Species, Seasons & Strategies
The Santee Cooper lake system consists of two lakes, Marion 110,600 acres and Moultrie 60,400 acres. These two lakes are joined by the 6.5 mile diversion canal. These world-class fishing lakes were created from 1939 to 1942 for a hydroelectric project by the South Carolina Public Service Authority, commonly known as “Santee Cooper” because of the two river systems the project connected. At the present time these lakes hold a world record Channel Catfish (58 lbs). These lakes held the world records for Striped Bass until 1993, its weight was 55 lbs. and Arkansas Blue until 1996, its weight was 109.4 lbs. State records currently held are: Largemouth Bass – 16.2 lbs, Black Crappie – 5 lbs., Chain (Jack) – 6.4 lbs., Shellcracker – 5.7 lbs, Warmouth 2.25 lbs., Channel Catfish – 58 lbs., and Arkansas Blue Catfish – 109.4 lbs., Flathead – 77.3 lbs.
The lakes vary from shallow swamps and blackwater ponds to vast open water with a multitude of underwater structures. Lake Marion was not completely cleared, as a result fishermen will find there are thousands of stumps, standing dead tree trunks and live cypress trees. Lake Moultrie is more open and is 14 miles across at its widest point. These lakes do not ice over during the winter and there is no closed season for fishing. Weather permitting, fishing is year round.
Bream begin to bed in water six inches to four feet deep as spring turns mild and will continue to bed monthly on each full moon into the fall, moving to deeper water as the days turn cooler. Crickets and worms on #6 hooks are the baits of choice. Observant fishermen can try for bream during lake April and May when Mayfly hatches occur.
- Spring – In late February, crappie congregate in mouths of creeks at depths of 8 to 12 feet. During this time, limited catches are frequently made by drift fishing with minnows. As the surface water temperature nears 58 to 64 degrees they move into water 2 to 12 feet deep to spawn. Black crappie deposit eggs on the bottom, white crappie attach their eggs to brush or plants. Warm spring rains frequently bring crappie to creek inlets in shallow water. Depending on water temperature, the spawning cycle for crappie lasts from the full moon in March to the full moon in May.
Medium size minnows, worked over brush at depths of 2 to 12 feet, is the most popular bait. Small jigs spoons on light tackle are also effective. By mid-May crappie begin to move to the stumps and somewhat deeper water.
- Summer – Crappie are found in deep water around the dead trees of Lake Marion and deep submerged brush piles of Moultrie. Depths range from 20 to 40 feet. Live medium minnows are the best bait.
- Fall – From early October until winter the crappie will move to slightly more shallow water in the dead tree fields and brush piles. “Stump-Jumpin” with live medium minnows is the best fishing method at this time. Jigging with small jigs and quarter ounce spoons is very effective on drop offs with brush .
- Winter – “Stump-Jumpin” is not as effective now as the crappie tend to remain deep in tight concentrations. Live medium minnows are still the best bait. *Note: When using small jigs or spoons for crappie, jig them very slowly. Crappie weighing two pounds are common in these lakes.
Blue catfish came to the lakes in 1964 and 1965 when a total of 825 fish weighing about a pound each were obtained from Arkansas in exchange for striped bass fry produced at the Moncks Corner hatchery. The fishermen who pursue this species stand excellent chances of boating some really big fish. In the spring of 1979, the lake (state) record was broken five times. Blue catfish weighing 40 to 45 lbs. are common in our lakes.
Their range includes deep water holes and drop-offs throughout the lakes. April through October are the best months for blue catfish. Cut herring, gizzard shad, mullet, worms and commercially prepared baits are effective. Blue catfish are principally bottom feeders
- Spring – Whenever water temperatures reach 64 to 70 degrees the male constructs a nest in one to five feet of water and approximately 20 to 30 feet from the closest neighbor. The female lays 10,000 to 11,000 eggs which are fertilized, guarded and maintained until the young fry disperse. this is the best time of the year to catch big bass. Big females strike to protect beds, if small buck bass don’t hit first. Spoons, spinners and six to eight-inch plastic worms are effective. After spawning, worms, crankbaits and spinner baits are effective around the cypress tree stickups, lily pads and grass beds in water 2 to 4 feet deep.
- Summer – Most bass head for deeper water ledges and drops where heavily weighted jugs or worms are effective. Early and late in the day the bass will often feed in the shallows. Bass are usually found in waters less than 20 feet deep and rarely go beyond the area where rooted vegetation will grow.
- Fall – Largemouth move into more shallow water and cypress, gum and tupelo trees where plastic worms, spinner baits and crankdown lures are effective. Each tree must be fished completely from all angles for maximum results. Fishing points, inearly morning, is effective using plastic worms and crankbaits.
- Winter – Bass move back to deep water where jigs, spoons and heavily weighted worms are productive. At this time of year, fish the lure very slowly.
The striped bass story on the Santee Cooper lakes is one of the greatest fish stories of all time.
The Santee dam across the Santee River impounded lake Marion in 1942. It was found that the stripers that came up the Cooper River, from the ocean to spawn, entered lake Moultrie through the Pinopolis Lock and became trapped or landlocked and therefore, could not return to the sea. By a happy quirk of nature, the Santee Cooper lakes and rivers leading to them were an ideal freshwater habitat for what was a saltwater fish. Since that time, stripers have been spawning year round in the lake system.
- Spring – In March, April and May stripers make their way up through the diversion canal and generally by way of the riverbeds in the lakes, up the Congaree and Wateree Rivers for their annual spawning run. As a result, fishermen concentrate on the rivers and lake Marion. During this period, live herring is the best bait followed by cut bait. The fish are concentrated in deep holes. Herring is sold at most fish camps. Recommended tackle includes 8 to 9 foot rods, free spool reels with clickers and 20 to 30 pound test line. The terminal tackle includes 1 to 2 ounce sliding egg sinkers rigged above a barrel swivel with an 18 to 24 inch stock leader 5/0 or 6/0 off set hook.
- Summer – It is unlawful to take or attempt to take striped bass from June 1 through September 30.
- Fall – In September and October stripers start to school and frequently surface as they chase the gizzard shad. Anglers drift in these areas jigging the bottom with spoons and bucktails. Drifting with large shiners is also highly productive. Anglers are also looking flocks of seagulls feeding on shad which the stripers chase to the surface. Once a flock is spotted the boats race to the spot. Do not run over the school and scare them down. At the school use top water lures or poppers if they are on the surface. If they sound use fast sinking lures such as spoons or bucktails. When fishing schools in this manner please respect the rights of the other fishermen. Do not infringe on their space. Also, do not get too close to the school and scare them. This will spoil everyone’s chance at the school.
Note: Learn to distinguish between seagulls and the small blackhead terns at great distances. The terns often appear to be feeding over stripers but, frequently are not. When chasing schools in lake Marion, assume that the complete distance you will run is filled with stumps.
- Winter – Stripers are in deep water where drifting with large shiner minnows is effective. Use same tackle as with herring, switch to smaller hooks and sinkers.
White bass are not native to SC but, were stocked in 1952 from specimens originating in Tennessee. White bass concentrate in schools primarily in open water areas over bare sandy points in 8 to 12 feet of water. The schools are most active from April through May and August through September. Favorite baits are jigs, spoons, minnows, and spinners. Average less than a pound.
*Note: Hybrids (white x stripers) are in the Santee Cooper lakes and school with both white bass.