The underrated channel cat

When targeting channel catfish at Lake Wateree, anglers can expect some small blues as a bonus. (Photo by Terry Madewell)

Channel catfish are great fighters and excellent table fare

The surge in popularity of fishing for big catfish, especially blues and flatheads, has changed the dynamics of catfishing in the Carolinas for many anglers, especially those new to the sport of catfishing.

But one constant remains from the past, and is often overlooked by fishermen, and that’s the channel catfish. 

Displaced to an extent by blue catfish in some waters, channel catfish have adapted and continue to be found in big numbers and reasonable sizes. And they’re still doing what they did prior to the big catfish explosion.

Channel catfish produce outstanding fishing for hard-fighting catfish and are often found and caught in big numbers in hot weather. And they are excellent table fare. 

Most lakes and rivers in the Carolinas have strong populations of channel catfish. Here’s a few of the top spots and how experts fish them.

Lake Murray

For the past several years, a top target for hooking double-digit sized channel catfish has been Lake Murray. This lake boasts an excellent population of channel and blue catfish, and sports a good population of flatheads. But channel catfish are a strong summertime favorite because they’re caught in both quality and quantity.

Lake Murray catfish guide William Attaway said the fishing is good throughout the summer. But the biggest issue is a lot of boat traffic, especially on the weekends.

“During the week, I suggest fishermen get out early and fish the first few hours to avoid recreational boat traffic,” Attaway said. “I prefer the upper end of the lake because depths are better for fishing. From the Dreher Island area, and up lake, depths are reasonable for fishing points, ledges, and humps. Plenty of these shallow humps are found in the upper end of the lake, and are surrounded by deeper water. These are prime channel catfish hotspots. I’ll often anchor in the shallower area and fan cast around the hump until I find the hotspot.”

Attaway (803-924-0857; Slick Willie’s Guide Service on Facebook) said in the past, he’s guided clients at night, targeting channel and blue catfish.

William Attaway said channel catfish provide excellent action during the summer months on Lake Murray. (Photo by Terry Madewell)

“I don’t do much night fishing anymore on Lake Murray, but it’s highly effective and not difficult,” he said. “Fishing at night significantly reduces boat traffic issues. I’d target points, especially points that slope gently with deep water at the end. I’d anchor and cast baits in all directions, from the shallows to the deeper water. I’d usually set up just before sunset so I could get organized and get rigs out just before dark. Often after sunset, but before it’s totally dark, there’ll be a flurry of catfish activity.”

Attaway said he recommends the commercial brands of stink bait as an ideal bait, along with small chunks of cut shad or other forage fish. Catalpa worms are always a great bait for fast-action when you can find them.

For specifically targeting channel catfish, the stink baits are highly effective. While on some nights he caught mostly channel catfish, other nights he’d have a good mixture of channel and blue cats. Attaway said the channel catfish average between 6- to 12-pounds apiece. He said double-digit sized channel catfish are a reasonable goal.

Attaway begins most days fishing humps, ledges, and points.

“During the summer, most of the fish will be in the 10- to 25-foot depth range,” he said. “That puts the fish in a very catchable depth range for most fishermen. I prefer Doc’s Catfish Getter Dip Bait. Anglers can use commercially prepared rigs for fishing dip baits or take a piece of sponge material, such as swimming noodles cut into strips, to hold the stink bait. I prefer a single, large 6/0 circle hook instead of the treble hook that many anglers use. I get a generous amount of bait on the rig and fan cast the baits around the boat in different depths unit I find a pattern. Generally, if channel catfish are around, they’ll be biting quickly.”

Santee Cooper lakes

Lake Moultrie holds the world record for channel catfish, but because of the world-class fishery for trophy blue catfish, channel cats have become an under-utilized resource at both Santee Cooper lakes. But it’s a fishery that still provides outstanding action.

Both lakes teem with channel catfish, and similar tactics work on both lakes. 

Levi Kaczka, former Fisheries Coordinator for the S.C. Department of Natural Resources for the Santee Cooper lakes, said the channel catfish population is thriving. Biological data supports his words.

“We’ve seen a relatively steady increase in catch rates of channel catfish from our gillnet studies since 2010,” Kaczka said. “The blue catfish population, through competition, seems to be placing a limit on the top-end size of channel catfish.”

Many Carolina lakes produce quality channel catfish action that’s often overlooked. (Photo by Terry Madewell)

He said the channel cat fishery is excellent, with many fish in the 2- to 5-pound class. Netting samples indicate 10- to 12-pound channel catfish are plentiful, and 20+pound channel catfish are caught.

“The channel catfish population could actually handle more fishing pressure than it’s currently receiving,” Kaczka said.

Mike Cox, from Bonneau, SC has mastered the art of catching channel catfish on these lakes.

“Like any catfish, the key is figuring what and where they’re eating,” Cox said. “I fish flats and ledges adjacent to deeper water, and I’ll also work the deeper channels. Points are good, and a textbook channel catfish point on Santee Cooper is a long point that drops gradually into deep water. If one side of the point has a steep drop into deep water, that’s better. It provides the channel catfish quick and easy access from the deep to the shallow water for a longer distance.”

Productive depths vary, but he’ll often find channel cats in shallow water early and late in the day. He often fishes from an anchored setup, and he’ll cast rigs in water depths ranging from 3 feet deep down to 15 to 20 feet deep.

“When prospecting for the right depth, I don’t make assumptions of where they may be,” he said. “When I get the pattern, the action is fast. When it slows, I may only have to move 100 yards to get into another group of biting fish.”

Cox found that downsizing the rig, line, and terminal tackle size from what he employs for blues makes the fish-fighting more enjoyable, and he literally catches more fish.

His rig consists of 12- to 15-pound test line, a 1-ounce sliding sinker above a swivel, and an 18-inch leader. The rig is fished on the bottom.

For more information on the Santee Cooper lakes and channel catfish, contact Santee Cooper Country at 803-854-2131. 

Clarks Hill Lake

Clarks Hill Lake offers an excellent summertime opportunity to catch lots of chunky channel catfish during hot weather.

Clarks Hill is known for producing excellent blue and flathead catfish action, but the channel catfish here are abundant and healthy. And they are willing to bite extremely well in hot weather.

Catfish guide Chris Simpson said the lake is full of big blue and flathead catfish, but many of his favorite summertime trips are those targeting channel cats.  

“We’ve got a large population of fat channel catfish, and they’ll be found throughout the lake this time of year,” he said. “They tend to relate to the points and humps off the main Savannah River channel, and to similar features in the larger tributaries, such as the Little River.” 

Channel catfish are among the smallest cats in the Carolinas, but they’re still fun and challenging to catch. (Photo by Terry Madewell)

Simpson said targeting channel catfish is a great opportunity for fast action and multiple hookups with hard-fighting fish.

“Pound-for-pound, channel catfish are strong, and when hooked to a 5-pound channel catfish, many fishermen think they’re attached to a double digit-sized blue,” he said. “It’s a great resource.”

Simpson (864-992-2352, FightinDaBlues.com) said stink baits are prime offerings for his summertime fishing. His list of favorites includes Doc’s Catfish Getter Dip Bait, as well as small chunks of cut bait and nightcrawlers.

“Channel cats weighing into double-digit sizes are very realistic,” he said. “The channel cat fishery is strong at this lake, and probably under-utilized.”

Lake Wateree

The channel catfish has long been a prime catfish species on Lake Wateree, and while the catch rates are down because of the explosion of blue catfish in this lake, the channel catfish numbers still rate as a high-value target species. 

Chuck Porter of Sumter, SC, is a veteran Lake Wateree angler and remembers when the lake was known as a prime channel catfishing lake, prior to the blue catfish surge.

Bait selection is important for channel catfish. Catalpa worms are a prime bait for summertime action. (Photo by Terry Madewell)

Porter said multiple methods are used to fish Lake Wateree.

“One way is to anchor on points and humps, especially early and late in the day,” he said. “Low light conditions are prime time for hooking lots of channel catfish.”

He said the entire lake is productive during the summer, with channel catfish scattered throughout the lake.

“When fishing from an anchored setup slows, I’ll drift fish, using the Santee Rig. And I’ll downsize the hooks and weights,” he said. “Covering more water is ideal for channel catfish, along with the occasional blue catfish. Smaller blues are a bonus. They basically can’t be avoided when targeting channel catfish at Lake Wateree.”

During July and August, the lake typically stratifies, developing a thermocline at around 20 to 22 feet deep. So Porter works that depth, and shallower, for consistent action. This holds true even in the heat of the day. 

All these lakes, and really many others not named here, provide excellent channel catfishing opportunities in the Carolinas. For fast-paced action, it’s ideal for kids and family fishing. 

The High Rock Stroll

When Maynard Edwards of Lexington, NC guided on High Rock Lake, he used a technique he called “strolling,” which was trolling at a slow pace. This was his go-to method for catching channel catfish at High Rock. 

Edwards’ strolling tactic worked best when using the right equipment and when anglers follow one key piece of advice.

“You want a rod tip that has a little give to it. Otherwise, you’ll rip the hook out of a channel cat’s mouth. I like a 7-foot, fiberglass rod with a flexible tip,” he said.

For line, Edwards prefers 20- to 25-pound monofilament. He puts two rods in the corners of his stern. These rods utilize planer boards to get the bait out away from the boat. He likes No. 8 circle hooks on these rods.

He places four more rods in rod holders on the sides of his boat, and uses a Santee rig on these rods, finished off with 5/0 or 6/0 Kahle hooks

“When it comes to bait, I like using the middle section or the head of about a 6-inch gizzard shad. Don’t use the tails; they’ll twist your line up,” he said.

With his rods ready, Edwards slowly trolls the river section of High Rock, starting in water about 4 feet deep, then strolling out to the main river or big creeks in water ranging from 10 to 15 feet deep. He’ll also start out in the backs of creeks in shallow water, then stroll out to the deeper water.

“It’s a good way to get eating-sized channel catfish. Most will be 3 to 5 pounds, but you’ll catch some on up to 8 or 9 pounds often enough. And there’s always a chance to get a trophy channel in the 15-pound range. High Rock is a good lake for channel catfish, and it’s been getting better and better for years,” he said. 

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.

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