That was before catfish craziness laid hold of his sporting soul and his "all seasons" became dealing with Mr. Whiskers throughout the year.
As Smith began to do more catfishing - focusing primarily on Santee-Cooper but also doing some fishing on other reservoirs, including Lake Wylie, his home water - several things struck him.
He realized that catfishing was, except for occasional limitations posed by bitter weather or strong winds, something that could be done to good effect at any time. Also, there was every likelihood of showing his clients a good time, with "good time" being defined in terms of catching a bunch of fish
Add to those considerations the growing popularity of catching cats, the fact that catfish in general are underutilized by anglers, and their first-rate table qualities - add up these considerations, and you begin to understand why Smith has decided to devote his single-minded attention to Mr. Whiskers.
If you use records as a yardstick of success, Smith has been highly successful. His clients have set 17 world records (for line class and in specific age groups). That's impressive, although in fairness, it must be added that paying attention to records in the many age and line classes is a fairly recent development. Obviously, realizing that being able to cite world records is a solid public-relations tool, Smith pays the record books careful attention. He also keeps meticulous records on a daily and annual basis.
Smith has devoted considerable thought to solving the catfish-catching equation, and I can state this unequivocally on the basis of personal experience. On two trips with him over the course of 12 months - one a raw, blustery day in late winter and the other a balmy Indian Summer bluebird day that left the waters of Lake Moultrie so calm that drift fishing was a non-starter - I was able to watch him in action, pick his brain, and gain insight of interest to anyone who is serious about filling a cooler with catfish fillets or maybe just enjoying a fine day of catch-and-release action.
Smith's thoughts on seasonal strategies apply specifically to Santee-Cooper, but with slight variations, they basically hold true for all of South Carolina.
In the spring, the urge to procreate governs the behavior of catfish. As longer days and more sunlight lead to gradual warming of lake waters, catfish begin to move into headwaters and creek channels and seek suitable places in the shallows where they will spawn.
"My approach is to follow them," Smith said, realizing that they use the old river and creek channels for migration as they move out of their winter pattern.
Summer is a transition season, as catfish move into a post-spawn mode, and Smith feels the whiskered clan is more widely dispersed in this season than at any other. That means making good use of electronics, doing quite a bit of moving and drifting, and being alert to recognition of any feeding or movement patterns that produce good action.
With the arrival of the cooler temperatures of fall, Smith has found that catfish make a readily discernible migration to deeper water - but not just any depths.
"You will consistently find them under 'bait balls' (large concentration of baitfish)," he said, "and the catfish will stay in deep water right through the fall and on into late winter. I like to drift fish, particularly in the deeper waters, because it seems that catfish like the bait better when it is moving."
The vital matter of bait
In Smith's opinion, "bait is the most important consideration of all."
He has found that when water temperatures fall below 65 degrees, catfish seem to prefer shad. But in June, when the water gets above 70 degrees, herring seems to work better. Mind you, catfish will bite either bait throughout the year, but they do have their preferences depending on the temperature of the water.
Smith feels that catfish use their strong sense of smell at least as much as they do sight when it comes to locating food, and that's something anglers should not overlook.
"I'm really careful about having clean hands and avoiding alien odors when handling bait," he said.
That's why he doesn't use any commercially prepared baits. "You just can't beat the real thing," he said. In addition to baitfish, he finds that chicken liver can be productive, especially in the summer.
Smith uses shad and herring as cut bait, but he keeps it alive until he is ready to bait up.
"Flatheads will hit cut bait," he insists, "and I've seen it happen too many times to have any doubts about it. However, I do like really fresh bait - whether dealing with blues or flatheads."
He prepares his bait by filleting it, and then rolling the fillet onto a circle hook with the fleshy side facing outwards.
"That gives off more scent," he said, "and it also seems to make them take the bait a bit more readily," he said. "Incidentally, for some strange reason, I have found that really big fish seem to prefer somewhat smaller baits. This runs contrary to what you would expect, but I've seen them opt for the smaller bait with a big one on the next rod too many times."
Smith is particular not only about how the bait is rigged, but the entire bait-hook-sinker-line arrangement. In the winter, when the water is relatively clear, he snells a circle hook onto a fluorocarbon leader, which in turn is connected to anything from 20- to 60-pound test line (this may vary even more if someone is interested in catching a line-class record fish).
"I'll drop down as low as 20-pound test line in open water," Smith said, "since there is less likelihood of getting tangled up there."
But even with lighter terminal leader, he likes to have it attached to 60-pound test. "That way," he said, "if a big fish starts rolling around the line, something they often do, his weight won't cut or break it.
Smith likes to use a snelled hook because it always lines up straight. "You just can't beat a circle hook that is snelled to the leader," he said.
For weight, he uses a "sack" sinker (several small, circular pieces of lead enclosed by parachute cord), finding that he gets far fewer hang-ups with this rig than with standard sinkers.
All of this hook, leader, sinker, and line partners with an 8-foot Shakespeare Tiger Ugly Stick downrigger rod. He likes the rod's soft feel, combined with plenty of backbone, something that really comes in handy when dealing with larger fish. Smith keeps his drag set fairly light, having found that circle hooks will sometimes tear out of a catfish's mouth.
He even has a specific way he wants clients to set the hook. When a fish strikes and pulls the rod tip down, he recommends rapidly turning the reel handle - with the rod still in the holder - for several cranks.
"This lets the circle hook do the work it is designed for," he said. "I've found that if you immediately take a rod out of the holder to set the hook, sometimes the catfish will sense this, open its mouth, and drop the bait. I get far more consistent hook-ups by initially leaving the rod in the holder."
While some might find Smith a bit picky - and certainly no one who spends a day with him will doubt either his self-confidence or the fact that he is opinionated - it's hard to argue with success. Neither of my outings with him produced the really big fish he likes to bring to the boat (it takes a 40- to 50-pound catfish to raise an eyebrow on Santee-Cooper), but we boated several blue cats in 10- to 20-pound range along with numerous smaller fish.
One key to Smith's success is almost certainly his constant use of a GPS unit to chart his course, mark way points, and pinpoint good fishing spots. A survey by the S.C. Department of Natural Resources found that 83 percent of all anglers on Marion and Moultrie focused on the canals, finding that the big lakes were just too intimidating.
"To me," Smith said, "that means lots of areas that get relatively little fishing pressure, and that's where I want to be." He clearly has figured out where to be when it comes to filling a cooler with cats or experiencing a day of tight lines and fine times.
Editor's note: Jim Casada is a full-time freelancer whose interests span a wide range of outdoor subjects. For information on how to order any of his many books, or to sign up for a free subscription to his monthly e-newsletter, visit his website at www.jimcasadaoutdoors.com.