Where to catch trophy catfish

Spencer Hodges said October to December is prime-time for catching big catfish. (Photo by Terry Madewell)

Top lakes for big cats in the Carolinas

October is a forage-feasting transition time for big catfish as their patterns morph from the summer trends into solid fall and winter patterns.

Typically, throughout the Carolinas, these last 3 months of the year are a prime opportunity for fishermen to hook trophy catfish. The blues seem to put on the feedbag as the water temperatures drop from October through December. And big flatheads are also active and provide big-cat potential.

Badin Lake

Badin Lake near Gold Hill, NC has developed into a trophy catfish producer. It features outstanding fishing during the last quarter of the year.

Brandon Miller has fished Badin for years as a tournament angler, and he teams with his 12-year-old daughter Abby, catching plenty of quality fish during the fall and winter.

“October catfishing is good, but the fishing actually improves in November and December,” Miller said. “During October, the lake experiences the fall water turnover. The fish tend to go deep. We’ll target big fish in the lower end of the lake in water depths approaching 70 feet. With timber on the ledges beginning at 55 to 60 feet, it requires precise presentation of baits to fish next to the edges of these snags. But it’s productive.”

Miller said by late-October the pattern morphs into a more fisherman-friendly scenario where the fish lurk along ledges in the 30- to 50-foot depths.

“This gets us away from the heavy cover and fish get into an active bite,” he said. “I’ll search the ledges and humps with electronics, looking for areas with plenty of fish in a general area. I’ll fish from an anchored position and I position the boat along the top of the ledge in 30 feet of water.”

Miller fancasts baits around the boat to cover deep water, as deep as 50 feet in the channel, as well as back up on the flats up to the 30-foot depth range.

He’s searching for the daily pattern. And if he begins hooking fish from specific areas or depths, he targets more rigs to those areas.

The Miller Catfishing Team, Brandon and Abby, with Badin Lake Blues. (Photo by Terry Madewell)

“My favorite bait in the fall is white perch, as well as chunks of gizzard shad,” he said. “We’ll catch a lot of quality fish this time of year. And the fishing stays good in this basic pattern until late-January or early-February when fish begin to make a move shallower following forage.”

Miller said that while he’s typically targeting blue catfish, he has caught several big flatheads heavier than 40 pounds fishing this pattern.

“The basic pattern for the flatheads, along with blues, is to fish the mouths of creeks, along the flats, and in the deep water in 30 to 50 feet of water,” he said.

Miller relies on side-imaging mode to search the creek mouths and he may see multiple big flatheads in a specific area.

“It’s essential to mark the exact area where I see the cluster of big fish. I’ll need to cast the bait to that specific location to enhance odds of a bite,” he said. “They won’t move far. Present it right by them and they usually eat it.”

One final pattern occurs during heavy rains when the spillway gates are opened above Badin Lake.

“The water flow will pull catfish, usually big blues, into the upper end of the lake in big numbers,” he said. “I fish the current below the dam, usually along the ledges they use as travel routes. We fish everything from the deep channel to the top of the flats.”

Santee Cooper Lakes

Lakes Marion and Moultrie provide wide-open action for big fish during October. That continues through the end of the year. Both blues and flatheads are on a strong bite.

Spencer Hodges has fished Santee Cooper throughout his life. The Winterville, NC resident said October offers excellent opportunities to take trophy blues and flatheads. He’s also a former guide at Santee Cooper, and at the James River. Trophy catfish thrive at both places.

Spencer Hodges said for monster cats at Santee Cooper, use big baits in the fall. (Photo by Terry Madewell)

“October begins a three-month stretch when fishing is great for giant catfish at Santee Cooper,” Hodges said. “I primarily fish Lake Moultrie. But one overlooked opportunity is the almost lost art of down-lining for huge flatheads in Lake Marion. Fishermen can use their electronics to find and target these big flatheads that often orient alongside the big trees in the lower end of Lake Marion in deep water. Fishermen can anchor, spot-lock or tie between a couple of trees or stumps if they’re situated properly to put the boat directly over the flatheads. The anglers fish vertically using downlines.”

Hodges said that live bait, particularly live white perch and bream, are the best baits for these fall flatties.

“Big blues are caught using this technique, but it excels for targeting flatheads,” he said.

Hodges said for monster blues, many of the same strategies employed during the early spring also work in the fall as the water cools. He said locate forage, and catfish are likely to be in that area.

“I find big fish are more scattered during the fall compared to summertime because the forage is scattered,” he said. “But trophy fish are more willing to bite it seems. And I search for a combination of forage and fish. Most fishermen target the deeper water and this time of year. I think that’s where more of the fish are located, most of the time.

“But I still have faith in shallow-water fishing,” he said. “If I’m fishing a big-fish catfish tournament during the fall, I will invest the first couple of hours anchored in 5 to 8 feet of water, with several baits cast into even skinnier water. “After that I’m going to drift fish in 35 to 40 feet of water, specifically where I’m marking forage and fish on the graph,” he said.

Hodges said as the water cools, his preferred bait for Santee Cooper returns to big chunks of cut gizzard shad as the season progresses.

“When targeting big catfish, I’ll always use white perch too,” he said. “It’s a 12-months-of-the-year bait for trophy catfish. But as the water temperature falls in November and December, gizzard shad produces better and better.”

Big blues are a prime target in October but excellent flathead action exists too. (Photo by Terry Madewell)

Lake Gaston

Lake Gaston has held the North Carolina State Record Blue catfish record multiple times with blue catfish catches in the triple-digit range.

Catfish Guide Zakk Royce has held the state record twice with catfish he caught from Lake Gaston. He now has three catfish boated and released in the triple-digit plateau.

“October begins a period of catfishing that is perhaps the most consistent time of the year for trophy catfish,” he said. “As always, the key to finding these big fish is forage.”

Royce said October brings the first cool snaps to the area and causes the forage to begin to transition to fall patterns.

“Identifying the specific pattern is sometimes complex at Gaston because several factors influence where the forage goes,” Royce said. “The basic tendency as the water temperature falls is for shad to migrate to the creeks and away from the mainstream area. The catfish follow and as the fall pattern sets up, trophy catfish begin to feed more aggressively in areas and depths anglers can better target.”

Royce (Blues Brothers Guide Service; 919-724-2474) said the action begins at the mouth of the creek and river junctions and migrates up the creeks. Weather is a key influencer on forage, and as the fronts begin to push through more frequently in November and December, the shad will move up and down the creek and coves.

Zakk Royce said catfish of all sizes are taken using planer boards, which excel for hooking big catfish. (Photo by Terry Madewell)

“We may get a pattern where the forage and catfish have pushed well up the creeks with a stretch of stable weather,” he said. “We may be catching them in reasonably shallow water, then a major front pushes through and the baitfish scatter back to deeper water. The cats will follow, but the key here is understanding we’re chasing a moving target all fall and into early winter. But it’s worth the effort.”

Royce said electronics are a key. They enable him to keep up with forage movements daily as well as to mark the big fish he’s targeting.

“Time on the water encompasses finding and keeping up with fish movements, so anglers that don’t fish a lot may need to spend extra time with the graph to pinpoint key areas,” Royce said. “I like the lower end of Lake Gaston for this fall fishing pattern, but the mid-lake area produces good action.”

Royce said the next component is having the right bait and presenting it in the right place.

“The preferred bait can also be a moving target for trophy catfish,” he said. “I’ve found that white perch and gizzard shad are my two basic ‘go-to’ baits in cold weather.

“I drift fish and I prefer days I can use my electric motor to keep the boat right where I want it,” he said. “I’ll target points, humps, ledges, channels, and creek and river junctions as predictable catfish contact areas and move at around 0.5 miles-per-hour.”

Take advantage of the fall catfishing action at these highly productive catfish waters in North and South Carolina.

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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