Santee Cooper expected to present prespawn puzzle - Major League Fishing

Santee Cooper expected to present prespawn puzzle

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Bryan Thrift has a stellar track record on Santee Cooper, but he thinks the big-bass factory is going to fish very differently during Stage Two. Photo by Garrick Dixon. Angler: Bryan Thrift.
February 18, 2024 • Mitchell Forde • Bass Pro Tour

For the second time in as many events to start the 2024 season, the Bass Pro Tour is headed to a new venue. Suzuki Stage Two Presented by Fenwick will take the 80-angler field to the Santee Cooper lakes in South Carolina. 

Santee Cooper is comprised of two lakes, Lake Marion and Lake Moultrie, connected by a diversion canal. Together, they form a massive playing field of about 170,000 surface acres, much of it full of shallow bass habitat. The fishery is known for producing lunkers, but it also has a reputation as one of the most intimidating waterways in the country thanks to its navigational obstacles and sheer number of places bass can live. 

Both of those sides of Santee Cooper should be on display this week. The early-season timing of Stage Two could make for a lot of dead water, with traveling between spots difficult for a field that doesn’t have much experience on the lakes. But with the bass feeding up before they spawn, expect to see some giants hit the scales. The action gets underway Tuesday, and MLFNOW! will have live coverage from 7:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. ET Thursday through Sunday. 

“This one is going to be a really fun tournament,” South Carolina native Anthony Gagliardi said. “It’s going to be a grinder, but there are massive bass that live at Santee Cooper, and I’m excited.” 

Breaking down the bass labyrinth

At more than 100,000 acres, Lake Marion alone is the largest lake in South Carolina. It’s a typical, lowland river impoundment, with a swampy upper end and a deeper lower end that features defined contour lines and several creek arms. Moultrie, on the other hand, is bowl-shaped and shallower. 

Bryan Thrift and Marty Robinson expect both lakes to attract anglers. Multiple competitors jostling over the same water shouldn’t be an issue in this event.

“It can eat up boats,” Thrift said. “You could have a 200-boat tournament up there and not see another boat all day.”

Which lake wins out will likely be determined by the conditions. The upper end of Marion is particularly susceptible to muddy water — which could be an issue given the heavy rainfall in the area lately — while Moultrie is impacted more by wind.  

Regardless of which lake they choose, Robinson said anglers will want to keep a close eye on the wind forecast. A stiff breeze could make running around the already treacherous waterway downright dangerous, forcing anglers to hunker down in one area. 

“If we get the wrong wind, it can be one of the roughest lakes you’ve ever been on,” he said. “So if the wind blows, it could get nasty quick, and then you can’t really get around.” 

Marty Robinson knows that while bites might not come fast and furious at Santee Cooper, there should be some big bass caught. Photo by Jody White.

Both lakes are chock full of cover. Santee Cooper is best known for its rows of cypress trees, but Robinson said anglers could also choose to target stumps, brushpiles, boat docks, vegetation and a little bit of rock.

All that habitat has helped make the fishery a mainstay on any list of the country’s best big bass lakes, but it also makes finding those fish (and getting to them) a challenge. 

“I think probably what makes it most intimidating is just the abundance of shallow cover and little nooks and crannies, swamps, backwater ponds,” Thrift said. “And there’s always the threat of hitting something while you’re running there.”

Old school or new school?

Robinson believes covering water will be key, especially early in the event. There’s a lot of water on Santee Cooper that looks good but doesn’t hold fish, and this time of year, the bass could be on the move every day. Given the danger of firing up an outboard outside of the lakes’ boat lanes, running waypoints all day won’t be an option. Thus, expect anglers to keep their trolling motors on high as they search for staging bass. 

“It’s a big lake, and it doesn’t have a ton of fish per acre,” Robinson explained. “It has a quality of fish, and if you get in the right areas, obviously you can catch some big bags, but there is a lot of water to cover, a lot of water a guy can get hung up in.” 

Anglers will likely be split in how they go about covering water. Expect to see plenty of pros using traditional, prespawn, power fishing tactics — winding spinnerbaits, bladed jigs and the like, perhaps slowing down to flip wood once they locate a productive area. 

“I imagine there’s going to be a lot of spinnerbaiting, ChatterBaiting, jig fishing — shallow power fishing 101,” Thrift said. “That’s at least what I’m hoping.” 

The high, dirty water that’s expected to greet the field could help the power-fishing bite. However, this being 2024, there will surely be a segment of anglers that rely on forward-facing sonar to find fish.  

It probably won’t look like Toledo Bend, where the entire Top 10 targeted suspended bass chasing bait balls over 20 to 50 feet of water, but anglers like Drew Gill have proven they’re just as effective with forward-facing sonar, if not more so, in the shallows. 

“There will be some ‘Scoping,” Robinson said. “A lot of guys are probably saying there won’t be much ‘Scoping, but there will be some forward-facing fishing.”

A fresh challenge

Thrift is one of the few Bass Pro Tour anglers with recent experience on Santee Cooper, including a 2016 Toyota Series victory. Photo by Jesse Schultz.

Another reason covering water will be paramount is the fact that few, if any, anglers will enter practice already knowing where to find fish. The field as a whole has surprisingly little history on Santee Cooper. None of the six South Carolina natives consider it a home lake, and only a handful of anglers have fished a tournament there since a 2009 Bassmaster Elite Series visit. 

If there’s one person who would figure to have history on his side, it’s Thrift. The defending REDCREST champion has competed on Santee Cooper four times since 2014, all in Toyota Series events. He’s finished in the Top 10 of each of those, including a win in 2016. 

Yet all those tournaments took place in mid-March or April, when bass were on beds. Thrift said he expects Santee Cooper to fish much differently during the prespawn. 

“I’m definitely going to have to change approaches just based on the time of year we’re going there,” he said. “I haven’t fished a prespawn event on Santee since probably 2005. It’s been a long time; the lake has changed several times since then. So I’m definitely going into it with an open mind. I’m going to try to go into it like I’ve never been there before and see how everything goes.” 

Robinson believes there’s value in having spent time on Santee Cooper, even at different times of year — understanding how to safely navigate the fishery and where the biggest populations of bass like to spawn. While the fish won’t be there yet, they should be moving that way.  

Still, he thinks it’s going to be a grind for everyone. Don’t expect a constant barrage of bass hitting SCORETRACKER® like we saw at Toledo Bend. 

“A good number of bites at Santee Cooper in a day is 10,” Robinson said. “If you catch 10 down there, you’ve really caught ‘em. … I’m thinking 20 to 25 pounds a day would be a pretty good day.” 

That said, Robinson knows any cast has the potential to end with an 8-pounder (or bigger) on the end of his line. Given the size of the bass swimming in Santee Cooper and the fact that it’ll be difficult for any one angler to amass a big lead, no one will be out of contention until the marshals call lines out.

“It’s a fun lake to fish, man,” Robinson said. There’s a lot of 5- to 8-pounders in that place. I mean, you could possibly see a 9, maybe even a 10.”