SANTEE COOPER QUESTIONS: Where to find them and how to catch them? - Major League Fishing
SANTEE COOPER QUESTIONS: Where to find them and how to catch them?
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SANTEE COOPER QUESTIONS: Where to find them and how to catch them?

Mercury Keys to Victory include sifting through endless cover, executing on big bites
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Mercury pro Ott DeFoe and the BPT field are on the hunt for big fish at Santee Cooper. Photo by Phoenix Moore. Angler: Ott DeFoe.
February 21, 2024 • Joel Shangle • Bass Pro Tour

MANNING, S.C. There’s no shortage of two things in the Santee Cooper lakes: cover and big bass. The challenge this week, though, is to decipher exactly where the latter might be hiding in the former.

Perhaps Mercury pro Skeet Reese said it best as he idled through cypress trees as far as the eye could see on Lake Moultrie during practice for Bass Pro Tour Stage Two at Santee Cooper, South Carolina: “How are you supposed to find (a fish) when you just have millions of cypress trees all around?” Reese pondered on his social media. “I’m not lost, but I’m just in the middle of a cypress tree jungle.”

And so began the mission to unlock the maze of cypress, grass, docks and stumps that fills most of the 170,000-acre Low Country sprawl of Moultrie and Lake Marion, the playing field for Suzuki Stage Two Presented by Fenwick.


The conditions

Temperatures hovered just above freezing at takeoff on Days 1 and 2, continuing a trend of sub-freezing nights and slow-to-warm-up mornings. The daytime high reached 60 degrees on Tuesday and is expected to creep past the high 60s through midweek, with a high of 70 by Day 4. More importantly, nighttime lows will rise from 31 to 51 in that four-day span. Water temperatures range from 51 to 55 degrees throughout the system and clarity is dramatically variable.

“You have water that looks like a Yoo-hoo and water that’s crystal clear,” Reese confirmed. “(Water managers) have pulled a lot of water through the system here, so some of the water that was really dirty has started to clear up a little. There are just so many variables in play.”

Santee history lessons

Santee Cooper is a puzzle not totally unfamiliar to the 80-man Bass Pro Tour field.

“I’ll definitely look to some history to start out,” said DeFoe. “Back when I won in 2008, the water was a lot higher – it’s a couple of feet lower now, which is a lot of water. I’ve tried to keep an open mind and look at this as somewhat a new fishery. I’d venture to say that nobody went further than I did in practice: I went all the way to the dam on the lower end and about as high as you can get on the upper end, so I’ve looked at most of it.”

Almost to a man, the 80-angler field assesses Santee Cooper’s cover as borderline overwhelming. Reese upgraded his early estimate of a million cypress trees to “one billion” before Day 1 competition began, an assessment that DeFoe agrees with.

“There’s just so much cover, it’s really hard to decide where to spend your time,” DeFoe admitted. “You get into almost any area and fish around a little, there’s just so much cover that you could literally stop your boat anywhere and fish for 15 minutes without moving the boat an inch and not throw at the same thing twice. I don’t think it’s going to be easy to get into an area where you feel like there are all kinds of fish; you’re just going to have to make the most of the bites you get.”

About those bites

Mercury pro Casey Ashley’s first-period haul of 25 pounds on Day 2 included this 7-14.

A quick straw poll of the field before the start of competition revealed a “magic number” for the week: 10. As in, 10 scorable bass per day, the benchmark that most of the field had in sight in order to advance through qualifying. Day 1 results seem to support that number as eight of the Top 10 caught 10 or more fish, and the cut line settled in at 26-10.

The importance of a couple of bigger bites per day has also proven to be pretty obvious. Seven of the anglers in the Top 10 on Day 1 put at least one 6-plus-pound fish on SCORETRACKER®, and the two periods of Day 2 have already proven that there’s plenty of meat to go around:

  • Mercury pro Casey Ashley put 25-0 on SCORETRACKER® in the first hour, including a 7-14 and a 6
  • Mercury pro Brent Ehrler’s fourth fish of the day was a 7-14.
  • Mercury pro Zack Birge connected with an 8-0 in the first hour of Period 1.
  • Mercury pro Fred Roumbanis caught the biggest fish of the event so far early in the second period Wednesday, an 8-6.

“Big ones live here, no doubt,” said DeFoe, whose 2008 win was highlighted by a 27-pound bag on Day 1. “I truly think if you catch seven or eight scorable fish the first couple of days and sprinkle in a few of the 6s and 7s that live here, you’ll be in good shape. You’re probably not going to get a lot of bites, so executing on them will be important. I’ve had bites from offshore to extremely shallow, so there will be fish caught in all kinds of ways, but I think the difference between the people in fourth and fifth place and 15th place will be just a few bites.”

The best evidence of Santee Cooper’s potential: the 30-11 five-fish bag caught by Jason Burroughs on Feb. 26 in a Phoenix Bass Fishing League South Carolina Division derby in 2022. That event required 20 pounds to make the Top 10, and the best four bags were 30-11, 26-4, 25-9 and 25-1.

“There’s a ton of 5- to 8-pound-class fish here,” Reese confirmed. “We’re just a little early to start seeing fish on beds, but if somebody figures out a little deal and catches four of five good ones, I could see somebody catching 50 to 60 pounds in a day. You probably aren’t going to see fish in numbers, but the quality is definitely here.”

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