Clarks Hill Cats with the Sultan of Slime
Summer is when Mr. Whiskers gets concentrated in holes and on the drops. National competitor Jonathon Herndon shares his tactics.
When it comes to catching the big flatheads, blues and channel catfish around the country, Jonathon Herndon, also known as “The Sultan of Slime,” might as well have a Ph.D. He will quickly tell you one of the most productive times of the year to catch a king-sized cat is from the end of the spawn up through the hot summer months. With catfish coming off of last month’s spawn on Clarks Hill, they should be ready to feed this month, and nobody knows how to catch them like Dr. Slime.
The professional catfisherman and guide hails from High Falls, and his nationwide tournament resume on the Bass Pro Shop Big Cat Quest circuit is impressive. With multiple top-10 finishes and championship appearances, he has proven he knows what it takes to produce fish while the clock is ticking.
He has been fishing professionally for the past seven years, and over the last few years he has inked deals with some of the biggest names in the industry — names like: Bass Pro Shops, Mercury Marine and Gamakatsu just to name a few. Jonathon and his wife, Cindy, also run a guide service, and if they aren’t on the road at a tournament, you can usually find them hauling in the biggest cats they can find for clients.
As a Bass Pro Shops pro-staffer, The Sultan is in constant demand for clinics and other educational forums on how to locate and land monster cats. Recently he agreed to open his bag of tricks for Clarks Hill catfish to give GON a peek inside.
In mid June, Jonathon, Cindy and I went on an excursion to Clarks Hill to take on the challenge of catching old whiskers on what is the biggest Corps of Engineers body of water east of the Mississippi. We fished from the comfort of Jonathon’s 2011 Suntracker pontoon boat, which is tricked out for chasing monster cats. The pair taught me all the tricks of the trade for putting these big boys in the boat in July. If you have a hankering to put big catfish in your crosshairs, just take notes, follow his formula and hang on for dear life.
I should pause here to send along a word to the wise. July thunderstorms and squalls can be rough. We got caught in a doozy that blew up on us in nothing flat. As we made our run for cover, it became obvious we weren’t going to make the bridge because the waves were so high. We ended up beached and soaking wet with lightning all around us. A pretty scary scene was the funnel cloud back to the east, which Jonathon took a video of on his mobile device, but that is a story for another day. Just remember to keep a sharp eye out on weather forecasts and your local conditions. It is easy to get into a mess, especially on the big lakes like Clarks Hill. I can tell you it’s no fun trying to extricate a grounded boat, and it is flat out dangerous to be on the water when lightning and high winds are present.
On our trip we launched from the Amity ramp just off Highway 43 between Thomson and Lincolnton. This is a good place to start because it puts you a good position to access the mid- and lower-lake areas where big catfish tend to be in the summer.
One of the keys to The Sultan’s success is he is a student of catfish behavior. He’s a rolling encyclopedia on their particular likes and habits. His other biggest asset is experience, and he’s parlayed these two items into a skill set equaled by only a few in the United States.
His top bait choices for summer fishing are live bream for flatheads and big chunks of cut gizzard shad for blues. Channel cats love cut threadfin shad.
We spent a good couple of hours getting bait together. Netting the shad was a fairly tough proposition, but you need to concentrate your efforts under the bridges and around rip-rap areas to find them. Bream cannot be used for bait unless caught by hook and line, so I took care of that while Cindy expertly worked the throw net.
She used a setup that included a Perfect Circle device by Pro Kast to make throwing easier and more efficient. With our bait requirements filled, we set out to find the catfish hideouts.
One of the first things Jonathon looks for is the presence of current. On Clarks Hill, water movement is created by the pump-storage system at the Lake Russell Dam or the water release at the Thurmond Dam. The unit on Russell has the ability to create current in two directions — either as the water is pumped out of Russell and into Clarks Hill or from Clarks Hill back into Russell. Both reservoirs are operated by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, and the generation schedules can be obtained by calling (800) 533-3478.
The prime times for catching these fish will be when they are generating. Jonathon doesn’t have a preference for which direction the current is flowing, so anytime they are moving water is the best time to go.
The presence of current causes the cats to find break lines where they can lie just off the heaviest part of the flow and ambush their favorite meal as it comes by. This flow is also important because it serves to concentrate fish and narrow down target areas. Break lines can come in the form of potholes or significant depth changes, especially changes where the fish can access shallower flats at night and deeper water during the hot days without having to move long distances.
If you can find these break lines that have some sort of structure, you are in the kind of spots flatheads, blues and channel cats favor in our July weather. The tail-end of the catfish spawn was in June, and these postspawn fish in July are going to be easier to target because they are more predictable and no longer occupied with the spawning process.
Since the water surface temperatures are likely to be in the mid 90s on Clarks Hill in July, Jonathon looks for depths ranging from 10 to 15 feet on the shallow side of the break and 35 to 45 feet on the deeper side. If you are fishing deep holes in the lower lake, prime depths will probably run in the 40- to 55-foot range.
Jonathon uses a relatively basic sonar system because all he is looking for is the presence of baitfish, depth and structure. His Humminbird 570 is his tool of choice here, and he especially likes the downscan mode it provides to locate the heavily structured areas he’s looking for.
Once a good location is found, boat positioning is of utmost importance. You want to be positioned slightly upstream of the break at night so you can fish both depth ranges to catch the transitioning fish going to the shallows to feed. And if fishing a pothole area, you want to be able to get your baits into that pothole where the fish will most likely be lying during the heat of the day.
A good set of anchors with plenty of rope is one of the most important pieces of equipment on the boat. If you drift off the hole, your chances of success become minimal. Jonathon usually uses two anchors that are a minimum of 20 pounds each, and has one more anchor available in case wind conditions require it.
After getting anchored, Jonathon educated me on the tackle requirements he favors. He prefers Bass Pro Cat Maxx 8-foot medium-heavy spinning rods that are similar to saltwater surf rods. No matter what brand you use, Jonathon said to make sure your rods have soft tips. More flexibility at the tip allows the rod to load up for a higher percentage of hook-ups. The ends of his rods are flexible, but the bottom two-thirds are broomsticks fully capable of landing the biggest fish. These outfits are made specifically for those serious about their pursuits of catfish.
We used a Carolina-style rigging. This terminal tackle included 30-lb. test line with a 60- to 80-lb. leader of about 18 inches. The extra strong leader is necessary because the sandpaper-like tooth patch in the mouth of a monster cat will weaken the line and may lead to a lost trophy. Jonathon typically uses Berkeley Big Game monofilament and prefers it over braided line.
Attached were 6/0 Gamakatsu circle hooks for cutbait and 8/0 hooks for live bait, as well as 6-ozs. of no-roll lead. Jonathon employs swivels that range in size from 2/0 to 5/0, and don’t forget to put a bead above your swivel to keep the big chunk of lead from damaging the knot. In heavier current conditions, more weight will be necessary. Use a Palomar knot on all three ties, and leave about 1/4-inch tag on each one.
Jonathon also has his techniques perfected for baiting up. When bottom fishing with live bait, he prefers to hook the bream just behind the anal fin. If fishing that same bait suspended, he recommends hooking it under the mid-dorsal fin. These two methods ensure the maximum amount of realistic swimming motion the baits will have.
He favors gizzard shad for cutbait and cuts the shad into three pieces not including the tail. He discards the tail. If using the head portion, Jonathon advises hooking it through the eye and then the top side, and for the other pieces he likes to start the hook at the cut end toward the spine and out the top side.
If using large threadfin shad, he makes a shallow cut starting behind the gill plate and angles it toward the gut to expose the gut pocket without cutting all the way through the fish. He then bends the bait in half with the gut pocket on the outside and puts the hook through both portions. He said it is very important to not cover up the hook gap. If there is so much as a fish scale on the point of the hook, it can cost you a clean hook-up and a fish.
I asked Jonathon about using blueback herring, which are numerous on Clarks Hill. He is not a big fan of the baitfish for summertime fishing. They do not hold up well in the bait tank or on the hook and are too soft to be reliable as cut bait.
The Herndon’s actually have a commercial bait enhancer on the market. That bait enhancer is the result of scientific studies on the smells catfish best react to. To find out more, go to <www.sultanofslime.com>.
When you have all your rods baited up (and he uses a spread of six or seven rods around the boat), just use a lob cast to get them 20 or 30 yards from the boat. Situate them in the rod holders so the butt of the rod is only an inch or so inside the bottom bracket of the holder. If you put the rods all the way down, it is difficult to get them out once a big cat is on. There is no need to try to keep the lines taut, you just don’t want a large amount of slack in them.
Now that you have taken care of the most important details, just sit back, tell a story or two and wait for the big cats to come to you. They have a remarkable sense of smell and if your bait is anywhere nearby, they will soon come cruising. Jonathon said depending on current and wind conditions they can smell the bait from long distances — so be patient.
When one of the rods begins to bounce, don’t be too quick to grab the rod and set the hook. With a circle hook, Jonathon advises to let the rods load up until they have a significant bend in them. Setting the hook is not required because of the design of the hook. Simply crank the reel about three times while it is in the holder, and then remove it from the holder, give it a steady lift upward and begin cranking in earnest. The fish will be solidly hooked, and all you have to worry about is whether you have the strength and endurance to get it back to the boat.
Here’s my advice: If you want to catch one of the largest freshwater fish on the continent, just go with Jonathon and Cindy. See their website at www.catfishreapercharters.com.
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