Dial up South Carolina’s river monsters

The Wateree and Congaree rivers offer miles and miles of opportunities for fishermen to do battle with big catfish, striped bass, especially in late spring.

Rivers are an often-overlooked fishing resource in the Carolinas, and the truth is, some rivers are loaded with monster catfish and stripers that receive relatively low fishing pressure.

Such is the case with the two South Carolina waterways, the Wateree and Congaree rivers, with a combined length of approximately 120 miles of fishing opportunities. The best part is a lot of these river monsters can live undisturbed in long stretches of remote and not-heavily fished water.

The Congaree begins at the confluence of the Saluda and Broad rivers, the Wateree starts below Wateree Dam. Both rivers roll down highly serpentine courses over rocky shoals and debris-laden river bends in the upper reaches. They merge, forming the Santee River in the upper end of Lake Marion in a coastal-plain topography of sandbars, high bluffs and large floodplains.

Their junction in the Santee Cooper system is one key to the outstanding fishing. The system is home to legendary sized catfish and stripers, and water flow in these rivers attracts these big fish.

Justin Whiteside of Rock Hill, S.C., has fished these rivers his entire life and guides on them when water conditions are right. He and his clients have enjoyed many up-close-and-personal experiences with river monsters.

“To me, river monsters can be associated with catfish and stripers in excess of 30 pounds,” he said. “Make no mistake, we’ve caught a lot of catfish much, much larger than 30 pounds, but that’s a reasonable goal on any trip. While 30-pound stripers are certainly unusual, we’ve caught and released several stripers that size over the years, and I’ve caught one striper over 40 pounds from the Congaree River. But the opportunity to hook big stripers at this time of the year exists. Catching stripers 30 inches or better is a distinct possibility.”

On one half-day trip in May 2018, Whiteside and two anglers boated three catfish over 30 pounds, along with two more over 20. Also, two stripers over 30 inches were caught and released. Two more river monsters of unknown species were hooked that couldn’t be turned.

Whiteside (803-417-0070) said definable fishing patterns exist to enable anglers find these river monsters, and generically, the same type of places work on either river.

“Both species are highly attracted to eddy water in rivers, and the places I target are simply anything that creates an eddy,” he said. “We often catch both species from the same spot.”

The top-end for river catfish is extremely big because the Congaree and Wateree are directly connected to the Santee Cooper lakes.
The top-end for river catfish is extremely big because the Congaree and Wateree are directly connected to the Santee Cooper lakes.

Prime targets for Whiteside include the confluence of creeks with the rivers, and even ditches or drainages with a good flow after a heavy rain will produce the desired eddy effect. Also, logs, downed trees, rocks or other obstructions in the water create fish-catching opportunities. Downstream points of islands and deep holes are potential hotspots for both species.

Whiteside said water flow varies considerably, even daily, this time of year, so places where eddies existed on one trip may be dry or covered by several feet of water the next. The productive areas are limited only by an angler’s imagination and ability to break the daily “eddy code” on the river.

Whiteside said his basic technique is to anchor-fish; he drops an anchor upstream of his intended target and drifts to where he wants the boat positioned. If fishing a creek mouth, he’ll set up to be able to fish the water where the creek and river meet and work the eddy. He’ll also work rigs work further downstream, frequently using balloon rigs to target a specific eddy.

“I specifically target each species in some ways,” he said. “For stripers, I often use a smaller hook and bottom-fishing rig and also often fish small, live shad on free-lines. Sometimes, I’ll add a small split-shot to get the bait a little deeper in the water column.

“Stripers are much more likely to be found throughout the water column, and we’ll catch them on the bottom as well as on the free-lines close to the surface,” he said. “Live shad and herring are prime baits for stripers, but we catch a lot of stripers fishing cut shad and herring on the bottom on smaller rigs. Small baits will catch big stripers in these rivers.”

Whiteside also uses planer boards from an anchored position to get live baits up on gravel and sand bars to target stripers.

“I’ll use planer boards to fish close to bushes and other cover near the shoreline too,” he said. “It’s a great tactic that produces some big stripers.”

To target catfish, Whiteside prefers big baits and big hooks and typically uses cut bait with gizzard shad, threadfin shad, herring, white perch and bream. He serves a smorgasbord of baits on multiple rods early in the day, looking for the preferred bait. Some days it’s crucial to have just the right bait, but often, they’ll all produce well.

Bait is a key on the Wateree and Congaree rivers; use big baits to target catfish and downsize when targeting stripers.
Bait is a key on the Wateree and Congaree rivers; use big baits to target catfish and downsize when targeting stripers.

Another excellent setup Whiteside employs is fishing submerged debris mid-river that he marks on his graph. He anchors so the boat is almost directly over the cover, because the fish maybe holding immediately downstream in the water below the obstruction or actually in the debris.

“Usually, they’ll stage just below the debris, but on some days, I’ll have to fish almost vertically into the cover, because that’s where the fish are,” he said. “To get the line down near vertical will require heavier sinkers than if casting downstream of the target.”

Whiteside said the entire length of both rivers provides excellent fishing, but water and weather conditions play a role in where he begins his search.

“After years of fishing and studying these rivers, I’ve learned that when the water is high and current flow strong, the big fish seem to be drawn further up the rivers,” he said. “During late April and May, the water level may also be reasonably stable and the current flow average. In those instances, I’ve found the middle and lower ends to be the best choices.”

Whiteside said many of the stripers caught are in the typical size-class of the Santee Cooper lakes’ fish: 23 to 32 inches. But much larger stripers can be caught.

Whiteside always he carries extra fuel in case he needs to make a long run to remote areas to fish.

“Getting to remote areas for monster-sized fish is a part of the adventure of fishing these rivers,” he said. “It may require effort to get to the right places, but I love the process of searching for and finding these big fish.”

He said when a huge, hard charging catfish or striper is hooked in the river current, it creates a challenge and fish-fighting adventure an angler will long remember.

Get away from the crowd for big fish

Stripers and catfish are often caught from the same spots in the Wateree and Congaree rivers because both species are attracted to eddies where they can feed out of the current.
Stripers and catfish are often caught from the same spots in the Wateree and Congaree rivers because both species are attracted to eddies where they can feed out of the current.

The Wateree and Congaree rivers offer anglers incredibly productive fishing for outlandish-sized stripers and catfish. Justin Whiteside said they are accessible with the right equipment and effort.

“The more remote you’re willing to go, the less pressure the stripers and catfish receive,” he said. “That’s another of the things I love about these rivers; I can still get away from the crowds. Combined, they offer a vast amount of water, much of it requiring effort or planning on the part of fisherman to access the remote areas. The flip side of this means the resources available for catching giant catfish and stripers is practically unlimited.”

Access information for the Congaree River is available online, and one site with access information is www.sctrails.net/trails/trail/congaree-river-blue. For the Wateree River, check www.sctrails.net/trails/trail/wateree-river-blue.

Make sure you know the fishing rules and regulations for fishing these rivers before going. As part of the Santee Cooper system, specific regulations apply.

About Terry Madewell 809 Articles
Award-winning writer and photographer Terry Madewell of Ridgeway, S.C., has been an outdoors writer for more than 30 years. He has a degree in wildlife and fisheries management and has a long career as a professional wildlife biologist/natural resources manager.