Capt. Steve Sexton is widely known for some of his oceangoing feats, but for fishermen who frequent the Santee Cooper lakes, he is better known for the tactics he uses to catch and - and often release - catfish, crappie and bream.

During January, Sexton, who is not a freshwater guide, prefers to drift the flats with long lines to cover territory and find crappie that are there. He uses the wind to his benefit. "You must have a drift sock or two along to control drift speed when you are fishing in the winter," he said.

Drifting appeals to suspended fish best. "It takes the lines away from the boat, allowing for ... more territory to find fish," said Sexton, who drifts with mini-jigs and fishes minnows when he's anchored up.

Sexton likes to drift flats using 7- to 9-foot, light-action rods and 4- to 6-pound line. A simple lift of the rod tip will set the hook, and since crappies can't straighten a 9-foot bend, fewer fish come free on the way to the boat.

Turn the boat sideways to the wind and, if it is strong, put out a drift sock amidships, so the boat stays perpendicular to the wind. If you anchor, bait each hook with a 2-inch minnow and drop it vertically beside the boat. Weight each line differently so they swim through different depths. Jigs and small suspending baits like an Excalibur Ghost Minnow can be drifted while using small, floating minnow baits, but weight the line with split shot or use a 3-way swivel with a small bell sinker in deeper water. Be prepared for a strong bite. In the winter, fish tend to bite slower, but when the do bite, hang on for a great fight.

 

The Catfish Corner

Sexton is a wonderful teammate; we have fished catfish tournaments on Santee, consistently finishing in the top 10.

Catfish are not finicky eaters. They will gobble up almost anything throw at them. In fact, Sexton prefers to try several different types of baits: dead and smelly baits that are well known for attracting hungry cats, as well as shrimp, chicken liver, mussels and stink baits.

Have you ever tried using grocery-store baits like bacon, hot dogs and cheese? How about bizarre offerings such as Ivory soap, dog food, Spam, and blood? Sexton is known to literally throw in the kitchen sink out trying to catch Mr. Long Whiskers.

When you're after big catfish, nothing beats live bait.

"The few that are so productive are shad, mullet and herring," he said. "So many varieties can be used, like gizzard or threadfin shad and skipjack or blueback herring." He also has top-secret bait for those "frosty flatheads" that can still be caught in 39-degree water.

In January 2007, when baitfish were stacked in both lakes, we caught our own in a cast net in front of the dam - where lights draw the baitfish to the surface. Our cooler was full after three or four casts; and the bait was so abundant that it took both of us to pull the net in one time.

After catching our bait, we set out to scout for structure and baitfish. As the sun cracked the horizon, we put out our baits. We drifted for several hours, catching only a few fish. We started to fix lunch, and as I pulled out the sandwich meat and bread to get to the hot dogs (the cheap ones), Sexton had an idea.

He asked me, "Have you ever tried a hot dog or Honey Baked Ham?" We set out four rods, two each with hot dogs and ham, and started laughing, when suddenly, one rod bent over, then another and another and another. All four went down, and we laughed even louder, eventually catching fish on three of the four rods. Hot dogs and ham made the day.

By 1 p.m., we had filled a 100-quart cooler, the biggest fish weighing 35 pounds. Missing our lunch meat, we headed back to eat lunch at Black's Fish Camp.

Trying new things never hurts. Sexton and I always tend to try new spots. We have "honey holes," but we find that by trying new spots, we often catch better fish.

 

Chumming Recipes

Since many tournaments allow you to chum up to 24 hours before fishing, we have prepared chum on many occasions. As we do with baits, we "throw out the kitchen sink." If you chum properly, you can frequent those areas for your winter catfish.

Most chum consists of sour corn, garlic and cheese. Some include dog food and other bait cut into pieces. In either case, if you bait your holes properly, you can fish these areas and catch quality fish in the winter.

 

Cold Water Flatheads

Sexton has caught a 47-pound flathead in 39-degree water. He prefers to fish with live bait, and if you fish the way he does for crappie, you can catch flatheads using the smaller crappie. You just have to be a little slower.

"With cold weather, you must fish a little deeper and much slower," Sexton said.

He prefers to fish whole, live baits in the winter, hooked behind the dorsal fin. This allows the bait to swim more freely over a larger area, and the bait will appeal more to non-aggressive flatheads.

During the winter, flatheads can be found grouped up in large numbers. You must be very precise about bait presentation. These hidden monsters will eventually come to life and hit the bait with extreme force. They will also be suspended in the winter, allowing for an easier fight.

It is not the boat or bait used; often, luck plays a role. But it's hard work finding fish. If you dare to "bare" the cold, January winds, be sure to look to your left and right. Capt. Steve may be around the corner.