In Pursuit Of Lake Hartwell’s Monster Catfish

Little fish need not apply: When Hartwell catfishermen Red Duncan and Melvin Wall go fishing, big baits, big rods and big line means big cats.

Brad Bailey | April 27, 2006

Melvin Wall of Anderson, S.C. with a “small” catfish that hit live bait.

If the catfish in Lake Hartwell could complain, they would probably complain about these two: catfishermen Red Duncan and Melvin Wall. When these two go catfishing they usually catch fish — lots of fish, and lots of big fish.

A friend recently asked them to keep him the catfish they caught one day so he could have a fish fry. He showed up with a 5-gallon bucket to pick up the fish. The one-morning catch that Red and Melvin had waiting for him filled a large cooler — and weighed 152 pounds!

What sets these two apart from most catfishermen is that they have up-sized their tackle and baits to target big catfish — and they are usually successful.

“Most trips during the summer we will catch at least one that weighs 20 pounds or more,” said Red.

Red has boated three flatheads from Hartwell that weighed 42 pounds. Melvin’s best fish weighed 36 pounds. Red caught a 41-lb. flathead last December. “You couldn’t haul off all the 30-pounders we have caught in a tractor-trailer truck,” he said. And then there are the fish that grab the bait and just take off down the lake despite the heavy tackle.

“I’ve hooked some that I just couldn’t do anything with,” said Red.

Red, who is 70, and Melvin, 71, are both from Anderson, S.C. Beginning in the spring, as soon as the water warms and the catfish move up out of deep water, Red is on the lake several times a week, and Melvin is often his catfish-catching partner.

I met Red and Melvin at Lake Hartwell on April 16 to go catfishing with them. We piled in to Red’s pontoon boat and were soon anchored up off a rocky point in Beaverdam Creek.

“What size line you got on that reel,” Red asked as he eyed the Carolina-rig-rod and baitcaster I had brought along.

“Fourteen pound,” I said.

Red just cackled. “You’re going to get your line broke,” he said.

Lake Hartwell has a big population of catfish that receive little fishing pressure.

Then he began to rig his heavy rods — some of which were equipped with saltwater-grade Penn reels. The reels were spooled with 50- or 65-lb. test line. Red and Melvin essentially fish an industrial-strength Carolina rig for catfish. On one rod, Red had a 2/0 stainless steel hook tied to a foot-long 65-lb. test leader. A big 1/0 swivel separated the leader from the main line, also 65-lb. test, and a 1-oz. weight cut from an old cast net slid up the line.

“You don’t want the catfish to feel the weight,” said Red. “You want him to just pick up the bait and ease off without feeling the weight. If he feels weight, he will drop the bait.”

By “bait” Red doesn’t mean mere minnows or worms — those baits will catch small fish, he says — he means blueback herring.

“Bigger baits mean bigger fish,” said Melvin. “We aren’t interested in catching small fish. We started fishing with shad, and then we figured out that we were catching bigger fish with herring.”

At one time during our trip Melvin had two herring on one hook.

Red pulled a 6-inch-long live blueback from a water-filled cooler and hooked the fish through the tail just back of the dorsal fin. It is not important to keep the bait alive, in fact dead bait may be better.

“What we figure is that a lot of times, a big ol’ catfish will just sit there and wait for the bait to die before taking it,” he said.

He then pulled 30 or 40 feet of line off his reel onto the deck of the boat before he gently pitched the bait out. Since the line doesn’t have to be peeled off the reel, he says, the bait is less likely to be thrown off the hook on the cast.

With the reel spool disengaged, he propped the rod against a rail, and then it becomes a waiting game. We placed seven baits out around the boat and then sat back to wait.

“Catfish are usually good to cooperate,” said Red. “If the fish are here, it doesn’t take long. Usually you will have a bite in 15 minutes.”

Most of the fish Red and Melvin catch are channel cats. They catch good numbers of flatheads and only an occasional blue cat — maybe 10 blues a summer. The blue cats are usually big ones. Red said he once hooked a huge blue catfish just below the bridge on Beaverdam Creek that he guesses was five feet long and weighed 55 pounds. He wasn’t able to land the monster. “The fish took a 10-inch shad under a float and just took off,” he said.

A big flathead will hit like a little fish, said Red. “A big ol’ flathead will just bump and bump the bait, and then it will just take off.”

The flatheads are also a little more aggressive. If you are getting bumped and you move your bait just a little, a flathead will often grab it. Channel cats, according to Red, don’t like to see any unusual movement.

According to GON’s Lake Records (see the February 2003 issue), the current Lake Hartwell record flathead is a 32-lb., 8-oz. fish caught by John Baird in 2001. There are no listings for either channel cats or blues.
One problem this year has been that Lake Hartwell is full for the first time in several years. All the grass that grew on the exposed banks is now submerged.

“The grass seems to make it harder for the fish to find the baits,” said Melvin.

With no luck on the rocky point after 45 minutes, we repositioned Red’s boat over the Beaverdam Creek channel, hoping to escape some of the grass. Several minutes after the baits had been put out, line started spinning off the reel on Red’s 8-foot long rod. Red picked up the rod, but did not lock down the reel.

“A lot of people try to set the hook when the fish first runs,” he said. “If you pull when he first picks up the bait, you can forget it, you’ll never stick him. You think he’s got the bait, but he doesn’t, he’s just holding it. You want to wait until he stops and then runs again. By then he has moved the bait to the back of its mouth and you have a better chance of hooking him.”

Eight or 10 feet of line spun off Red’s reel and then the line stopped. Red waited patiently. After 30 seconds or so, the spool began to spin again. This time, Red locked the reel down and set the hook. His long fishing rod arched over, but not under the weight of a monster. He soon slung a 4-lb. channel cat into the boat.

This catfish was complaining about being caught, croaking “ert, ert ert,” as Melvin removed the hook.

Several times we had fish pick up a bait and make a short run, only to apparently drop the bait. Melvin was able to hook a pair of 2-pounders, but the monsters weren’t out that day. Unfortunately, my line did not get broken.

“The water has been cold,” said Red. “The carp were late coming up, and the catfish are behind, too. By May you ought to be able to throw out about anywhere and catch catfish.”

Red recommends Eighteen-Mile and Coneross creeks up the Seneca River arm for catfish. “We caught 900 pounds of catfish in Eighteen-Mile in eight days last September,” he said. “Catfish like to hang out around stumps and rocks and trees just like bass. There is a big tree straight across from the ramp in Eighteen Mile that is a good spot.”

Red says the big cats prefer a rocky bank.

“There is a rock bluff along the Seneca above Clemson that is a good spot for channel cats and flatheads,” he said. “There is another rocky bluff in Coneross Creek where the creek channel bends that is a good place for big catfish.”

For the rest of the summer, Red and Melvin will be fishing shallow flats, generally less than 10 feet of water and sometimes extremely shallow. “We have caught 25- to 30-lb. catfish in water two or three feet deep,” said Red.

The best time of day to catch a big catfish is lunchtime, said Red. “We usually catch the big ones between 11 a.m. and noon. The best conditions to catch a monster are right after a heavy rain when the water is muddied up.

So what do you do with a 30- to 40-lb. catfish once you have it in the net? Red keeps a length of 1/4-inch rope with a straight section of coat-hanger attached. He strings the rope through the catfish’s gills with the wire, pulls it through a loop in the other end of the line and then ties the fish off to the boat. Some of the catfish Red and Melvin catch are too big to put in the boat!

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