When Pete Pritchard points to his sonar graph and says, "Look at that; there's a pile of fish under those shad," odds are good that fishermen on his boat are about to get their strings stretched.

According to Pritchard, a guide on Lake Marion, the odds are good it's going to be a hefty blue catfish doing the string-stretching.

"The Santee Cooper lakes are the original wintertime catfish hotspots in South Carolina," Pritchard said. "I think they are still right at the top in terms of being the red-hot wintertime catfish hotspots.

"It may not be quite the heyday we enjoyed for a number of years, but compared to most other lakes in the middle of the winter, the fishing at both Lake Marion and Lake Moultrie is excellent," Pritchard said. "When this lake turns on for cold-weather fishing, the blue catfish in the 5- to 15-pound class provide amazing action. Plus, there's still plenty of those huge catfish available as well."

Along with his son, Barry, Pritchard operates Pritchard's Guide Service (803-478-7533). The elder Pritchard lives in Summerton and has been guiding at Santee Cooper for over 40 years. The younger Pritchard, who resides in Sumter, joined his father in the guide business several years ago, bringing with him a lifetime of experience.

"The cold-weather catfish bite is one of the most predictable and productive fishing patterns of the year," Pete Pritchard said. "The bite usually picks up in December and continues through the winter, with the January time period usually providing excellent fishing. In fact, during January, catfish are usually the best fishing available on the lakes."

Barry Pritchard said fishermen use two primary ways to catch winter cats. One is anchoring and fan-casting around the boat with multiple rigs. The other is drift-fishing.

"Often the drift-fishing is really good in the fall, and then the flat-lining from a stationary, anchored boat is best during cold weather," he said. "However, some days the drifting will work great on Lake Marion during the coldest part of the year.

"One of the keys to drifting will be where we find the baitfish. Often we'll find baitfish, and thus a bunch of catfish, in the timbered areas of lower Lake Marion. We simply can't drift there, so that's when we set up and flatline fish. But occasionally, we'll find them along the Wilson Dam or on deep flats that are not in the timbered areas with only a few underwater snags. Plus, a lot of fishermen will drift-fish on Lake Moultrie."

On Lake Moultrie, drifting is the preferred wintertime pattern used by guide Marlin Ormseth (843-825-4713).

"Since Lake Moultrie is much more conducive to drift-fishing than Lake Marion, drift-fishing is a very reliable pattern here during cold weather," Ormseth said. "I fish about 150 day a year throughout the year, and I drift-fish exclusively."

Ormseth, who lives in Bonneau near Lake Moultrie, has been guiding for about three years, but he has fished the lake for eight years. He said some of the year's best fishing will be during the winter.

"The best catfish bite on Lake Moultrie is usually during the winter," Ormseth said. "The key is to focus on the shad. Find the baitfish, and you'll find the blue catfish. I generally like to fish at night, but during the winter bite, I'll fish during the day most of the time. The depth will vary but usually I'll be drift fishing in the 30- to 40-foot depth range.

"Most of the fish we'll catch will be on the bottom or suspended near the bottom," he said. "Usually, the smaller fish will be the suspended fish, so I fish deep and focus on the large catfish. The best bait is cut herring; I'll usually catch them myself so they're fresh. Fresh cut herring, about thumb-size, is the ideal cold-weather catfish bait for our lakes."

Ormseth said he'll drift several rods, including his trademark use of planers for catfish drifting. His drifts will cover a wide area by using the planers.

"I'll watch the graph and pay close attention to where I'm getting bites from my drift rigs," he said. "Then I can re-drift over a productive area and specifically target the exact place the fish are holding."

Because of the colder water temperature, Ormseth said he slows his drift speed down during the winter to a drift rate a 0.4 to 0.5 miles per hour. He uses the standard drift rig used by most catfish guides.

Even when anchoring, staying on the move is a good bet, according to Barry Pritchard. Not lingering too long in any given spot, unless you're catching plenty of fish, is important this time of year.

"A good example would be fishing several places with only a few total fish to show for it," he said. "When this happens we'll keep moving and looking for the right combination of forage and big-fish marks on the graph. We'll give each about 34 to 40 minutes, then move on. When we hit a good spot, we usually catch several big catfish quickly. When the action slows, we begin the hunting process again. Sometimes, the forage and the fish will simply move out of the area, causing the action to slow."

Pete Pritchard said to effectively fish an area, he likes to get a lot of bait in the water.

"That's why I use 10 rigs when anchored," he said."This way, I can fish all around the boat and check for fish in every direction. Often, we'll find that one or two rods in the same part of the boat will be the ones that hook most of the fish. Sometimes, the entire area will have fish scattered around. But either way, if there are any feeding blue catfish, they'll usually bite fairly quickly. But it is important to give the fish enough time to home in on your baits."

"The basic rig is simple," Pete Pritchard said. "I use a big circle hook, usually a 6/0 size, on a 30-inch leader. Above that, I place a barrel swivel, and on the line above I use a heavy slip sinker, from one ounce to two ounces, depending on the wind and the depth we're fishing. When we find an area loaded up with lots of shad, and especially if the graph shows a lot of big fish marks on or near the lake bottom, we're probably in a good area.

"Sometimes, even when things look excellent on the graph, the fish won't bite or it may simply not be catfish that are being marked," he said. "However, continue looking for this type pattern, and usually you'll (find) several places during the day where the action will be fast and furious. Sometimes, we'll catch all we need in just a couple setups; sometimes we have to work several places to catch a cooler full."

According to Pete Pritchard, that's the fun part of wintertime catfishing, trying to figure it all out. Every day presents a new set of challenges and rewards looking for hot catfish action in cold weather.