The Santee Cooper lakes will show anglers a lot of love this month. Almost every species worthy of piscatorial pursuit is active, and combined with the typically pristine weather of May, it’s a perfect time to not only go fishing, but the catching part is simply sensational.

To single out one species is difficult, so we’ll take a look at several highly productive options and move incrementally from little fish to big fish. But compared to most other lakes, even our little fish are pretty darn big. 

Bream action is strong, and bedding activity occurs around the full moon, even though some bream bed in April. Some of the biggest bull bream of the year will be swung over the gunwales by anglers in both lakes, with shallow water being ground zero. When not on the beds, bream lurk in the shallows and relate to cypress trees, stumps, logs and weed edges. Crickets will be the best bait for bream, but for sheer fun, work small Beetle Spin spinners around shallow cover with ultra-light equipment. Bream are active enough to catch limits on these tiny artificial lures. But beware of the occasional big bass that loads onto the tiny lure, adding a ton of excitement to your peaceful, bream-catching morning.   

The past two years, I’ve seen huge mayfly hatches this month, and those are natural hot spots for bream of all sizes, plus a great opportunity for getting youngsters hooked on fishing.

In addition to bull bream, shellcracker action is still going strong in the shallows. In most years, very good shellcracker fishing, as well as some bedding action, occurs in May. Although the bulk of shellcracker spawning was in April, they are still scattered throughout the shallows, certainly early in the month. Not all shellcrackers bed at the same time; within another month, these big redear sunfish will migrate to deeper water and be more difficult to find in big numbers for most anglers. For now, take a long pole, a No. 6 hook a couple feet under a small float and split shot. Gob red worms on the hook and work the rig along cypress and gum stands, weeds and stumps. You can still catch a limit of hefty shellcrackers and likely plenty of bream, with and the occasional bonus of a channel catfish.

Santee Cooper has an outstanding, often-forgotten fishery for channel cats. They offer plenty of opportunities for anglers, many of which are here for the world-class fishing for blues and flatheads. The 58-pound world-record channel cat was caught here in 1964, and while fish of that size don’t seem to be here anymore, we have a large number of channel catfish in both lakes and plenty of fish in the 4- to 8-pound class, many of which can be caught fishing relatively shallow water. Small chunks of cut bait, night crawlers, live crappie minnows and stinkbaits are all excellent baits. 

Largemouth bass have been in the forefront since mid-February, when the long warming trend prompted excellent shallow-water action. That bite ended abruptly with the arctic blast and scattered snows of March that cooled the water and action. 

While patterns begin to change by May, shallow water is still a target-rich environment. Explosive topwater activity becomes a strong pattern, with lures like Devil’s Horse, buzzbaits and floating minnows producing big-fish bites. The trusty plastic worm continues to produce, and crankbaits around cypress tees is a pretty standard pattern.

The best opportunity to catch a true trophy bass, a 10-pound fish, may have been earlier, but big bass are still caught in May, and the numbers of quality fish caught are very good. 

Stripers are next as we go up the ladder. In the upper reaches of Lake Marion, stripers are still caught in good numbers as the late spawners are heading back down the river. Pack’s Landing is an ideal place to begin the striper hunt.

On the lower end of Lake Marion and in Lake Moultrie, live bait fished around the deeper drops and ledges offers great striper-catching opportunities. Also, the Diversion Canal offers flurries of excellent activity when good current flows exist, with live bait working as well as bucktails around underwater rock piles.

Fishing for big blue and flathead catfish is good throughout May, and anglers will usually find big fish still in the shallows after a strong surge to shallow water in April. This move was prompted by forage, and as the shallows were flooded with the big herring migrating through the lake in March, and bream, perch and crappie flooding the shallows, the big cats moved in for the feast.

Some of the fat cats will still linger in the shallows, but plenty will be back in deeper water around ledges, humps and drops in both lakes. But by late May and into June, action often gets tricky for many as the spawn occurs. According to SCDNR biologist Scott Lamprecht, some anglers seem to lose track of the big fish for a brief period. He said that’s typically just a result of spawning becoming a higher priority than eating. Once spawning is complete, big cats will chow down in earnest and generally move back toward deeper water.