Calling summer catfish

Don’t put your tackle when June arrives; just put your bull’s-eye on channel catfish in the shallows of three South Carolina lakes.

Around Memorial Day, as schools let out, many anglers sigh deeply and put aside any thoughts of serious fishing and relinquish lakes to the recreational crowd. It’s also the time when many freshwater fish vacate the shallows and warming water for more-moderate climates.

Fishermen considering throwing in the towel for the summmer are missing out on some of the best, eating-sized catfish action to be found. Water temperatures in the mid-70s and higher are not only not a problem for channel catfish and smaller blue catfish in the 2- to 10-pound range, those fish flood the shallows at random times, seeking out whatever they can find to eat. For these small-time scavengers that means there isn’t much that’s not on the menu.

Hank Lyles of Fountain Inn, S.C., can be found on weekdays turning wrenches as a marine mechanic, but soon as his week ends, it’s a sure bet he’ll be in his boat with rods, trolling for catfish. He picks Monticello, Greenwood and Murray as his favorite South Carolina lakes for summer catfish.

“Monticello is a lot different than any of the other catfish lakes in the state,” Lyles said. “Catfish can be anywhere, anytime, probably because of the water movement pumped into the lake from the Broad River. You might find fish 60 to 70 feet deep one day and 3 to 5 feet deep the next.”

A Greenwood channel cat couldn’t resist the offering being trolled by the author.
A Greenwood channel cat couldn’t resist the offering being trolled by the author.

Greenwood and Murray fish similarly; the bottom topography and tributary system are similar, although Murray is much, much bigger. On both lakes, Lyles is staying near the shorelines of the main lake, or he may work into one of the tributaries if the bottom has a lot of up and down to it.

“Like I said, you put your time in on Monticello to find fish; Greenwood and Murray are easier to pattern, and I’ll target water that’s 5 to 25 feet deep when I’m fishing those two lakes, making sure I’m crossing a lot of long points and over humps as I go,” he said.

Regardless of the lake he’s fishing, Lyles will slow-troll a variety of baits, using a drift rig and some medium-heavy tackle in his search for fish.

“I mostly use a variation of the Santee drift rig with a slinky weight that a buddy up in Rock Hill makes for me,” he said. “It’s the standard rig with a three-way swivel. One eye goes to the 20-pound main line, one to the weight and the third has a length of 30-pound leader with a crappie float pegged in-line and a 5/0 to 7/0 hook.”

Lyles admits slinky weights are not as critical as they would be if he were fishing one of the Santee Cooper lakes or the canal that connects them. He said anglers who don’t want to use the slinky weight can use a regular bell sinker or an inverted, no-roll sinker, just make sure the fat part of the no-roll is the leading edge so it won’t wedge into a rock or other obstruction.

“I cast my rigs, and when I do that, I’ve found the slinky weights often tangle with the bait leader. Best to just let that line out with the reel in free spool and count off 60 to 70 feet, more if you are fishing deeper water and maybe not so much if you’re in the shallows,” he said.

While the tackle may be a bit stout for the 2- to 5-pound channel cats that make up most catches, he’s glad he’s got the beef when a 25-pound blue or even larger flathead decide to take the bait.

Though he often refers to his style of catfishing as drifting, nine times out of 10, he’s using a variable speed trolling motor to propel the boat forward at about .5 mph. In fact, he ‘d rather troll into the wind rather than with is to control boat speed.

Lyles’ baits of choice are white perch, bream, gizzard shad or stinkbaits. He cuts the fish into bite-sized pieces and uses the stinkbaits smeared on a chunk of Styrofoam pool noodle about the same size as the cut baits.

Preparing stinkbaits requires a medium, such as a slice of pool noodle, to adhere to so the bait stays on the hook.
Preparing stinkbaits requires a medium, such as a slice of pool noodle, to adhere to so the bait stays on the hook.

“The cut bait works better in cooler water,” he said. “In fact, the water has to be at least 60 degrees before the stinkbaits will stick to the noodle. I use either Charlie’s or Doc’s catfish bait, and I prefer the blood-flavored stink baits.”

Lyles said white perch is his favorite bait, followed by bream, at Monticello. Like any fisherman he experiments with different baits and has used shrimp and blueback herring, but his experience has shown perch and bream to be the most productive.

Bream and stinkbaits are his choices at Greenwood and Murray, rolling over into all stinkbait as the summer rolls on and the water heats up.

“Those stank baits will surprise you,” Lyles said. “You’re catching 2- to 5-pounders, and all the sudden the rod bows over with a 8-pounder, even the occasional 10- to 12-pound channel.”

Join the night (crawler) patrol for summer catfish

Trolling on the bottom for catfish has netted a lot of good fish through the years. Big cats can’t resist a piece of cut bait that’s tumbling just off the bottom. Veteran fisherman Hank Lyles said the opposite is also true, trolling baits that never touch the bottom.

“I hit on the idea of trolling a whole night crawler under a cork a couple years ago,” he said. “You’d be surprised at how many big catfish will lay up in 3 or 4 feet of water during the summer — and I mean during the middle of the day.”

To keep from spooking shallow fish, Lyles pulls a pegged crappie float with a split shot between the float and hook. He can set the float so the bait rolls along about a foot off the bottom and slow-troll sandy stretches of bank where frequent wave-wash from boat traffic continually washes the bank. He uses a No. 1 or No. 2 hook under the rig.

The wave action is enough to call catfish into the extreme shallows, and a trolling run along a mudline can be great.

“I guess the waves and commotion washes a lot of worms and mussels loose,” said Lyles. “The other bonus to this kind of trolling is that you wind up catching a good number of big shellcrackers that are hanging out in the same area.”

About Phillip Gentry 821 Articles
Phillip Gentry of Waterloo, S.C., is an avid outdoorsman and said if it swims, flies, hops or crawls, he's usually not too far behind.