by Ron Presley
Passing it around the family.
Big John Sellers
John “Big John” Sellers became a catfish legend on Santee Cooper. Back in the day, he was known for his ability to catch big catfish before catfish were in style.
It all started for Big John when he retired from Carolina Freight in Cherryville, NC. He moved to Cross, SC, which is basically on the banks of Santee Cooper.
Striper fishing was awesome back then and he started a business as a striper guide. He continued guiding for more than 50 years on Santee Cooper, but his last years of charter fishing was as a catfish guide, until his death in February 2009.
Big John began his guiding career out of Lyon’s Landing known today as Hill’s Landing. His last 30 years of guiding were conducted out of Black’s Camp.
Angler pressure and lack of regulations caused the demise of the striper fishery on Santee Cooper. The stripers had no limit and anglers could visit the mouth of the canal and catch 75 to 100 on any given day. Big John’s striper business stuttered and he switched over to catfishing. No one guided for the whiskerfish back then. In fact, most folks thought he was crazy and would never find a clientele wanting to catch catfish. He proved them wrong.
His reputation as a guide and the reputation of Santee Cooper as a big catfish lake began to grow. His notoriety landed him in the pages of Sports Afield several times.
At one time he was recognized as the 5th best catfisherman in the world. Big John put personal best after personal best in his pontoon boat for clients. He caught his own personal best 89-pound blue cat in December 1997.
As a pioneer in guiding for catfish his methods and equipment were what modern anglers call old school. He used a variety of bait, but there was one he didn’t like.
“John always loved to fish with those big spring herring, bream, white perch, and shad,” recalled his nephew, Eric Sellers. “Today’s anglers use a lot of mullet, but Big John didn’t like them.”
“Around 1995 or 96, Big John began fishing from a pontoon boat,” said Eric Sellers. “It is a favorite of many Santee Cooper catfish anglers today, including myself.”
A lot of the early fishing was on the rope with Carolina rigs and 2-ounce sinkers. When John and Gene Sellers, started fishing the lake they didn’t have a depth finder. They would use a rope with a knot tied every 2 feet. They simply fastened a brick to the end of the rope, let it out to the bottom, and counted knots to check the depth of water.
“I remember back when Daddy (Gene Sellers) and John would drift,” continued Eric. “They would use 5-gallon buckets with holes cut in them for drift socks to slow the boat down. They used Penn Peerless #9 reels and 9-foot rods. Circle hooks hadn’t come out yet. They used 5/0 j-hooks.”
As fishing equipment evolved and Big John adapted, he settled in on a favorite set of equipment. He outlined his choice in a Sports Afield interview. His favorite rig was a 7-1/2-foot Ugly Stik combined with an Ambassadeur 6500 reel. He filled the reel with 30-pound test mono. Big John thought this outfit would handle any of the big cats his clients would engage on Santee Cooper.
A story that surfaced, after Big John died, was a testament to his catfish knowledge and to Santee Cooper’s productivity. As the story goes, some long-time clients met up with Big John for one of their many trips. They had fished with him for some 20 years.
Big John wasn’t feeling well. He took them out on the lake, set them up with the drift socks out, and said, “Here’s the bait and rods. Bait em’ up and throw em’ out.”
The next thing the guests knew, Big John was asleep. The group reported drifting all the way across the lake. They filled a 150-quart cooler so full that they couldn’t close the lid. They woke John up and told him it was time to go, and that they had a cooler full. Big John responded with two simple words, “Good job.”
In another story, reported in the July 1981 edition of Field and Stream, Big John caught 14 blue cats in the Diversion Canal that weighed 426 pounds. It was an average of just over 30 pounds each. The biggest weighed in at 50 pounds and would have been a new state record. Unfortunately, John was told by someone that the record was more than that so no attempt was made to claim it.
Those same kinds of stories are not told on Santee Cooper today, but it is still known as a big cat lake, one of the best in the nation. Anglers don’t keep the big fish like they used to.
Gene “Catfish” Sellers
All the time Big John was guiding he was passing on what he knew about catfishing to Gene, who came to be known as Gene “Catfish” Sellers. He had the passion for catfishing just like John had.
Gene earned his nickname, Gene “Catfish” sellers following a multi-boat catfish trip out of Canal Lakes Fish Camp some years ago.
“Dad was guiding out of Canal Lakes,” recalls Eric. “He and four other guides had booked a company party for a day of catfishing. It was one of those days when the bite was not great. Out of the five boats that went out, four caught very little. But dad came back in with two coolers full of nice catfish. That group gave him the nickname ‘Catfish.’”
The success of that trip was not an accident. Gene knew his stuff when it came to catfishing. He made many memories for his clients and also for Eric.
“The fondest memory of fishing with my dad was a day we went out to Channel Marker 27,” recalled Eric. “We both got wore out from catching so many big catfish that day. When a rod would go down we would look at each and say, ‘You get it.’”
Just like Big John passed the catfishing passion down to Gene, Gene passed it down to Eric who is carrying on the family tradition as a catfish guide.
Eric owns and operates Big E Guide Service. He fishes Santee Cooper every month except July and August. His trips originate from Black’s Camp and Restaurant.
“I learned a lot from fishing with family,” offered Eric. “The main things I picked up are to pay attention to the fish patterns each year and to always keep the equipment in good shape. My catfish heritage keeps me thinking about catfish all the time. I am constantly thinking about new techniques that might help me and others catch more catfish.”
It was old school fishing when Big John was guiding and most folks kept the big fish for the dinner table. That’s just the way it was. That culture is slowly but surely changing. As younger, observant, and conservation-minded catfish anglers are educated in the benefits of selective harvest and CPR more and more trophy catfish are returned to the water to grow and to breed.
“The Santee Cooper lakes has been a part of my whole life,” concluded 52-year-old Eric Sellers. “I am a big supporter of CPR. We have to be big on conservation so we will have the big catfish for tomorrow.”
The Santee Cooper Drift Rig
More often than not, catfish anglers on Santee Cooper lakes are drifting. The rig they use is known as the Santee Cooper Drift Rig. There are personal variations on the rig, but it commonly includes a three-way swivel, a hook leader, the individual angler’s choice of hook, a pencil float (lately a lot of anglers have been replacing the float with Demon Dragons), and a slinky weight.
Eric makes his own dragging weights by filling a material similar to a shoestring with buckshot. Each end is heated and crimped. Then he attaches a snap swivel to one end. They can be made different weights by using different sizes of shot. A common weight will be around 1- to 1.5-ounces.
Eric begins his version of the rig by tying the mainline to a barrel swivel. Below that he adds about a foot of 50-pound leader material with a second barrel swivel on the end. Then he adds another 2 feet of leader with a pencil float. The rig is finished by tying on a 4/0 or 5/0 hook and snapping the homemade weight on the top swivel.
This rig or a variation on it is responsible for catching plenty of trophy catfish from Santee Cooper. Cut bait is preferred by most. Eric just likes to keep it simple and be efficient.
“Chunks of blueback herring and gizzard shad are the best baits when you are targeting big cats,” Sellers says. “When it comes to bait size, many anglers think that the bigger the bait the bigger the fish, but that isn’t always true.”
“The reason for this type of weight system is because of the heavy structure that anglers encounter,” Sellers concluded. “This type of sinker seems to snake through the snags more easily with fewer hang-ups than other types.”