Santee Cooper was once world famous as THE place to go for freshwater striped bass, but the historic highs of Lake Marion and Lake Moultrie fell to unprecedented lows for years.

Explanations of what happened are many, but the point is that the opportunity to catch striped bass consistently bottomed out.

But through strict regulatory guidance and stocking by the S.C. Department of Natural Resources, the fishery has returned to a very robust status. Many fishermen and guides say it's the best it's been in a long time.

Steve Pack grew up at Pack's Landing during the long-ago heyday, and along with his younger brother, Andy, he now runs the family business. He said the striper fishing, at least in terms of numbers of fish, has returned to the "good ol' days."

"The 2011 and 2012 seasons were the best I've seen in the past 15 to 20 years in terms of numbers of fish," Pack said. "I think the regulatory changes of the three three-fish limit, no fishing from June through September and the 26-inch size limit has helped the lakes return to being very, very productive.

"The biggest things most fishermen are talking about are the number and size of fish have to be released. While it's not uncommon to catch a lot of stripers, catching a lot of 26-inch fish is more difficult. With the forage we have, a 26-inch fish may weigh from eight to 10 pounds, and that means a lot of 6- and 7-pound fish have to be released - but it sure beats not having plenty of fish to catch."

Pack said winter striper fishing in Lake Marion is good, the mild winter of 2012 and having lots of fish in the system has made it better than normal, but the best fishing in upper Lake Marion usually begins in February and March as fish begin to move upstream for spawning.

Don Drose of Manning (803-478-2536) has been guiding at Santee Cooper for more than 40 years. He primarily fishes Lake Marion and said that the cold weather in late December and January is the absolute best time to catch big stripers on Lake Marion.

"Almost all of the really big fish, fish in the 20- to 30-pound class, that have been caught in the lower end of Lake Marion have been in the really cold-weather time of year," Drose said. "Right now, the number of fish in the lake is as good as I've ever seen, and that's saying something. It's hard not to catch stripers even when fishing for other species such as crappie. A lot of fishermen are only catching throwback-sized fish, but part of that is not specifically targeting the bigger fish."

"I'll usually fish the from the Wilson Dam and up, about two miles from the dam during January," Drose said. "I'll also find a lot of fish in Wyboo Creek, and that pattern has been consistent for the past four years. The lower half of Wyboo Creek has been extremely productive for big fish in January and even into February."

Drose said drift-fishing is his primary tactic in January. He said he will use his graph to locate schools of baitfish, and the stripers will be around the bait.

"One of the keys to targeting big stripers is to fish deeper than where a lot of the smaller fish are marked," he said. "I'll motor round and find a big school of shad, and often, I will mark stripers well off the bottom around the baitfish. If I drift over that area with my bait set where I see most of the fish, I'll only occasionally catch a keeper sized-fish.

"What I do is to let my bait go all the way to the bottom, almost always deeper than 20 feet and usually down to 28 to 30 feet, and just crank the bait up a couple of turns off the bottom. That's where the bigger, keeper-sized stripers are caught. We're catching a good number of large fish doing this, but we have to avoid the scads of smaller fish to do so at this time of the year."

Drose will use threadfin shad in January; he said there's a great crop of threadfin in the 3-inch and larger class this year, ideal for his style of fishing.

Drose said that if the water temperatures is above 48 degrees, trolling the lower end of Wyboo Creek is another good way to catch big stripers.

"If the weather is real cold, the water temperature drops too fast; that will slow the stripers down in the creek," he said. "In January 2012, the action was great because the water temperature never dropped too cold. But as the water begins to warm in February, the action is usually very consistent for big stripers by trolling. Troll the ledges and points in the lower half of the creek out to Eagle Point to catch some big stripers."

Drose said to use various deep-diving lures, with Rebels being among his favorites. Other good lures include Stretch 25s and an old but reliable lure, the Cisco Kid. Drose said the color patterns with red that worked long ago still seem to produce excellent results."

Another guide who has witnessed the fishery's return is Kevin Davis, a guide and part-owner of Blacks Camp on the Diversion Canal (843-753-2231). Davis said January is a great month near the dam on both Lake Marion and Lake Moultrie.

"Both lakes are absolutely chock full of stripers; I've never seen so many stripers in our lakes," Davis said. "During December, the forage fish tend to move toward the dams on both lakes, and that's where most of the best fishing will be. It's not hard to find lots of schools of fish, either topwater schooling or fishing live bait for suspended fish.

"But the good news for me is that January is typically the month when I catch the most big fish of the entire year, and it's a very predictable pattern. From late December and into February - if the weather doesn't get too cold - is prime time for legal-sized fish. But January is my favorite time."

Davis said the key to his winter fishing is to work the deep water in Lake Moultrie near the Pinopolis Dam.

"In addition to the deep water, there are other attractions for the fish," Davis said. "The key to it all is that the forage really stacks up near the Pinopolis Dam. In addition to gizzard and threadfin shad, there are still big menhaden in the 6- to 8-inch size in the lake, and they are there trying to get back down the river to the saltwater, their natural environment. These are big forage fish, and the big stripers really love them. Sometimes, I'll use a cast net to catch them and use them as bait, but I'll always have some herring or shad as a backup just in case I can't quickly and easily catch the menhaden."

Davis said he uses his graph to look for big pods of baitfish, usually in the or near 55 feet of water near the dam. He said find the big schools of bait, whether it's menhaden or shad and you are usually in business.

"I'll fish just above where the striper are marked on the graph," he said. "Down here, the big stripers will usually be mixed in with the really big bait. One thing a lot of fishermen sometime do wrong is fish too deep under certain conditions. On some days, particularly a warmer than usual day or a cloudy day, the bait will be suspended much higher in the water column, maybe only 10 to 15 feet deep. When that happens, the stripers will be at the same depth as the forage, and it's easy to fish too deep because stripers don't readily go deeper for a bait. On some days we'll catch limits by simply fishing less than 15 feet deep, but we'll be over water that's 45 to 55 feet deep."

Davis said there will be some striper surface schooling, especially on warm afternoons during January.

"The water temperature is such that surface schooling doesn't occur as often as earlier in the fall and winter season, but I have bucktails, shimmy shads and other shad-looking swim baits ready in case they do surface school," he said.

Equipment will vary with guides but Davis fishes live bait with 7 1/2-foot Shakespeare rods and baitcasting reels spooled with 17-pound Trilene 100-Percent Fluorocarbon. He uses a small hook because he gets more bites from big fish.

"I think the hook size makes a difference on big fish," he said. "I use an Eagle Claw No. 2 size, style LO42 widegap hook. It's all you need if you use the right rod and have the drag set right. The smaller hook is sharper for better penetration and very importantly, (it) allows the bait to swim much more naturally and that is a key to catching big stripers, especially in cold weather. Small hooks allow the bait to stay fresh-looking and live longer. Using the small hook, the bait will be effective for 20 minutes instead of just five minutes using large hooks."

The weather may be cold in January, but some of the hottest fishing for big stripers will occur this month. The key, according to these experts, is to target your efforts for big fish and the cold weather will produce good results on these lakes that have made a dramatic striper comeback.

 

DESTINATION INFORMATION

HOW TO GET THERE - The Santee Cooper lakes can be accessed from many places. On the north side of Lake Marion, Manning is a prime destination. Take Exit 119 off I-95 and take SC 261 east. The town of Santee, which offers good access to Lake Moultrie and the Diversion Canal, is at Exit 98 off I-95. Lodging and restaurants are available right off the Interstate at both areas. On Lake Moultrie, both Moncks Corner and Bonneau offer quick access to the lake.

WHEN TO GO - January is a great month for both quantity and quality striped bass on Lake Marion and Lake Moultrie. While some are out early, you do not have to be on the lake at dawn to be successful, with mid-morning to mid-day often being a very good time to fish.

BEST TECHNIQUES - Live bait is the best for January striper fishing, either threadfin shad three inches or larger, of big menhaden and shad. Most guides will find stripers by drifting over large schools of shad.

GUIDES/FISHING INFO - Don Drose (803-478-2536), Kevin Davis of Black's Camp (843-753-2231), Steve Pack of Pack's Landing (803-452-5514). See also Guides & Charters in Classifieds.

ACCOMM0DATIONS - Clarendon County Chamber of Commerce, Manning, 803-435-4405 or www.clarendoncounty.com; South Carolina Association of Visitor Bureaus (www.discoversouthcarolina.com); Santee Cooper Country, 803-854-2131 or www.santeecoopercountry.org; Black's Camp (843-753-2231).

MAPS - Navionics Electronic Charts, 6 Thatcher Lane, Wareham MA 02571, www.navionics.com; Delorme's South Carolina Atlas & Gazetteer, 800-561-5105 or www.delorme.com; Kingfisher Map 800-326-0257, www.kfmaps.com.