Lakes Marion and Moultrie – the two bodies of water that make up the Santee Cooper fishery – showed out in a big way last April in the Costa FLW Series Southeastern Division event. Ronnie McCoy weighed in a 73-pound, 8-ounce three-day total (including two bags of 26-plus pounds), and second-place finisher Daniel Howell even weighed in a 30-plus-pound stringer on day one of that tournament.
That’s a pretty good benchmark for what to expect as the Southeastern Division makes its final stop of the 2019 season at Santee April 25-27. The tournament, presented by Power-Pole, is shaping up to be a postspawn throwdown predicated on a few predominant patterns.
Because of ongoing rain since last fall, the water levels on Santee Cooper have been in a constant state of flux. As such, fish have been moving up in waves to spawn for the last several weeks, and there’s a good chance most of the fish will have already finished spawning by the time the tournament begins. That’s not necessarily a bad thing for anglers tackling the famous South Carolina fishery. It’s going to leave them with plenty of options for catching a bunch of big fish.
Marion and Moultrie are vastly different lakes in terms of shape and layout, but they fish incredibly similarly. Marion (to the northwest of Moultrie) looks like a fairly typical river impoundment – long, somewhat narrow and dammed up at the eastern end of the lake. It’s connected to the more circular, bowl-shaped Moultrie by a diversion canal about two miles in length.
Both lakes offer an abundance of shallow-water cover and structure, including cypress trees, backwater ponds, stumps, bridges, docks and riprap. While Marion is the largest lake in South Carolina, it isn’t that deep, averaging about 13 feet, and Moultrie only averages out slightly deeper at 18 feet. Simply put, Santee Cooper is a shallow springtime-fishing paradise.
South Carolina has been hammered with rain for the last six months or so, and water levels have fluctuated throughout the spring.
“With the lake level fluctuating, there’s still a lot of debris floating around, and you’re getting some logjams in various areas, especially up above the 95 bridge,” last year’s winner McCoy says. “Running up there can be a little different than what we’ve seen in the past. You want to be on the lookout for places you’ve run before and there haven’t been any logs. Because of the water fluctuation, we’ve seen a lot of logs that have floated and settled down in places where there haven’t been any in the past.”
Water temperatures have been in the 60s for the last four weeks, according to McCoy, and apart for some potential rainfall during the tournament, the weather has been setting up to produce a strong showing on Santee Cooper this week.
McCoy lives about an hour and a half from Santee Cooper, and he’s been to the fishery a few times recently. The 2018 Santee Cooper champ thinks weights should end up right in line with what we saw in April last year.
“Santee Cooper fishes good and has been fishing good now for the last four years,” McCoy says. “From what I’ve seen from local tournaments and catches from people who are fishing, I’d expect the same type of weights weighed in.”
Last year, five anglers averaged at least 20 pounds per day, with McCoy’s 73-8 leading the way by almost 6 pounds total. Even setting aside McCoy’s total as an outlier, it’s safe to expect a winning weight close to 70 pounds with the top-10 cut line north of 50.
“The bulk of the spawn is over with,” McCoy says of what to expect this weekend. “I’d say it’s about 75 percent complete. You’ll still have a few fish show up, but both lakes have really been about on the same pace this year as far as the spawn.
“I think it’s going to be postspawn. I think some people may find a few fish left that are spawning, but the bulk of it is going to be over with.”
With fish in postspawn mode, the offshore schooling bite is going to be good work if you can find it.
“You’re going to have schooling fish,” McCoy adds. “I know fish have already started moving out on the lower lake. You pull up on the right area and get around the right fish and you can catch a big sack in a hurry. I haven’t seen as much of that on the upper lake yet, but that’s probably going to come into play too by the end of the week.”
In addition to targeting the last wave of spawners and fish schooling offshore, McCoy expects a lot of fish to be caught out of offshore brush piles and next to Santee Cooper’s abundant supply of cypress trees.
With a wide variety of patterns in play this week, the winning fish could come on any combination of baits, and it probably won’t take anything too fancy to get the job done.
“Wacky-riggedSenkosare going to be a good pattern,” McCoy says. “You’re going to see people throwing topwater – buzzbaits and frogs. On schooling fish, they could be throwing some sort of stick bait. This is driven by the weather, but even spinnerbaits and ChatterBaitscould play.”
The beauty of fishing Santee Cooper is its simplicity.
“If you come to Santee Cooper, in my opinion, you can leave just about everything else at home,” McCoy quips.
With just Santee Cooper left for the Southeastern Division, the current top 10 stands as follows:
1. Cody Nichols – 496 points
2. Bryan Thrift – 487 points
3. Jason Abram – 486 points
4. Billy Hall – 475 points
5. Gary Milicevic – 461 points
6. Kyle Welcher – 461 points
7. Wade Grooms – 455 points
8. Donny Bass – 450 points
9. Bryan New – 448 points
10. Michael Conley – 448 points
Bryan Thrift sitting in second place is bad news for the rest of the AOY hopefuls. He has two Costa FLW Series wins on Santee Cooper (including one in 2016) and seven top -10s on the fishery across all FLW competition.
Cody Nichols is no slouch, though. He has two top fives to his name already this season with a second-place finish on Okeechobee and fourth at Chickamauga last month. Another would guarantee he takes home AOY honors.
The top 40 pros and co-anglers in the standings qualify to fish the no-entry-fee Costa FLW Series Championship.
Format: All boaters and co-anglers will compete for two days. The top 10 boaters and co-anglers based on cumulative weight after two days of competition will advance to the third and final round, with the winner determined by the heaviest cumulative three-day weight.
Takeoff Time: 6:30 a.m. ET
Takeoff Location: John C Land III Landing, 4404 Greenall Road, Summerton, S.C.
Weigh-In Time: 2:30 p.m. ET
Weigh-In Location: John C Land III Landing, 4404 Greenall Road, Summerton, S.C.