Santee’s Winter Blues
by Monty Hill
Testing the cold shallow waters of winter.
I have always heard that during the cold of winter the fish go deep. So, during the Fall and Winter months, I have always targeted catfish in the deeper creeks and river channels in whatever body of water I may be in. I have also used a strategy that if what you are doing is not working you need to try something totally different. When I am fishing in deeper water without success I have been moving into shallow water and guess what I have been finding? You guessed it, fish.
Knowing that catfish tend to move deep during the colder months of the year led me to only target them in deep water in the winter. Up until the last few years I would only target catfish in the shallow water during the spring when the water started to warm. That strategy has changed over time, partly by luck and circumstance.
We started finding these fish shallow during the winter months by accident. When it gets rough on Santee and you want to fish the only choice you have is to get close to a bank. Most places close to the bank in Santee is shallow. So, we would pull up shallow, not by choice but by necessity. We have been testing this shallow water theory for the last few years and it seems to be proving itself. We have been consistently finding catfish in shallow water during the winter months.
The bonus to our discovery is that we are finding big catfish. What seems to be consistent is that our winter fishing in shallow water tends to produce quality trophy size fish more times than not. Several of my friends have been helping me test my shallow water theory.
Richard Chaplin fishes Santee and the Copper River regularly. I shared some shallow water tips with Richard a few years ago and now he is the man for consistently catching trophy fish in shallow water. He caught a 72-pound blue after Christmas and today as I am writing this, he caught a 92-pound blue. Both were caught in water 5 feet deep or less. Then, he was out in mid-January, 2018, anchored in 4 feet of water and caught a 62- and 54-pound blue within 30 minutes of one another.
At the end of 2018 and on the first day of the new year I was fishing Santee with my two grandsons. We fished the last three days of last year and the first day of the new year. All 4 days we were anchored in 5 feet of water or less. We caught several fish each day in the 15- to 20-pound range and on New Year’s Day one of my grandboys caught a 50-pound trophy.
Andy Cagle and Jody Day fish several of the lakes here in Georgia—Lake Jackson, Oconee, and Sinclair. They have been catching good fish shallow in all these lakes all year long, including the winter.
Mark Stanley and Kevin Couick both fish Santee often and fished the Winter Blues on Wheeler last year and this year. They caught a 68-pound blue on Wheeler this year in 3 feet of water.
What I think is happening is that the big blues are pairing up during the winter months and getting ready for the spring spawn. Part of the getting ready process is to feed and fatten up. Once the spawn starts, they will be building nests, males sparring with other males and once the eggs are laid guarding the nest for a couple of weeks waiting on the eggs hatch. During this time, they don’t seem to eat much.
Finding Shallow Fish
When I say shallow water, I mean depths of 10 feet or less. I look for shallow flats, back of creeks or drains and behind islands. I like to anchor my boat in 4 to 5 feet of water near a drop off or ledge. If I can find a change in depth of a couple of feet in 3 to 4 feet of water, I will anchor close to that.
Don’t be afraid to idle around in shallow water looking for these spots. At Santee, we call this knocking the squirrels out of the trees. Trim up the motor, go slow, and watch your depth finder. You may bump a stump or two or you may rub a little paint off the bottom of your boat in the sand. Always move slowly up close to trees and idle around to get into position. Surprisingly, we have gotten bites while casting out baits as soon as we get there. If you enter an area quietly the commotion does not seem to be a factor. Just be careful and pay attention.
Equipment, Rigs, and Bait
I fish with Abu Garcia 6500 reels on 7-foot Ugly Stick Tiger rods. I spool with 30-pound test mono mainline and 60-pound test mono leaders. As far as terminal rigs go, I use two different setups for anchor fishing.
I rig with the traditional Santee drift rig including a hook, leader, 3-inch cigar float, barrel swivel, and drift-weight, with a slight variation for anchoring. I attach my drift-weight to the main line with a snap swivel and a bead above the leader barrel swivel. I like for my drift weight to be able to slide up the main line when a fish picks up the bait.
To use this drift rig on the anchor I will remove the drift-weight from the snap swivel and attach a 2- or 3-ounce disc sinker. I will clip the bottom of the snap swivel to the top of the barrel swivel that is attached to the leader. This eliminates the slipping action and keeps the cigar float from pulling the bait to the top of the water. I want the bait to be suspended off of the bottom about a foot or so when anchored. I normally use 8/0 Gamakatsu circle hooks.
Sometimes the water we fish in is full of grass and the bait tends to get hung up in the grass rather than sinking to the bottom. When dealing with grass I will rig with a typical Carolina rig that includes the hook, leader, barrel swivel, and a 2 or 3 ounce no roll sinker on the main line above a bead and the leader swivel. When the fish pick up the bait with the Carolina rig they don’t feel the weight.
Once anchored up put out 6 to 10 baits spread all around the boat. Don’t be afraid to put out big baits. At Santee we use gizzard shad, white perch, and mullet for bait. I will get 2 or 3 pieces of bait out of a football-size gizzard shad. When using large baits, I will rig with just a leader, swivel and hook, no weight. A big old shad head that weighs close to a pound will stay on the bottom and you have plenty of weight to cast it out.
I have found no reason to down-size the bait. My theory is that the bigger the bait the bigger the fish. I believe the fish you find in shallow water are feeding fish. They tend to hang out in deep water creeks and channels, but when they move up to shallow water, they seem to be looking for something to eat.
While waiting on a bite I leave my reels released in the rod holders to free spool with the bait clickers on. I like the sound of a bait clicker on a 6500 screaming with a big fish running off with my bait. The bites you get in these conditions are usually good bites. When the clicker goes off, I just step up to the reel and turn the handle to lock the spool. I run the drags loose and let the circle hooks do the work.
I will sit on a spot for 45 minutes to an hour. When I move, I may not move more than 100 yards or so. I will work an area for a couple of hours before moving out completely, especially if there is a bait flipping around the area. If you find the bait you will find the fish.
As far as dealing with the cold weather, I am a little spoiled. I fish out of 24-foot Triton with a full cabin enclosure. I have a propane heater and it gets kind of nice inside the enclosure. So, do what you have to do to deal with the weather. My best advice is to wear layers of clothing to stay warm. It is always better to have on too many clothes than not enough.
Mainly, don’t be afraid to get up in some shallow water, bump around on some stumps, knock some squirrels out of the trees, and catch yourself a trophy catfish. Tight lines and good luck.
Monty Hill owns and operates Makin’ It Reel fishing reel repair business. He can be reached through his Facebook page.