Top 10 baits and patterns: A prespawn smorgasbord at Santee Cooper - Major League Fishing

Top 10 baits and patterns: A prespawn smorgasbord at Santee Cooper

Image for Top 10 baits and patterns: A prespawn smorgasbord at Santee Cooper
Jacob Wheeler won his way on Santee Cooper, plucking prespawn bass from isolated, offshore cover. Photo by Phoenix Moore. Angler: Jacob Wheeler.
February 28, 2024 • Mitchell Forde • Bass Pro Tour

CLARENDON COUNTY, S.C. — The Santee Cooper lakes proved fickle during Suzuki Stage Two Presented by Fenwick. The bite could turn on or off in a hurry — as the 10 pros fighting out the Championship Round experienced — and the same area that produced one day might seem barren the next. But when anglers were able to coax a bass into biting, it was often a big one. In all, 94 fish of 6 pounds or bigger hit SCORETRACKER® across the six-day event.

The methods used to garner those big bites varied. Plenty of anglers power-fished around the cypress trees the fishery is best known for, while others targeted other shallow habitat like submerged grass or boat docks. Of course, this being 2024, another contingent used their electronics to target offshore cover, including winner Jacob Wheeler. Power still held the overall edge over finesse, with the vibrating jig the most popular bait of the week, but despite the fishery’s gnarly cover and big bass, a few anglers leaned on spinning rods and light line.

Here’s how the best got it done on Santee Cooper.

1. Jacob Wheeler (47-4)

Wheeler once again rode the Freeloader, a soft-plastic minnow that he designed for Rapala’s CrushCity line, to the winner’s circle. Photo by Phoenix Moore.

Like just about everyone else in the field, Wheeler started practice fishing shallow creeks and backwaters, but the number of other anglers in those areas prompted him to look for a new game plan. So, he spent the remainder of his time scanning offshore, marking isolated cover like brushpiles, stumps and hard spots.

While he felt like more of Santee Cooper’s prespawn bass were living shallow than offshore, he believed the lack of pressure on the main lake would give him a better chance for sustained success. He wound up rotating between 30 to 40 spots, most of them featuring brush, en route to lifting his seventh Bass Pro Tour trophy.

Wheeler caught a few fish during his first morning of competition on a Rapala PXR Mavrick jerkbait. After that, “90 percent” of his bites came on a Rapala CrushCity Freeloader, the soft-plastic minnow that he designed and popularized. He affixed the bait to either 1/8-ounce or 3/16-ounce jigheads, opting for the 1/8-ounce version if fishing in less than 6-7 feet of water and picking up the 3/16-ounce if fishing in deeper water or windier conditions. He used both a new tungsten jighead made by VMC that is scheduled to be unveiled at ICAST as well as his standard VMC Hybrid Swimbait Jighead.

Wheeler threw the Freeloader on a 7-foot, medium spinning rod from his Jacob Wheeler Signature Series line with Duckett Fishing, which he paired with a Shimano Vanford 2500 reel. He believes one key to getting a few extra bites, especially later in the tournament, was rubbing Bait-Pop onto his Freeloaders for extra scent.

“Throughout the week, there were so many fish that were following the bait,” Wheeler said. “I would say that I would get maybe 5 percent of the fish to actually commit to the bait. Especially on those flat, calm days, it made a big difference when I went and put some Bait-Pop on that Freeloader … There were times that I felt like I coaxed fish into biting legitimately because of the scent from the fish formula.

“I have always been a skeptic of scent in fishing … All winter long, I played with this, and I fished with a Freeloader, the exact same technique. You’d have so many more fish tail it and watch it and look at it than ever before. So I started playing with it and noticed that it was something that definitely made a difference on the days that they were inactive.” 

Wheeler once again leaned on the Freeloader during the Championship Round, particularly during a grueling third period, when he came up clutch with five scorable bass that boosted him from second place into first. However, it wouldn’t have mattered had he not caught a few fish that morning on a jig, including a 5-11.

Wheeler turned to the jig upon seeing more fish relating to the bottom on his Lowrance ActiveTarget. He used a 1/2-ounce, hand-tied green pumpkin blue jig with a green pumpkin magic CrushCity Cleanup Craw as a trailer. He threw it on a 7-7, heavy Duckett Fishing Jacob Wheeler Select casting rod with a Shimano Curado MGL 150 reel spooled with 17-pound Suffix Advance Fluorocarbon.

2. Dean Rojas (42-4)

The only angler among the Top 10 to target boat docks, Dean Rojas nearly rode them to a win. Photo by Garrick Dixon.

Rojas was “all about the numbers,” trying to beat Santee Cooper’s quality with quantity. He nearly pulled it off, catching the most fish on Championship Day with 17 but never getting one over 3 1/2 pounds and ultimately falling just short.

Rojas did most of his damage plying shallow bays off creek channels in the lower part of Lake Marion. While he fished a few cypress trees, he mainly focused on areas behind the cypress line, which he said had a little bit deeper water. He believes the bass he caught were there to spawn.

“I never actually saw them sitting on beds, but they were acting like it,” Rojas said. “I would get a bite and he would pull off. He’d only eat half the worm. I’d throw right back on the same spot, and he’d eat it again. So I think a few of them were on the beds, I just couldn’t see them.” 

When the conditions were overcast or windy, Rojas used a bladed jig with a Big Bite Baits Kamikaze Swimon as a trailer. As the tournament progressed, though, he leaned more on a weightless, wacky-rigged, straight-tail worm, which he skipped around shoreline cover, typically boat docks.

Rojas threw his bladed jig on a 7-2, medium heavy Duckett Fishing rod with 18-pound Sunline Shooter fluorocarbon. His wacky worm setup was a 7-2, medium Duckett Fishing Black Ice spinning rod spooled with straight 7-pound Sunline Sniper fluorocarbon tied to a 2/0 Gamakatsu G Finesse Drop Shot hook. Rojas believes the light line was key to getting a few extra bites, and it held up well amid the heavy cover.

“There were multiple times skipping the docks that I got in and around the pilings and had him hung up in brush or the pilings, and I just kept steady pressure on him,” Rojas said. “They’re see-sawing back and forth, and it would get damaged, but it never failed. So that was a key, I think, going to light line for the naturalness of it.”

3. Jesse Wiggins (29-14)

Jesse Wiggins notched his fourth straight Championship Round appearance. Photo by Phoenix Moore.

Wiggins won the cypress tree derby and extended his streak of Top-10 finishes to four in the process. He targeted trees in about 3 feet of water with a two-pronged approach.

Wiggins wound a 3/8-ounce vibrating jig in green pumpkin shad with a Jackall DriftFry as a trailer. He also flipped a Jackall Archelon Craw with a 5/16-ounce Titan Tungsten flipping weight and a 4/0 Owner Jungle Flipping Hook.

For his bladed jig, Wiggins utilized a 7-2, heavy St. Croix Legend Glass rod paired with a 6.4:1 gear ratio SEVIIN GF reel and 15-pound Seaguar Tatsu fluorocarbon. His flipping setup consisted of a 7-6, heavy Legend Tournament Bass Flip’n rod from St. Croix, an 8.1:1 SEVIIN GF reel and 25-pound Tatsu.

4. Matt Becker (19-10)

The Hammer Trap, a new lipless crankbait from Bill Lewis, helped Matt Becker make a second consecutive Top 10 to start the 2024 season. Photo by Phoenix Moore.

The lone Top-10 finisher out of Lake Moultrie, Becker spent virtually his entire tournament in the northeast corner of the lake. He identified pockets where he believed bass would spawn, then backed out until he intercepted staging fish. The key, he said, was submerged hydrilla. Santee Cooper isn’t known for having much submerged vegetation, but Becker found quite a bit of healthy grass in that area.

“That little north corner is really the only section where I found it consistently,” Becker said. “Other places there’d be a little bit here and there, but that, there was a bunch. Every little creek and spawning bay there had hydrilla in it.”

Becker targeted the vegetation with a classic combination of baits. He threw a Bill Lewis Hammer Trap in both fire craw and purple nurple. He also mixed in a 3/8-ounce Z-Man Evergreen ChatterBait Jack Hammer in the spot remover color with a 3-inch disco green Yamamoto Zako trailer. He wielded the ‘Trap on a 7-5, medium-heavy Favorite Defender rod, opting for a Favorite Hex version of the same length and power for his bladed jig. He tied both baits to 15-pound Seaguar InvizX fluorocarbon.

5. Dylan Hays (18-12)

Dylan Hays won the Qualifying Round for Group A by skipping a ChatterBait around cypress trees. Photo by Garrick Dixon.

Hays used a 1/2-ounce Brazalo Custom Lures spinnerbait with white painted blades and a white Zoom Split Tail Trailer to find fish during practice. But once the event started, he locked a vibrating jig in his hands.

Hays used a 1/2-ounce Z-Man Evergreen Chatterbait Jack Hammer, mostly in green pumpkin. Fishing cypress trees in 1 to 2 feet of water, he turned to the bladed jig because he could skip it under tree limbs with more ease. His primary trailer was a Zoom Z-Craw Jr. in tilapia, but when the wind laid down, he switched to a new Zoom Shimmer Shad in green pumpkin.

Hays tossed all of the above baits on a 7-foot, medium-heavy Kistler Helium rod paired with a 7.3:1 Kistler Chromium reel, which he spooled with 15-pound Tuf-Line XS Fluorocarbon.

6. Casey Ashley (16-8)

South Carolina native Casey Ashley scored a Top-10 finish in his home state. Photo by Phoenix Moore.

Another angler who leaned heavily on a bladed jig, Ashley “did 90 percent of his damage” on a Z-Man Evergreen ChatterBait Jack Hammer with a Zoom Shimmer Shad as a trailer. His primary color was black and blue for both his ChatterBait and trailer, but he also mixed in green pumpkin.

Ashley threw his bladed jigs on both a Team Lew’s Signature Series bladed jig rod — a 7-3, medium-heavy model — paired with a 7.3:1 gear ratio Lew’s Custom Pro reel, as well as a 7-4, medium-heavy Lew’s KVD series crankbait rod with a BB1 Pro Speed Spool reel, also in 7.3:1. He used 20-pound Hi-Seas fluorocarbon line.

7. Dave Lefebre (15-5)

Dave Lefebre turned back the clock, riding a soft-plastic lizard to a Top-10 finish. Photo by Garrick Dixon.

The fact that Lefebre finished among the Top 10 would have been difficult to believe after Day 1 of qualifying, when he caught just one bass for 4-12. Lefebre had found a productive stretch of shallow cypress trees during practice, but when the water level dropped prior to the start of competition, he couldn’t get bit there.

He rallied by moving to some deeper trees and going old school — and we’re not just talking pre-LiveScope old school. Lefebre flipped and pitched a 6-inch Zoom Lizard in green pumpkin with the tail dyed chartreuse. During his second day of qualifying, he used a 5/16-ounce green pumpkin FishOn Tungsten Worm Weight and 20-pound fluorocarbon. With the fish getting more finicky as the event progressed, he switched to a 1/8-ounce weight and 14-pound test. In both instances, he used a 7-11, medium-heavy Envy Black rod from 13 Fishing and an 8.1:1 gear ratio Concept TX2 reel.

Bolstering his old-school approach was the fact that Lefebre turned off all the electronics on his boat. He believes that, combined with using his Power-Pole anchors and stealthy Lowrance Ghost trolling motor, allowed him to get a few extra bites.

8. Cole Floyd (11-5)

Like many anglers on Santee Cooper, Cole Floyd wound a bladed jig around cypress trees. Photo by Phoenix Moore.

Floyd racked up the biggest total during the Knockout Round but couldn’t replicate it amid the post-frontal conditions on Sunday. Fishing in the middle to upper sections of Lake Marion, he targeted groups of cypress trees where he believed bass were staging prior to spawning. He also hit some spawning areas, where some fish had already moved up.

“I just kind of did a little bit of both: Staging areas, places coming into spawning areas, and I was fishing spawning areas, also,” Floyd said.

Regardless of the area, his approach was the same. Floyd used a 3/8-ounce Strike King Tungsten Thunder Cricket in either bruiser or green pumpkin with a chameleon Strike King Rage Bug as a trailer. He tied the bait to 20-pound Strike King Contra fluorocarbon, which he spooled onto a Lew’s Custom Lite 7.3:1 gear ratio reel and a Lew’s Custom Lite Magnum Hammer rod — a 7-3, medium-heavy, moderate-fast model.

9. James Watson (7-13)

James Watson flipped Santee Cooper’s cypress trees with an unorthodox presentation. Photo by Garrick Dixon.

Like several other anglers, Watson dissected the cypress trees around the Rock Pond area on the southern end of Lake Marion. He did so both by winding a spinnerbait and flipping a tube.

Watson went retro with his spinnerbait choice, throwing an older model, 1/2-ounce Strike King Tour Grade double willow spinnerbait with chartreuse and white painted blades. He turned to a 4.5-inch Strike King Flip-N-Tube in black neon when he slowed down. Instead of Texas rigging the bait, he affixed it to a 5/16-ounce Gator Lock Jig Head. Watson said he prefers the jighead, which features a brush guard and a bait keeper, because tubes tend to ball up on Texas rigs.

For efficiency’s sake, he flipped only those cypress trees that had additional cover around their trunks.

“Certain cypress trees would have some gnarly knees and gnarly cover around them,” he explained. “Most of them were pretty barren and just slick cypress trees, but the ones you’d come across that had the stuff around them — some of it was some stuff that was blown in, and some of it was stringy, hairy stuff, and some of it was just some gnarly, knotted-up cypress knees that popped out — they were just obvious targets that were not your plain cypress trees that you were rolling a spinnerbait across.” 

Watson tossed his spinnerbait on a 7-4, heavy VIRTUS/Jewel Blue Diamond football jig rod and a Lew’s American Hero Tier 1 reel spooled with 20-pound Maxima Fluorocarbon. He used the same reel and 25-pound fluorocarbon on a 7-6, heavy flip/pitch rod from VIRTUS/Jewel for the tube.

10. Justin Lucas (4-8)

Justin Lucas used a jighead minnow to catch six bass that averaged more than 7 pounds during an epic Knockout Round. Photo by Garrick Dixon.

Lucas could never get on track during the Championship Round, boating just one scorable bass. He still had a memorable tournament, though, calling the Knockout Round — which saw him catch a pair of 8-pounders and stack up 42-6 on six fish — the best day of tournament fishing of his life.

Lucas put together the magical day by moving away from the bank to submerged cover that he’d marked during pre-practice in early January. He caught all his fish the final two days on a Berkley PowerBait MaxScent Flatnose Jerk Shad in blue pearl hologram on a ball head. He wielded the rig on an Abu Garcia Zenon rod and a 3000-size Zenon X reel, which he spooled with 8-pound Berkley X5 braid and tied to a 12-pound Berkley Trilene 100% Fluorocarbon leader.

Lucas hadn’t planned on moving offshore and utilizing forward-facing sonar. During the first day of qualifying, he caught most of his fish shallow on a green pumpkin Berkley PowerBait MaxScent Hit Worm Magnum, which he Neko-rigged using a 1/16-ounce nail weight. The second day, he power-fished with a Frittside 5 crankbait in special red craw and an 6-inch CullShad in albino, both from Berkley. He started the Knockout Round with that same approach, but the bluebird skies and lack of bites told him to move deeper.