Santee’s Shallow Water Cats
by Ron Presley
Fish where the fish are.
Spencer Hodges is not one to sit and wait for the catfish to bite. The long time Santee Cooper angler is known for catching big cats on the SC lakes. Before any outing he checks the weather and makes his plans. He relies heavily on experience and sonar, especially side-imaging, to determine where to fish.
“The first thing in the morning we target fish on shallow flats,” instructed Hodges. “We are looking for fish that are either coming in from deeper water to feed or coming off the flats from feeding the night before. That is the main deal—moving fish that are active in a travel path.”
His years of experience has taught him that those active fish are more likely to bite then fish he marks lying lethargically on the bottom. He is normally searching for them in one of the many stump fields available on Santee Cooper. The fish use the ditches running through the stumps to come up on the flats to feed.
“If they are moving through a ditch you have fish that are active and may feed,” he said. “Marking fish in the 12- to 18-foot range and tight to the bottom are inactive fish. Those fish are not likely to bite.”
Hodges just keeps moving until he finds an area with signs of active fish. He wants to see bait and fish up off the bottom. Better yet, bait that has been pushed up and broken into small schools.
“I do try to remember areas where I mark a lot of fish,” added Hodges. “I will go back and check on them periodically during the day to see if the fish have lifted up off the bottom and have bait around. I may try to fish them once I see that.”
Water temperature plays a big role in his strategy too. A cold night, for example can keep the fish off the feeding flats. In that case the bite may be later.
“Sometimes I wait awhile before going out,” offered Hodges. “Especially when it’s cold at night, that early bite can become a crap shoot. Once that sun gets up and the water gets up another degree or two those fish will start slipping back in from the deeper water. That bite may turn on around by 10 or 11 o’clock and run into the afternoon.”
His equipment includes Penn Phantom 25 level wind reels and Fat Boy Custom Rods. He spools with 40- to 50-pound Sunline. The terminal tackle is prepared Carolina rig style.
Gizzard shad and white perch are normally available and make great bait. The gizzards he likes are 15 to 17 inches. He seldom uses them whole. He is neutral on the big bait, big fish issue.
“I don’t like to use the gizzard shad whole because of their size,” he said. “Sometimes I will use the white perch whole. When the bite is slow, I usually just try smaller chunks and pieces to see it that is what they want.”
“I have caught a lot of big fish on little bait and I’ve caught a lot of big fish on big bait,” explained Hodges. “A lot of times using a bigger bait will keep the smaller fish off and that is part of the goal for me.”
Hodges also mentioned current as a factor to consider. Especially as it relates to structure. A large hump on the sonar gave rise to an explanation.
“It is just like anywhere you ever fished,” explained Hodges. “If you fish current and there is anything for the fish to get behind, it’s good. That hump is significant.”
The sonar was sowing a hump right behind the boat in 18 feet of water. From there it rose to 10 1/2 feet on its top.
“That bait is setting on the slope and you have an 8-foot swing as a current break,” said Hodges. “The current is coming from 14- or 15-foot right in front of the boat where I dropped anchor. So, it is rolling up that hill and the bait will lay right in there behind the hump. The fish come to the bait.”
The fish are comfortable behind the hump (or any other structure) because they don’t have to fight the current. The side-scan revealed exactly how the bait and scattered fish were tucked right in behind it.
On this particular day Santee was calm and smooth. A rare occurrence. In fact, the Santee Cooper lakes are known for their tendency to get rough fast when the wind comes up a safety warning is always in order. Although calm and smooth is good from an anger’s comfort perspective, Hodges doesn’t like it.
“If you are having these calm conditions on Santee and are marking bait it will be sunk right down on the bottom,” Hodges explained. “Let that wind start blowing and you start getting waves and all of a sudden all those fish and all that bait that was sunk down will start rising. The bait will start lifting up to midwater column. The fish will also start lifting up and suspend. As those waves churn up the bottom and the fish will get more active and start biting.”
He fishes from a 23-foot May-Craft boat with a 200 HP engine. It is just the ticket for him because the “rougher the better” is his slogan.
“It was designed for saltwater,” he said, referring to his boat. “Anything designed for saltwater better be able to take water and get rid of water and this boat does.”
Hodges is addicted to the shallow water cats and rough water just makes it more challenging. When a big cat is hooked in shallow water, they can’t dive much, so they go sideways and sometimes go airborne.
“The rougher the better,” concluded Hodges. “My experience is much better when it’s rough. When that wind starts blowing and the water starts churning the bottom, it’s kicking stuff up. The fish see that and they get a lot more active. And when they are hooked in that shallow water they go everywhere. And remember, there is no water too shallow. I have seen them running around with their back sticking out of the water.”