(Photo: Richard Simms)
Professional catfish guide, Capt. Barbara “Mouse” Witherell, with Santee Cajun Guide Service, poses proudly with a healthy Lake Marion blue catfish.
By Richard Simms
SANTEE, South Carolina – The sun was just peeking over the horizon as Capt. Boudreaux Witherell steered us across the massive Lake Marion near Santee, South Carolina.
Seated forward of Capt. Boudreaux was his wife of 47 years, Capt. Barbara “Mouse” Witherell watching carefully as her husband expertly navigated around standing timber and logs poking above the surface.
I could only imagine what lay underneath.
The thing that definitely lay beneath was big blue catfish, our target species for the day.
Decades ago Lake Marion was one of the most well-known striped bass hotspots in the entire nation.
In fact, the very first striped bass stocked in Tennessee came from the same South Carolina hatcheries that stocked Lake Marion.
Changes in weather and other environmental influences, however, knocked the hot striper fishing in the head and many area guides turned to catfish.
After a 20-minute ride in the Witherell vessel, drift socks were set out to keep the roomy pontoon boat perpendicular to the breeze.
Mouse and Boudreaux, owners/guides with Santee Cajun Guide Service, had seven catfish rods dragging cut bait across the bottom along with a pair of rods pulling live bait, hoping for bonus stripers.
Boudreaux kept a small 5 horsepower kicker motor idling on the transom.
“The noise from that little engine can actually attract stripers,” said Boudreaux. “I guess it sounds like a school of bait fish on the surface or something. I don’t really know for sure, I just know it works.”
Sure enough, the first rod to go down was, indeed, a striper that peeled line from the reel as it tried in vain to reach the opposite side of the 110,000 acre lake.
The fish fell perfectly into the strict 23-25 inch size limit and went into the cooler for dinner.
Blue catfish were stocked in Lake Marion in 1964.
The catfish took a liking to the great forage base along with the huge expanses of timber left standing in the lake and have since become a self-renewing resource for anglers.
Fifty-pound blues are not an everyday occurrence but they are not unheard of either.
South Carolina’s state record blue cat (113.8 lbs.) came from Lake Moultrie, the next lake downstream from Lake Marion in the Santee Cooper chain.
Although other Santee Cooper Country guides now pursue catfish, Capt. Boudreaux smiled when he said, “We were catfishing before catfishing was cool.”
It was actually his wife Mouse who created Santee Cajun Guide Service. Mouse, 65, is proclaimed as one of the few, if not only, fulltime female fishing guides in the region. She carried her first clients out in 1998.
“Boudreaux said my hobby was getting too expensive,” said Mouse. “He was on the road traveling all over the world working on equipment while I was home fishing. I needed to make some money at it. So here I am.”
After she went into business she learned that other guides on the lake had a pool going, betting on how long she would last.
“The longest bet was eighteen months,” said Mouse. “That was twenty years ago.”
In 2005 Boudreaux tired of life on the road and started guiding alongside his wife.
“I hired him,” said Mouse with a wry grin.
It was about that time when a catfish rod tip snapped downward and my friend, Butch Thurmond, was battling the biggest catfish of his life.
When the 32-pound blue came in the boat Thurmond flashed a wide smile and said, “That was fun. I’ve never caught a catfish like that one.”
“Just seeing people catch fish that have never caught fish before in their lives,” said Mouse. “Or seeing someone catch the biggest fish of their life. I love the kids especially, the look on their face and the look in their eyes. And of course the parents are so excited watching their kids catch a fish.”
The Witherells put their money where their mouth is. At Santee Cajun Guide Service children under 16 years old fish for free
Our group of outdoor writers including me, Thurmond, and South Carolina writer Terry Madewell, felt like kids at heart every time Mouse or Boudreaux screamed, “Fish, fish, fish,” when a rod bowed down.
(Photo: Richard Simms)
Outdoor writer Butch Thurmond from Slidell, Louisiana battles with the biggest catfish of his life on a recent trip to South Carolina’s Santee Cooper Country, fishing with Santee Cajun Guide Service.
It was always a race to the rod as a dozen big blues and five stripers came aboard.
Mouse and Boudreaux fish separately when business is booming, but enjoy guiding together when they can.
The pair works together like a well-oiled machine, cutting bait, tying hooks, hauling drift socks and otherwise doing everything it takes to keep baited lines in the water all the time.
And all the while they are each keeping a diligent eye on every rod tip.
One time someone joked about the pair as they once again screamed, “Fish, fish, fish,” when a rod bowed toward the water.
Mouse just smiled and said, “We feel to be a successful fishing guide you must have a passion for fishing. We love every minute of it. And if we’re enjoying the day so will our customers.”