How To Techniques

Going Shallow for Winter Catfish

Cagle and his fishing partner, Jody Day, caught these blues in 3 feet of water during the 2019 Black’s Camp Big Cat Shootout in December. Shallow water cattin’ is not just a summertime deal.


by Ron Presley

Hurry up and wait.

Andy Cagle became a died in the wool shallow water catfisherman after fishing with a friend. Nowadays, if he has any choice at all he is going to be fishing shallow. And it might be any time of the year, day or night.

One of his favorite lakes is the Santee Cooper Lake system in South Carolina. Construction on the lakes began in the late 1930s and was named after its two major tributaries, the Santee and Cooper Rivers. The result is a surface area of ‎110,000 acres of nooks and crannies, flats and ledges, for anglers to explore. And, for Cagle’s needs, plenty of shallow water. Cagle learned his shallow water fishing on Santee Cooper, but he also frequents his home lakes of Jackson, Oconee, and Sinclair, in Georgia, using the same techniques successfully.

Cagle credits his good friend, Monty Hill, for teaching him the tricks of the trade associated with shallow water catfishing. Although he will fish deep water haunts occasionally, he admits that he would rather be shallow. In a recent interview, he described the trip that turned the tide and lit his passion for going shallow.

“The first time I fished with Monty was Aug 2011,” recalled Cagle. “It turned into a party weekend and we didn’t fish much. The next time I came we fished hard! We went over to the hatchery and entered through a little cut in the swamp. There was a cypress tree there and Monty began to set up very near the tree.”

“What are you doing,” Cagle asked?

“We are going to fish,” replied Hill.

“It ain’t but 3 feet deep right here,” doubted Cagle.

“Well it might be a little too deep,” shot back Hill. “But we are gonna’ try it. Just trust me.”

And so, the quest began. The fishing friends double anchored and set the rods. The next two hours produced Arkansas blues of 42-, 41-,  and one just under 40-pounds in a matter of two hours.

Santee can be a dangerous lake in the wind. The easily spotted power plant can be an indication of lake conditions. Locals say, “When that smoke is blowing horizontal it’s dangerous on the lake.”

“I have been shallow water fishing ever since,” revealed Cagle. “You might have to travel 200 yards through that shallow water stump bed, just bouncing off them stumps. But it’s worth it to go squirrel hunting (the term Cagle and Hill use to refer to their shallow water fishing exploits).

Cagle reported that they lost a lot of gear and fish in the close quarters of the stump bed but Hill had a simple reply to the dilemma.

“If you ain’t losing equipment you ain’t fishing in the right places,” retorted Hill.

“I especially like to go out at night,” continued Cagle. “ I like to anchor down, usually double anchored. I call it my hour of attack. I prefer to be set up on anchor about an hour before the sun goes down or comes up. I will set there for two or three hours afterward. Usually, it is right at sunup and sundown that the fish start moving into that shallow water.”

His standard rig is a Santee drift rig with a 3-ounce disc sinker. He normally rigs with a sinker slide so he can switch easily from a disc sinker to a slinky weight if he wants to go drifting. To avoid the float on the drifting rig from pulling the bait up off the bottom he will clip the sinker slide to the top of the swivel to keep the bait down while on anchor.

Cagle prefers larger cuts of bait to prevent catching the smaller fish. If the bait is very large, he adds a second circle hook to the rig to increase the hookup ratio. Once his rigs are baited, he transitions into what he calls, Military Fishing—hurry up and wait!

“Shallow water catfishing does not always produce quantity, but it does produce quality. As a tournament fisherman that’s what I’m looking for,” said Cagle.

After a double-anchor set, rods are fanned out around the boat and the wait begins. Don’t be surprised if you lose some terminal tackle, so be prepared.

Words of Warning

“You can be riding along out in the middle of the lake and all of a sudden the bottom will come up to three feet deep,” warned Cagle. “So, if you don’t know your way around you can knock the bottom out of your boat. You have to be careful.”

Santee Cooper has a reputation as a hard lake to fish in the wind. Combined with the lakes’ wide-open waters the wind can come up and create a situation that can get dangerous in a hurry. Anglers should favor safety over fishing and avoid the ocean-like waves that Santee Cooper can produce in windy weather. It is not unusual to see boats starting out of the canal only to turn around and return. There is a smokestack that is visible from the water and it should serve as an indicator as to whether to go out or not.

“When the smoke out of that stack at the powerplant is blowing sidewise its best not to go out on the lake,” Cagle warned. “At least not without a capable boat and an experienced captain to handle it. It can be very dangerous, especially for newcomers to the lake.”

Cagle ended with a statement about the reality of fishing and when to fish where.

“We all have our favorite lake, favorite spots in each lake, and favorite times to fish those spots,” concluded Cagle. “It’s the kind of things you learn by being on the water.”

“…it might be a little too deep…”

Where to Stay

There are lots of lodging possibilities on Santee Cooper. Within just a few miles of each other and with easy access to the diversion canal and both lakes, are Hills Landing, Canal Lakes, and Black’s Camp and Restaurant. Most anglers have their own preferences and reasons for staying at their favorite. Cagle and Hill both choose Hills Landing. Other anglers choose the Canal Lakes site or one of many other fish camps on the lake.

Personally, I got started visiting the area at a writer’s camp that was conducted at Black’s Camp and have been going back for years. Like many of the camps, Black’s features fishing guides for about any species of fish you want, including catfish. There is a full-service onsite restaurant, Sunday buffets and a breakfast bar for a quick start in the morning. A campground with RV hookups is available as well as motel lodging and various cabin possibilities.

Black’s has about anything you need from gasoline to split shot. It is a full-service resort. Their outstanding service and friendly personnel have kept me coming back year after year.


Discovering Shallow Water Fishing

Cagle tells a story about how Hill discovered shallow water cattin’ through observation and chance. As the story goes, Hill was watching bow fishermen targeting and successfully shooting big blue cats in shallow water. The bow fishermen were floating around in two or three feet of water using powerful lights to shoot blues up to 50 pounds or so. With that experience, he wondered if they can shoot them why couldn’t he catch them? So, he started fishing shallow and developed it into a successful technique.

Hill adds to the story by explaining that when the wind makes fishing tough on the main lake the angler’s only choice may be to tuck into the bank somewhere out of the wind. What Hill discovered and taught other anglers like Cagle is that the shallow waters are productive and offer more than a good alternative—they offer a good possibility.

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