Lakes Marion and Moultrie, the Upper and Lower lakes, the Santee Cooper lakes, Santee ... whatever name or names you choose to use, the two big lakes that define South Carolina’s Santee Cooper Country offer a tremendous fishing destination that spreads across more than 170,000 acres.

Santee Cooper’s fishing fame comes from several directions. The lakes were the original home of naturally reproducing landlocked striped bass – river fish that got trapped by impoundment but thrived in the lakes. The Santee Cooper lakes also produce world-class catfishing, with dozens of guides fishing primarily for big flatheads and blues and the world record channel catfish having come from the same waters. The canal that connects the two lakes also produced a former world record shellcracker (redear sunfish), and both lakes continue to produce tremendous fishing for big shellcrackers and bluegills. Not to be overlooked are an outstanding largemouth population that produces big numbers and great quality, and an always-strong population of slab-sized black and white crappie.

The lakes, which were built in the late 1930s, impound the Santee and Cooper rivers and are connected by the Diversion Canal. The Santee Cooper system, created both for power production and flood control, is somewhat complex and involves more than 40 miles of dams and dikes, a lock system and three major canals.

Lake Marion, known locally as the Upper Lake, floods vast swampy bottomlands and formerly forested areas. The upper end remains swampy, outside the river channel. The lower end is somewhat deeper and more open but still contains vast flats and extensive stands of flooded cypress and tupelos. Lake Marion’s margins contain vast shallow, weedy, cypress-studded backwaters.

Lake Moultrie, often called the Lower Lake, floods farmland and a complex system of ditches, creeks and former swamps. The main body is basically round and wide open, so it is mostly a structure fishing lake. Lake Moultrie is bounded by weedy, cypress-filled backwaters, but swampy areas around Moultrie are much less expansive than those around Lake Marion.

Diverse in habitat offerings and rich in cover and structure, the Santee Cooper lakes are also quite fertile and support plentiful forage for game fish of various sorts. Six species of shad or herring guard against the forage dips that occur in many waterways because each species has slightly different preferences, and during poor recruitment years for one baitfish species, a couple of others typically thrive. Beyond shad and herring, the lakes support plenty of crawfish and a variety of sunfish and minnow species

Unlike many deep, open lakes, the Santee Cooper lakes never get overrun by pleasure boaters. Recreational boaters certainly use parts of the lakes, but for the most part these are fishing lakes, and facilities around both lakes have a fish camp feel, with cabins or motel lodging, home-style meals, bait tanks, tackle shops, guide boats at docks and boat ramps. Most aren’t plush, but folks are friendly, and the camps offer everything needed a good fishing vacation.

Fishing Santee Cooper

Santee Cooper’s stripers likely got too famous for their own good, and the fishery went through some lean years. Now protected by fairly restrictive regulations, which include a closed season for targeting or taking any stripers from June 1 through Sept. 30, the fishery has come back strong. Santee still isn’t a trophy striper destination, but it’s tough to beat for thrilling action when the bite is right.

The best striper action normally occurs through the winter in the lower end of Lake Marion and all over Moultrie’s main body, and the fish reveal themselves (or are given away by diving gulls) when they push baitfish to the surface. Excellent baits for schooling stripers include a Striper Strike, chugged hard and fast through breaking fish, a C.C. Spoon, and a White YUM Pulse fished on a ¼-ounce jighead.

Santee Cooper’s crappie population tends to be stable, and both black and white crappie are always plentiful, with a good average size and some genuine slabs in the mix. During the spring they move shallow and can be caught around cypress knees and other visible cover in creeks and backwaters. From late in the spring through mid-winter, though, the best fishing is over brushpiles in the main lakes or at the lower ends of creeks. For targeting crappie in brush that could be anywhere from a 10 to 20 feet deep, it’s tough to beat marking the brush with a  buoy and suspending live minnows beneath slip corks so the baits dangle in the top of the brush.

Bluegills and shellcrackers also make heavy use of main-lake brushpiles. The same general approach works for them, except with a cricket or a worm as bait. Crickets and worms also work great under set corks around shallow cover in swampy areas up Lake Marion and around Lake Moultrie during the spring for redbreast sunfish, bluegills and assorted other sunfish species.

Santee Cooper bass fishing is as diverse as the lakes themselves and ranges from casting squarebills and spinnerbaits to cypress knees and grass edges in backwaters to dragging worms around deeper timber to cranking a brushpile along the edge of ditch in 20 feet of water in the middle of Lake Moultrie, and the best strategies vary enormously with seasons and lake areas.

For anglers who don’t know the offshore structure well, the most predictable fishing definitely occurs during spring and fall, when big numbers bass are up creeks and in backwater areas and relating to trees and other visible cover. Topwater lures and baits that can be worked through a lot cover are tough to beat for shallow bass in either lake.

Whatever species you decide to target, folks at the fish camps and in local tackle shops hear fresh reports every day and can provide good direction.

Santee Cooper Planning

Santee Cooper Country operates an excellent website, santeecoopercountry.org, which offers extensive information for fishermen about lakeside facilities, guide services, regulations, lake access and much more, plus extensive information about other things to do in the five-county area that surrounds the lakes. Santee Cooper Country also operates a visitor center in the town of Santee.

Base Camps

Blacks Camp, which is located along the edge of Lake Moultrie at the end of the Diversion Canal, is a good starting point for fishing anywhere on Moultrie or on the lower end of Marion. It’s a family-run fish camp, with friendly folks, great food, a good range of lodging options and everything you need for a productive fishing trip.

Santee State Park, located about halfway up Lake Marion, provides access to the upper half of the system. The park has cabins that are built over the water and offer front-door docking and pier fishing. The park also has a boat ramp, a fishing pier, a camp store and a restaurant, and an on-site vender offers canoe and kayak rentals.

Tackle Shop Stop

Angler’s Sporting Goods, located two miles from Lake Moultrie in Moncks Corner, is well worth the stop if you’re near that area. The store is actually located inside a convenient store, so it’s a bit hidden, and it isn’t a huge space. It is absolutely loaded with sporting gear, though, and the fishing tackle includes all the right stuff for fishing the Santee Cooper lakes and nearby inshore waters. Folks in the store are also friendly, and they are fishermen, so they can tell you what you need to know.

Lurenet Favorites

Thill America’s Favorite Pencil Slip Float

Rebel Magnum Pop-R, Silver/Black

Creek Chub Striper Strike, 4 ½ inch, Blue/Flash 

Cotton Cordell C.C. Spoon, 3 inch, Silver 

YUM Break’N Shad, Tinfoil