Catching back-to-back 30-pound-plus catfish on rod and reel
is a feat that some anglers only dream about. However, for those who have
discovered the fantastic catfishing opportunities offered by the Santee-Cooper
lakes, this is not a far-fetched dream; itís almost a daily occurrence. Some
folks have yet to discover what modern catfishing is all about. But fishing
guide Don Drose has refined the sport of catfishing into one where he not only
catches catfish during the warmer months of the year but also throughout the
four seasons of the year. And he does so with some astounding numbers and sizes
of catfish. "For those who havenít caught the big catfish on Santee
Cooper, theyíve missed a real unique freshwater fishing opportunity," the
35-year veteran guide began. "There are not many freshwater lakes or
species of fish that offer anglers a realistic opportunity to catch multiple
fish in the 20- to 40-pound class -- and sometimes a lot bigger -- on a daily
basis. "Compound this with the year-round good fishing, and we may have the
best catfishing opportunities anywhere in the country., It seems like it would
be awfully hard to top what we have here," Drose added.
His comments came in the wake of two monster catfish, a
30-pounder I had hooked and was fighting, and what turned out to be a 37-pounder
caught by fishing buddy Jeff Samsel. These were in addition to the 20-and
25-pounders already in the boat, and the day was still rather young. It wasnít
hard to convince us of the outstanding fishing available. While Drose fishes
throughout both of the lakes that make up the Santee Cooper complex, he spends
most of his catfishing time on the lower end of Lake Marion. Marion is the upper
of the two lakes, with Lake Moultrie being downstream. The lakes are connected
by a 7-mile-long diversion canal, which offers some excellent catfishing as
"One of the keys to being able to catch fish in the
lower portion of Lake Marion throughout the year is the diversity of underwater
structure available to the catfish," Drose said. "This provides the
fish with ample areas to spawn in the spring, plenty of deep water in the summer
and fall, and then the big open-water areas that are conducive to winter
fishing. A lot of the same processes will occur on Lake Moultrie as well;
however, Iíd give the edge to Lake Marion in producing big flathead
catfish." Another key to the year--round catfish productivity at Santee
Cooper is the fact that the lakes hold the "Big Three" of catfishing
in excellent numbers and sizes. The flathead, blue and channel catfish are all
abundant and grow to enormous weights, with the world record 58-pound channel
catfish having been caught here. The forage base consists of shad, which are
abundant year Ďround, as well as blueback herring, which are especially
plentiful during the spring spawning period. These and other plentiful panfish
offer year-round feeding opportunities for the fish to grow large and abundant.
Since weíre now into the month of June, weíll begin with a look at the
summer and fall patterns that will be the most productive over the next few
months. Weíll then look at techniques Drose employs for catching catfish other
times of the year.
More so than during any other time of the year, the summer and
fall -- with the fall months of September and October having the edge -- are the
most consistent times of the year for Drose to catch really big flathead
catfish. The potential for the absolute largest blue or flathead catfish may
occur during the spring, but the often unstable weather and water conditions
make that a bit more unpredictable.
"One of the real keys to catching a lot of big fish
during the summer and fall months is the abundance of big flathead catfish in
the lower end of Lake Marion." Drose said. "The big flathead seem to
prefer the big, timbered area of the lower end of the lake, and top places to
look for the really big fish are around the drops." "Good examples are
along the main Santee River channel, as well as the Little River channel, and
numerous old runs that may only be a few feet deeper than the surrounding flats
but which still offer a bottom depth change. Lower Lake Marion offers numerous
opportunities for deep-water fishing as well as plenty of drops and bottom
structure to which the fish can relate," he added. Drose said that while
heís learned a lot of places to fish through the years, one of the keys to
success during this time of the year is to not get locked into any single place
to fish. He uses his graph recorder to search for cats, and he rarely sets up to
fish a spot unless he has marked several big fish in the immediate vicinity.
"The odds of catching fish simply go up when you set up over several fish
instead of one or tow fish," he explained. "Iíll slowly cruise
around the lake, checking the drops, humps and other structures that typically
hold good concentrations of fish until I mark several in one area. Itís
important not to drop an anchor right on the fish," he points out. "Iíll
go upwind a bit, drop an anchor, then drift back past the spot and drop a back
anchor to hold the boat secure. Then Iíll move back toward the first anchor
until my boat is directly over the spot I wish to fish. By anchoring in this
manner, I can maintain precise control of the boat and not be swinging around
with the wind. Not only does this keep the boat in proper position, right over
the fish that have been marked on the graph, but it reduces hang-ups. The lake
is loaded with logs laying on the lake floor, and if the boat swings in the
wind, snags are inevitable. Drose notes that keeping the boat in position is
essential because you often have to wait for long periods before the fish bite.
"Patience is a key when fishing for flatheads during the
summer and fall," he said. "Naturally, we all like it best when we
stop, drop the bait down and the fish bite within the first few minutes, which
happens frequently. But just as frequently, the fish may not bite at all for 30
to 45 minutes. Itís a bit like deer hunting in that once youíve scouted them
out, you have to sit and patiently wait. The good thing is that when one catfish
does bite after an extended period of waiting, the odds are very high that if
there are any more big fish in the area, they will also bite. Many times after
waiting a half-hour or longer, weíll hook a big fish and within the next few
minutes hook three or four more. Itís not at all unusual to have two, three or
even more big fish hooked at the same time. I feel so strongly about it that
after landing a big fish, if we go another 15 minutes without hooking another, Iíll
pull anchor and look for more fish.
The fishing tackle and technique are also keys to his
success. Drose generally uses light tackle to catch white perch or bream in the
1/4 to 1/2 pound size to use as bait for the flatheads. These bait fish are
hooked on large 4/0 to 6/0 hooks. Shad minnows are also good but difficult to
keep alive during the hot months. He hooks the baitfish under the dorsal fin so
they can still swim freely when dropped to the lake bottom. The line he uses is
also a key, according to Drose. "You need a strong, thin-diameter, low-stretch line for
best results, and thatís why I use Spiderwire." he said. "Large
diameter line affects the number of bites that you get, and with a low-stretch
line you can get a better hookset into the fish. I place a heavy sinker on the
line, usually around 1-ounce weight, depending on depth and current, if any.
Then I use a swivel and a 3-foot leader for the hook."
After hooking the baitfish, Drose free-spools it down to the
lake bottom and then reels it just off the bottom so the bait is right about
eyeball level. In addition to this vertical fishing, Drose will also cast a few
rigs away from the boat and let them lie on the bottom. In either case, itís
important to keep the bait within a couple of feet of the bottom. He then places
the rods in holders and begins his vigil. Drose uses numerous rods to cover as much territory as
possible. On the days we fished, it wasnít uncommon to have 10 or 12 rods
rigged and fishing at any given time.
"You have to react pretty quick when a catfish bites,
but you donít have to be there the instant he bites." he pointed
out." When the rod tip goes down, get a good grip on the rod and set the
hook hard. A big catfish has a really tough mouth, and itís hard to drive the
hook deep into the bony part of the mouth, another reason I like a low stretch
line. When reeling the fish, keep constant pressure on him all the way to the
boat." he said. "Donít pump the rod, that may give the fish an
instant of slack, which is all a 30- or 40- pound catfish needs to shake free.
Have a big net ready when the fish rolls on the surface, and net him
Drose occasionally uses some cut bait, such as shad or
herring, during this time of the year, or even cut perch or bream, as an
offering for one of the big blue catfish. While he occasionally catches big
blues on the live bait, generally the blues will bite cut bait the best. A
mixture of both live and cut bait enhance your odds for taking both big
flatheads and blues. "Sometimes Iíll catch both blues and flatheads from
the same spot, with flatheads almost always biting the live bait and the blues
usually biting the cut bait." Drose noted.
Another outstanding summer catfishing opportunity at Santee
Cooper is to fish smaller chunks of cut bait or stink bait for smaller fish but
fast action. My favorite stink bait, and a proven producer at Santee Cooper, is
Docís Catfish Bait, which I fish along the drops and ledges with medium to
light tackle. The stink bait rigs excel in attracting both channel and blue
catfish in the 1 to 10 pound class, and fast and furious action can be the rule,
not the exception. Iíve found that the smaller diameter line you use, the more fish you
usually catch. I usually opt for 8 to 12 pound test Berkley Ultra Light. Five
pound plus fish are great fun on light tackle, and itís a great method for
introducing kids to fishing.
Look for fish along the drops, which fall from shallow water, usually 4- to
6- feet deep, to water 20 feet deep or deeper, and anchor along the edge. Cast
your bait in various directions around the boat until you determine a depth
preference. While the fishing is great throughout the summer and fall, itís the year
round fishing that makes Santee Cooper so unique. One of the best times of the
entire year to catch a boatload of catfish is during the dead of winter.
"Most fishermen donít even think of catching catfish in the winter,
but itís one of our best times of the year for numbers of fish." Drose
explained. "During the winter, as the water temperature drops, often during
December and lasting through January, the shad will cluster in large, tight
schools. With the colder water, they are not as active, and they become easier
prey for the fish, with the blue catfish being primary predators. We use our
graphs to locate these tightly bunched pods of shad, which usually have plenty
of hungry blue catfish surrounding, and foraging on them". "Using cast nets early in the morning, we can usually catch enough shad
for baitfish in a few throws. Then we anchor directly over the school of
baitfish and put three or four small shad minnows on each hook and drop them
down, usually a couple feet off the bottom," Drose said.
Generally the action fires up pretty quick. It may last a few minutes or a
couple of hours at any given spot. When the action slows, Drose doesnít wait
long before moving to another location, a different pod of shad. "Keep moving and hunting for the different schools of shad, and youíll
usually find several during the course of a day, with lots of blue catfish
action." he added.
During a typical day, Drose said you can expect to catch 200 pounds or more
of fish, with several of the fish usually running in the 8- to 15- pound class.
Twenty and 30 pound fish are not uncommon, but they are not taken as
consistently as during the summer months. When the fishing dies out, itís usually only a short while until the spring
fishing begins. During March, April and May, Drose will fish one of two basic
areas for big fish that are getting ready to spawn.
"I like to fish the shallow flats or the drops adjacent to the shallows
flats that have strong winds blowing into them during the spring months,"
he said. "The winds blow the forage into the shallows and keep the water
more turbid, which helps hold the fish in the shallows".
"On days when I donít do well in the shallow water, or if the wind isnít
blowing enough to set up favorable shallow water conditions, I fish the deeper
ledges and drops along the river channel,:" he added. "The weather
systems can play a key role in success and how effective we can fish at times,
but this is the time of the year to catch a really huge catfish, with fish over
50 pounds (sometimes much larger) being hooked regularly. Herring, both cut and
whole, as well as shad are excellent baits during this time of the year."
As in any of the above scenarios, being mobile and searching for places where
fish are biting is a key to success. Drose advises working different depths of
water until you determine a key for that particular day. During the
ever-changing weather of the spring, the productive depth pattern can change on
a daily basis.
Fishing out of his 27-Deep V Maycraft (one of the largest guide boats on the
lake), Don Drose specializes in both catfish and stripers. Whether you fish with
Drose or go after the catfish on your own, be prepared to do battle with some
real heavyweights when you drop your bait to the bottom of Lake Marion.