10 Tactics for Santee-Cooper Bass

Lakes Marion and Moultrie might be full of bass, but without a good game plan you could get skunked; these 10 tips will put you on the fish

There are no "off" seasons for a diehard largemouth bass angling addict.

I know, because I am one.

And there are likely few places in the Palmetto State that offer a better opportunity to hook a hawg bass in the middle of the winter than the Santee-Cooper lakes of Marion and Moultrie.

First of all, the two lakes are huge, offering over 170,000 surface acres of water to fish. Second, they are the southernmost of all our major lakes and have a diversity of structure and cover that offers just about anything an angler would want. Finally, there are just a lot of bass finning around these lakes.

As in any fishing endeavor, though, there's a catch to catching these fish. With the coldest water temperatures of the year typically occurring in the first two months of the calendar year, the metabolism of bass is significantly lowered. More than ever, you have to the play the "fishing" game on their terms. Essentially, the predator must truly think like the prey to ensure success.

Following are 10 strategies that can help you be highly successful in your bass fishing efforts. Certainly not all will work all the time, but some can be paired with others when conditions warrant and all will work at least some of the time. Focus on the ones that appeal to your style of fishing and begin working through them. Odds are good you'll find a pattern that will provide you the opportunity to catch wintertime bass.

Photo by Ron Sinfelt

You can't go far wrong by fishing bottom-bumping baits during this time of the year on these lakes. As we'll discuss later, there are times and places when other lures can work extremely well, but day in and day out, baits that reach the bottom give you your best shot at consistent success. That statement continues to be true right on through the winter, pre-spawn, spawn and post-spawn times, just in case you're interested.

During this time of the year you'll find a lot of the largemouths in the creeks on Lake Marion. On Lake Moultrie, the Angels and Black's camp areas are good, as are the deeper areas of the Hatchery.

One reason these places attract fish and make the fish slightly more active is the water temperature. The creeks warm more quickly and especially after a rain, you can often find significant differences in the water temperature in the creeks compared to the main lake. Where the water is warmer, the fish will more readily bite.

The bottom bumpers fit the speed and depth requirements of the fish perfectly. When cold water lowers the metabolism of bass, slow, bottom-bumping baits, especially sizeable baits, are worth the effort to catch these sometimes-lethargic fish.

Another reason for big baits is that this time of year is not the best time to expect large numbers of bass to come to the boat, but it is an excellent time of the year to hook a really big bass. The bite may not be more than a subtle thump, so be alert for anything that "feels" different when working the lure.

Plastic worms, especially the larger varieties in the 8- to 10-inch size, are ideal for this type of fishing. In addition, the jig-and-pig combo will certainly produce plenty of action and may actually get the nod as the best big-fish producer of the bottom bumpers.

Patience is your friend when working bottom bumpers; if you keep chunking, you'll find your share of fish with these lures.

Fishing live bait on Santee-Cooper is an excellent wintertime tactic. However, many anglers overlook it as an effective method to catch bass.

My first shiner fishing trip certainly hooked me. The guys I went with had just boated one in the 8-pound class when I arrived at the landing to meet them. To say that whetted my appetite was the understatement of the eon.

Live bait generally means shiners and typically the most productive area is the upper end of Lake Marion, above the I-95 bridge. Jacks Creek, Elliott's Flats and Pack's Flats are known producers and offer plenty of elbowroom for anglers to fish to their hearts' content without bothering - or being bothered by - anyone else.

Most anglers look for areas near drops or deeper holes to work the live bait. The rig is simple: Hook the shiner - usually a "dollar bill" (6 inches) shiner - through the lips or under the dorsal fin. Put a float on the line anywhere from 1 to 5 feet above the bait, depending on the water depth you're fishing, and let the live bait do the rest.

Some anglers prefer to return to proven spots and anchor and fish multiple rods. Some will drift over stumpy flats near deeper water and still others will slow-troll the edges of weedlines or ditches that course through the many flats in these areas. All can be productive techniques; any may work well on a given day, so the choice for each angler is a matter of personal preference.

Usually 17-pound-test on a heavy baitcasting rod is adequate, but odds are good you will occasionally hook a big, maybe a giant, catfish that couldn't resist the shiner. When that occurs, bass tackle will seem mighty lightweight in shallow cover-laden water. But live-bait bass fishermen land some big catfish every year. It does make for a nice bonus.

Shallow-water bass fishing means different things to different people, but on Santee-Cooper, shallow water can mean really shallow water, even in the dead of winter. One longtime Lake Marion guide told me once that "if we get three days of really warm weather in January, fast-forward your thinking to March." He also noted that as soon as the next arctic front blasts through, it was back to the cold-weather basics. But for a brief period, you can get in on some sensational shallow-water action others will likely miss by staying with the standard stuff.

We're talking spinnerbaits in the shallows fishing here. We're talking seeing the bass snatch your shallow-running crankbaits from behind a visible stump. Don't, however, get the impression that every stump will have a hungry bass behind it. You still have to do some work to find fish. But these warm air temperatures and shallow-water, sun-exposed flats will certainly see an increase in fish feeding activity.

On the flip side, don't spend

all day working this pattern if you don't get some success. I'd work it as the opportunity presented itself during the course of the day's fishing, unless of course you do hit pay dirt and load up on several good bass quickly from a single area. If you do, you're likely in for an exceptional day if you find more places like that one.

Regardless of where else you expect to find bass during this time of the year, there is one constant. Some of the bass are going to be in deep water regardless of the other conditions. If you can't seem to hook up on any of the other patterns, then go deep. The challenge to catch them may increase, but you can be reasonably certain that most bass are deep this month. There will, at least, be an audience to review your presentation and that does count for something in the confidence department.

These fish are not likely to notice the effects of a brief warming trend and won't rush to the shallows like their already shallow brethren. Cold fronts have less impact on them. The fishing is often slower because anglers must take more time to probe the depths; doing so is a more reliable way to catch fish in the long haul.

Work the bottom-bumping bait in combination with this pattern for potentially excellent results. The upper part of Lake Marion, in the river during normal flow conditions, can be excellent, as can the area around the Diversion Canal.

If you don't have "rocks" in your head when thinking of these lakes during midwinter, then you're missing some great bass fishing opportunities.

The rocks I refer to are generally manmade riprap areas. Extensive areas of riprap are found around the dams of both lakes Marion and Moultrie, as well as along the dikes on Moultrie and the I-95 and Highway 301 bridges on upper Lake Marion. Generally, these riprap areas will lead from shallow water to some of the deepest water in the area in the shortest distance - a perfect recipe for success on cold-weather Lake Marion bass.

There are times when the wind-blown riprap can provide exceptional fishing, but when the fish are "on," you can often catch them on the lee side of the rocks and enjoy the fishing much more.

Bottom bumpers are always a good bet here, but slow-rolling a spinnerbait down the rocks is another excellent method of hooking a big bass. If you work an area and catch a few bass or get several bites, don't hesitate to work right back through the same area if the action slows as you move along. Something is attracting those fish to a certain stretch of water and I'd recommend working it hard while the pattern holds. Occasionally, you can figure out what the specific attraction is and find other areas like it. Sometimes, it just won't seem to make sense. In those cases, about all you can do is catch the fish you do find and be grateful.

Some of the biggest bass I've caught on these lakes have been in the cold weather while working my lure just alongside brushpiles in 4 to 8 feet of water. Usually in winter, I use a bottom-bumping lure, but certainly spinnerbaits have produced some good results as well.

This technique is not very complicated and will work on both lakes, although whichever lake I'm on, I prefer the sheltered areas of creeks, coves or protected flats the best for this pattern.

When you think ledges on these lakes, you don't always have to think deep water. Often the bass will require an identifiable underwater object to use for a deep- to shallow-water travel route. These ledges can be in the form of creek drops, but there are also many secondary creeks and ditches coursing through the flats that provide the required bottom definition to attract and hold bass. In addition, these are excellent places for bass to set up ambush points on baitfish.

If you focus on places like these, you can often lock into a rock-solid pattern. If you can find one spot that produces well, your biggest challenge may be to merely find others that are very similar. If you do, you can expect to continue catching bass.

These places can be especially productive after those three-day warm spells noted earlier. The bass can feed in the more shallow water, but have quick and definable access back to the safety of the depths. Should the fish retreat, you can resort to some deep-water tactics in the same area you had been catching fish and you may considerably extend your bass catching.

Some truly hard-core bass fishermen fish at night in January. Yeah, it sounds crazy. But there is a method to their madness. I've done this myself on many occasions and one thing for certain: You'll have very little competition on the lake during the nocturnal hours.

The bass will be close to the same places you had found them during the daytime, except they are often even shallower and more aggressive. If you've caught some fish on ledges, then work the top of the ledge, especially if you can find some woody cover to go with it. Bottom bumpers are the lure of choice for most anglers in this situation.

Just as in the summer months, in winter night-fishing a prime pattern is to fish lighted piers. In addition to largemouths, you may encounter some striped bass when fishing these places, particularly if you fish a jig or crankbait. The lighted piers attract baitfish, which attract game fish that attract fishermen.

When approaching these lighted areas, stop the big motor at least a couple hundred yards away from your target and use your electric kicker to get in close. The circle of light from the light source creates an edge line where the light meets the dark. Fish this spot first. Bass, especially big bass, will lie around the edge of this defining edge of light and dark to ambush their prey. In addition to jigs and plastic worms, slow-moving crankbaits will work very well.

Even here in the Deep South it can get really cold. The really bitter cold doesn't blast through often, thank goodness, but when it does, it can really impact the largemouth bass. The fish can still be had, but they require you to really slow down your presentation and perhaps lower your catching expectations. You can still catch fish, but it most likely will be more difficult.

One tactic I've had really good success with in this situation is flipping. When flipping, you can literally drop the lure on their nose, very quietly with barely a ripple on the water. These fish are often very spooky as well, so quiet can be very important. With a 7 1/2-foot rod, you can work the lure very slowly right in the midst of very heavy cover. Very heavy brush or weedy cover is an ideal place to find the fish under these conditions.

Another prime place to find fish in bitter cold weather is in the deeper water. Again, slow-moving lures and a patie

nt and steady hand are required to hook fish consistently. When it gets really cold, go fishing, but think heavy cover or deep water and slow, slower and slowest.

This past year has taught us that rainy weather is a distinct possibility on these lakes or anywhere in South Carolina at anytime of the year. When it does rain in buckets, a lot of the lake can get muddy and stay that way for several days. There are times when it's hard to find anyplace that's not muddy. Typically, you can find the quickest clearing water in the major creeks of Lake Marion, so head up these tributaries to find fishable water. Jack's Creek is certainly one of the better-known spots. It takes a lot to muddy this creek and it clears up quickly when it does get dirty.

Other creeks that deserve a good look when the water conditions get dirty include Taw Caw, Eutaw, Potato, Popular and Wyboo creeks.

The influx of water can be good, especially if it's a warm rain and the water temperature jumps up in these areas. Keep that positive outlook and you will likely find fish more willing to cooperate.

The 10 strategies we've discussed can obviously be used in various combinations, some of which can help you work out solutions quicker.

Use these as a general guide to your fishing game plan, add a bit of patience and effort and you'll enjoy some excellent bass fishing long before others even get the notion to re-spool their fishing line.

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