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Santee Cooper�s Year-Round Cats
Through 35 years of guiding on Lake Marion, Don Drose has learned to catch fish every month of the year.
Here arehis secrets for finding big flatheads and blues.

   Catching back-to-back 30-pound-plus catfish on rod and reel is a feat that some anglers only dream about. However, for those who have discovered the fantastic catfishing opportunities offered by the Santee-Cooper lakes, this is not a far-fetched dream; it�s almost a daily occurrence. Some folks have yet to discover what modern catfishing is all about. But fishing guide Don Drose has refined the sport of catfishing into one where he not only catches catfish during the warmer months of the year but also throughout the four seasons of the year. And he does so with some astounding numbers and sizes of catfish. "For those who haven�t caught the big catfish on Santee Cooper, they�ve missed a real unique freshwater fishing opportunity," the 35-year veteran guide began. "There are not many freshwater lakes or species of fish that offer anglers a realistic opportunity to catch multiple fish in the 20- to 40-pound class -- and sometimes a lot bigger -- on a daily basis. "Compound this with the year-round good fishing, and we may have the best catfishing opportunities anywhere in the country., It seems like it would be awfully hard to top what we have here," Drose added.

   His comments came in the wake of two monster catfish, a 30-pounder I had hooked and was fighting, and what turned out to be a 37-pounder caught by fishing buddy Jeff Samsel. These were in addition to the 20-and 25-pounders already in the boat, and the day was still rather young. It wasn�t hard to convince us of the outstanding fishing available. While Drose fishes throughout both of the lakes that make up the Santee Cooper complex, he spends most of his catfishing time on the lower end of Lake Marion. Marion is the upper of the two lakes, with Lake Moultrie being downstream. The lakes are connected by a 7-mile-long diversion canal, which offers some excellent catfishing as well.

   "One of the keys to being able to catch fish in the lower portion of Lake Marion throughout the year is the diversity of underwater structure available to the catfish," Drose said. "This provides the fish with ample areas to spawn in the spring, plenty of deep water in the summer and fall, and then the big open-water areas that are conducive to winter fishing. A lot of the same processes will occur on Lake Moultrie as well; however, I�d give the edge to Lake Marion in producing big flathead catfish." Another key to the year--round catfish productivity at Santee Cooper is the fact that the lakes hold the "Big Three" of catfishing in excellent numbers and sizes. The flathead, blue and channel catfish are all abundant and grow to enormous weights, with the world record 58-pound channel catfish having been caught here. The forage base consists of shad, which are abundant year �round, as well as blueback herring, which are especially plentiful during the spring spawning period. These and other plentiful panfish offer year-round feeding opportunities for the fish to grow large and abundant. Since we�re now into the month of June, we�ll begin with a look at the summer and fall patterns that will be the most productive over the next few months. We�ll then look at techniques Drose employs for catching catfish other times of the year.

   More so than during any other time of the year, the summer and fall -- with the fall months of September and October having the edge -- are the most consistent times of the year for Drose to catch really big flathead catfish. The potential for the absolute largest blue or flathead catfish may occur during the spring, but the often unstable weather and water conditions make that a bit more unpredictable.

   "One of the real keys to catching a lot of big fish during the summer and fall months is the abundance of big flathead catfish in the lower end of Lake Marion." Drose said. "The big flathead seem to prefer the big, timbered area of the lower end of the lake, and top places to look for the really big fish are around the drops." "Good examples are along the main Santee River channel, as well as the Little River channel, and numerous old runs that may only be a few feet deeper than the surrounding flats but which still offer a bottom depth change. Lower Lake Marion offers numerous opportunities for deep-water fishing as well as plenty of drops and bottom structure to which the fish can relate," he added. Drose said that while he�s learned a lot of places to fish through the years, one of the keys to success during this time of the year is to not get locked into any single place to fish. He uses his graph recorder to search for cats, and he rarely sets up to fish a spot unless he has marked several big fish in the immediate vicinity. "The odds of catching fish simply go up when you set up over several fish instead of one or tow fish," he explained. "I�ll slowly cruise around the lake, checking the drops, humps and other structures that typically hold good concentrations of fish until I mark several in one area. It�s important not to drop an anchor right on the fish," he points out. "I�ll go upwind a bit, drop an anchor, then drift back past the spot and drop a back anchor to hold the boat secure. Then I�ll move back toward the first anchor until my boat is directly over the spot I wish to fish. By anchoring in this manner, I can maintain precise control of the boat and not be swinging around with the wind. Not only does this keep the boat in proper position, right over the fish that have been marked on the graph, but it reduces hang-ups. The lake is loaded with logs laying on the lake floor, and if the boat swings in the wind, snags are inevitable. Drose notes that keeping the boat in position is essential because you often have to wait for long periods before the fish bite.

   "Patience is a key when fishing for flatheads during the summer and fall," he said. "Naturally, we all like it best when we stop, drop the bait down and the fish bite within the first few minutes, which happens frequently. But just as frequently, the fish may not bite at all for 30 to 45 minutes. It�s a bit like deer hunting in that once you�ve scouted them out, you have to sit and patiently wait. The good thing is that when one catfish does bite after an extended period of waiting, the odds are very high that if there are any more big fish in the area, they will also bite. Many times after waiting a half-hour or longer, we�ll hook a big fish and within the next few minutes hook three or four more. It�s not at all unusual to have two, three or even more big fish hooked at the same time. I feel so strongly about it that after landing a big fish, if we go another 15 minutes without hooking another, I�ll pull anchor and look for more fish.

   The fishing tackle and technique are also keys to his success. Drose generally uses light tackle to catch white perch or bream in the 1/4 to 1/2 pound size to use as bait for the flatheads. These bait fish are hooked on large 4/0 to 6/0 hooks. Shad minnows are also good but difficult to keep alive during the hot months. He hooks the baitfish under the dorsal fin so they can still swim freely when dropped to the lake bottom. The line he uses is also a key, according to Drose. "You need a strong, thin-diameter, low-stretch line for best results, and that�s why I use Spiderwire." he said. "Large diameter line affects the number of bites that you get, and with a low-stretch line you can get a better hookset into the fish. I place a heavy sinker on the line, usually around 1-ounce weight, depending on depth and current, if any. Then I use a swivel and a 3-foot leader for the hook."

   After hooking the baitfish, Drose free-spools it down to the lake bottom and then reels it just off the bottom so the bait is right about eyeball level. In addition to this vertical fishing, Drose will also cast a few rigs away from the boat and let them lie on the bottom. In either case, it�s important to keep the bait within a couple of feet of the bottom. He then places the rods in holders and begins his vigil. Drose uses numerous rods to cover as much territory as possible. On the days we fished, it wasn�t uncommon to have 10 or 12 rods rigged and fishing at any given time.

   "You have to react pretty quick when a catfish bites, but you don�t have to be there the instant he bites." he pointed out." When the rod tip goes down, get a good grip on the rod and set the hook hard. A big catfish has a really tough mouth, and it�s hard to drive the hook deep into the bony part of the mouth, another reason I like a low stretch line. When reeling the fish, keep constant pressure on him all the way to the boat." he said. "Don�t pump the rod, that may give the fish an instant of slack, which is all a 30- or 40- pound catfish needs to shake free. Have a big net ready when the fish rolls on the surface, and net him quickly."

   Drose occasionally uses some cut bait, such as shad or herring, during this time of the year, or even cut perch or bream, as an offering for one of the big blue catfish. While he occasionally catches big blues on the live bait, generally the blues will bite cut bait the best. A mixture of both live and cut bait enhance your odds for taking both big flatheads and blues. "Sometimes I�ll catch both blues and flatheads from the same spot, with flatheads almost always biting the live bait and the blues usually biting the cut bait." Drose noted.

   Another outstanding summer catfishing opportunity at Santee Cooper is to fish smaller chunks of cut bait or stink bait for smaller fish but fast action. My favorite stink bait, and a proven producer at Santee Cooper, is Doc�s Catfish Bait, which I fish along the drops and ledges with medium to light tackle. The stink bait rigs excel in attracting both channel and blue catfish in the 1 to 10 pound class, and fast and furious action can be the rule, not the exception. I�ve found that the smaller diameter line you use, the more fish you usually catch. I usually opt for 8 to 12 pound test Berkley Ultra Light. Five pound plus fish are great fun on light tackle, and it�s a great method for introducing kids to fishing.

   Look for fish along the drops, which fall from shallow water, usually 4- to 6- feet deep, to water 20 feet deep or deeper, and anchor along the edge. Cast your bait in various directions around the boat until you determine a depth preference. While the fishing is great throughout the summer and fall, it�s the year round fishing that makes Santee Cooper so unique. One of the best times of the entire year to catch a boatload of catfish is during the dead of winter.

   "Most fishermen don�t even think of catching catfish in the winter, but it�s one of our best times of the year for numbers of fish." Drose explained. "During the winter, as the water temperature drops, often during December and lasting through January, the shad will cluster in large, tight schools. With the colder water, they are not as active, and they become easier prey for the fish, with the blue catfish being primary predators. We use our graphs to locate these tightly bunched pods of shad, which usually have plenty of hungry blue catfish surrounding, and foraging on them". "Using cast nets early in the morning, we can usually catch enough shad for baitfish in a few throws. Then we anchor directly over the school of baitfish and put three or four small shad minnows on each hook and drop them down, usually a couple feet off the bottom," Drose said.

   Generally the action fires up pretty quick. It may last a few minutes or a couple of hours at any given spot. When the action slows, Drose doesn�t wait long before moving to another location, a different pod of shad. "Keep moving and hunting for the different schools of shad, and you�ll usually find several during the course of a day, with lots of blue catfish action." he added.

   During a typical day, Drose said you can expect to catch 200 pounds or more of fish, with several of the fish usually running in the 8- to 15- pound class. Twenty and 30 pound fish are not uncommon, but they are not taken as consistently as during the summer months. When the fishing dies out, it�s usually only a short while until the spring fishing begins. During March, April and May, Drose will fish one of two basic areas for big fish that are getting ready to spawn.

   "I like to fish the shallow flats or the drops adjacent to the shallows flats that have strong winds blowing into them during the spring months," he said. "The winds blow the forage into the shallows and keep the water more turbid, which helps hold the fish in the shallows".

   "On days when I don�t do well in the shallow water, or if the wind isn�t blowing enough to set up favorable shallow water conditions, I fish the deeper ledges and drops along the river channel,:" he added. "The weather systems can play a key role in success and how effective we can fish at times, but this is the time of the year to catch a really huge catfish, with fish over 50 pounds (sometimes much larger) being hooked regularly. Herring, both cut and whole, as well as shad are excellent baits during this time of the year."

   As in any of the above scenarios, being mobile and searching for places where fish are biting is a key to success. Drose advises working different depths of water until you determine a key for that particular day. During the ever-changing weather of the spring, the productive depth pattern can change on a daily basis.

   Fishing out of his 27-Deep V Maycraft (one of the largest guide boats on the lake), Don Drose specializes in both catfish and stripers. Whether you fish with Drose or go after the catfish on your own, be prepared to do battle with some real heavyweights when you drop your bait to the bottom of Lake Marion.



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