Warm weather and catfish are a natural combination anywhere Mr. Whiskers swims. While the many lakes provide sensational fishing, there are also some smaller, overlooked hotspots.
One of the best places to catch catfish through the hot, summer weather is the Santee River. The fishery is outstanding for both quantities of catfish as well quality.
Fed by the waters of the upper of the two legendary Santee Cooper lakes, this river is directly downstream from Lake Marion. It's home to all three members of the "big three" of catfishing, with channel, flathead and blue catfish found in big numbers and huge sizes.
Plus, while the Santee Cooper lakes of Marion and Moultrie have become famous for catfish, the Santee River below Wilson Dam has avoided the limelight. However, many local anglers who know the river enjoy this fishery to the fullest.
Two anglers who work the river hard are Walter Carter and Rob Nelson. Longtime fishing and hunting buddies, they have worked out their own system for scoring big catfish catches from the river.
"There's a number of factors that influence how, when and where to catch catfish in this river," Carter said. "Water level is, of course, one key component. In addition, the amount of current flow is another, and water color is also a factor."
"Years ago, the channel catfish was the primary species in the river," Carter said. "But both blue and flathead catfish were stocked into the Santee Cooper lakes (Marion and Moultrie). It wasn't long before they spilled over, literally, into the river below the dam. In the ensuing years, they have done more than thrive; they've developed into an incredible fishery for huge catfish."
Nelson said the final ingredient to success is bait.
"We've found that you can target big fish by using big chucks of cut bait," Nelson said. "With cut bait, such as bream, shad or herring, you are more likely to hook a really big catfish. However, by using stinkbaits in a specific manner, we can target large numbers of catfish in the 2- to 10-pound class. When the conditions are right, you can catch dozens of fish in this size class in short order. That can be some pretty awesome fishing."
Carter and Nelson agree that the best fishing occurs when the river level is up - not at flood stage, but at a normal level or slightly higher.
"When we've had plenty of rain during the spring and up until the June time period, the water level will be up," Carter said. "Plus, the feeder streams will be running freshwater into the river. This seems to put the catfish in a much more aggressive feeding mode than does low water. The water color we prefer is usually a dingy color: not muddy and not too clear. Sometimes, the river can get real clear in low-water conditions.
"The higher water level does mean there's more water for us to have to hunt the fish," Carter said, "but it actually seems to make them orient to specific places, and it makes hooking up with the catfish easier.
"The pattern of the Santee River is to have deeper pools of water separated by shallow areas," Carter said. "The water level will change, but there will still be gravel and sand bars where there's some faster current right above a deeper pool of water. This is one of our favored contact areas for number of catfish. Another excellent place is where the feeder streams flow into the river."
Nelson said that while they catch blue and channel catfish on stinkbaits, their primary target is the blue catfish.
"The blue catfish do average a larger size and are much more aggressive than the channel catfish," Nelson said. "Most of the fish over five pounds are blues. Sometimes, we'll catch them both in the same areas; sometimes it will be just one or the other. But what we look for is to catch a bunch of blues piled into an area.
"Our rig for this fishing is simple," Nelson said. "We'll use the stinkbait and drift it along the sandbar about three or four feet deep under a 2-inch cork. We'll anchor far enough away to not spook the fish, but still only be a reasonable cast away. We'll try different depths of water, and sometimes, we'll end up fishing the upper end of the deep pool, sometime without the float, just allowing the bait to sit on the bottom. Typically, when we find one catfish, we'll be set up to catch several in quick succession."
Nelson said that when the action slows, even for a short while, they'll usually pull anchor and quickly look for another similar spot. If they're back in that same area a few hours later, they'll fish it again. Often, more catfish have moved back in.
Looking for big catfish usually means a little change in the fishing pattern and bait used.
Another long-time catfisherman on the Santee River is Bob Matthews, who owns a farm that borders the river and has literally fished it most of his life.
"The big catfish, especially the blues and flatheads, orient to the deepwater holes most of the time during the summer months," Matthews said. "They won't necessarily always be in the deep holes, but they will be near the deep water or found actively feeding in eddies around obstructions such as logs or junctions with feeder creeks."
"Over time, I've learned that deep holes are a key, but the outside bends of the river are always good too," Matthews said. "Typically, there will be a deep hole in a situation like this. Plus, there will be some additional current because of the rather quick change in direction of the water flow."
The setup is usually pretty simple. Anchoring and casting downstream with slip sinkers sized appropriately for the depth and current is the basic technique. Matthews said that usually one-half to 1-ounce sinkers will work. He does suggest using a quality rod holder because of the potential for big catfish bites. A local favorite is the DriftMaster.
Matthews always thoroughly checks out the specific area he's considering fishing before he fishes. He has to be wary of underwater debris. It can be an effective place to fish, but it can cause trouble if you don't plan for it.
He said that Hurricane Hugo roared right over this area as it stormed inland from a ground-zero impact at Charleston in 1989.
"That storm dropped a tremendous amount of trees and logs into the river," Matthews said. "There are still a lot of snags left from that storm. If you don't thoroughly check out the deep holes first, you may cast your line right over an old tree or series of logs in the river. That will likely cause snags and problems."
But Matthews said that getting snagged may just be the beginning of your problems.
"Catching a 20- to 40-pound or larger flathead or blue catfish is distinct possibility at any time in this river," he said. "You need to position the boat so you're fishing where you at least have a chance to boat a big fish."
He said that fishing near such woody obstructions or cover can be very productive.
"Big flatheads certainly love to snug up against such cover," he said. "It's important to get your bait near the log or downed tree. But a big catfish will make a mess of your equipment if you fish right in the debris on this river."
Other extremely good places to fish for catfish are along the beginning and end of riffle areas, Matthews said. In addition, he said other good places are along the numerous sandbars that drop into deep water.
"The downstream end of islands that split the course of the river offer good eddy-current situations where big fish frequently feed," Matthews said. "This is a particularly good situation in the lower end of the river."
Tackle used is typical catfish tackle for heavy-cover areas with big fish. It needs to be stout, he said.
"Six- to 7-foot rods with 20-pound or larger line are ideal," Matthews said. "When fishing for big cats, I like the 6/0 circle hooks. If I'm fishing for numbers of fish, I'll use a 1/0 or 2/0 hook. The size of the bait will have an impact. Big baits equal big-fish bites."
The river is loaded with big bream, and that's perhaps Matthews favored bait for all-around catfishing.
"The big flatheads like them alive and wiggling. The blues seem to prefer them presented as cut bait. But the blue and channel catfish will bite either live or cut bait.
"When using live or fresh cut bait, you have a really good chance of hooking into a 20-pound or larger flathead or blue catfish on most days throughout the summer," Matthews said. "Sometimes you have to try several areas, but if you stick with it, there are enough big catfish in this river that you'll usually find fish willing to bite."
Matthews said the there is usually a minimum flow in the river at all times with water released from the Wilson Dam.
"This consistent flow is a good thing for us during the summer," he said. "Even when the weather is hot and rain is sparse, there will be some current in the river. With the current, we can effectively fish for catfish throughout the day on most days. Generally, early and late in the day are prime times. Cloudy days are wonderful. But with the moving water, you can do very well throughout the day."
Matthews said that early, late and at night are prime times to take big catfish.
"Probably my favorite time is just at dusk," he said. "The cats seem to really get on the move on the river, especially the big ones. I feel it's important to be fishing right at dark if you're serous about big catfish. It's hard to think of a better way to end the day than to have a huge catfish load on right a dusk."
The big-fish bite continues to be good during the night, he said. Big catfish are certainly caught by day, but nighttime is the right time for big cats on the Santee River during June.