The largest fish on Lake Norman are catfish. The largest one ever caught was an eighty-five pound Arkansas Blue. It held the state record for a couple of years, before an eighty-nine pounder was caught on one of the lakes in the Yadkin River chain.
Catfish can be caught year round on Lake Norman. They move freely up and down river & creek channels as water temperatures, food supply and spawning urges dictate. During the spring/summer spawn, catfish are typically found in very shallow water. Post spawn fish tend to stay in shallow to medium depths.
Early summer finds them moving deeper until the summer heat eventually drives them to the deepest water depths. There they swim along the thermocline, the lowest level at which they can suspend themselves during the dog days of summer. In the fall, the seasonal migration pattern reverses. When water temperatures cool, the cats move back in mid to shallow river channels, creeks and coves. With the winter freeze, they go deep again, as in summer, or they find refuge in the warm waters of the power plant discharges.
Migration patterns of catfish and stripers are similar, but different. Cats can tolerate higher water temperatures and lower amounts of dissolved oxygen. Stripers, on the other hand, prefer cool water and require a higher content of dissolved oxygen. Spring thru early summer, and again from fall until early winter, finds stripers and cats sharing common water. On the coldest days of winter, stripers swim throughout the water column, while cats will be deep and will congregate where water temperatures are less oppressive. Catfish don’t hibernate as some fishermen do. They eat all year, especially in winter when the shad die. Should water temps drop to extreme high thirties/low forties, they will become inactive until waters begin to warm.
Catfish have been known to eat almost anything, dead or alive, in lake waters. Popular baits vary with the time of year and availability, but mainstays are shad, herring, bream, perch, chicken parts and various prepared baits. Cut and live baits are effective, but fresh dead baits seem to work best. Artificial baits will take catfish at times. Usually, these strikes occur incidentally when targeting other species. Jigging spoons, however, tipped with cut bait, are credited with catches of large summer flatheads and blues.
Big baits are fine when seeking world records, but small baits will attract catfish of all sizes. A bream head, half of a shad or herring, or a small body section of white perch, will tempt any size catfish. Mussels, bloodworms, night crawlers, Vienna sausage, and chicken parts are used by anglers who cast from shores and docks. Popular live baits to use include gizzard shad & blueback herring during spring and fall, goldfish in the summer, and golden trout cut to slowly bleed, during the winter months.
Anglers fishing for cats from boats will either anchor or slow drift. Those who anchor, generally use two anchors to prevent the boat from swinging and the lines from tangling. Once securely in place, baits are cast in all directions around the boat. Some use as many as thirty rods rigged with a variety of baits. Odors reeking from the large number of baits act as chum and attract fish from far and wide. To find fish, either drift slowly when winds are light, or slow troll with an electric trolling motor.
Terminal tackle consists of a hook, a length of monofilament leader, a two-way swivel, and a slip weight. When slow trolling or drifting, an inline float, positioned between a two way swivel and a hook, keeps the bait from dragging bottom and getting covered with mud or silt.
Long handled light action rods, seven to nine feet in length, are popular with cat fishermen. Most use fiberglass rods and baitcasting reels with smooth drags and bait clickers. Reels are spooled with twenty, thirty or forty pound test line. Large nets will land most fish, but gaffs are more effective on cats that weigh more than fifty pounds. If you plan to release a big fish, lip or shallow gaff it in the back. Better yet, cut the line and allow the fish to swim away.
A catfish takes a bait very slowly, so allow time for the fish to ingest the bait. When using J hooks set the hook only after the rod tip is severely bent. A light hook set is all that’s needed if a laser sharpened hook is used. Keep the line taut when reeling the fish to the net and enjoy the tug! Pay close attention to other rods that might go down, as catfish swim together and multiple hook ups are common.
The adage, “Crank, don’t yank” holds true when using circle hooks, even with catfish. Reel quickly when the rod tip bends, don’t attempt to set the hook The combination of pressure from the fish pulling against the rod, and the line being reeled in, is more than enough to allow a sharp circle hook to penetrate.
The monster-looking flathead catfish is a reckless fighter. Its white meat is considered to be the tastiest of all catfish. This denizen of the southern river systems is a loner. It grows quickly, often exceeding fifty pounds. Incidentally, the largest flathead ever caught was from the Elk City Reservoir in Kansas. It weighed one-hundred and twenty-three pounds.
While river flatheads are solitary and ambush their prey from heavy cover, their Lake Norman cousins bunch up during the summer to stalk slow moving schools of white perch, herring and sunfish. The adult flathead, unlike other catfish (scavengers), prefer a diet of live fish. The aggressive nature of the fish makes it an easy target for anglers who use striped bass fishing techniques.
The introduction of white perch and the resurgence in the Lake Norman crawfish population have been credited for the sudden increase in the number of flatheads being caught. Since savvy anglers know that white perch play a major role in the flathead’s diet, they actively search out large schools of them by drift fishing and using a fish finder. Once perch are located, a combination of live and fresh cut baits are positioned below the school. Equally effective baits include sunfish (bream), gizzard shad, herring, goldfish, and even small catfish. Since a flathead has an extremely wide mouth, baits up to twelve inches long will work fine. Remember, a big catfish has a thick jawbone, so use a heavy-duty, wide gap (3/0 to 10/0) hook.
The beady eyes of a catfish are located on both sides at the top of its flat head, which makes it easy to see unsuspecting prey from above. Its slender, light brown body is mottled with patches of black, white, olive and pale yellow. The wide tail and sleek torso allow it to strike vigorously and then crush the prey with its powerful jaws.
Flathead fishing is not limited to a rod and reel. Other methods include jug fishing, trotlines, brush hooks and even grabbing them with one’s bare hands. The ”noodling” or “grabbing” technique is not for the timid or faint of heart. An angler actually searches by hand for really big cats that hide in submerged hollow logs, undercut banks and culverts. When a fish is found, it is grabbed by the gills or the mouth and wrestled to the surface. I will catfish with a rod and reel!!
In addition to flatheads, Lake Norman has channel and blue catfish. Channel catfish are usually small, but hit a variety of baits including chicken livers and prepared or cut baits. Blue catfish will also strike a wide assortment of baits, but prefer fresh cut bait or clams/mussels.
Arkansas Blue Catfish:
At a 5/17/15 meeting of the Carolina’s Catfish Club, David Goodfred and Lawrence Dorsey, fisheries biologists with the NCWRC, updated members on the condition of the catfish population in area lakes.
Their ongoing study of blue catfish in Lake Norman reinforced what Joe Grist reported in his graduate thesis over a decade ago: Blue catfish in Lake Norman grow at a slower rate than other area lakes.
Why this happens has not been scientifically proven, but most point to lack of water flow through the reservoir and low nutritional content that results in a low forage base.
The good news for Lake Norman fishermen is that the blue catfish population is thriving and has not been impacted by recreational or commercial fishing. As a matter of fact, there appears to have been an increase in the number of medium size fish, 15-30 pounders over the past two years.
One of the major points of concern expressed by club members was the potential negative impact that the sale of large catfish taken from Lake Wylie and sold to “pay lakes” is having on its trophy blue catfish population. At present the sale of catfish from Lake Wylie to private lakes is currently legal with no restriction on size or numbers. Which is also the case on Lake Norman and Badin with one exception; the daily possession limit for blue catfish greater than 32 inches is one.
Special thanks to Dieter Melhorn, President of the Carolina Catfish Club (www.carolinacatfishclub.com), for providing this summary and the club member’s support of their conservation efforts on area lakes.
A quick and inexpensive way to learn the basics of catfishing is to hire a professional fishing guide. Call Capt. Gus at 704-617-6812 or book your next catfishing trip online.
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