CROSS, S.C. — The sun broke through the clouds giving a picturesque start to the fishing day. Captain David Murdaugh, my guide for the day, piloted his boat through the narrow backwater away from Black’s Camp and into the diversion canal separating the two lakes of Santee Cooper Country.
“They’re getting ready to get on the frog bite soon,” Murdaugh explained. “Once they get on the frog bite, we’ll get into some big ones.”
We were headed out to the waters of Lake Moultrie, the lower lake of Santee Cooper. After testing Murdaugh’s frog bite theory for a couple of hours, it became clear the fish weren’t ready to feed on the top water just yet. The 2017 spawn came early to the southern waters and most of the big females had already pulled out of the grass where we we concentrated our efforts for the day.
“Millfoil, lily pads, and gator grass,” said Murdaugh. “We’ve got everything but hydrilla.”
Murdaugh and I targeted the largemouth bass of the lake on this day, but the lakes carry a variety of species from crappie and bass to the popular shellcracker and stripers. Perhaps the number two targeted fish, just behind the bass, is catfish. Santee Cooper actually holds the South Carolina state record for largemouth bass and shell cracker and recently a new state record blue catfish came out of her waters.
The catfish draw anglers from everywhere to experience the opportunity to catch trophy sized cats. Some catch them the conventional way with rod and reel, while others use trot lines to fill their freezer with enough fish for a full year or several big fish frys.
The upper lake, Lake Marion, is linked to Lake Moultrie via the seven mile diversion canal, but there is a heap of difference between the two waters.
“They fish entirely different because of the structure primarily,” said Captain Jimmie Hair another longtime Santee Cooper guide. “We still have some grass down in Moultrie, up here in Marion, it’s all cypress trees.”
The reason for the structural difference can be traced back to the lakes’ beginnings according to Hair. Construction on the lakes of Santee Cooper began in the 1930’s. Most of the cypress trees on the land flooded to build Lake Moultrie were cut for timber before the lake was flooded, but the project changed in 1941.
“When the war broke out, they were finished with Moultrie, but they were still cutting timber out of the upper lake here, but they had to go ahead and flood them early,” Hair explained. “They needed the equipment they were using to make the lakes somewhere else for the war effort and secondly they needed the power from the generation facility for the Naval installation down in Charleston.”
As a result, Lake Marion today is filled with cypress trees which provide the predominant cover for bass, particularly those which have come off the beds.
“Fish went on the bed down in Moultrie a little earlier than they did up here. The fish you caught there were mostly bucks,” said Hair. “We caught a few up here of the spawned females and they run a little bit bigger. They were on trees.”
The cypress trees fan out below the water surface with a root system which stretches 10 or 12 feet in diameter. The system creates endless pockets for bass to hide and ambush pray, particularly soft plastic lures patiently bounced through the submerged cover. The upper lake’s diverse topography also includes submerged ponds, fence rows, and even in some cases houses and full towns. Although tremendous for fish cover, the underwater structure also presents a hazard to boat operators who may be unfamiliar with the submerged obstacles.
Santee Cooper Country offers a wide variety of accommodations from hotels and motels to cabin rentals at Santee State Park, or campgrounds all around the lake. For more information about fishing guide services and accommodations in Santee Cooper Country click here.