B.A.S.S./Seigo Saito

Santee-Cooper Offers Abundant Habitat for Bassmaster Elite Field

Bassmaster Elites gear up for pre-spawn/spawn action on spacious South Carolina fishery.

Big-time potential awaits a field of 94 pros set to tackle Santee-Cooper Lakes March 17-20, as the AFTCO Bassmaster Elite Series visits this South Carolina powerhouse March 17-20. Most agree that this fishery has the potential to deliver one of the year's most impressive shows, as long as conditions align favorably by tournament time.

A hard freeze the weekend prior to the tournament sent temperatures plummeting, with daytime highs in the mid 40s and overnight lows in the low 20s. A warming trend will quickly push those key numbers progressively higher, with tournament days seeing low to mid 70s and a mix of clouds and sunshine.

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March is spawning time on Santee-Cooper, so the tournament's outcome depends on how quickly the fish regain sufficient comfort. This time of year, afternoons tend to shine, as the sun warms shallow waters. Fortunately, this venue offers plenty of room for anglers to disperse and fish as they please.

The Playing Field


Jeff Gustafson fishes Santee-Cooper in 2020. [B.A.S.S./Seigo Saito]

Tracing its creation to the New Deal era, Santee-Cooper comprises the 110,000-acre Lake Marion (upper lake) and 60,000-acre Lake Moultrie (lower lake), which connect through a 6 1/2-mile diversion canal. Created for navigational and hydroelectric purposes, Santee Cooper Lakes were named for the rivers joined by a public works project aimed at linking Columbia, South Carolina, to Charleston Harbor.

Formed by the confluence of the Congaree and Wateree rivers, the Santee River feeds Marion, exits its east side through the 8-mile-long Santee Dam, flows to the coast and splits into North and South rivers, southwest of Georgetown Inlet. Originating in Moultrie, the Cooper River flows through the Pinopolis Hydroelectric Dam at the lake's south end and terminates in Charleston Harbor.

Habitat features include cypress trees, submerged grass, flooded timber, stumps, lily pads, and docks. Cypress flats exist in both lakes, but Marion sees significantly more—particularly in the Sparkleberry Swamp and Hog Swamp areas (aka "The Swamp") at the upper end.

"The Swamp area has deeper trees," said South Carolina's Todd Auten. "This time of year, you can find pre-spawn fish coming in and you might have to fish a little deeper than you'd think. You have a lot more options up there because you have a lot of little ditches running into these creeks. Also, you can spread out a little more up there; you don't have to be in one little area.

"The Swamp is basically a river running through flooded trees. It's a big filtering system, so the river could be really muddy, but just off the channel and into The Swamp, it could be clear as a bell."

Moultrie offers shallow habitat, but anglers typically make the run to escape Marion's more concentrated efforts and fish this lake's offshore brush piles and stumps.

"A lot of those fish may be staging in ditches and a lot of people have put brush piles in those ditches, so I think that will come into play," Auten said. "That can be hit or miss with those fish coming in and going out.

"Also, the lower lake has a lot more stumps where the trees were cut down. That mostly comes into play before the fish get too far up, but those fish will spawn on those stumps."

Seasonal Patterns

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Carl Jocumsen fishes Santee-Cooper in 2020. [B.A.S.S./Seigo Saito]

Auten's expecting Santee-Cooper to fish big, meaning the entire system should be in play. The focus, he said, will likely be split between pre-spawn and spawning fish.

"I think we're going to hit it at a pretty good time," Auten said. "This little cold snap is going to set it back a day or two, but after this, it's going to be on fire. The water temperature is about 62 degrees and that's plenty warm enough for them to move up shallow."

Rain from the recent frontal system, plus the showers expected on Wednesday could raise the lakes enough to expand the shallow opportunities. That upper lake filtration will minimize turbidity.

Auten said the likely bait selections will include floating worms, jerkbaits, buzzbaits, frogs, flipping jigs, and bladed jigs for the shallow areas. Those who fish for bedding bass will throw Texas-rigged worms and creature baits or wacky rigs. For Moultrie's offshore game, big worms, spinnerbaits, and Carolina rigs will work.

Heavyweights Live Here

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Brandon Palaniuk weighs in at Santee-Cooper in 2020. [B.A.S.S./Seigo Saito]

Thanks to the South Carolina Department of Natural Resources' stocking efforts, native northern largemouth mingle with Florida-strain largemouth. Often called "Florida bass," this introduced species boasts enormous size potential, so double-digit catches are a definite possibility, particularly in a spawn event.

Balancing this bonus potential, Florida bass are notoriously fickle creatures that generally respond to weather fluctuations with frustratingly pouty behavior. The week's forecast appears favorable for the "big heads" to cooperate and if they do, expect heavy bags.

Watch the Clock

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Austin Felix fishes Santee-Cooper in 2020. [B.A.S.S./Seigo Saito]

With takeoffs and weigh-ins set for Lake Marion's northeast side, winning potential exists throughout this huge fishery. The key to success is time management. Anglers have to determine how long to spend on each area, how much time a big bed fish merits and how much time to allow for a run back from areas far south.

The diversion canal linking Marion and Moultrie offers fishable habitat, but idle speed restrictions must be considered for fishing there, or continuing into the lower lake.

At Stake

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Destin DeMarion fishes Santee-Cooper in 2020. [B.A.S.S./Seigo Saito]

The tournament winner will take home a $100,000 top prize. Bassmaster Elite events also award a daily $1,000 Phoenix Boats Big Bass prize, an overall $1,000 Phoenix Boats Big Bass prize, a $2,000 VMC Monster Bag prize (largest catch of the tournament) and a $1,000 BassTrakk bonus for the angler who most accurately reports his catches throughout the event.

Anglers will also earn points for the $100,000 Angler of the Year prize, while newcomers pursue the $10,000 Falcon Rods Rookie of the Year award.