As the Catawba River winds its way through the Carolinas, Lake Wateree is the farthest reservoir downstream.

Wateree has often been overlooked as a first-rate fishery for a number of species. It lies just far enough away from major urban centers - Columbia, Rock Hill, and Charlotte - to lessen angling pressure to some degree.

At present, the lake does not have nearly the same level of shoreline development as other Catawba River reservoirs such as Lake Wylie and Lake Norman. It should be noted that welcome situation seems likely to change, with land sales, building construction, and rumors of what lies in the near future running rampant.

For the present, however, Wateree has arguably been the closest thing to a well-kept secret that South Carolina has to offer. Certainly, locals know better, with the lake's crappie population drawing lots of pressure during the spring, and its offerings of both stripers and largemouth having appreciable followings.

What has been most overlooked here, however, is Lake Wateree as a premier catfishing destination.

Rock Hill's Rodger Taylor, a dedicated fisherman who is a real student of the quest for catfish, said, "Mark my word. The next 'in' place for big catfish in South Carolina is going to be Lake Wateree. Right now, Santee Cooper gets most of the attention, but there are huge blue cats - lots of them -swimming in the waters of Wateree."

Taylor, who lives in Rock Hill, works long shifts as an emergency room technician in order to have additional days to fish. He operates a guide service on the side and calls Lake Wylie his home water.

Yet he is partial to Wateree because he recognizes its potential to produce big blue cats.

"Right now," he said, "my immediate goal is to catch a 60 pounder."

He has come close, with his biggest blue to date tipping the scales at 58 pounds.

"I've caught half a dozen fish over 40 pounds" Taylor said, "and there's no question that there are 60-pound fish, and quite possibly 70 pounders," in Wateree.

Add to that consideration the fact that it takes a fish of least 30 pounds to raise Taylor's eyebrows much, and you begin to get the picture.

"There is a ready explanation for the presence of big fish," according to Taylor. "Wateree has an excellent food base for catfish. Both gizzard and threadfin shad are really plentiful here, and there are also mussel beds all over the place. Catfish have plenty to eat, and they seem to grow fast."

It is an interesting situation, inasmuch as Lake Wylie, not that many miles up the Catawba drainage, is known more for the numbers of catfish it holds than for really big fish.

According to Taylor, the two times when you are most likely to come to grips with a really big catfish on Lake Wateree are in the early to mid-spring and in the winter.

"In late March, throughout April, and on into early May, " Taylor said, "blue cats concentrate in numbers at the upper end of the lake. You can find likely spots and anchor, and that's the way I like to fish in the spring."

Taylor's springtime approach is to launch at Wateree Creek Landing, travel a few miles down the lake to an area where there are flats and points close to deeper areas in the main channel, then drop anchor. I fished with him on a lovely day in mid-May when we utilized his standard springtime pattern. "We are really a couple of weeks beyond peak spring fishing, " he warned at daylight. "Still, I think we can find some fish."

Taylor had been anxious to get to the landing before anyone else for an unusual reason. "If no one has launched a boat," he said, "I can usually get plenty of bait with just a couple of tosses with a throw net."

That proved to be the case, with a single toss bringing a couple of dozen shad and one sizeable sucker. The sucker was a bonus, according to Taylor.

"I like to have one or two rigs baited with something big and juicy," he said, "and a hefty chunk out of this guy will be just the ticket."

The shad and lone sucker joined a number of bream and white perch Taylor had caught the night before, and we were ready for business. Over the next several hours, we dropped anchor in three locations, all of them within a half-mile of one another. Each spot produced at least one catfish, although action picked up noticeably when, for a brief time on two different occasions, it was obvious that the gates at the dam had been opened. "I've always found that the catfish bite better when they are pulling water," Taylor said. "It gets the bait moving around and seems to give them a stimulus to feed."

With five rods in holders (one bait with a big piece of the sucker and the others with chunks of bream, perch, or shad), we never went more than 30 minutes without action. The rods, incidentally, were arranged to cover a variety of depths and directions, the way Taylor prefers to fish when anchored. Over the course of five hours, somewhere around 12 to 15 catfish, ranging from a couple of bullheads and a small channel cat up to a blue cat of just over 20 pounds, came to the net.

Taylor expressed a degree of disappointment, saying, "I've had a bunch of better days this spring," but to my way of thinking, it was a fine morning. We caught eight or 10 blue cats ranging from eight pounds up.

While waiting for the next rod tip to jump, Taylor offered his thoughts on fishing through the seasons.

"The catfish are presently beginning to disperse across the lake," he said, "and from now "right through the summer they can be found about anywhere."

Once he switches to a summer pattern, Taylor employs two basic approaches. He does quite a bit of drift fishing, but his preferred tactic involves anchoring close to mussel beds.

"I'll anchor out in the main channel, " he said, "and throw back toward shallow water -depths of three to eight feet. I particularly like to cast to humps picked up by my electronics. Often, there are mussel beds atop those humps, and if they are there, you'll find catfish."

Once the dog days of summer have come and gone - through the fall and particularly in winter - Taylor opts for drift fishing.

"You will find that fishing in cooler weather is more sporadic," he said, "but I've caught some of my biggest fish in the winter."

Taylor also likes finding very little fishing traffic on the lake during the winter months, especially on weekdays.

In any season, Lake Wateree is a prime destination for catfish, not to mention a number of other species. "I remain firmly convinced that there are huge blue cats here," Taylor said, "and I know of fish being caught over 60 pounds. It wouldn't surprise me, given the forage base here, to see a state record blue cat come from Wateree, and that's saying a lot given the way Santee Cooper produces."

That is indeed a mouthful, but whether you are looking for a boat-towing blue cat or just a mess of catfish fillets, Lake Wateree is a promising, and to no small degree, overlooked, destination.