South Carolina’s Santee Cooper Lakes, home to some of the best fishing in the country, also hold the distinction of being the world’s first landlocked striped bass fishery. For centuries, ocean stripers have migrated upriver to spawn in inland waters. During the 1940s, several migrations became landlocked during the construction of the Santee Cooper river system, which impounded Lake Marion and Lake Moultrie to provide electricity and flood control for residents.
Like salmon, stripers require flowing water to reproduce. In a unique phenomenon, the Santee Cooper’s tributaries allow the fish to spawn successfully. This created a fishing utopia that would earn the striped bass its official designation as South Carolina’s State Fish.
Lake Marion stretches across 100,000 acres and produces jumbo-sized stripers. Preferring cold water, Santee stripers reside in the deepest parts of Lake Moultrie downstream during the summer months before beginning their migration upriver each fall through Lake Marion and into the uppermost reaches of the river. Anglers reel in trophy-sized specimens in excess of 20 pounds during this time. As fishing guide Andy Pack showed us, that’s not a fish story.
As we idled out of Pack’s Landing along the northeast side of Lake Marion, towering stands of pine and cypress lining the shoreline provided a temporary shelter from the October breeze as lifelong Santee fishing guide Andy Pack navigated to open water. Pack’s grandfather opened Pack’s Landing in 1946. The quaint bait and tackle store is still owned and operated by the family today.
“Stripers will school and become very active this time of year,” he explained. “There’s a big group below us on the slope of that ledge,” he said, pointing to a cache of digitized fish marked at 25 feet on his fish finder. The “ledge” was only a slight two-foot depression, yet it contained a horde of baitfish with stripers staged underneath them.
Like most guides in the area, Pack locates fish using electronics then presents live bait to the depth where the fish are located. Stripers primarily feed on a diet of threadfin shad and herring. I lowered a fresh blueback herring over the side of the boat.
“Now place your rod in the holder and I’ll rig you up a few more,” instructed Andy. Within seconds the first rod bounced in its holder.
“Fish on!” I said, grabbing the reel and frantically cranking on its handle. After a short tug of war, the hook pulled and the fish came off. “Argh,” I groaned, slumping into the boat chair.
“Don’t worry,” said Pack. “There are at least 100 more down there.” And he was right, as seconds later another rod began to round and I quickly wrestled it from the holder. “Told you!” he joked, as I happily reeled in my first striped bass. It was a scene that unfolded several times over the next several hours as we landed one chunky striper after another.
Around noon, Andy decided to look for bigger fish before heading in for the day. It didn’t take long before we drifted into a large school in about 30 feet of water.
“Try this,” he said, handing me a rod rigged with a green feathered buck-tailed jig. “Lower it down until it’s just off the bottom and jig it up and down.”
After several lifts I felt a powerful thump that almost pulled the rod from my grip. After a good five-minute fight a huge silver flash appeared in the water and Andy quickly scooped it into the net. “That’s a monster Santee striper right there, buddy!” he said, hoisting it into the boat. “I’d say at least 20 pounds!”
With a big smile I held my trophy catch proudly as Andy snapped a few photos before gently releasing it back into the water.
“So what’d you think about Carolina striper fishing?” he asked as we headed back to Pack’s Landing. “Winter is also great for catching big stripers.”
“It was awesome!” I replied. “I’m definitely coming back, but I was thinking a little sooner—how does tomorrow sound?”FishInSC.com has all the details to plan an epic getaway.