Tips for catching big, blue catfish on Lake Wylie during the winter

Guide Rodger Taylor of Rock Hill, S.C., has been catching big blue catfish at Lake Wylie for numerous Januaries. (Photo by Terry Madewell)

Burgeoning population of blue catfish at this lake on the border between the two Carolinas has made January more than just a post-holiday month.

The waters of Lake Wylie flow through North Carolina and South Carolina and are a great year-round catfish destination, but the cold months of winter are consistently productive. 

January weather can be brutal, but the potential reward is enjoying an outstanding catfish bite. 

Guide Rodger Taylor of Rock Hill, S.C., said January is a prime time for trophy blue catfish as well as excellent numbers of fish. He should know. He’s been guiding full-time on Wylie for 15 years.

(Photo by Terry Madewell)

“Winter is a favorite time for catching big blue catfish, but it’s also excellent for numbers of fish in the 6- to 14-pound class,” he said. “It’s an ideal combination of quality and quantity of catfish”

Taylor said January catfish patterns vary depending on where anglers fish.

“The lower end of Lake Wylie is a big-water, open-lake type of fishery with lots of humps, points and ledges as well as the deep water of the main Catawba River channel,” he said. “This is a prime area for many anglers in January. The upper end of the lake produces excellent fishing but is more of a river-fishing environment, and some tactics are slightly different for winter fishing.”  

Taylor typically begins his fishing day in the lower end of the lake.

“The lower end fits my style of winter fishing,” Taylor said. “I have more targets such as deep water and plenty of points and humps that go from shallow to deep water quickly.”

(Photo by Terry Madewell)

He will generally start fishing deep early in the day, with deep defined as 25 to 40 feet of water. He drifts and anchors, depending on the specific circumstances. He’ll be graphing for forage and catfish, and typically, he’ll find an area with plenty of fish between Crowder and Allison creeks on the lake’s southwestern shoreline. 

“Wind direction and speed varies, and I’ll adapt to what we have, but I love a north wind about 7 miles per hour,” he said. “I can drift fish for up to a mile and consistently catch quality blue catfish. If we go a while without getting bit or seeing what I want on the graph, we’ll pull the rods and make that drift again and typically get back into fish.

“At this time of the year, catfish can get concentrated into a general area of the lake and be quite depth-specific,” he said. “That depth varies daily but my January sweet spot depth to begin the day would be 30 to 35 feet deep.”

Taylor searches other areas if the action slows, and he drifts where he finds fish. As mid-afternoon approaches, he’ll check points and humps in the lower end of creeks including Big Allison, Little Allison, Crowders and some smaller ones. He’ll also fish areas where he finds bird activity.

“I trust cormorants and gulls to show me where shad are located by where they’re feeding,” he said. “My ideal technique is to anchor on a point or hump in about 9 feet of water, then fan-cast baits from deep to shallow water until I get a depth pattern.

“On some afternoons, the fish move into these areas in big numbers, and we’ll enjoy wild catfish-catching action,” he said. 

Taylor said another January situation is a strong breeze blowing from a consistent direction for several hours, piling shad into a windblown bank or area. Gulls and cormorants congregate to feast on the forage. 

“The birds will find the forage, and I’ll capitalize on that,” he said. “I drift through this area, and it’s one time I’ll use suspended baits. I’ll deploy regular drift rigs behind the boat but also use a couple of rigs with big corks on a slip-float rig set to fish about 15 feet deep, if I’m in 25 to 30 feet of water, for example. A lot of hefty catfish will feed higher in the water column with shad stacked up, and we’ll catch them suspended.”

Taylor said a productive area may be small, so he’ll often have to re-drift the area.

“It’s worth it,” he said. 

Taylor defines the upper end of the lake upstream from the spot where the South Fork and Catawba rivers merge.

“That’s a good landmark, and some of the lower-lake tactics are appropriate in the upper end,” he said, “but other factors should be considered.”

Current flow is usually more significant in the upper end, and it can play a major role in where to find catfish.

“I prefer to have current flow in the main portion of either of the rivers; it makes the fish more active,” he said. “Creek and river junctions, deep holes in the river channel and the deep holes of outside bends in the old river channel are prime targets.” 

Taylor said current flow is dictated by rainfall, but for him, not all current is created equal.

“I like to fish the upper end in cold weather right after a big rain, but after a long, steady current flow, the bite slows,” he said. “I think the fresh water and other material flushing through helps for a while, then that factor diminishes.”

At times, heavy rain creates muddy water in the upper end, and he said the South Fork can be particularly good during these conditions. 

“Catfish feed well in muddy water, and I’ll often find them in water less than 10 feet deep in this situation,” he said. 

The warm water discharge at the Allen Plant Steam Station, a coal-fired electricity generating facility located in South Point, N.C., is a prime area to fish.

“During the winter, the warm-water discharge into the South Fork attracts lots of forage, and the catfish follow,” he said. “I typically fish the edge of drops in the warm-water discharge and have baits at multiple depths.” 

Taylor uses 7-foot Ugly Stik rods with ABU reels loaded with 20-pound main line and a 36- to 48-inch leader of 50-pound test, with a 21/2-inch float above a 6/0 to 8/0 circle hook. He uses a 11/2-ounce sinker unless strong current in the river dictates more weight.

Gizzard shad is Taylor’s primary bait; he catches his own bait using a cast net. 

“I like gizzard shad in the 4- to 7-inch class, and with a 7-inch shad, I’ll cut it in half; that’s great size for big fish,” Taylor said. “The 4- to 6-inch size can be used either whole or cut into smaller chunks, and a half-dollar-size bait is quite effective. You don’t have to have a big bait for big fish. I believe fresh bait is superior to frozen, and I will use white perch and bluegill at times.”

Guide Rodger Taylor nets a big, wintertime blue catfish from Lake Wylie. (Photo by Terry Madewell)

Go shallow for big, winter cats

Shallow-water catfishing is an option many anglers don’t consider in January, but guide Rodger Taylor loves it.

“One of my favorite ways to hook big catfish during the winter is fishing shallow water,”  Taylor said. “This may seem strange, but it’s a reliable pattern for fast action and huge catfish when I find the right combination of factors.”  

Taylor said on sunny days the shallow water in the bays in the back of creeks or coves will warm quickly, and that attracts shad — and the forage attracts catfish. He’ll begin to check shallow bays and flats in the mid-afternoon.  

When he finds an area that’s been sunlit and sheltered from the wind, he looks for his winter-time spies: birds.

“If gulls and cormorants are active, it’s a positive sign,” he said. “I look for blue herons, the best fishermen on the lake, stalking the shoreline. If they’re active, odds are good the area is loaded with forage, and it’s an ideal spot to ambush big catfish.”

Taylor anchors in about 6 feet of water and casts baits all around his boat. If an old ditch or channel exists, he targets it with a couple of baits.

“It depends on the specific setup but I may have baits 2 to 8 feet deep in this setup,” he said. “The great thing is, it doesn’t take long to find out if I’ve guessed right. Blue catfish are there to feed, and in the shallow water, their bite is aggressive. It’s common to have multiple fish hooked at the same time. If action slows, I can move 100 yards and often get back on biting fish.

“Big fish are commonly caught in this situation, setting up some great fights in this shallow water,” he said. 

“This situation doesn’t occur every day, but it happens enough that it’s always on my catfish-finding-radar in terms of patterns I’ll fish during the afternoon,” Taylor said. “And this pattern can occur anywhere on the lake.”

Blue catfish have become a great fishery on Lake Wylie over the past decade, and it doesn’t take big baits to catch them. (Photo by Terry Madewell)

A biologist’s view on Lake Wylie blues

Biological data supports what fishermen like Rodger Taylor already believe.

David Goodfred, a biologist with the N.C. Wildlife Resources Commission, said data accumulated in recent years documents the explosion of blue catfish in Lake Wylie and the big fish factor.

“We utilize a lot of different data, but the data from 9 years of catfish tournament catches on Lake Wylie illustrates the impact of the blue catfish well,” Goodfred said. “Results demonstrated the mean tournament weights of catfish increased by 267% during this period, with blue catfish representing 79% of large-fish tournament winnings over the 9-year period. Tournament catch data indicates the large catfish fishery in Lake Wylie is now dominated by blue catfish.”

Goodfred said the honeymoon “boom” phase enjoyed for a decade or more may be ending, but the fishery seems to be stabilizing at a high level. 

“This is normal for a fishery to rapidly increase then level off,” he said. “But Lake Wylie is a very nutrient-rich lake, and I don’t expect a big decline, just that the blue catfish fishery is beginning to stabilize, based on the data we now have.”

DESTINATION INFORMATION

HOW TO GET THERE — Lake Wylie is on the Catawba River chain, southwest of Charlotte, N.C., and north of Rock Hill, S.C. It is easily accessed from I-85 and I-77. Buster Boyd and Copperhead ramps at mid-lake are popular public boat landings. On the lower end, Allison Creek, Nivens Creek and Ebenezer Park give anglers access to that half of the 13,400-acre lake 

WHEN TO GO — Fishing for blue castfish is great on Lake Wylie from December through February

BEST TECHNIQUES — Start on the lower end and graph humps, points and ledges with your depth finder, looking for concentrations of baitfish and/or catfish. Watch for birds picking at the surface; there will be baitfish below. Drift or anchor and fan-cast baits at various depths. Cut shad, white perch and bluegill are top baits on Wylie.

FISHING INFO/GUIDES — Rodger Taylor, Catfish On! Guide Service, 803-517-7828, www.catfishon.com. See also Guides & Charters in Classifieds.

ACCOMMODATIONS — Lake Wylie Chamber of Commerce, 803-831-2827; York County Visitors Center, 803-329-5200, www.visityorkcounty.com; Charlotte Regional Visitors Authority, 704-339-6040 www.charlottesgotalot.com.

MAPS — Kingfisher Maps, 800-326-0257, www.kfmaps.com.

About Terry Madewell 812 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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