Road Trip: The Catfish of Santee Cooper South Carolina

02/23/2016 1:19 PM | Ron Presley (Administrator)

Catch Catfish with any Technique

The Santee Cooper Lakes (Lake Marion and Moultrie) are owned and operated by Santee Cooper Power. Both lakes are great fisheries. Anglers come from all around to target largemouth bass, crappie, shell crackers and catfish.Catfish-Cagle

Examples of the world-class fishing are the state records currently held by Santee Cooper anglers. They include largemouth bass at 16.2 pounds, black crappie at 5 pounds, chain (jack) at 6.4 pounds, shellcracker at 5.7 pounds, warmouth at 2.25 pounds, channel catfish at 58 pounds, Arkansas blue catfish at 109.4 pounds and flathead catfish at 77.3 pounds. Does that sound like a good place to go fishing?

Anglers can choose from two lakes, two rivers, two canals and a vast swamp to try their fishing skills. There are 450 miles of shoreline and 171,000 acres of land covered by 756 billion gallons of water. “From fishable water to fishable water we have 165 miles of fishing,” said local fishing pro Whitey Outlaw. “I say Santee Cooper is the best freshwater lake on the east coast.” Outlaw grew up on Santee Cooper and he knows it well.

Santee Cooper is a multi-species and multi-technique fishery. “Santee has always been popular among catfish anglers because it offers so much,” stated Cabela’s King Kat Tournament Trail spokesman Jeremy Coe.  “You can catch catfish with just about any technique and catch monster size fish in all 3 species.”

Catfish-Mark Stanley

The lakes are also famous for their abundant stock of landlocked striped bass. As the story goes, South Carolina traded some of Santee Cooper’s striped bass to Alabama  for some blue catfish. It was a trade made in heaven. Alabama now has some great striper fishing and Santee Cooper has a reputation as a big catfish fishery.

“I would say Santee Cooper has a reputation as one of the best catfish waters in the US,” continued Coe. “All in all the popularity and reputation ranks up top with all the major rivers (Mississippi, Tennessee, and Ohio). Even people that have never fished Santee have heard about it. It is probably on their bucket list to fish.”Catfish-Kid

Habitat is the main ingredient that produces big blues in Santee Cooper. “One thing good about these lakes is that the catfish grow really fast because they have everything they want,” stated Kevin Davis. Davis runs Black’s Camp, a fish camp on Lake Moultrie. “They have so many different types of baitfish coming in and out of the ocean, they have structure, drop offs, humps, creeks, cover, stumps, brush, rocks, and sandy areas. They have plenty of places to feed and grow big.”

Probably the most popular technique for catching big catfish on Santee Cooper is drift fishing (dragging). Drift fishing is a productive way to catch Santee Cooper blue cats. Davis uses B’n’M Silver Cat rods rigged with a special drifting weight. “I use homemade leads that are a piece of shoestring full of 1/0 buckshot. I cauterize each end to hold the shot in and hook a snap swivel through the end of the shoestring. I run my mainline through the eye on the swivel and let it slide freely above a #5 barrel swivel. Two feet of 40-pound fluorocarbon leader is next with a 5/0 circle hook on the end. Six inches in front of the hook I add a 2-½ inch cigar float.”Catfish-Jenkins

With this rig the shoestring full of buckshot is the only thing making contact with the lake floor. Even the Daiichi Circle Hook, with its shape and the little toenail on it, helps make it a very snag resistant setup. The rig is known locally as the Santee Cooper Drift Rig.

Davis uses sonar to look for fish and mark the spot. He positions the boat above the fish and uses the wind to drift over the mark or uses the trolling motor to drag over it. The rods are set in Driftmaster Rod Holders to wait for the bite. Anglers should remember that using Daiichi Circle Hooks usually results in an automatic hook set when the big cat bites. Just lift the rod on the bite and allow the circle hook to do its job.

Davis spools his reels with 20-pound test Vicious mono as the mainline. “As far as a rod, I like the B’n’M Silver Cat 8 foot medium weight,” declares Davis.  The first part of that rod is pretty loose and limber, and the second part is pretty stiff. It has a cord wrapped handle that grips really well, even with slimy hands. It is sensitive enough to feel the bites and has plenty of backbone to land big fish.”Catfish-2men

Davis normally uses cut bait to catch the big blues. The cut bait may be anything from American shad (ocean herring) that start migrating into the lake around March to menhaden that also show up in the lake. “I like to use the head and big body chunks of the herring when they are available,” said Davis. Gizzard shad are also available locally and make good bait dead or alive.

Davis has a theory on the big ones. “Once the fish go shallow and the anglers follow, the opportunity exists to catch that big solitary, lonely blue cat that lives by himself and stays by himself. I think once they reach a certain size they live the majority of their lives in shallow water. They don’t hang around with other catfish. They just hang by themselves. Very rarely do you catch a catfish over 60 pounds where you catch a lot of other catfish.”

South Carolina fishing regulations allow anglers to keep two catfish, of any species, over 32 inches long. Anglers can keep a total of 25 catfish. Conservation minded anglers actually release those big breeder fish. They prefer catfish up to 10 or maybe 15 pounds for the dinner table. Most people think the smaller cats make better table fare anyway.Catfish-Jimmy Layla

For more information on the Santee Cooper area visit the Santee Cooper Country website.

For more information on Cabela’s King Kat Tournament trail visit their website. (Photos in this article were taken at the King Kat Tournament on Santee Cooper, February 19 and 20, 2016.)

Epilogue: We stayed at a great Baymont Inn & Suites in Manning, SC. The rooms were clean and the staff was top notch. I always look forward to breakfast before fishing. Not only was the breakfast good at the Baymont, the attendant made us feel more than welcome. Plenty of restaurants and stores close at hand made it a most convenient location. One eatery I want to mention was the Corner Diner in Manning SC. It is that perfect small, local kind of place you always like to find while on the road. I liked this area and will definitely return again.

One final note relates to a fishing derby that is one of the best fishing promotions I have ever seen. The opportunity is the Big Fish Big Bucks Fishing Derby. Prizes are given for fish caught on Lake Marion, Lake Moultrie and the Diversion Canal of the Santee Cooper Lakes in South Carolina. Check it out and plan a trip to catch your personal best catfish and win a few bucks at the same time.

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