been a creek channel before the lake was created. He watched his depth-finder, and several blurred marks told him where fallen trees protruded above the hard solid line that showed the bottom at about 16 feet.

"When it's too windy to drift, I find a channel where I can anchor," Couick said. "When there's not much breeze, you steer with the motor through the trees and let the wind blow you along. But when it's too windy or when it's dark, it's a better idea to anchor the boat. A catfish can smell the bait from a long distance. If you drop enough baits, he'll find them.

"Every so often, say every 30 minutes to an hour, you pick up the anchor and move to another spot. I like to move at least 50 to 100 yards between fishing spots. But after the second or third spot in the same channel, I move a long way trying to find a different water condition.

"It might be more or less cloudy, different water depth or different temperature. But once you find several fish biting, fish at other parts of the lake will bite if you can find the same conditions."

Couick hooked another frozen herring. He inserted the hook through its mouth and out the gill, then buried the point into its tail.

"That protects the hook point and makes it less prone to hang up in the trees," he said. "In the summertime, you catch more fish with frozen shad or herring. The water is hot, and live shad can out-swim the catfish.

"They feed more on mussels and clams than on fish. In winter when the water is cooler, the catfish are more active. When it turns cold, it stuns the shad and some of them die. Catfish gorge on them and get big bellies like mine. They're well fed."

This time Couick set out 10 rods instead of eight. He spread the rods from the stern to the middle of the boat using rod-holders along the gunwales. He set the longest lines off the stern, then progressively shortened the lines as they were set closer to the bow.

"I set the rods just like I was offshore trolling," he said. "It covers the bottom over a large area and keeps the lines from tangling. A lot of times you'll have more than one catfish on at the same time. If they tangle, they can pull the hooks loose or break the lines or leaders.

"The best time to fish in the summer is at night. But the second best time is as early in the morning as you can go and fish until they quit biting.

"I fish these same spots, day or night. But the problem with night fishing is getting to the landing and back. You either go out before dark and come back slowly with a spotlight showing the way, or you stay out all night. You've got to come out in the daytime until you learn your way around."

A catfish picked up the bait. The rod tip went down, then popped back up.

"Sometimes a big one will just pick the bait up and swim along with it in his mouth," he said. "But they sometimes just swallow it and sit there like that one seems to be doing. If you leave it alone until he shakes the rod tip or makes it jump up and down, you'll hook him every time."

Couick set the hook and fought another catfish to the boat, the beginning of action that would be repeated often at different anchor points along the creek channel until noon. While none of them topped my wife's 20-pound fish, all of them looked like nice catfish lying on a bed of ice in the bottom of a cooler.

"I can handle fish of up to 40 pounds with my tackle and bigger than that if I can keep them away from the trees," Couick said. "Some of the other guides use 130-pound-test lines, but I haven't lost many big fish using what they say is my 'light' tackle."