Biologist Scott Lamprecht of the S.C. Department of Natural Resources said fishermen will find fewer blue catfish in the Santee Cooper lakes than a decade ago, but their chances of getting a big fish are far greater.

"In the '90s and early 2000s, we may have had a system overcrowded with blue catfish," Lamprecht said, "and there was slow growth of young fish because of so much competition.

"We've now been thinned down because of the years of low flows and less-than-maximum recruitment. Our density has gone way down, our growth rates have gone up - so we're producing about the same weight of fish, but its spread out over fewer individuals. So catch rates are way down, but the average size of blue catfish is way up."

Numbers-wise, Lamprecht said channel catfish are taking up the slack, but he'd just as soon see more blues in general.

"We are concerned about the lower densities of blue catfish," he said. "There are a lot of people exploiting them now: commercial fishermen, recreational anglers, trotliners and bowfishermen."

The bowfishing craze has really caught on, and fish can be easy prey at night in the clear shallows, but that shouldn't be a real threat to the population.

"If everybody adheres to the one-fish-over-36-inches-per-day limit we shouldn't ultimately be in a lot of trouble," Lamprecht said.

Lamprecht said a 136-pound blue caught over the winter on a trotline shows the kind of fish that Santee Cooper is capable of producing.

"We'd never seen anything over 110 pounds in the system," he said. "We could potentially see a new world record come out of here. It's not out of the question at all."

SCDNR was able to age the huge catfish, estimating it to be 23 years old. But that's a youngster compared to a 102-pounder aged a few years back; that fish was a ripe, old 34.

"If you want to catch a fish of a lifetime, this probably has the best potential of any reservoir that I know," Lamprecht said.

Smith agrees.

"I've done a lot of fishing in the ocean, caught a lot of tarpon, dolphin, kings, wahoo - a lot of stuff that's supposed to be mean and gets people hooked into saltwater fishing," he said. "But I'm going tell you right here, I catch more and bigger fish, consistently, right here. This is just a big-fish-making factory."