With two other anglers, we were anchored above a brush pile that produced slabs with gratifying regularity. The lake was virtually deserted, but after a time, a single, strange-looking boat approached.
It looked like a water-born quivalent of a truce from county animal-control authorities. Large wire cages were stacked several feet high on its deck, including a number of large coolers.
While we watched, the boat's operator used a peavey-like tool to hook a buoy, attached the rope trailing from the buoy to a winch, and lifted a cage from the lake's depths.
The cage turned out to be a fish trap, perfectly legal at the time and, as far as I know, still legal today. The cage teemed with catfish.
The commercial fisherman emptied the catch into one of his coolers, rebaited the trap, and motored to his next catfish-catching device. One of my partners in the boat was a Lake Wylie regular and said, in response to my expression of amazement, he had seen untold hundreds of pounds of the catfish pulled from the lake's depths.
I expressed my chagrin at seeing the potential for so much fine sporting activity being harvest for commercial purposes, but now realize that such concerns were, to some degree at least, misplaced. On the other hand, there is no denying that catfish - those ugly, oft-reviled prowlers of lake and river bottoms - have come of age for sporting anglers.
Call them by any name -"Mr. Whiskers," "Old Ugly," back-alley brawlers, or anything else - the members of the catfish family possess many redeeming features for anglers, especially at Lake Wylie.
They're widespread, feed readily on an amazingly wide array of baits, put up a real tussle when hooked, tolerate water conditions of the sort many gamefish can't endure, and, properly prepared, make wonderful table fare. Also, they lend themselves to a wide variety of fishing techniques.
Lake Wylie, although its major reputation comes from largemouth bass, is a first-rate catfish destination. One of its most-appealing characteristics is that anglers can catch cats in a variety of ways throughout the year.
Let's look at the dramatically different tactics employed by two veteran anglers at the reservoir. Then we'll turn to other approaches to show the many ways to fill a stringer with Lake Wylie catfish.
Summer and Stinkbaits
Rock Hill's Bennett Kirkpatrick is what local folks often call a "river rat" (Lake Wylie remains, at least on the portion that lies in South Carolina, "the river" to almost everyone). For decades he has fished the S.C. portion of the reservoir for crappie, bass, bream and catfish.
His primary approach to catfishing is similar to cane-pole watching during the lazy, hazy days of summer that were an integral part of growing up for so many Southern-born and bred men. However, his catfishing, while concentrated on the hot weather months and stinkbaits, comes with some interesting twists.
For starters, Kirkpatrick is a staunch believer in using mussels as baits. Mussels are plentiful beneath the sands of Lake Wylie near the shoreline, and Kirkpatrick has worked out an efficient way of gathering plenty of bait in a hurry.
Using a shovel, he digs in shallow water and dumps each shovel full of sand, muck, and mussels into an old basket fryer. A few swishes in the water leaves nothing but mussels, and a companion can throw out those that are too small as Kirkpatrick digs for more.
Once he has a sufficient quantity of mussels, he covers them with scorching hot water. The heat causes the shells to pop open for ease of access to the meat be used for catfish bait.
Fresh mussels work perfectly well, but allowing the bait to develop a bit of stink by sitting in the summer sun for an hour or two is even better.
Once he has plenty of bait, Kirkpatrick gets in his boat (with a big cooler available to hold the expected catch), usually with two other anglers, and motors to a likely spot. He favors long, gradually sloping points running out toward the middle of the lake.
After dropping anchor at one of these points, he and his buddies bait up with two or three mussels to a hook. Kirkpatrick urges everyone to use as many rods as they think they can handle. That means sometimes three anglers will have as many as a dozen rods sticking out from the boat in every direction.
When a catfish bites, it takes some maneuvering to avoid monumental tangles, and often when there's one bite, three or four more occur in quick order. The best technique is to set the hook with one rod, put it in a holder and set another hook.
Sometimes the result is a Chinese fire drill with lines crossing, fish going in every direction, and an unholy mess to be untangled. Still, it's exciting, challenging and amazingly productive fishing.
Frequently Kirkpatrick and his party catch scores of catfish, mostly bullheads in the 1/2- to 1 1/2-pound class, with a few channel cats of several pounds thrown in for good measure.
Even when the outing is over and Kirkpatrick's group returns to shore to clean the day's catch, there's often an additional bit of fun. Usually a few hefty bream are caught in addition to the catfish. Bream heads make fine bait for a couple of set poles to be placed (and closely watched) at his dock during this process.
During one catfish-cleaning session at Kirkpatrick's dock, a big channel cat grabbed a bream head attached to one of the dock poles. A few inches more and a perfectly good rod and reel would have been swimming with the fishes at the center of Lake Wylie.
Trolling Cut Bait
Roger Taylor, who also lives at Rock Hill, takes a different approach and knows another way to skin a Lake Wylie cat.
He fishes from a large, comfortable pontoon boat and trolls almost exclusively for catfish.
While he catches catfish throughout the year, Taylor finds some of the best times come during the off season (winter) when jet skis, water skiers, and other pleasure crafts have deserted the popular reservoir. During pleasant weather, water traffic presents a problem for him, for much of his trolling involves trips up and down carefully-selected sections of the lake's middle.
Taylor relies heavily upon electronics, studying the lake's bottom to determine trolling patterns, the depth of his rigs, length of line to put out, and other tasks. Carefully-rigged cut bait is his favorite for catfish, and usually has several rods in holders while he conducts long, slow passes up and down the areas he selects for a day's fishing. Sizeable channel cats, as opposed to bullheads, typically comprise the bulk of his catch.
During a two-hour afternoon trip with Taylor, he and his father-in-law, Ed Guettler, brought 50 or 60 pounds of catfish - all of them channel cats in the 5- to 8-pound range - to the boat. Although it seemed a satisfying outing, Taylor complained about the fishing "being slow" and said we didn't get into any "really good" fish.
"It takes one over 30 pounds to get me much excited," he said, "and you don't have to go down to Santee-Cooper to catch really large catfish. There are plenty of big ones in South Carolina's lakes along the Catawba chain (Wylie and Wateree). My feeling is this (lake) may be one of S.C.'s overlooked catfish hotspots."
Whether one opts for the approach of Kirkpatrick or Taylor - or the simplest way to catch catfish (casting from the bank and watching a pole) - Lake Wylie is a prime destination. It has enjoyed a sterling reputation as great crappie and bass lake that can take a hard-fished licking and keep on kicking (it was the site of the Bassmasters Classic three years ago).
But it deserves recognition as a first-rate catfish producer as well.
Jim Casada is a full-time freelance writer who loves to catch and eat catfish. He has a web site at www.jimcasadaoutdoors.com.