In current-day fishing vernacular, the giant blue catfish coming out of North Carolina these days seems to be nothing short of “mind-blowing.” It all likely started back in 2015, when Zakk Royce of Gasburg, Virginia, then 29, made headlines by catching a 91-pound blue cat—and then broke his own record the next day with a 105-pounder. He owns and operates Blues Brothers Catfish Guide Service, on Lake Gaston and Kerr Lake. (Both lakes are part of the Roanoke River chain of lakes flooded to generate electricity and control flooding downstream.)
Royce’s North Carolina record lasted until July 2021, when angler Rocky Baker laid claim to the state record when he caught—and released—a 127.1-pound blue catfish while drifting a gizzard shad on Gaston. Baker caught his fish using a Mad Katz Catfish Down Rod with a Penn Squall 20 reel spooled with 40-pound-test Berkeley ProSpec Chrome mono.
Then, just last week, Bill Sutton and his 13-year-old daughter, Georgia, from Pittsboro, North Carolina, were fishing in a Kerr Lake Ice Bowl Catfish Tournament and walked away with the $3,400 first prize when they caught—and released—a massive 112-pound blue.
“It was cold and snowing, and Georgia kept telling me we should go in because we weren’t going to catch anything anyway,” says Bill Sutton, 54. “I was just getting over COVID from two weeks earlier, and I wasn’t as strong as usual. But I told her I don’t quit at anything, and we were going to catch a 100-pound catfish that day.” The Ice Bowl is a team event with only one fish eligible for weighing-in per team, and it drew 126 boats. According to tournament rules, fish brought to the scales must be handled carefully and released alive into the lake.
So exactly how does one go about catching the largest species of catfish in North America? We posed that question, and others, to Zakk Royce, the savvy fishing guide who helped cement North Carolina’s reputation as a mecca of giant blue catfish.
Many of the biggest blue cats are caught in winter. However, what’s the best way to catch them in summer?
The summer can actually be an excellent time to catch trophy blue cats, as they come off the spawn and are very aggressive. In a lot of bodies of water, a thermocline also shows up as the water temperature rises. This concentrates the bait and fish to whatever depth the thermocline forms. The best way to target the blues during this time is to fish around the thermocline, either over deep water using floats and planer boards to suspend bait—or by fishing areas where the thermocline meets the bottom, or shallower. With the warmer water temperatures, drift fishing or trolling is effective. Although I still try to stay around 0.5 mph in the summer just like other times of year, I have caught them in the summer trolling as fast as 3 mph.
What’s the best bait to use for blue cats—live or dead?
Both live and cut bait work great for blue cats. The advantage with cut bait, especially when drift fishing or trolling, is it puts off a constant scent trail that the blue cats can really key in on. However, in the summer months I usually do have a live bait out in the mix as well.
Do you ever use artificial bait or stink baits?
I don’t use any type of stink bait and I don’t intentionally target blues with artificial baits, such as lures. However, I often catch blue cats on artificial baits, such as crankbaits, for example, by accident when fishing for other species.
What’s your rod, reel, and line setup for blue catfish?
What kind of cover and structure do blue cats prefer seasonally?
It changes from day to day. However, overall I target river channel ledges and creek channels. Other times they will get on points and flats, particularly when they are feeding on mussels. Blue cats will roam in open water a lot more than other species, however, if you find structure such as trees and rocks near a ledge of some sort it can be a great place to look for a big blue.
Blue cats are great fighters. How do you win the battle?
Having the right equipment and patience is key, you need the right tackle that can handle the fight. You also can’t rush a big blue. Just keep steady tension on the fish, use the drag on your reel, and trust your tackle to do its job.
How would you bank fish for blue cats?
I did a lot of bank fishing for blue cats as a kid. I used as many rods as I could off the bank to try to cover as much water as possible. Most importantly, I tried to target ambush areas. Bridges with channels running through them were usually a hotspot. Under the right conditions, fishing below the dam was also excellent from the bank when the blues moved up to feed on the baitfish churned up in the strong current from the dam.
You broke the North Carolina record for blue cats twice in two days in 2015. The biggest fish weighed 105 pounds. Do you think that there are any bigger fish in Lake Gaston?
I believe there is easily a 150-pound blue cat in Lake Gaston.