Given the right circumstances, the exception can become the rule. Typically, the world-class catfishing on the Santee Cooper lakes, Marion and Moultrie, is a mid-depth to deep-water affair, especially for colossal-sized cats.
But veteran angler Richie Wimmer of Cross, S.C., said every spring, the big catfish — primarily big blues — make a major move to the shallows, and the skinny water literally explodes with action. Catching fat cats in skinny water is the new rule.
When Wimmer says the action explodes, he means it quite literally.
“When a fisherman sets the hook on 40 pounds or perhaps much-larger blue catfish in a couple feet of water on a shallow flat, that big catfish has limited options,” he said. “Among their favorite options is to go up and out of the water.”
Wimmer said if the rocket-like surge and re-entry splash of a huge cat churning the skinny water doesn’t get an angler pumped, then he recommends that person take up a tame sport like skydiving.
“Not only is the fishing extraordinarily productive, it’s off-the-chart exciting,” Wimmer said. “However not all shallow water is created equal in terms of productivity. The catfish have specific areas where fishermen can consistently locate them, and specific bait and rig presentations will enhance success as well.”
Wimmer doesn’t guide other anglers; he’s an experienced tournament fisherman who has won and placed high in numerous tournaments on the Santee Cooper lakes.
“I fish every day like I’m in a tournament, and that’s particularly effective during this shallow-water surge of big catfish,” Wimmer said. “Once I setup on a spot, I’m reasonably patient, and I’ll give it 45 minutes at a minimum. If I haven’t had any action, I’ll make a move to another target. If I’ve caught a fish or two, I’ll give it while longer, but I won’t spend a long time in any one spot without some success.”
He said on some set-ups, rods start bowing over before he gets all his lines in the water.
“Any given spot can be feast or famine, but keep in mind it’s that localized spot,” he said. “These big fish are usually on the move, and while one spot may produce consistently for a few weeks, the catfish won’t be at that specific spot every time I go. But I do return frequently to previously productive areas. Even if fish are not present, that helps me figure the pattern for the day, because I can eliminate areas and keep refining my search pattern.”
Kevin Davis, who guides out of Blacks Landing, also follows fat cats into skinny water. With so much shallow water available in both lakes, narrowing targets down is essential.
“One (feature) I like is depressions on large flats; it’s something different on the bottom from all the surrounding water where depths are essentially the same,” Davis said. “The depths will vary with each site, but I look for places where the water drops from 2 to 3 feet down to as deep as 8 to 10 feet.”
Davis said catfish may hold on the edge of the drop, along the actual drop as well as in the depression. These kinds of areas, he said, often have cypress trees, stumps, logs and other vegetative cover. Warming water attracts various fish species and aquatic life and the woody and weedy cover will attract and hold these food sources.
Wimmer said a variety of other places also are also big cat magnets.
“As I search for active fish, I work the edges of creek channels that cut across the flats, giving catfish a travel route as well as deeper water as an escape retreat,” he said. “Deep is a relative term at this time of year, and these spots may only be 6 feet in some of the old creeks or ditches, maybe deeper in some areas.”
Wimmer said he further narrows his search for targets that offer unique underwater topography. Good examples are an underwater bend in the channel where the depth is just slightly deeper, a second ditch intersection with the primary creek or a high spot alongside the deeper channel. All are typical options on Marion and Moultrie.
Along with other food sources, Wimmer said clam beds will attract shallow blues; finding clam beds around these type underwater areas is a big plus.
“These are typical targets I’ll fish,” he said. “I want something unique to set up on before I anchor. The vast majority of the fishing I do in the shallows is anchor fishing, not drifting, but I orient to areas where catfish are mostly likely to use as travel or feeding routes. They’ll use these channels, ditches and depressions for travel and feeding purposes and then get into the flats to forage, often at night.
Wimmer said catfish will typically feed in the shallows at night and then slip back into the slightly deeper depressions, ditches and channels during the day, making fishing productive day and night. Wimmer believes bigger fish may be more aggressive at night.
“My preference is to fish at night; I think the odds of bigger fish are best then,” he said. “But big cats are caught shallow day and night. For daytime fishing, I prefer cloudy or rainy days.”
Wimmer said the big difference in technique is at night, because catfish will be shallow. He’ll begin by getting rigs in every different depth within casting range, but as the bite trends toward one depth or the other, so will his presentation.
“I will vary the baits I use throughout the day or night until I find a preference,” he said. “On some spots, fish are aggressive, and various baits may work equally well, but sometimes it’s very specific, especially for big cats. I just offer different bait choices at each spot. Each one can be different in terms of localized forage the cats are already eating at that location. I want to give them something they’re already comfortable with in terms of food and bait (so) they’ll bite aggressively.
“It’s a new process for bait and presentation every trip.Typically, cats will go shallow and feed more aggressively at night, especially really big cats,” he said. “I’ve learned they follow basic patterns, but accept that really no hard and fast rules apply. I’ve got to give them what they want where they want it.”
Wimmer said to stay on the move if you’re not getting bites and be patient within reason. At times, anglers can enjoy steady action; at other times they’ll experience periods of intense, explosive action intermingled with slower times, needed for cardiac recovery.
“But the rule at this time of year is to get in skinny water for fat cats,” he said.
HOW TO GET THERE — I-95, I-26 and US 52 offer good access to Lake Moultrie and Lake Marion through Manning, Moncks Corner and Santee. More than 100 public and private boat-access areas are available. Visit www.santeecoopercountry.org/lakeside-facilities.html.
BEST TECHNIQUES — Blue catfish will push into the shallows on Lake Marion and Lake Moultrie in March, especially at night. Look for shallow flats with depressions or other depth changes, including ditches or creeks that run through them. Fish various baits at different depths to work up a daily pattern.
FISHING INFO/GUIDES — Kevin Davis, Blacks Camp Guide Service, 843-312-3080, www.blackscamp.com; Lee Jackson, Jackson’s Guide Service, 803-747-8221, www.santeecooperfatcats.com. See also Guides and Charters in Classifieds.