The Santee Cooper Catfish Experience
Catfish heaven, both for numbers and the possibility of a giant, awaits across the South Carolina state line on sister lakes Moultrie and Marion, known simply as Santee Cooper.
There are hunting and fishing experiences that are talked about so often that they begin to tempt even a deep-rooted Georgian. Whitetails in Canada, doves in South America, catfish in South Carolina…
Catfish? In South Carolina?
Yes, for me it has long been the giant catfish of Santee Cooper that have been a temptation.
Quite a few Georgians head to Santee Cooper, and the legend of Santee catfish has over the years made it back to Georgia. This is where 100-lb. catfish get caught on rod and reel, where 50-pounders don’t raise eyebrows.
Santee Cooper is the common name for two huge sister reservoirs, Lake Marion and Lake Moultrie, that are connected by a 6 1/2-mile canal and that together cover more than 170,000 acres of water.
On June 12, I finally made the three-hour drive from Morgan County east on I-20 to Columbia, then south
on I-26 to U.S. Hwy 301, which cuts across to I-95 and the Santee exit. One of the reasons GON decided to do this article—an out-of-state article every couple of years is typically our average—was that Santee Cooper is not too far from many of our readers, especially those in the eastern and southeastern part of Georgia.
After an evening and morning of eyeing the Weather Channel and the approaching bands of Tropical Storm Alberto, at daylight I hopped in the truck with Santee guide Capt. Joe Hutson, and we made the 20-minute drive from the hotel in Santee to Black’s Camp on the canal that connects lakes Moultrie and Marion. Joe said we’d be able to fish at least until lunch, and with a confident, sly grin, he said, “Sometimes that’s all the time you need.”
Joe fishes out of a clean, comfortable pontoon boat with a cover over the back deck, not that we needed the shade on this day. It stayed cloudy all morning, and temperatures never rose above 75.
As the boat left the mouth of the canal and entered Lake Marion, my first thought was, “Is it foggy? Where’s the other bank?”
Marion is huge, 110,000 acres, and those acres aren’t hidden in any big tributaries or creeks. It’s like a giant bowl.
As we made our way out of the marked channel, I noticed that Joe wasn’t taking a direct route across the lake. He slowed up in one area and pointed out why—a jungle of stumps and stick-ups just below the surface.
“That stuff is everywhere, and none of it is marked,” Joe cautioned.
Because of the lake’s immense size and open, bowl shape, wind is another danger.
“Out here wind can be your best friend, or it can be your worst enemy,” Joe said. “This lake is dangerous when the wind gets up. It can get like the Atlantic Ocean, but we need some wind to fish. A slick lake is bad.”
The primary technique Joe uses to catch catfish on Santee Cooper is a controlled drift, letting the wind take the boat along slowly. He positions the pontoon boat sideways into the wind, and he puts out a pair of drift socks that control the speed of the drift and help keep the boat from swinging at the front or back.
Drift fishing typically produces blue catfish—which on Santee have been caught in the 100-lb. range—and channel catfish. Lake Marion currently boasts the world-record channel catfish, a 58-pounder. Flathead catfish are also common, but Joe said catching them usually requires downlining live bream or other bait instead of drift fishing.
Our first drift began in open water that from the surface looked no different than any other part of the lake. The depthfinder was showing about 15 feet deep with little drops and rises of a couple of feet in depth.
“The catfish like to relate to little humps and bumps along the bottom,” Joe said. “That a big key, fishing a place that has those little changes or some type of ledge.”
Joe’s drift-fishing rig includes a homemade weight made from 11 No. 1 buckshot pellets stuffed into a nylon shoe- string. Both ends of the nylon are burnt with a lighter to close it up. This type of weight doesn’t get caught and wedged in stumps like a bell sinker or other types of weights. A snap swivel is buried through the nylon on one end to attach the specialized weight to the fishing line.
Next is an 18- to 24-inch leader leading to a 1/0 Eagle Claw live-bait hook that he “sews” down the bait’s back. Starting at the nostrils, the hook is inserted and pushed all the way through, then this is repeated four or five times along the bait’s back. A pegged float about 4 inches above the bait keeps it off the bottom.
For bait, his No. 1 choice when drift fishing for blues and channel catfish is blueback herring, which he usually buys by the dozen at Black’s Camp and keeps in a bait tank on the pontoon boat.
“Catfish like fresh bait. I keep fresh bait in my boat. I have people ask me about chicken livers. I tell them, ‘All the years I’ve been fishing this lake, I’ve never seen a chicken liver floating by.’”
Joe said the primary food of Santee’s catfish is mussels. All morning I noticed shells floating by, and he said that’s where catfish had come along and eaten the meat from the mussels.
This technique of drifting fresh bait for big catfish will work on any Georgia lake that has a good catfish population, and Joe said if there are little catfish in a lake, you can bet there are big ones, too.
“If people are just catching little catfish, they’re not using the right bait,” Joe said.
The lines are cast off the side of the boat, the Ambassador baitcasting reels are engaged, and the 7 1/2-foot Shakespeare “Wonder Rods” are set in the rod holders. Then you wait for Mr. Catfish. On my trip with Joe, there wasn’t much waiting involved. The longest stretch we had without a catfish “snatching” on one of the baits was 10 minutes. Overwise, the bites were pretty constant. At first it will drive you crazy watching the rod tips slowly pull and bounce as the weights bump along the bottom, but when a catfish is after it, the quickly bouncing rod tip and then sharp jerk of the rod downward is obvious.
“What we need now is a Michael Jordan slam dunk—look up and see nothing but the reel. When a big ones hits, that rod will be down in the water,” Joe said. “You just never know when a big one is going to take it.”
On our first drift we were getting lots of “snatches,” but only one catfish took the bait deep enough for Joe to set the hook. Joe was very patient, waiting on the fish to bury the rod tip down toward the water before taking the rod from the holder.
“They’re biting short today, just nipping at the tail,” Joe said.
Other guides confirmed a finicky bite over the radio. Finicky? I’d like to be on Santee Cooper when the catfish are really eating. With the storm moving in, Joe and I fished for about three hours. In that short amount of time, we boated 18 catfish. That’s a fish caught every 10 minutes. And there’ s no telling how many bites we got from the “finicky” catfish—I’d say at least 20. Imagine how busy we’d have been if just half of those 20 bites had turned into hooked-up catfish.
We did not catch one of those famous Santee Cooper giants. All of our catfish were small, but they were perfect filleting size. I kept 10 that were between two and six pounds, and
we released the others.
“An average day is about 20 fish, and the size varies by day,” Joe said. “Some days they’re all big fish, some days it’s all small fish. When I say big fish, we’re talking about anything over 20 pounds. A 25-lb. catfish is pretty common. The fish doesn’t get the guides’ attention until it’ s a 60-pounder,” he said.
Joe was on the lake last December right next to a boat that caught the 102-lb. blue pictured with this article.
“One of my all-time highlights was last year. I had a little girl catch a 54-lb. blue cat,” he said.
The biggest catfish caught from Joe’s boat was a 72-lb. flathead.
“Me and another guide were splitting a group, each of us with four guys, and they were all betting on big fish. W e caught that big flathead. I wasn’t sure exactly how big it was, but I knew it was a really big fish. I called the other guide on the radio and said, ‘We got a big one.’ He said, ‘How big?’ I said, ‘Over 30.’ Little while later he called and said, ‘Joe, we got a big fish.’ I said, ‘How big?’ He said, ‘Over 30.’
“Turns out we were both messing with each other. We got back, and they had an 80-lb. blue. My guy lost his bet with a 72-lb. fish!”
Currently there is no limit on cat- fish on Santee Cooper. However, Joe and other guides encourage anglers to keep enough to eat, but not overdo it. Back at Black’s over lunch the guides were talking about legislation that failed this year that would have prohibited anglers from taking more than one blue catfish 36 inches or longer.
“We especially encourage folks to release the fish over 30 pounds. You can always take a picture and let it go,” Joe said. “We catch plenty of those filleting-sized fish to eat.”
Joe said you can catch catfish on the Santee Cooper lakes all year, but he rates April through July and October through December as the best times, primarily because of the weather. That has as much to do with comfort for the fisherman as the catfish wanting to eat.
For information on places to stay and places to eat in Santee, which is about 20 minutes from the ramp at Black’s Camp, visit www.santeecoopercountry.org or call (800) 227-8510.
If you’d like to stay on the water, Black’s Camp is a good option. Capt. Joe and several other long-time guides use Black’s as home base. The family-run business has an excellent restaurant, a store with fishing gear, food, snacks, and drinks, basic rooms and efficiency units with kitchenettes, plus a campground that includes restrooms, showers, and a dump station. For more information on Black’s Camp, call (843) 753-2231. They also have a web- site at www.blackscamp.com.
We mentioned the dangers associated with the Santee Cooper lakes, both from stumps and also from the potential for wind-blown waves that can swamp a boat. Personally, even after spending some time on Lake Moultrie with a guide, my next trip will also be with a guide. I wouldn’t yet be comfortable putting the boat on plane and headed out across the lake.
Capt. Joe Hutson has been guiding full-time on Santee Cooper for more than 20 years. On a trip with a guide, as important as the fish-catching is that the guide be a good people-person. Capt. Joe has that quality. It was one of those trips where you come off the water tickled with how good the fishing was, but also feeling like you’ve made a new friend.
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