Santee Cooper's Spring Stripers

May is a major transition month for striped bass on the Santee Cooper lakes. Here's what you need to know to keep up with the fish. (May 2010)

"Things are looking very promising," Kevin Davis said about striper fishing on the Santee Cooper lakes. As co-owner of Blacks Camp on Lake Moultrie, Davis has seen ups and downs in Santee Cooper's striper population, and in the not too distant past he saw far more downs than up. Therefore, he speaks with cautious optimism.

There is good reason for optimism, though. Davis, who is around the camp restaurant and store daily, always talking to fishermen, and who guides on lakes Marion and Moultrie, has heard more about more good striper catches and has seen more quality fish himself in the past year or so than he has in a long time. In addition, he's seeing a lot of smaller fish, which bodes well for the future.

Annual striped bass recruitment varies immensely on the Santee Cooper lakes, and 2008 was an exceptional year class, according to Scott Lamprecht, the fisheries biologist over the lakes for the South Carolina Department of Natural Resources. "And those fish are being protected under the new regulations," he pointed out.

New regulations went into effect in 2008 to address issues that were negatively affecting the striped bass fishery. A major objective was to protect female stripers to spawning size. Although the lakes are stocked annually with a target number of 2.4 million fingerling stripers, the contribution of stocked fish vs. naturally spawned fish to the year class varies dramatically from year to year, and naturally spawned fish are important to population stability and to the genetic diversity, according to Lamprecht.

Even looking at the short term, Davis believes the regulations have already had a noteworthy positive impact on the average size of the stripers that anglers are catching.

The regulations cover the entire Santee-Cooper system, which includes more than the lakes, Lamprecht noted. That's important because striped bass are highly migratory and spawn up the Wateree and Congaree rivers and even travel through the locks and fish lift at the other end of the system into the Santee and Cooper rivers. Creel surveys have shown that more than half of the striped bass harvest from the Santee Cooper system occurs upstream of the reservoirs.

Under the new regulations, from Oct. 1 through May 31 the limit is three fish, with a 26-inch minimum size. From June 1 through Sept. 30, no stripers may be possessed, and anglers are encouraged to not target stripers in the lakes during that period because the release mortality is extremely high. The closed harvest season approximates the average time of year when water temperatures in most of the Santee Cooper system get above 70 degrees, which is the point at which catch and release mortality increases substantially.

FINDING & CATCHING THEM

May is a major transition month for stripers in the Santee Cooper system, according to Davis. Early in the month, many of the fish are apt to be high in the headwaters, upriver from Lake Marion in the Santee, Wateree and Congaree rivers. By the end of the month, the same fish might be at the absolute opposite end of the system, in the far lower end of Lake Moultrie. The stripers make spring spawning runs up the rivers, and during the month of May the bulk of the fish return to the lakes and transition into summer areas.

Through the first half May, most fish are usually caught around moving waters. Some will be up in the rivers themselves, especially at the very beginning of the month, but many will begin working their way through the system and will relate to areas of concentrated current around the Diversion Canal, including the canal itself, the lower end of Lake Marion and the mouth of the canal in Lake Moultrie.

Davis focuses on funnels, such as the cuts between the islands in the lower end of Lake Marion. He pointed toward the waters around the Bass Islands and Pine Islands as good examples. "Those funnels are like striper highways," he said.

The stripers can be almost anywhere in the canal that time of year, but one of the most consistently productive spots is the Rockpile (recognizable by giant piles of rocks on both sides of the canal). An underwater ridge of rocks spans the entire canal, providing great ambush-feeding points for stripers and other game fish. In Moultrie, the stripers often will be within a couple miles of the mouth of the canal along the edges of the navigation channel.

Fish in the current are generally active and feeding high in the water column, so Davis targets them for them with artificial lures that he can swim swiftly through the fish-holding current lines. He suggests trying bucktail jigs, Rat-L-Traps, 1/2-ounce Roadrunners and Sassy Shads as good lures for this approach.

Davis also has seen more schooling activity in the past year than he has for several years, and he expects to see more this spring. On Marion, most schools will be on the main lake, in the vicinity of the river channel or near the Diversion Canal. On Moultrie, they could be almost anywhere on the open main body. Davis will cast the same artificial lures to schoolers as he uses for stripers in the current.

As May progresses, the fish will continue down through the system, and by the middle of the month, the fish in canal area often will be gone. When that happens, Davis moves to the deep water in the southeastern quadrant of Lake Moultrie between Bonneau and Pinnopolis Dam, where many fish will spend the summer. During May they will suspend over the deep water.

Davis targets these fish with live blueback herring, most of which he puts on down-lines and fishes straight beneath the boat. Before he drops a single bait, though, he'll do quite a bit of searching to find baitfish and stripers. When he finds a good concentrations of stripers and baitfish together over structure, he'll anchor, and he'll measure his baits down to where the fish are suspended by using 2-foot pulls of line off the reel. Davis typically will put out six down-lines to create a nice spread and will hook a couple live baits on free lines, casting those baits away from the boat.

Davis uses spools level-wind reels with 17-pound test and puts them on Shakespeare Striper Rods. He weights his down-lines with 1 1/2 ounces of lead and uses 1/0 or 2/0 hooks, which strings through the back of the herring, just behind the dorsal fin. Good fresh live bait is extremely important, he noted.

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