July/August 2018Playing Cat and Mouse, Santee Styleby Michael M. DeWitt Jr.
Big blue cats are a favorite with Santee Cooper Country anglers, and when it’s time to weigh in, one local catfish guide, Captain Mouse, never comes up short.
The sun has yet to rise over Santee Cooper Country, as the night covers the water like the warm blankets some of us wish we were still under. Voices crackle on the radio as other boaters check in and share weather reports. The lights of our chugging, twenty-five-foot Crest pontoon, aptly named the Mo’ Fish VI, barely pierce a few feet ahead into a mist that clings to the skin and spots your eyeglasses, but we are not concerned because our Captain clearly knows the way. She knows every stump and every fishing hole in Lake Marion - she has even named most of them. She is Captain Barbara Witherell. Standing nearly four feet and eleven inches tall, most folks call her Captain Mouse.
Her husband, Nathan (aka Captain Boudreaux), is currently a disembodied voice on the VHF airwaves from a vessel somewhere across the foggy channel. He warns her of rough water ahead, and she reminds him to take his medication.
To say that Captain Mouse loves to fish would be a laughable understatement. Raised in the prime fishing waters of the Mississippi Delta, she recalls many hours spent on a coffee can between her father’s feet, fishing the bayous from a pirogue - a long, narrow canoe popular in Louisiana’s Cajun country. At one time, she owned seven boats, “one for every occasion,” she once told a reporter. This tiny but tough woman prefers fishing barefooted to show off her tattoos, a catfish on one leg and a mouse, her namesake, on the other. When Nathan married Barb forty-six years ago, she begged him to take her fishing for their honeymoon. “Most of our dates were spent hunting, fishing or shrimping,” she confesses with a grin.
Barbara and Nathan, both sixty-four, hail from just north of Baton Rouge, Louisiana. After working a variety of jobs that included seamstress work and motorcycle repair, Captain Mouse took to the water full-time. What began as a love of fishing turned into a profitable business in 1996 when her husband declared that Mouse’s fishing hobby was getting too expansive and that she needed to start making money with it. So that’s exactly what she did. Welcome to Santee Cajun Guide Service, “Where you can always catch a Cat with a Mouse,” or so proclaims her website.
But being the “only full-time independent female guide on the Santee Cooper lakes,” as her website also boasts, was not without its own peculiar challenges. While there have been other noteworthy female boat captains in the past, including the late Mary Delage, better known as “Groovy Granny,” a Lake Murray striped bass fishing icon active from the 1980s to the early 2000s, even today being a fishing guide has typically been thought of as mostly a “man’s world,” Mouse says, and some of the other fishermen resented her at first.
“It wasn’t cool at first,” she recalls. “It was like I had invaded their territory. Some of the other captains were hesitant to even talk to me on the radio. I guess it didn’t sound right talking to a woman. But they gradually accepted me.”
Using blueback herring and gizzard shad for bait, our guide puts us onto a slew of fat catfish even before the sun has burned the mist from the air. The catfish were gorging on mussels in twenty feet of water, but soon found themselves flopping on our deck, much to the delight of all aboard. Of course, no one gets more excited about a “fish on!” than Captain Mouse - she was like a little girl with a pony under the Christmas tree every time a rod began jumping.
“I still get excited when I see a fish bite,” she admits. “The day you don’t get excited is the day you need to quit. And there’s nothing like seeing someone, especially a young child, catch their first big fish.”
The Witherells are both U.S. Coast Guard licensed captains, as is their son, Scott, who sometimes helps out with the family business. Their boats are custom designed, with handicapped access, a restroom, an enclosure for rough weather and up to seventeen rod holders. Mouse and Boudreaux fish year-round - Easter, Thanksgiving, Christmas or whenever a client wants to go - and together they have guided up to 240 fishing trips in a year.
Mouse keeps a journal by her steering helm, where she records the number and size of fish caught on each trip, water temperatures, weather conditions, etc. On one particularly fine day, Mouse boasts with a grin, the Mo’ Fish VI departed the dock at 6:30 a.m. and was on the way back by 8:00 a.m. with their limit - a 125-quart cooler full of cats. She flips a page: on April 6, 2006, they caught forty-nine catfish in three hours. Her biggest fish? A beautiful seventy-six-pound blue cat.
“One Florida man brought his eighty-year-old mother to fish on Christmas Eve, and she had so much fun she wanted to go again on Christmas. I’ve guided everyone from palm readers and psychics to brain surgeons, and we do a lot of bachelor parties, too. The youngest client we’ve ever had on board was six months old, and the oldest was ninety-four, and he caught fish. We get a lot of two- and three-year olds so we keep a bag of toys and coloring books on board.”
Customers come from near and far - including recent clients from Canada, Germany, Switzerland, Iceland, Italy, Brazil and Alaska. Some come year after year, getting off the boat and immediately booking their next expedition. Her website lists more than a dozen letters and emails from satisfied customers and a Google search reveals many five-star reviews.
Skill obviously has something to do with all that, but then there is also her personality and sense of humor. She once playfully slapped a client on the back of the head for missing a fish. She keeps a chalk board at the boat’s stern where she writes the names of the naughty and hands out appropriate punishment. If you miss three fish, you have to sit on a penalty bucket in timeout. Miss six fish, and you have to fish with a kid’s Snoopy rod and reel.
The Witherells have been married for forty-six years and have three kids and nine grands, but if she catches more fish than her hubby, he will good-naturedly swear and trash talk her. “People laugh at us going at it on the radio,” she said. As part of the good-natured rivalry, the loser must meet the winner at the dock, bow down and chant, “I’m not worthy!”
“But nobody on this lake will try harder to help you catch a fish,” admits Boudreaux.
Captain Mouse has been profiled in several newspapers and a couple of magazines, and was once a guest on “Bob Redfern’s Outdoor Magazine,” a weekly TV series airing across the U.S.
Protecting the Lifeblood of our State
South Carolina’s natural resources pump more than $30 billion and 230,000 jobs annually into the state’s economy, according to a recent study, Underappreciated Assets: The Economic Impact of South Carolina’s Natural Resources by the University of South Carolina Darla Moore School of Business, and freshwater fishing is a large part of that contribution. The Santee Cooper system is known as one of the best blue catfish fisheries in the country, according to the SCDNR’s website, which further estimates that this fishery alone contributes as much as $8 million per year to the state’s economy and that anglers spend more than 500,000 hours per year pursuing catfish. Communities all around Santee Cooper Country, a five-county tourism district in the south-central part of the state, depend on tourism dollars spent by recreational anglers from around the world.
The Witherells know just how important fishing is to both their livelihood and that of the entire region. That’s why they have been active officers and members of the Santee Cooper Country Guides Association (SCCGA) for years. Mouse currently serves as secretary and treasurer for the association, while Boudreaux is the Orangeburg representative on the board of directors. The primary purpose of the SCCGA is to promote fisheries management and conservation of resources on the Santee Cooper lakes, while promoting partnerships among guides, businesses and organizations that collectively depend on these lakes for their livelihood. In the past, the Witherells and other members of the SCCGA have offered input to the SCDNR to help write important fishing regulations that would benefit all who wish to enjoy the Santee lakes in the future. According to its website, the SCCGA currently has thirty-eight members.
For more information about Captain Mouse and the Santee Cajun Guide Service, go to www.santeecajunguide.com or look them up on Facebook.