by Dan Kibler
Chris Nichols was at Ground Zero for the blast-off of trophy catfishing in the Carolinas, and he’s been just as surprised as anyone.
Nichols, a veteran guide who regularly fishes Lake Norman, Mountain Island Lake, Lake Wylie and Lake Wateree for bass and catfish, understands how more and more fishermen have been drawn to targeting big, whiskered fish.
“It’s really surprising how quickly the trophy catfishing phenomenon has taken off in North Carolina and South Carolina,” Nichols said. “A lot of people are guiding for catfish now; people are more educated about catfishing, and they’re all catching big fish.
“Think about what has happened to catfishing in the last two or three years on Wylie, Norman and Wateree. It’s turned into a huge fishery and a trophy fishery. The thought of people catching 30- and 40-pound catfish is becoming normal. It used to be that if somebody caught a 30-pound catfish, you went ‘Wow!’ Now, it’s commonplace.
“A lot of striper fishermen are switching over to catfish,” said Nichols. “The reality is it’s a lot easier to catch big catfish than stripers.”
Reservoirs along the Catawba and Yadkin/Pee Dee chains have three basic catfish species: channels, blues and flatheads. Channel cats are the most pedestrian of the three; they are present in most reservoirs and rivers in good numbers, but they are the smallest. Blue catfish are native to river systems and have largely been introduced into piedmont reservoirs by fishermen who brought them in in coolers – with the exception of Lake Norman, where they were stocked in the 1980s by the N.C Wildlife Resources Commission. They grow to immense sizes, as do flatheads – the hulking, yellowish brutes known as “mud cats” that do not show up in great numbers but make up for it by being the most pugnacious of the three.
Channel cats will hit a variety of baits, from live baitfish to cut baits, to shrimp and smelly concoctions involving chicken livers, blood and dough. Blues are suckers for cut baits – crappie and bream are commonly used, and fishermen are discovering that the hordes of white perch that are taking over many reservoirs really do have a positive use: as catfish bait. Flatheads will hit live baits almost exclusively, with crappie, bream and goldfish the most popular and productive.
Most reservoirs have some combination of the three species – some have all three. Lake Wylie has all three, and all three fisheries are booming, and not because the fish have just showed up, but because fisherman have only recently started to target them.
“I think these fish have always been here; people are just now learning how to catch ‘em. I was down at Wylie the other day, bass fishing, and a buddy of mine was down there fishing for catfish,” Nichols said. “I saw him and pulled my boat over to talk to him, and he said he’d caught a 36 – or 38 – pound blue.
“A little while later, I was fishing a point, and he was drifting toward me, and there was another boat, and that fisherman was battling a big old fish. It turned out to be a 31-pound flathead he’d hooked on a Carolina rig.”
The “trophy” aspect of the fishery thrills Nichols, who said he hasn’t kept a blue catfish over 10 pounds in quite a while. As far as big fish are concerned, there is as much catch-and-release practiced by catfish crazies as by any bass fishermen.
“For the most part, people are throwing the big ones back,” he said. “Sometimes, when a person who has never caught a big fish catches one, he’ll take him home, but a lot of people are releasing them.”