Are you looking for some big-bass action during the dead of winter? Look no further than the Santee-Cooper lakes of Marion and Moultrie!
Photo by Ron Sinfelt
It's my belief that you can never start fishing for largemouth bass too early in the year at the Santee-Cooper lakes of Marion and Moultrie. Of course, I'd also say you can never fish too late in the year, either. Patterns and techniques will change, but the largemouth bass are always there, and they can be caught. In fact, they will be caught by someone else if you're not fishing.
I found out how good January largemouth fishing is in South Carolina quite by chance many years ago. The truth is, it was the first winter after I moved to South Carolina about 18 years ago and there were still plenty of white bass left in lakes Marion and Moultrie. I used my depthfinder to locate a channel drop in Potato Creek in the lower end of Lake Marion and found a spot where there were a lot of shad piled up over the dropoff. Several distinctive markings underneath the glob of forage made me think game fish were in the area. In fact, I figured that I might have stumbled onto some stripers as a bonus, based on the size of those markings.
I began casting a small in-line spinner and indeed, I did catch a few good white bass, but when the action slowed, I dropped a 1/2-ounce spoon over the side and began vertical jigging in about 10 to 12 feet of water. I'd jigged the spoon no more than a half-dozen times when I felt a solid thump while letting the jig fall and I set the hook into a heavy, rod-bending fish.
I was thinking "striper" until a big largemouth wallowed on top of the water. I landed the 5-pound-plus fish and immediately underhanded the jigging spoon out again. Soon I was solidly hooked into another largemouth, this one weighing about 3 1/2 pounds. Too good to be true, I said to myself, figuring my luck would have to end. But actually, it turned out to be a very solid pattern. It held up not only for that day, but several more times during the next couple of weeks.
I branched out my search to include Wyboo and Taw Caw creeks on the north side of the lake and managed to find productive spots in each of them. In fact, an old roadbed in the upper portion of Wyboo Creek turned out to be a real honeyhole that produced good results for several weeks. In addition to the jigging spoon, I also learned that a jig-and-pork frog trailer (jig-and-pig) would produce excellent results and eliminate many bites from those pesky white bass . . . which, ironically, was what I had started out trying to catch.
While I don't see a lot of anglers employing this bass-catching method, those who do probably keep it to themselves. As with any type of cold-weather fishing for largemouth bass, there will be good days and tough days; but overall, if you'll spend a reasonable amount of time looking for the fish, you should be able to hook up with a bass several times on most days.
For many hardcore winter bass anglers, though, it's not big numbers of bass that make winter fishing so interesting: It's the chance at a big bass. Your odds of catching a wall-hanging trophy now are as good or better than any other time of the year. Especially as we begin to approach the pre-spawn period, big roe-laden sows will begin to move about more. Anglers who are doing the right thing at just the right place can get the first crack at catching the fish of a lifetime.
That's what we hope to help you with here: being at the right place doing the right thing.
The immediate problem facing anglers headed to the Santee-Cooper lakes is the tremendous variety of fish habitat. Where do you start?
The area described above is located at the lower end of Lake Marion, so let's continue on with that section of the lake. Winter conditions frequently favor vertical presentations typically with lures such as jigs and spoons; however, when the lake is extremely low as it has been in some recent years, this type of fishing is limited to the deeper areas where the larger creeks run into the main lake body. These junction areas are prime fish magnets anyway, so the lower water level can actually enhance the fishing. But low water also reduces the number of places the stripers congregate, and the spots that are left will attract more anglers.
Once the water temperatures get into the lower 50s and upper 40s, the shad will be migrating to the creeks and that's when this junction pattern is strongest. Any major weather change, of either bitter cold or unseasonably warm weather, can change the pattern quickly. Remember, bass want to be in places with both deep structure and forage fish. Weather changes can move shad in a hurry. If the shad are gone, the largemouths will be gone, too.
When bass and forage are not on this pattern, I've had excellent success with a second pattern.
If the water is near a normal winter level, there are numerous major and smaller feeder creeks that have flats littered with stumps from the edge of the channel back toward the shoreline. Even during the cold weather time of the year, one or two days of warmer weather will bump the water temperature upward just a tad, just enough to get the fish into what I refer to as a more "angler-friendly" mode. While I would not classify it as shallow-water fishing, there are some excellent opportunities to take a lot of good fish from water in the 5- to 10-foot depth range using slow-moving lures such as spinnerbaits.
Work those spinnerbaits, usually a big single spin in the 3/8- to 1/2-ounce size, around these stump flats and be prepared for a hard-hitting, big-bodied bass to load on. Sometimes the larger bass will just suck the bait in, giving it that weightlessness feel for a moment. I am certain I have missed many large fish because I hesitated too long. Once I hooked a couple after getting that weightless lure sensation. I now set the hook on about anything that feels "different."
Another pattern that works well is flipping the docks in the larger creeks. Using a 5/8-ounce black banana jighead with a plastic grub trailer, you can flip the lure into small nooks and crannies around the docks that border on the deeper water and you can hook up with some really hefty fish.
As the weather begins to warm a bit and we get into February, look for the pre-spawn activity to begin. It seems to sneak up on me and sometimes it's already occurring before I realize it. The fish will begin to move into the backs of the large creeks and secondary feeder creeks during this time of year and much more active fish will be working on shallow water patterns. Water temperature and weather patterns have a significant influence on when this begins each year. The shallow-water migration can be as late as March, but often it cranks up in mid-February.
In the upper end of Lake Marion you'll encounter more shallow water and a lot of thick cover in the form of stumps, logs, cypress trees, grass and weeds. There are a number of patterns for viable bait presentations for this part of the lake. For example, working the deeper stumps and logs with spinnerbaits, crankbaits and even flipping jigs and worms will produce good results. But the habitat here, and the number of big bass lurking, makes this upper end of the lake a prime spot for fishing live bait.
Doug Rhodes and I have fished the upper end of the lake in the Jacks Creek area in cold weather and caught some nice bass on live shiners, as well as a few bonus catfish (both blues and flatheads). Doug had located a tree-studded flat with a small ditch winding through it that seemed to be holding a lot of bass. We anchored in the slightly deeper water and fan-cast float rigs with shiners around the boat. The action wasn't fast, but it was steady and we caught several bass, hooked some more good ones and boated some good catfish as well . . . and lost some huge catfish on those bass rigs.
Two other good options for live-bait anglers is to drift the stump flats with shiners or use the electric motor to move around the flats and channel ledges while pulling live shiners behind the boat. All of these methods have produced largemouth bass.
The old adage that big bait means big fish does seem to work here, so if you're after a trophy-sized bass, use a trophy-sized shiner.
Patience is a virtue for anglers looking for bass in this area. Sometimes it may take a while to locate the fish, but once you catch a couple of bass in an area, work that spot hard. There's some reason the fish are there - maybe slightly warmer water, maybe forage, maybe water depth. You may not be able to figure out why the fish are there, but they know and if you find them, you're in business. Normally, I'm a big proponent of moving and looking for fish, but when live-bait fishing, sometimes a little bit of success can be the clue that big things may happen if you hang tough in a good area. I'm not suggesting you wait for hours with nary that first bite, but if you catch or hook a couple of decent fish in close proximity during this time of the year, I'd give that general area a good working over before moving.
Lake Moultrie is a nine-mile by 11-mile fishbowl-looking lake and the cold weather and the frequent wind on this water can intimidate many anglers. Granted, there are many days when getting out on the big open water would be akin to getting on the Atlantic Ocean in a gale. While there are drops, ledges and humps that will be holding fish out there, other more protected areas hold fish as well.
One place and pattern that's overlooked is the long stretch of rip-rapped rock areas along the dikes around the eastern side of the lake. Much of this water is plenty deep to hold cold-weather largemouths, and working bottom-bumping baits along these areas can produce both big fish and lots of bites.
A good buddy of mine clued me in about this pattern on Lake Moultrie and it made perfectly good sense to me, even before I tried it. Riprap areas that have deep water adjacent to them are largemouth bass magnets at many times of the year and the cold months are right at the top of the list.
When the fish are inactive, you'll have to work deeper, often down to the base of the riprap where it flattens out on the normal bottom of the lake.
On days when the fish are a bit more active, such as after a two- or three-day warming trend, the fish will move up the rocks to shallower water and become much more aggressive. I like a jig-and-pig combo for this type of fishing as a personal preference; however, plastic lizards and worms will also work well. You can slow-roll a spinnerbait on those days when the fish are a bit more active, but otherwise, the best bite seems to be on bottom-bumping lures. Generally, it's best to stay in reasonably close contact with the bottom as you work along the area.
If you pick up some bites in one area, fish through the spot carefully and when the action slows again, turn the boat around and work back though the area you just fished. You may surprise yourself and discover that you didn't catch them all the first time through the area.
There are an almost endless number of drops, ledges, humps and roadbeds on the offshore floor of this lake. These spots are well worth some fishing time on days that the weather allows for safe boating in open water. The same basic tackle and techniques used in other areas will work here; the key is having the right boat to get out and hunt these places out.
However, one point is important to remember in fishing for big bass during their pre-spawn move toward the shallows. Typically, when we first start getting the warmer days and the water temperature begins to climb, the bass will begin to move toward the shallows. Big shallow flats, many of which are studded with cypress trees, ring much of Lake Moultrie. The flats are not uniform and should not be fished randomly. In these areas there are pockets of deeper water where these fish will stage prior to moving on to the shallows. These deeper pockets are key areas to fish.
Also, there are numerous blackwater ponds in the big flats that harbor fish both in the pre-spawn and the spawn phase of the spring cycle. At that time of year, they are among the best places in the Palmetto State to be if you're one of those bass fishermen looking for lots of action from really big bass. The timing, as noted on Lake Marion, will vary from year to year, but in 2002, the major move and big-fish time was in February. By March, the action had slowed significantly.
The best way to make sure you get in on the action is to start fishing at the beginning of the year and follow the fish on a regular basis. Not only will you catch your share of fish through the cold weather patterns, but you'll be there when the pre-spawn movement to the shallows begins and you'll be on top of all of that action as well.
The bottom line is there's no wrong place to be if you're fishing Santee-Cooper during the cold winter months for largemouth bass. You have a wide variety of options to suit your individual style of fishing and the big fish are there. Select your strategy and start fishing.
Remember, somebody's going to catch fish there tomorrow. It could be you.
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