Veteran guide’s October tactics mix stripers, catfish
October creates a delightful problem for many Santee Cooper fishermen, a simple situation of too many options for great fishing.
One high-octane option is striper fishing, with the keeper season opening Oct. 1 after a 3 ½-month closure. The second is catfishing, with awesome action for numbers of fish. And the potential for trophy catfish explodes exponentially in October.
And leave it to someone named “Mouse” to build a better “fish trap.”
Barbara “Mouse” Witherell, the only female guide on the Santee Cooper lakes, has plotted a process to catch both species without diminishing the potential of catching either.
Mouse, a guide?
Witherell has been guiding on Lake Marion and Lake Moultrie since 1998. She said the decision to begin guiding was a natural and logical one.
“I loved to fish and was fishing all the time since my husband, Boudreaux, was traveling a lot for work,” she said. “Boudreaux said my fishing hobby was getting too expensive, and I needed to make some money at it, so I did.”
Witherell said when she first began guiding, other fishing guides formed a betting pool on how long she would last.
“The longest bet was 18 months,” she said. “That was 20 years ago. Funny, many of them don’t guide anymore.”
She got the moniker “Mouse” for good reasons too.
“When I was old enough to start dating, I was so small, I wore size 3 shoes, and people also said I had mousy ears and attitude,” she said. “And the name just fit.”
She was the catalyst for creation of the Cajun Guide Service that she now shares with Boudreaux.
“By 2005, he had grown tired of the road and wanted to start guiding,” she said, “so I hired him. We fished for catfish a lot at the beginning. We were targeting catfish before catfishing became cool.”
She said with the striper population booming in recent years, working that hard-fighting species into her fishing scheme was crucial.
“With the new creel and slot limit, stripers are a great species to target,” she said. “During October, it’s especially exciting, because we can effectively target both catfish and stripers.
Pair them up
Witherell said a lot of effort goes into finding areas holding large concentrations of both species, but they share a strong similarity, and she describes both as eating machines.
“Find the favorite food of a fish, and you’ll find that fish,” she said. “Then figure out the best way to catch it.”
Witherell said both stripers and catfish have shad at the top of their gourmet forage list, so that’s the common denominator.
“With a little effort, fishermen can find areas where both species are present and foraging,” she said. “We’ve learned that fishing along deeper channels and drifting over humps and drops are prime targets for both species.”
She uses the wind to keep the boat on a predetermined course, and she’ll pull catfish rods off the front as the pontoon boat drifts backwards with the wind, using sea anchors as needed to govern the speed. She employs multiple down-rods rigged for stripers.
Witherell said that, although she’s covering the same surface water, catfish and stripers are found at different levels in the water column, so the different rigs cause no interference.
Patterns and Rigs
Witherell prefers to start the day early and hope to have fish hooked by sunrise.
“It’s not always critical to be fishing at dawn, but the early morning can produce a strong striper bite, and big catfish are likely to bite anytime,” she said. “I want to be on the water early, just in case.”
Witherell will fish several rods with the standard Santee rig system — a Carolina rig with a small crappie float threaded onto the leader — to target catfish.
“These rigs bump the bottom, and I’ll use white perch, gizzard shad and blueback herring, cut or whole baits,” she said. “And I change baits regularly. For stripers, I’ll fish vertically at various depths with live blueback herring. I’ll watch my graph to see the depth stripers are holding, and I usually fish between 12 to 20 feet deep until I determine a depth pattern for the day. Fresh, lively bait is crucial for stripers.”
Stripers are schooling fish and often bite in bunches, while catfish are usually caught on a steady bite.
“But having both hooked at the same time is not uncommon,” she said.
“It takes more effort to use this system, but I love it,” she said. “I wake up every day excited to go fishing, and I believe to be a successful guide a passion for fishing is crucial. If we’re enjoying the day so will everyone on the boat.”