The fast-paced, multi-species action begins in September and runs through March, peaking in December and January.
According to guide Chris Simpson from Ninety Six, December is prime time to sample Lake Murray's catfish action. A primary reason, he said, is that the four distinct species of catfish are found in catchable numbers, and all of them are chomping down on various baits. The blue, flathead, channel and white catfish are all frequently caught in good numbers, and that adds up to a sensational opportunity for catching the "catfish quad."
"A lot of fishermen are missing some outstanding fishing by not fishing Lake Murray during the late fall and winter," Simpson said. "For me, it's ideal, because by fishing primarily the same basic pattern, I have a great opportunity to catch four different species of catfish - all of them in excellent sizes for their species.
"While fishermen have known for a number of years that the channel and white catfish offer excellent fishing, many don't realize that the blue and flathead catfish populations are so good in this lake," Simpson said. "The channel catfish and white catfish have been the mainstay in the past, but in recent years, the blue catfish in particular have made a phenomenal run, and there are a couple of year-classes of fish that are abundant. There's one year-class of blues that averages in the 14- to 18-pound class, and another class of fish that's in the 22- to 25-pound class. A lot of blue catfish in these sizes classes are caught consistently."
Simpson said that in addition, fishing for channel cats has improved over the past few years, and the average size of those fish are in the 7- to 12-pound class, and they account for about half of what he caches on a daily basis.
"The channel catfish action has gotten much better and I think rivals any channel catfishing in the state right now," Simpson said. "Channel catfish of this size are great-fighting fish, and when you mix in the possibilities on a typical day of catching several of the bigger blues, along with a very good chance of catch either the white or flathead catfish, you have an outstanding fishery.
"Nearly every trip, we'll catch three different species of catfish, and on some trips we catch all four species. There are not many places where you can do that, but it's a distinct possibility at Lake Murray at this time of the year."
According to Simpson, white catfish and flatheads are caught in the fewest numbers, but the positive side is that both species are caught in good sizes; Murray can still claim the state-record white catfish, a 9-pound, 15-ounce fish. Simpson said he still catches a lot of white catfish in the 5- and 6-pound class - and occasionally even larger.
"Plus, the flatheads - while not quite as abundant as the other species - are frequently caught and some of them are really large," he said.
Fisheries biologists with the S.C. Department of Natural Resources said catfishing is growing at a pace almost faster than they can keep up with.
Biologist Ron Ahle said that, based on SCDNR data, Lake Murray has blossomed into one of the better catfish fisheries in the state in recent years.
"Lake Murray is now a lake with the legitimate potential to produce specimens of at least four different major catfish species," Ahle said. "Historically, the white catfish was the dominate species, with some channel catfish available as well. Then, for a while, the channel and white catfish co-existed in good numbers and offered a solid fishery here for catfish anglers.
"However, in recent years, both blue and flatheads have taken hold, and their numbers are certainly on the increase. While the blue and flathead catfish were not stocked (by SCDNR), they are certainly being caught in Lake Murray."
Ahle said SCDNR has documented some good-sized blue catfish, but they seldom see flatheads in their surveys.
"I think we're not checking the specific habitat for the flatheads, but we do see them being caught by anglers more and more," he said. "They are here, increasing in numbers and sizes, and are certainly part of the future for fishing for Lake Murray."
Simpson concentrates his efforts in the upper half of the lake because it has depths more-effectively fished, and that's where the majority of the bait goes during colder weather.
"There's a lot of striper fishermen in the upper end of the lake, and that's a good indicator of where the forage is," he said. "Find the forage - which for Lake Murray is threadfin and gizzard shad, plus the blueback herring - and you'll find catfish close by.
"In addition, the depth and bottom contours are simply at more workable depths for my style of fishing," Simpson said. "I key on depths in the 30- to 60-foot range; the productive depth can change dramatically even from one day to the next."
Simpson's primary pattern is to drift-fish; his underwater targets are channel ledges along the main river, as well as humps, underwater islands and creek and river junctions.
"The key is to find the forage in a given area and see some larger signals on the graph near them, indicating the presence of larger fish that often turn out to be catfish" Simpson said. "The majority of my fishing is drift-fishing, and a good drift pace is usually about .4 to .7 miles per hour. If you connect with several fish on a good drift, drift back over the same or nearby area. If you work an area and don't get bites, then change up and move either up or down the lake a couple of miles."
"Another frequent occurrence is the depth the forage fish will hold," he said. "I often find threadfin and gizzard shad at a specific depth, for example, 30 feet," Simpson said. "But sometimes that area will not produce much action. If I go to deeper water, I can usually find herring, but they will be as much as 15 to 20 feet deeper. Drifting those areas, I'll often find the catfish I'm looking for.
"When fishing that deep, there are no real patterns in terms of what causes the fish to be deeper one day than the other; neither bright nor overcast days provide a direct link to the depth I'll find the fish. If I do not get the bites I want, then I change my depth to shallower or deeper and find the different forage. I have noted that the blue catfish - in particular the larger blues - will often be orienting to the herring in deeper water."
"I recommend drift-fishing using cut shad, perch, bream or herring," he said. "The basic drift rig I use is similar to other lakes: about a 3-foot leader with an 8/0 circle hook. Above the swivel, I use a drift sinker in the 1¼- to 1½-ounce weight to keep the rig in contact with the bottom. I usually make them myself, filling parachute cord with big shot to get the weight I want. My rods are 7-foot Ugly Sticks with 25- to 30-pound Berkley Big Game and a 50-pound leader. I use a 3-inch float on the leader about a foot to 18 inches from the hook to keep the bait just off the bottom, right at eyeball level for those big catfish.
"I use my graph and look for a place where there's a lot of baitfish and big fish marked on the bottom."
Anyplace a fisherman can reasonably expect, on any given day, to catch blue and flatheads in the 15- to 25-pound class, channel catfish commonly over 10 pounds and white catfish over five pounds, has to rank near the top of the catfishing opportunities anytime of the year.
The good news is that the time is now, and Lake Murray is the destination.
According to guide Chris Simpson, flatheads are the least numerous of the catfish species he catches on Lake Murray, but they are still caught in reasonable numbers and excellent sizes.
"One of the issues is that flatheads generally like different baits and different presentations of baits than do the other species," he said. "I do catch them drifting cut bait, which is my common method of fishing at this time of the year. Drift-fishing gives me a realistic chance of catching any of the four species including a good chance at a flathead.
"But if I want to specifically key on flatheads on Lake Murray, I go about it a bit different."
Simpson said to focus on flatheads, the first thing he does is use whole baits.
"I'll often use a whole shad, herring, bream or perch instead of cut bait, and that alone will increase the odds for catching a big flathead, even while drifting," he said. "If I have some live bait of any of the above species, that further increases the odds. I commonly do that just to target a flathead if a client really wants to catch all four species on a given day.
"But if I want to single out a big flathead, I will actually anchor on the ledges, points and humps in the same basic depths of water with the same pattern of baitfish. But I will fan-cast whole, live baits around the boat and wait on the flatheads to come to me. They are unique from the other three species in that anchoring is the best technique if you want to single out a big flathead.
"But we still catch a reasonable number of flatheads drifting with whole baits and often a big blue doesn't hesitate to take a whole bait either."
Biologists, fishermen agree: white catfish may be declining
According to Ron Ahle, an SCDNR fisheries biologist who oversees Lake Murray, while all four species of catfish are being caught in good numbers and sizes, there is one trend that he has noticed in their annual sampling of fish species on the lake.
"Historically, the catfish population was dominated by white catfish and channel catfish," Ahle said. "We began catching some blues in our studies six or seven years ago as well. Much of our information on the flatheads has been thorough reports from fishermen, but we've seen enough to know they are doing well in the lake and seem to be expanding. The blue catfish in particular seem to be rapidly expanding their numbers and increasing their average size.
"However the fishing for these four major species of catfish appears to come at a cost," he said. "White catfish numbers are diminishing a bit, based on our studies. They're still present in good numbers and good sizes, but with the other catfish species coming on strong, something has to give, and right now our data shows it's the while catfish."
Guide Chris Simpson concurs from a fishing standpoint. He keeps meticulous records and has come to the same conclusion as Ahle.
"I keep accurate records of what I catch, and I have documented in the past several years (that) the catch rate of white catfish has dropped," he said. "We still catch them nearly every trip - and in good sizes for that species - but they do not constitute the same percent of the catch as they did five or six years ago."
Ahle said some good news is that the channel catfish are doing very well based on studies.
"The channel catfish seem to be doing exceptionally well and they are a good indicator species in terms of the overall health of the catfishing in Lake Murray," he said. "But for now, all four species are here and very catchable."
HOW TO GET THERE - Accessing Lake Murray is easy, being roughly between I-20 and I-26 and surrounded by Lexington, Chapin, Gilbert, Prosperity and Irmo. Public boat ramps line the lake's shoreline. With the best catfishing action in December in the upper half of the lake, a handful of ramps are convenient: Dreher Island State Park (off State Park Rd. in Prosperity), Riverbend (on Riverbend Rd. off US 378 in Lexington), Lake Murray Shores (off Holly Ferry Rd., in Leesville) and Lake Murray Estates (off Mt. Willing Rd. in Saluda).
WHEN TO GO - Lake Murray catfishing is productive from fall through spring, but December and January are prime times to catch all four species.
BEST TECHNIQUES - Drift at 0.4 to 0.7 miles per hour over channel ledges, humps and creek and river junctions. Best baits will be cut herring, shad, bream or perch. For big flatheads, use whole bait and live if available on at least one or two rods.
GUIDES/FISHING INFO - Chris Simpson, 864-992-2352, www.fightindablues.com. See also GUIDES & CHARTERS in Classifieds.