Natalie Burr and her father was fishing for catfish on the Pee Dee River, just downstream from Blewitt Falls Dam in North Carolina. Her biggest cat, a blue, weighed 72 pounds. She may be young, but she's no novice.
The Pee Dee River in the first miles downstream from the dam is rather swift - not whitewater, but moving right along - rocky and shallow. Robbie Burr fishes out of a big jonboat equipped with a jet-drive engine that allows him to move around the shallow river.
Catfish on the upper sections of the Pee Dee hang out in the deepest holes. Although the substrate is solid rock, depth varies. Burr dropped a heavy anchor upstream of spots where the depth changed sharply from a few feet to a dozen in holes where big blues hang out. With the constant current, the holes in this portion of the river serve more as funnels as the current swirls between rocks and drops into the deeper areas. Any prey being swept downstream is funneled into the deep spots.
Burr uses 7-foot rods, comparable to the Shakespeare Catfish models, and large-arbor reels with a clicker like the Pfleuger Trion 66. The clicker permits the reel to pay out line, alerting the fishermen to the presence of a catfish without alerting the fish that fishermen are nearby. The reels were equipped with stout braided line, comparable to Spiderwire Ultracast Invisi-Braid or Spiderwire Stealth Braid, in 50-pound test.
At the tag end of the braided line, Burr attaches a heavy bank sinker - weighing as much as two ounces, depending on the current - above a heavy swivel that prevents the sinker from sliding down to the bait. Burr ties on a 2-foot length of stout fluorocarbon leader.
At the business end of the leader, Burr ties a on a 4/0 to 6/0 circle hook, so when his daughter lifts the rod from the holder, no ferocious strike is required to set the hook. As the line draws tight, the hook slides into the corner of the catfish's mouth and sets itself. A collateral advantage is that it's easier to unhook and release fish with little damage to the fish or threat to the angler.
Burr uses cut bait, often chunks of sucker, impaled on the circle hooks. During the various migrations of herring species during the spring, Burr recommends cut bait made from migrating fish. During dead of winter, however, suckers are more readily available.
If no catfish takes a bait in 15 or 20 minutes, Burr pulls up the anchor and moves to another spot.
"If they are there and moving, one will grab it right away," he said. "There are lots more places where we can catch one."
Bringing the catfish to the boat, Natalie Burr pumped the rod up, then reeled quickly as she lowered it.
"Bringing in fish like this, the way my dad taught me, saves wear-and-tear on the reel, yet allows me to be in constant contact with the fish," she said.
Robbie Burr dipped his net under the fish, and after a couple of photos were snapped, he dropped it back into the swirling waters. In four hours, the catch was a dozen blues ranging from 12 to 20 pounds - a pretty good morning, typical of the Pee Dee River above I-95.
Below I-95, the character of the river changes. The current is less swift, though the water is still noticeably moving, and the substrate changes from rock to sand. James Matherly, who fishes the Pee Dee from his home in Florence, S.C., downstream all the way to Georgetown, said there are two major hazards in that section of river.
"Shifting sand often creates sandbars where there were none before, and changing water levels dislodge logs from the bank and from the numerous trashpiles along the shore," Matherly said. "It would be easy to run aground on a sandbar or slam into a dark-colored floating log.
"Here, we fish woody cover, log jams, the deepest part of an outside bend or a drop-off along a sand bar. Where there's a hard curve in the current, that's the kind of place I like," he said. "This river does not really have a channel in the way lots of rivers do. The center is pretty flat, with ledges on the side. The side ledges and the sandbar ledges are good catfish spots."
Matherly prefers live eels for bait. "Most local shops carry the live eels. I use eels year-round," he said. "Sometimes, I cut the eels into 3- or 4-inch sections, but ordinarily, I use the entire eel. Understand, I'm fishing for big fish."
When rigging, Matherly uses stout gear.
"I use heavy, braided line, 100-pound test. There are lots of snags in this part of the Pee Dee. Sometimes, you need gear that can pull a big fish out of a trash pile," he said.
To the braided line, Matherly ties a No. 1 swivel, attached a Big Stuff sinker as heavy as four ounces, an 18-inch fluorocarbon leader and a 8/0 Gamakatsu circle hook. Midway between the sinker and hook, Matherly pegs a float to keep the bait fluttering off the bottom.
"When the rod loads up, all you have to do is give three or four turns of the reel, and the fish will be hooked," he said.
Matherly uses 7-foot Shakespeare Tiger rods and Penn 310 reels; the latter has have a levered free-spool, characteristic of big-game equipment.
In the winter, Matherly runs the river in a pontoon boat that can be equipped with a cover and warmed with a propane heater. In the winter, the river is not as high as in the spring, but higher than in summer.
"In August, we'd need a jonboat and a 25-horse engine to maneuver around the sandbars," he said.
According to Matherly, the Pee Dee can be broken into three sections.
• The uppermost, above the I-95 bridge, is relatively shallow, rocky and swifter than below the bridge.
• The section near Florence, Matherly said, is quite like the section above I-95.
• Closer to Georgetown, the river is tidal.
"In the tidal area, catfish are found in holes 40- to 60-feet deep, and that's the area where the biggest catfish are caught.
Top-to-bottom, the Great Pee Dee is an overlooked spot to catch both numbers and trophy catfish. The principal catfish are blues and flatheads, but there are channel cats as well.
In winter or early spring, the Great Pee Dee is also underfished. Want to catch a big catfish and never see another angler? Maybe tie your ankle to the boat lest you get dragged off the boat.