Beating the Odds on Fall Cats in Santee Cooper Country

by Ken Cook

Find the structure and you find the fish

Whitey Outlaw and his son Matt of St. Matthews, South Carolina are both crappie tournament champions who have lived, fished and hunted their entire lives in and around Lakes Marion and Moultrie, its vast swamps, and the numerous rivers that nourish these lakes.

Matt (L) and Whitey Outlaw prepare to launch their War Eagle Boat in South Carolina’s Congaree River. Ambient temperature was 43 and water temp was 49 degrees under blue bird skies

Matt (L) and Whitey Outlaw prepare to launch their War Eagle Boat in South Carolina’s Congaree River. Ambient temperature was 43 and water temp was 49 degrees under blue bird skies

The area is loosely called Santee Cooper Country. The July/August 2016 issue of Bassmaster Magazine chose the Santee Cooper lakes as the Number 2 Bass Lakes among the Top 100 in the nation and Number 1 in the Southeast.

These lakes have also produced a world record Channel Cat (58#) and Blue Cat (109.4#) among other state records for stripers, crappie and panfish.

It’s common knowledge that popular catfish species—channel, blues and flatheads—seek out and bunch up in deeper holes and drop offs during the fall and winter months when water temperatures fall, but will also move into shallow water when water temps rise.

Partially submerged timber are typical holding points for river catfish awaiting river currents to deliver food.

Partially submerged timber are typical holding points for river catfish awaiting river currents to deliver food.

Based on a hunch and a timely fishing report from a catfish guide on Lake Marion, Whitey chose to fish the Congaree River instead of his original plan of fishing the upper lake (Marion).

His reason for selecting the river was the ability to minimize the usual seasonal variables and to increase the odds of finding fish. The two anglers launched their 17-foot War Eagle boat at Bates Landing on Highway 601, about 9:00 AM on a crisp mid-November morning.

“As the 11:00 AM hour approached … the catfish bite turned on hard and fast…”

 

The fishing technique deployed by the anglers involved making short runs north up the river looking for bends on the steep side of the river (deeper water) and clusters of blowdowns and partially submerged timber.

When they spotted a likely area, the boat was tied to a limb and the fishermen baited and cast their bottom rigs downstream 20 to 30 yards near an adjacent blow-down. The rig rested on the bottom; no bobbers were used.

Matt holds up a healthy Congaree channel cat.

Matt holds up a healthy Congaree channel cat.

B ‘n ‘M Silver Cat rods rigged with 30-pound Vicious Braid on Abu-Garcia reels with a 2-foot mono leader, ¾ ounce egg sinker and a 2/0 hook fished on the bottom proved effective on the Congaree cats.

With their baits resting on the bottom in 12- to 14-feet of water, the bite was slow, tentative and barely telegraphed from the rod tips. Short strikes were frequent and bait-robbing fish caused the Outlaws to wonder whether gar or other species were to blame. After 15 minutes at each of three tie-ups, they relocated.

Environmental Conditions
Ambient Temperature: 43 Degrees
Water Temperature: 49 Degrees
Water Level: 5 Feet low (drought)
Water Color: Normal and clear
Water Flow: 2-3 MPH
Bright Sun and No Clouds
No windFishing Gear
B’n’M Silver Cat Catfish Rod
B’n’M Silver Cat Magnum
B’n’M Silver Cat Bumping Rod
All rods 7- to 8-feet in length
Abu-Garcia Baitcasting Reels

Fishing Rig
30-pound Vicious Braid
¾ ounce egg sinker
Barrel swivel
2 foot, 30-pound Vicious Monofilament leader
2/0 Hook

Bait Selection
Cut thawed herring
Cut thawed shrimp
Thawed Catalpa worms (locally harvested).

 

The slow start on the day gave Whitey time to repeat some of his proven, time-tested sayings: “A light wind out of the west and fluffy clouds is a perfect day to fish…a west wind is best; an east wind is least.” “For cats and crappie, I like river water to be the color of a brown paper bag”. “Look for ‘bullis’ vines overhanging the river because wild muscadines are a blue cat delicacy.” “June, July and August is the best time to fish for cats in the Congaree.”

As the 11:00 AM hour approached, and after the fifth or six stop on the river, the catfish bite turned on hard and fast. Previously tentative feeding cats were more easily hooked and brought to the boat.

The Outlaws with their 50-pound, 10-fish stringer. All channel cats. All caught in three to four hours of fishing.

The Outlaws with their 50-pound, 10-fish stringer. All channel cats. All caught in three to four hours of fishing.

Two factors were responsible for the turnaround—water temperatures had risen in the past two to three hours of fishing and cats had begun feeding. We had also located some schooling points where cats were bunched up. There had been no change in rigs, baits, presentation or water depths.

As the anglers closed in on 2:00 PM and the decision was made to string the day’s catch for a hero photo, the Outlaws had boated 10 catfish ranging from two pounds to ten in a span of three to four hours.

What was the surprise ending? All ten catfish were channel cats. No blues. No flatheads. No other species. The composition in this creel was completely unexpected and outside the norm. The Outlaws played a hunch and beat the odds on this trip. Why no blues or flatheads will remain a question for fishery biologists.

Trip Reflections

On the following day, Matt and I decided to drop in the upper lake (Marion) and sample the crappie bite. We were also curious to see whether the conditions and stringer were similar in Lake Marion to those we experienced in the Congaree.

We launched out of Jack’s Creek Marina in Matt’s 22’ fiberglass Ranger rigged for spider fishing. Water temperature was 49.4 degrees. Water depths ranged from 6 feet to 13 feet. Like the day before, we fished under cloudless skies and in flat water. The lake was estimated to be at least 2 to 5 feet below normal pool.

On our slow troll away from the launch, Matt hooked, fought and released two striped bass up to six pounds, and one eight pound blue cat. In the course of four hours fishing, only one crappie (1.25#) took the minnow.

The second day outing proved, that the Outlaws had not only selected the right location the previous day, but had also beat the fall odds on this catfish trip.

 

If you Want to Go

There are many fish camps, campgrounds, guide services, dining and lodging facilities serving this 170,000 acre honey hole in lower South Carolina. Clark’s Inn and Restaurant in Santee is a good lodging choice. Mileage from Columbia or Charleston is only 60 miles. Check the www.santeecoopercountry.org website for more information.

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