Big Fish in a Big Pond
By Michael Edwards
Big Pond doesn'tt come anywhere near describing Lakes Marion and Moultrie (AKA
Santee-Cooper Lakes). Combined, these two lakes cover more than 160,000 acres.
And Big Fish doesnt come anywhere near describing the catfish in these lakes. The
record for these lakes is a 109 pound blue channel catfish. 20 pounders are common, and
40s, 50s and larger are caught in pretty large numbers.
My wife and I had to plan our 1998 spring vacation and we decided to visit our friends
at Rocks Pond Campground & Marina right on the shores of Lake Marion, South
Carolina. What better way to enjoy yourselves than a week of relaxation and fishing on one
of the countries largest manmade reservoirs?
We spent the night of Friday, April 24th driving from New Hampshire to
central South Carolina. The trip took a little over 18 hours with the 18 foot Nitro Savage
bass boat in tow. We arrived on Saturday afternoon and were greeted with sunny skies and
Southern hospitality. Im always amazed at how much more welcome the southern half of
the country is to fishermen than the northeast is. But, thats another story.
We quickly unloaded the truck and launched the boat at the Campgrounds launch. We
spent about 2 hours running around the lake just to familiarize ourselves (we had not been
to Santee-Cooper for almost three years). I also had planned on catching a couple of
largemouth bass before the night ended. Unfortunately, the bass fishing at Santee-Cooper
is no where near what it was just a short two years ago. At the bottom of this article is
a link to another story related specifically to the bass fishing we did during this trip.
After spending Sunday through Tuesday bass fishing, we were excited to meet with
our guide Wednesday morning for a day of catfishing. Let me tell you a little about our
His name is Steve Shipley. I would guess hes somewhere in his mid thirties. He
was originally from the Detroit, Michigan area and used to work for a large company. He
has done what many of us weekend fishermen wish we could do and has made quite a good
reputation as a top notch guide. He has over 5 years of experience on
Santee-Cooper and almost a lifetime of catfishing experience built on the Ohio river. He
also has a great sense of humor and was just as excited about the fishing as my wife and
The boat we fished out of was a very well laid-out 28 foot aluminum pontoon boat. These
boats are very well suited for catfishing due to their very stable attitude when anchored.
This is very important if you plan on setting out lines for catfish. The sheer size and
the flat floor are also very convenient, especially when youve got 10 rods out at
the same time and need to jump quickly to the rod which gets bit. Steve has made many
modifications to the boat which make it the perfect catfishing platform. Among them are:
- A huge livewell for storing the catfish until pictures are taken (you can keep the fish
or release them at the end of the day)
- Another huge livewell for holding the bait
- Some strategically placed seats for comfort
- 2"x6" pressure treated wood reinforcements around the outside of the boat to
protect it when bumping cypress trees
- A porta-potty for convenience (particularly popular with the women I understand)
The boat is well maintained and very functional
In addition, Steve has a countless number of rod & reel combos. The reels are
almost exclusively Abu Garcia 6500C's with 40lb test Berkley Big Game line. The
rods are all 8 foot, graphite, heavy action bait casting rods manufactured by either Diawa
or Shimano. This is all top notch equipment and is necessary for wrestling 40 pound
plus cats out of the stumps.
Santee-Cooper has three species of catfish:
- Blue Cats
- Flathead Cats
- Bullhead Cats
The first two types grow to trophy size. The bullhead is a fairly small species
and seldom grows to over 5 pounds. On this trip we went after Blue Channel cats.
They are more plentiful, generally more active, and therefore easier to catch. The
Blue Channel cat is also the species which holds the lake record for catfish at 109
As our guide explained:
"Catifsh are structure oriented. In Santee-Cooper, this means trees and
stumps. Find the areas with a lot of structure, and you will generally find
Except for during the spawn (when the fish are very shallow) and during the dead of
winter (when the fish are very deep), this rule of thumb holds true. Thus, since the water
temperature was in the 60's and the fish had already spawned, we began our search for
structure and fish. We looked for trees and stumps in 12 feet of water.
The last piece of important information before I tell the events of the
day is a quick discussion on the type of bait we used and how we rigged it up.
I sure you're all aware of the numerous catfish "stink baits" that are sold
in stores, and the old wives tales about chicken liver and other "magic
baits". Well, according to Steve, while these will catch you the smaller
catfish, there is only one type of bait which will catch the big fish consistently.
That bait is gamefish, primarily sunfish and white perch. The bait can be
fished live or cut (sliced into 2 or three pieces). We used cut gamefish, and
predominantly used the head and middle area where the most blood and guts were for the
maximum scent attracting ability.
Using gamefish is legal in South Carolina, except you must catch it on hook and
line. Gamefish cannot be netted in the state. Make sure you check with your
own Fish and Game Department before using gamefish as a bait. I'm not sure whether
gamefish is legal as a bait in New Hampshire, but I will find out and will let you know in
a future article.
The rig was rather simple and consisted of a 4 ounce egg sinker, a glass bead, a
swivel, about two feet of line, a small float, and a 3/0 hook. Steve swears by the
float because it lifts the bait off the bottom and puts it right in the cat's face.
Lets jump back to the beginning of the day now.
We met Steve at the Santee-Cooper Sport Shop which is right in the center of town
around 5:30 am. We then followed him to the west end of the lake, upstream from the Route
95 bridge. After loading our camera, food, and some warm jackets onto the boat Steve
launched it like a pro. Within minutes we were underway and headed out of the creek and
into the main lake.
Our first fishing spot was not much more than a mile or so down river. As a matter of
fact, we fished probably 8 separate areas this day, all within 2 miles of each other.
Steves motto is the less time the motors running, the more time youre
fishing. He purposely launches from the marina closest to where he will fish that day so
as to give the client as much fishing time as possible. He also picks apart an area of the
lake like Ive never seen a structure fisherman do before. He leaves no good spot
unfished. And this really paid off as youll hear.
Once at the first spot, Steve anchored the stern of the boat while I pitched in by
dropping the bow anchor. Once we had set both anchors and tightened up on the anchor
lines, Steve went to work. Showing his years of experience, he quickly sliced and diced
some gamefish and cast out 10 lines with pin-point precision to specific pieces of
structure. Some of the structure (trees) were visible above the water line, while others
where long since broken off and known to Steve only by experience. Unfortunately for us,
this first spot proved to be barren. Yet, as we listened on the radio to other guides
talking about catching fish, Steve reassured us that our time would come soon and that our
fish would be much larger than the 7-10 pounders being caught by the other guides. We
remained patient as all 10 lines were brought in and we made a move to the next spot.
Steve gives each location 30 minutes after all of the lines are put out. If no fish has
been caught within that time, he makes a move. Sometimes this move can be only a matter of
60 yards. Sometimes thats all it takes. This was the case with our second spot. The
following diagram shows the basics of anchoring and line position.
At our second spot Steve once again had 10 lines out in a matter of minutes. It took
only 5 minutes before our first Blue came in the boat. It was a respectable 10 pounds and
went into the livewell for pictures later. Steve reassured us once again that much bigger
fish were on the way. Sure enough, about 10 minutes later one of the reel clickers
made a noise. This is a pretty amazing feet since the reel was engaged and the drag was
set as tight as it could go. This means that the fish pulled drag on a stationary rod with
forty pound test line! Steve grabbed the rod out of the holder with a singular motion that
only comes from years of experience and then handed a doubled over rod to Debra. Debra,
all 100 pounds of her, proceeded to do what shes done on many other fishing trips
and landed the largest fish of the day using superb angling skills. Steve quickly netted
the first fish approaching 20 pounds and gave Debra a high five. After admiring the fish
and placing it in the livewell, Steve reassured us that bigger fish were on their way. Now
I was beginning to wonder just how big the fish were going to be.
We proceeded to catch one more smaller fish (7 pounds) from this spot and Steve
informed us that after 3 fish in a spot, he moves to a new area. Im not sure if this
is to protect the spot for future trips or if it is because the fish turn off after a few
of them have been caught. Regardless, we moved to spot number 3.
Spots 3, 4 and 5 produced some more fish in the 5-1/2 pound range. Rather than recite
each catch, lets jump to spot 6 which was by far the best hole of the day.
Spot 6 looked like all of the other areas. 12 foot water depth, cypress trees
sticking out of the water, and numerous stumps under the surface. As Steve explained it,
the fish will move around and you cant really be sure exactly where they will be
from day to day. You just have to be conscienscous and scout around for them. At this time
of the year, April/May, they will be in about 12 feet of water on the west end of the
lake. So stay in that depth range and fish the areas with lots of trees and stumps.
As he had done 5 times before, Steve cast the 10 rods to 10 separate pieces of
structure. Within 5 minutes Debra had landed another fish. This one was 23 pounds. I had
caught only 5s and 7s at this point. She was doing what she always does and
was catching the bigger fish. I have long since resigned myself to the fact that she has
lady luck on her side and will always beat me out on the big fish (I distinctly remember a
Lake Okeechobee trip where she reeled in only 2 largemouth bass all day and I had reeled
in over 30. One of the 2 fish was the biggest of the day, and the biggest either of us
ever caught, a 10 ¾ pound monster). Yet, on this day I was to have a run-in with lady
We were sitting on the boat talking about the fact that the most recent catfish caught
had wrapped around a stump and absolutely shredded the line. Yet, the strength of Berkley
Big Game is so phenomenal that the 15 pound fish was caught on line that looked like it
had been run through a saw mill. Just as we were passing the piece of shredded line
around, one of the rods clickers started screaming. This was surely a huge fish as
it was pulling forty pound line from an engaged reel!. Without giving Steve a chance to go
to the rod, I jumped over, grabbed the rod and slammed the hook home. LADY LUCK WAS GOING
TO BE MINE FOR ONCE!!!!!!
The power on the other end was unbelievable. At first I thought I was stuck since the
line didnt budge when I set the hook. Then I felt the fish shake its head and start
running away from the boat. This thing was like a bulldog and steadily pulled line from
the rod. I could actually feel the thumping of its tail as it swam away. Steve was behind
me coaching all the way. "Keep its head up and out of the stumps." "Try to
turn it towards the boat."
I treated this thing like a stripped bass and carefully reeled down and then used the
stiffness of the rod to apply pressure to the fish in the hopes of turning it towards the
boat. It worked. The fish began swimming in a more parallel direction to the boat rather
than away. Unfortunately, I could now feel the structure which we had been fishing all day
as the line bumped into stump after stump. Knowing that this line could stand up to some
punishment, but realizing that this fish was much bigger than any of the others, I decided
to apply some more pressure and try to turn the fish straight towards the boat. Two pumps
of the rod and I succeeded. Unfortunately, I misjudged the speed at which this fish could
swim. It started coming to the boat so fast that I couldnt reel fast enough. At one
point, there was so much slack in the line that I thought I had lost the fish. No one ever
told me that catfish could swim fast.......
As the fish neared the boat it slowed down and I felt it on the line once again. The
fight was on again. The fish came near the surface once and I could see that it was almost
4 feet long. I was determined to land this one. Steve was nearby with the net.
I took about 3 heart stopping minutes to net the fish as I would reel it right up to
the boat only to watch it pull drag and head back to the bottom of the lake. 3 minutes is
a long time to have a fish right near the boat. Finally Steve was able to get the net on
the fish and with two hands brought in the biggest catfish I have ever seen alive. It
weighed 42 pounds and measured just shy of 48 inches. This thing was a monster, as you can
see by the picture at the beginning of this article. Steve gave me a high-five and we
placed the fish into the livewell (did I mention how big this livewell is? Its got
to hold over 100 gallons of water). Any fish caught after this one would have to be pretty
big to get me excited.
We proceeded to fish 2 more spots and caught a handful of 7, 8, and 9 pound fish. As 3:30 pm neared, we decided it was time to
head back to the launch.
Time for Pictures
We loaded the boat onto the trailer and headed back to the Sport Shop. At the shop we took
pictures and then said our good-byes. When we got back to Rocks Pond we talked to a
couple of other guys who were headed out the next morning with Steve and assured them that
they were going to have a great time. We proceeded to have a few beers and quickly fell
asleep. Its amazing how a good day of fishing can really tire you out.