When the temperature drops this month, good catfishing heats up at the Wateree River.
|Photo by TERRY MADEWELL|
River catfishing is basically simple and a lot of fun for one person or a boatload of anglers.
Most large lakes and rivers throughout the state harbor excellent populations of the bewhiskered fish, and some lakes have huge specimens as well. It’s no wonder that catfishing has evolved from a hot weather sport to a year-round endeavor.
Most anglers typically think of late-fall catfishing in terms of the big lakes, with the Santee Cooper lakes of Marion and Moultrie ranking high on the popularity list. With huge specimens of the ‘Big Three’ of catfish species — the channel, blue and flathead catfish — the lake is loaded with fish and fishermen.
But far upstream, at the confluence of the Congaree and Wateree rivers, there’s a different but equally impressive, fishery. The rivers that feed Lake Marion lakes are also full of these species of fish and are continually fed from the lake.
November is a prime time to take all three species from the Wateree River arm of this body of water. The Wateree River stretches from the confluence with the Congaree River all the way to the Wateree Dam, many twisting and curving miles upstream, just to the north of the Camden/Lugoff area.
And it’s loaded with catfish throughout its length.
Zollie Green has fished this winding river for years while living in Columbia and working at Shaw Air Force Base in Sumter. Green spent enough time on the river to learn many of the secrets to being consistently successful.
“The catfish at the Wateree River can be patterned just like you can put a pattern on largemouth bass, crappie and other species,” he said.
“Of course the patterns are different and the baits are different than for gamefish species, but once you get on a depth and structure pattern for the day, you can move from one place to another quickly and catch a bunch of fish.”
One of the keys to consider when fishing the Wateree River is to correctly fishing the current in the river. This fishery requires the use of specialized tackle and techniques to score in large numbers.
Green said perhaps the key word to describe fishing in current for catfish is “versatility.”
“There are keys to consider when fishing current,” he said. “Proper bait presentation is certainly a key to success. So anglers first must ensure their boat is anchored properly to allow lines to take advantage of the current, not work against it.
“I try to set up that way when I’m anchored. I can cast right to the target area without having my line bounce across the river, risking getting snagged on the bottom.
“There’s a lot of underwater debris in the river, and you can stay hung up a lot if you don’t set up properly. When you hook a big catfish, you’re got enough problems anyway working him up against the current to the boat.
“If your line drifts across the current before settling on the bottom, you’re far more likely to get snagged when fighting a 20- to -30 pound catfish.”
Green said the river is chock full of fish that size, with many much larger.
“You also want to present your bait so it’s at the head of the area you’re fishing, so the scent drifts downstream,” he said. “The catfish will readily move up the current to seek out a good bait.”
Mark Hall of Columbia has fished the river for years and said November can be an excellent time for catfish in the Wateree River.
“The cooler water temperatures pull the forage, mostly shad, into the deeper holes of water,” he said. “Of course the catfish follow the forage which makes targeting the fish even easier during this time of the year.”
Hall said unlike the summer when the water can get low and many fish move downstream into the upper end of Lake Marion, the catfish seem to really thrive in the cooler water in the river during this time of the year.
“This is especially the case when there’s been some rainfall which produces more current and gets some color into the water,” he said. “This will often trigger some fast feeding by the catfish, especially where the smaller creeks enter the river. Of course, it depends on rainfall, but the river can get pretty clear during the summer and early fall. By November, the river is usually in very good shape, water color wise and otherwise for catfishing.”
Hall said proper tackle is essential for successful river fishing. Catfishing in the Wateree can be tough on equipment, and heavy-duty tackle is by far the best choice. A heavy-duty 6- to 6 1/2-foot fiberglass rod is his preference. He also recommends 20-pound test or heavier line, especially if going for big fish.
“To the business end of the line, I attach a three way swivel,” he said. “To one of the swivels I tie my main line. To another swivel I attach the sinker. The weight of the sinker will vary with the depth of the water and the amount of current, often from 1 to 3 ounces.
“Attach the sinker with a 12-inch leader. The leader should be of slightly lighter line test than the main line, as the sinker is generally the part of the rig that hangs up. With a lighter line you can break the sinker off without losing the rest of the rig. Sometimes, regardless of how careful you are or how well you present you bait, you’re going to get hung up.
“When the rigs rests on the bottom, the sinker will hold the bait in place and the bait will be just about eyeball level with those big catfish in this river.”
He said this rig also works well with live bait (great for flatheads) or fresh cut bait, which the big blues prefer. Flatheads also will bite fresh cut bait.
Shad, bream and white perch are all excellent bait choices, either live or cut.
According to Zollie Green, the hook size will depend upon the size of the fish an angler seeks. If the fish are large, a 3/0 to 5/0 hook will work fine. Attach the hook via a 12- to 14-inch leader. However, if there are a lot of smaller fish (less than 2 pounds), anglers likely will miss a lot of strikes with these large hooks. In that case small treble hooks, No. 4 or No. 6, work well.
Another technique is to rig three hooks in a row, a 1/0, a No. 4 and a No. 8. They should be tied with the largest hook on top and the smallest on the bottom. This technique is effective if the fish are striking short, baits are being lost and catfish are missed.
Mike Kossover also is familiar with the river and said stink baits are also lethal for these river fish in the fall.
“I’ve used tubs of stink bait in a day of fishing. The Doc’s Catfish Dip Bait has produced a lot of channel and blue catfish for me. Generally I’ll catch larger fish with the cut bait, but the stink bait is a great option to have on a couple of rods.
“You can rig No. 4 treble hooks with a sponge or the deeply-ribbed plastic worms made for this type bait. If there are catfish around, you generally won’t have to wait long for bites. It keeps the action going, especially if you’ve got inexperienced fishermen with you who lack the patience needed to fish for just the big fish.
“This will keep everyone wide-eyed and ready when that big blue or flathead takes off with your cut-bait rig.
“To me this is one of the beauties of fishing the Wateree River for catfish. You can catch big numbers of fish in decent sizes, but you still have the potential to get your string stretch by a monster catfish. Plus, there’s just not a lot of other fishermen out there fishing for catfish, most of the time.”
Certain key areas are central to catfishing success during this time of the year, Hall said. Prime spots he focuses upon are deep holes.
“Often the really big catfish will be in these areas,” he said. “Set up at the upstream end of the hole and work down though the area. If it’s a long, deep hole, you may need to pull the anchor, drift a bit and re-set the anchor a couple of times to thoroughly fish the entire area.”
Hall said another excellent idea is to check is eddy currents. Catfish love to orient at these types of places, and anglers often find a bunch of fish at a small area. The mouths of feeder creeks and small sloughs also are prime areas.
“This is especially true if we’ve had some rain,” Hall said. “The runoff will pour in fresh water, and the catfish will gather in large numbers at these areas to feed.”
Kossover said another key to catching these fish throughout the fall is the proximity of deep water.
“I use my graph recorder to work along the deeper holes and where feeder creeks enter the river, looking for a closely grouped cluster of fish,” he said. “Often, I’ll find the fish right at the base of the drop, where the steep slope levels off. This may occur in 10 to 12 feet of water or it may be more than 20-feet deep, depending on the water level in the river.
“The proximity of forage fish is also important. There doesn’t have to be scads of baitfish, but some in the area is certainly a plus. The catfish seem to prefer a sand or gravel bottom rather than soft mud. In fact, most places where you find a steep slope of sand or gravel, flanked on both sides by a mud bank, is likely a hotspot for these fish.
“There are lots of places in the Wateree River that drop into 10 to 20 feet of water rather quickly.
“The downstream points, islands or shoals that fall into deep water and underwater humps that rise to a few feet of water but drop into deep water on at least one side are also prime target areas.
“The key is to locate areas that have a quick shallow-to-deep water route the fish can follow.”
With a bit of experimentation, they’re not difficult to locate, he said.
Hall said patience is also a key to successful river fishing. He’ll give the fish time to bite, but not an excessive amount of time.
“Typically, I’ll give an area no longer than about 30 minutes to produce and even that length of time is reserved for proven hotspots,” he said. “If I’m exploring and looking, I’ll give the fish 15 to 20 minutes to cooperate before moving.
“I’ve found if the catfish are in an area and are in any kind of feeding mode, the bait will draw them, and you’ll typically have action within the first few minutes if you’re going to have any at all. If the action slows for 10 to 15 minutes, I’ll pull anchor and leave. However, even if I only caught three or four fish from a spot, I’ll make a note of the place and often will return later in the day if I’m still wanting more fish.”
Catfish are loaded throughout the river, but the lower end gets better as the water continues to cool down through mid-November and into December.
According to fishermen who work this river regularly, catches of 30 to 50 catfish a day isn’t uncommon, another positive aspect of catfishing this river. It’s amazingly consistent in producing excellent catches.
While there are certainly days when catfish will bite better than others, anglers reasonably can expect to catch Mr. Whiskers in good numbers throughout the fall, and especially during November. Plus, there’s usually little or no fishing competition during this time of the year.
Anglers don’t have to get to the river early, although that’s usually a prime time to be set up at a deep hole looking for a huge catfish, Hall said.
“If you’re looking for some fast action with hard-fighting fish, you need look no further than the Wateree River,” he said.
Access to the river is decent but limited. Two major places exist for launching boats — where U.S. 76-378 crosses the river between Colombia and Sumter and the U.S. 1-601 Bridge between Camden and Lugoff.
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