Santee Cooper Catfish

Tales of trophy catfish being caught in recent years from the Santee Cooper, S.C., area, spread across the Southeast like wildfire. Hefty bottom feeders that easily pulled the old spring-type scales to the 40-, 50- and even 60-pound mark were, and still are, common.

Building these trophy catfish waters took a long time. In 1939, workers began clearing a small area of trees in lower South Carolina. Adjacent to Santee and Cooper Rivers, the workers were preparing the land for what would later become two of the areas largest lakes. Timber cutters knew that once the work was complete a hydro-static dam along with lake runoff would combine to generate electricity, providing power to much of southern South Carolina. But it probably never occurred to them that the fruits of their labor would later become home to the best catfishing opportunities in the state, possibly the country!

Lakes Marion and Moultrie are commonly referred to as the “Santee Cooper Lakes,” because of the two rivers, which were dammed to create them. Together both lakes provide 171,000 acres of surface water, regarded by many anglers asthe destination for outstanding catfishing.

Home Of Record Fish
This reputation is due to the state and world record fish that have been pulled from these waters. Combined, both lakes hold eight state records as well as one world record — a 58-pound channel catfish! Of these eight, three are of the possible five state records available for the catfish species alone.

A Lake Marion catfish.

According to Captain John Sellers, a 70-year-old Cherryville, N.C., native who has been helping others catch these giant fish for 42 years, the months of June and July as well as October through December are prime for hooking into a lunker cat.

When it comes to big cats no one is more proficient than Sellers. Each year numerous clients of Sellers catch what could only be described as the trophy of a lifetime. In early April of this year, fishermen on Sellers 30-foot pontoon managed to land three cats in three days that weighed over 50 pounds each. Then another, bigger than any of the rest, broke the line just as it was being brought alongside the boat. Sellers’ own biggest to date was an 89-pound blue cat caught in December 1997.

Use Heavy-Duty Gear
When fishing for these huge whiskered fish the angler should use adequate equipment. Sellers says: “Many anglers who have never fished for these big cats think they can bring their bass rigs, but that is just asking for trouble; anglers should bring heavy duty equipment. What this means is a rod with medium-heavy to heavy action, coupled with a reel capable of holding line upwards of 20-pound test is preferred.” Sellers favorite rig is a 7-1/2-foot Ugly Stik combined with an Ambassadeur 6500 reel, filled with 30-pound test. “This outfit will handle even the biggest cats from these waters,” says Sellers.

On the business end of the line, Sellers relies on a set up that is common in the area. After filling a material similar to a shoestring with weights, Sellers burns each end closed. Then he attaches a swivel to one end. After the weight, which totals between 1-ounce and 1-1/2 ounces, is complete, it is attached to the end of the line. Then a 2-foot to 3-foot leader is attached to the swivel after tying on a 4/0 or 5/0 hook. After the rig is complete it looks very similar to a Carolina Rig.

“The reason for this type of weight system is because of the heavy structure that is in certain areas of the lake,” Sellers says. “This type of sinker seems to snake through the snags more easily with fewer hang-ups than other types.”

Preferred Baits
Baits for the whiskered fish are varied and many and include chicken livers, night crawlers and commercial stinkbaits. Any of these will work, but for the bigger fish Sellers prefers cut bait.

“Chunks of Blue Back Herring and Gizzard Shad are the best baits when you are targeting big cats,” Sellers says. “When it comes to bait size, many anglers think that the bigger the bait the bigger the fish, but that isn’t always true,”

Chunks of blue back herring and gizzard shad are the best baits when you are targeting big cats, according to the author.

Weather conditions play a major role in dictating the anglers’ methods and fishing periods. Feeding periods depend heavily on the moon phase, according to Sellers.

“Three days before to three days after a full moon the fishing is usually best at night,” Sellers says. “Other than that, I fish primarily during the day paying close attention to the barometric pressure. A fairly constant reading close to a flat 30 is best. Water temperature also plays an important role. I prefer water that is 70 degrees or better.”

While fishing for summer cats the angler is wise to target drop-offs and creek channels. Because these areas are generally cooler they tend to have a higher oxygen content, which is preferred by the cats. And because other fish as well as baitfish use the creek channels, this attracts the bigger cats with voracious appetites. Once a preferred structure is located then an angler must choose whether to drift or anchor. Many fishing guides choose to drift across quality structure. This is a great way of locating fish as more area is covered. But when an area is found with a good bite it may be wise to anchor, if only for a short time.

Although Lakes Marion and Moultrie are hailed as tops for catfishing they also have excellent crappie and striped bass fishing. There also is plenty of public access for those who like to do it themselves, but be very careful. In 1942, due in part to World War II, these lakes were flooded before all of the trees could be cut in certain areas. Because of this many places still contain standing timber, which makes for excellent fish habitat, but can be terribly tough on equipment if precautions aren’t taken.

Rookies: Use A Guide
Many who venture to these large lakes for the first time choose to fish with a guide. This is a good idea, as most guides know the lake very well. They know exactly where to fish, eliminating a lot of guess work and wasted time. Considering the use of equipment, time and knowledge provided the angler, a guide’s fees are very reasonable. And because the lake is relatively shallow with snags that loom only inches below the water’s surface, the service of a guide could easily prevent costly boat damage.

For More Information

To check out fishing guides in this area, contact:

Captain John Sellers. He specializes in big catfish and striped bass, 1-888-868-7553 or 1-843-753-7466.

Ships Guide Service. Contact Steve Shipley, 1-803-854-4727.

Captain Brad’s Guide Service. Call 1-888-854-9653.

For help with arrangements when planning a trip to the Santee Cooper area, contact the Santee Cooper Counties Promotion Commission. They can provide information on most anything from accommodations to guide services. For those outside of South Carolina call 1-800-227-8510. For South Carolina residents call 1-803-854-2131.

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