October 04, 2010
Often overshadowed by the Santee-Cooper lakes, the Cooper River can hold its own against any fishery. Find out why it's the best coastal bass river in the state.
By Walt Rhodes
Bass-fishing action on any of the state's coastal rivers is up and down, depending on the tide.
Like fish in saltwater habitats, largemouth bass react to the rhythms of the water. An ebbing tide pulls prey from cover so waiting bass can grab an easy meal. Once the water stops moving, the bass sit tight until the tide starts flowing again.
An angler has to know how to read the tidal signals if he wants to be successful. The edge of a large flat is certainly the place to cast near the peak of the tide. However, if you do not move with the largemouths to a break in the bank once the tide starts dropping, you are going to miss one of the best bites of the day.
Tidal tactics typically used on other coastal rivers will occasionally catch a Cooper River bass, but the Cooper River is no typical coastal river. The various qualities of the Cooper River's sources of water create a clash of titans that have led to a unique river with a super bass population. If an angler wants to consistently defeat these rotund river warriors, he will have to alter the tactics he employs in most blackwater coastal rivers.
"To find bass on the Cooper River, you need to look for structure," said Ronnie Russell, a Goose Creek resident who has spent a decade probing the Cooper's soul for bass. "The fish are going be concentrated along banks that are thick with woody structure."
What Russell describes sounds like any largemouth bass-fishing scenario. Whether it be in a tiny farm pond, expansive reservoir or flowing river, a bass is most likely to be near that submerged stump. In the case of the Cooper River, however, the story is not that simple.
"Bass do not like current," Russell explained, "and the Cooper has a lot of current, especially when there is water coming out of the lakes. One little twig that might normally hold a bass in an average tidal river will be barren in the Cooper River because it does not create a big enough eddy for a fish to sit.
"If the current is really moving because Santee-Cooper (the power company) is running water through the dam, you will need to locate a fairly good clump of woody structure to find fish. There needs to be a lot of wood to sufficiently break the water and create a calm spot for the bass to hide," he said.
Fortunately for anglers, man's use of the Cooper River has created some great bass habitat. During the 1800s, a large portion of the Cooper River floodplain was cleared, and dikes were constructed for the purpose of growing rice.
The dikes were kept clear of woody vegetation during rice production. However, a series of hurricanes in the early 1900s brought the rice culture to an end in South Carolina. Soon, the abandoned and breached dikes along the state's rivers were reclaimed by nature.
Trees began growing on the dikes. With the tide now moving unrestricted in and out of old rice fields, additional breaks were created in the banks and trees took tenuous root on low islands of ground that were part of the former dikes. Over time, erosion would cause trees in these linear forests to topple, creating great hiding spots for bass.
That's the story for all of the state's coastal rivers. Today, fishermen can usually find a bass loafing around any piece of woody structure in a tidal river, and there's a good chance the fish will bite if the tide has them in a feeding mode. Another chapter was added to the Cooper's story, however.
Shortly after the rice culture's demise, construction of the Santee-Cooper lakes was begun. Completed in the 1930s, the lake water is like vitamins for the Cooper's bass, providing a nutritional boast to an otherwise low-production coastal river. But the influx of nutrients comes at a cost - current, and lots of it at times.
The current can run strong enough to counter the tide on the Cooper. Scheduled low tides are higher than normal, and while a flood tide's flow still raises the water, its movement is masked by the discharge from the lakes. A bass angler has to be cognizant of these conditions, which is why finding heavy structure is paramount.
"One of the late-winter and early-spring patterns I like to fish is bumping the woody structure along the main river," Russell said. "An outgoing tide is best. The tide is pulling prey from the rice fields into the main river through breaks in the banks. The largemouths stage behind all of the structure and wait for something to eat to drift past."
Anglers new to the Cooper are apt to be overwhelmed by all of the possible structure on this river. Old pilings and other human-placed structures and thousands of fallen trees dot the Cooper's shores. The best advice is to fish several areas following Russell's suggested techniques to find the most productive spots.
"You will see lots of anglers fishing the structure under these conditions with spinnerbaits," he said. "A spinnerbait will catch a bass on the river sometimes, but a crankbait is a better bait."
Russell's all-time favorite crankbait was a small bait with a brown tiger stripe.
"I think it worked so well because it closely resembled many of a bass' prey items in the river. The bass eat a lot of small fish as well as crawfish. That brown color is a hot pattern."
Russell stated you can't be afraid to get the crankbait into the structure.
"In the spring, most of the fish will be found somewhere between 2 and 8 feet deep. You will need to use a crankbait that runs 10 to 12 feet to be sure it's bumping the structure," he said. "If you can't feel the bait hitting the wood, then you are not deep enough. There is no doubt you will lose some baits, but a lot of times you can get hung baits free because the lip is normally what snags. If you back off on the retrieve, the bait will usually float free."
The banks of the Cooper are very steep. Most bass are found in water less than 10 feet deep in the spring, but a cold front can chase them deeper. As a result, Russell recommended carrying two rods for cranking.
"When the fish are shallow, I use a rod with 17-pound-test line. When the fish go deeper, you will need to lighten up on the line, say to 12-pound-test monofilament, to get the bait down. Braided lines can also shine because the smaller diameters make it possible to get a crankbait deeper without sacrificing strength," he noted.
The Cooper River also su
pports another form of structure that is favored by bass fishermen. Acres of hydrilla grow back in the old rice fields, as well as along the main river. Again, it is along the main river that Russell likes to concentrate his efforts.
"Most of the anglers on the river see a line of hydrilla and fish the outside edge of it with a spinnerbait. Like around the woody stuff, you will occasionally catch a bass this way. A better way to fish the grass, however, is to fish behind it," Russell said. "Between the main bank and where the inside edge of the grass starts, there is often a trough of open water. The bass hang right there. If there is submerged wood in that trough, it only makes it better."
To fish this setup, Russell positions himself perpendicular to the bank, which is contrary to an angler's first thought of fishing a grass edge. The idea is to hang outside the grass with your trolling motor and drop a bait into the trough.
"A heavy jig is the best bait for this situation," Russell stated. "I use between 1/2- and 3/4-ounce baits, but nothing ever lighter than 1/2-ounce because of the current. I have found that the best colors are crawfish, watermelon seed or the standard blue-and-black combination. You will want to add a rubber crawfish trailer to help slow the bait's fall in the trough. If the fish doesn't hit it on the fall, one or two hops on the bottom will usually get a strike."
Russell prefers to present the jig on a 7 1/2-foot flipping stick rod spooled with 25-pound-test monofilament line. The heavier line is needed because of the abrasion against the grass. Even though you have heavy line, he recommended going in after a hooked bass with your trolling motor rather than trying to haul it through the grass.
Cranking around structure and fishing the troughs are good methods during a falling tide and the start of a flooding tide. Once the high tide arrives, many river anglers go home because the bass have become scattered and seemingly much harder to catch.
To catch largemouths at high tide, anglers must find a good creek running up into a rice field, Russell said. The fish will be spread out under this situation, but anglers who find structure will eventually find the bass.
"Think of the creek in the rice field like you would a ditch in the lake," he suggested. "Bass will be found around curves or humps in the ditches or any piece of structure. If the ditch leads to an area that retains water at low tide, pre-spawn bass will follow these pathways to a spawning area. It is no different than fishing the same condition in a lake but with the tide in mind."
Stable water levels are conducive for productive largemouth bass spawns. Water level fluctuations from the tide and discharge out of Lake Moultrie would seem to prevent good spawns on the river, but apparently no one told that to the bass.
"The Cooper River is a great bass river," said Scott Lamprecht, assistant regional fisheries biologist for the South Carolina Department of Natural Resources in Bonneau. "It supports a typical population with good recruitment due to hydrilla and other submerged aquatic vegetation."
Lamprecht explained that the Cooper River bass population is only similar to other coastal river populations in the early stages of life.
"Bass in the Cooper River grow at about the same rate as bass in other rivers until age 3. Afterward, they grow much more quickly because of the abundance of appropriate-sized forage items," he said. "Recent food-habit studies have indicated the bass eat a lot of crawdads and a benthic-dwelling fish called a sleeper. The sleepers are abundant because of the rice-field habitat. You also have other fish, like sunfish, herring and shad. Overall, the diet of Cooper River bass is much more varied than a bass found in a shad-dominated reservoir, like Santee-Cooper, or a coastal river that lacks a reservoir discharge."
Lamprecht said that the Cooper River doesn't function like a typical blackwater coastal river because of the Santee-Cooper lakes.
"The lakes provide nutrients that other coastal rivers in the state don't get," he noted. "You can even see this on the Cooper itself. The West Branch is much more productive than the East Branch because of the lake discharge. The East Branch is more characteristic of a blackwater river."
Besides the added boost from the lakes, there is another factor that aids Cooper River bass. All of the vegetation and woody debris make physically getting a bait to the fish difficult.
"The Cooper River is not an easy river to fish," Lamprecht explained. "It is very tough to present a lure to where the old gals hang out; however, this actually works in an angler's favor."
Here's why: Cooper River bass exhibit better growth rates than bass in other coastal rivers. Because they are also harder to catch on average, their rates of surviving to be big fish are much higher. These two factors create a situation that permits the bass to grow larger here than in most areas in the state.
"The Cooper River is one of the best places in the state to catch a big fish," Lamprecht said.
Anglers who successfully learn to catch Cooper River bass will not be disappointed with their size. Lamprecht said it is not uncommon to expect bass in the 5-pound-plus size range. Russell's biggest from the Cooper River was 8 1/2 pounds and Lamprecht stated the largest he has seen was 12 pounds.
Another good thing about the Cooper River is that it is much more resistant to drought than other bass waters around the state. Anglers all across the Palmetto State have seen many of their favorite fishing holes virtually dry up over the last five years. Some welcomed rains have fallen during the last few months, but things are far from normal in many areas.
Tidal rivers can handle drought better because of the tide. Salt water does creep farther upstream, but the limited downstream flow of fresh water still creates an area that is suitable for bass. Because of discharge agreements with industries on the Cooper River, there is a good flow of fresh water even during drought.
"Salt water has definitely moved upstream farther than during a normal year," Lamprecht said. "There is not as much water being run down the Cooper because of the drought, but what flow is there still maintains a large section of river that is suitable for bass."
There are five boat ramps located within the largemouth bass waters of the Cooper River. The ramp located on Durham Creek near Cypress Gardens is popular because it puts you at good bass water almost immediately. The ramp can be found by turning off Hwy. 52 between Moncks Corner and Goose Creek onto state Road 9. By following the signs for Cypress Gardens, you will find the ramp, too. Motor north from the ramp to reach the Cooper River.
Two other ramps are located at the upper end of the West Branch outside of Moncks Corner. Turn from Hwy. 52 onto Hwy. 402 just across the Tailrace
Canal from Moncks Corner, and take the first right near Biggins Church ruins and cemetery. The ramp is found 0.5 miles at the end of the road.
You can reach the other ramp on the West Branch by continuing 1.4 miles on Hwy. 402 past Biggins Church. The ramp is located on your left at Wadboo Creek. There has been some recent bridge construction, which could limit access to the river.
The last two ramps are on the upper end of the East Branch. There is a decent ramp located at the U.S. Forest Service Huger Recreation Area off Hwy. 402. The site is located 2.9 miles north of the intersection of highways 402 and 41.
The other East Branch ramp can be found on Quinby Creek off state Road 98. To find the ramp, take the first right immediately south of the highways 402 and 41 intersection. There is adequate parking and the paved ramp is in good condition.
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