This past June, a concerned group of fishermen formed Santee Bass Matters, a grass-roots organization seeking answers to problems on the Santee Cooper lakes. At the forefront is their concern that the population of largemouth bass in the lakes has been vastly diminished.

Joe Avin, a Summerton resident who has fished Lake Marion and Lake Moultrie for many of his 66 years, is the spokesman for the group. Avin said the effort has been focused on getting something accomplished.

"We realize there is only so much we can do as citizens in terms of physically fixing the problems," Avin said, "but we're getting the right state agencies involved."

Avin said getting the S.C. Department of Natural Resources and Santee Cooper involved in the effort to help identify problems and address issues is the key. Santee Cooper is the state-owned utility with considerable oversight responsibilities on the lakes.

Avin said Santee Bass Matters believes the keys to success are getting more largemouth bass back into the lakes and having improved habitat for those fish.

"We think the decline in the bass population is directly linked to hydrilla being removed from the lakes," Avin said. "When hydrilla was flourishing, we had an incredible population of largemouth bass. Because of the bass fishery, many major bass tournaments held events here. In addition to great fishing, the entire area also enjoyed an economic boom stimulated by big bass tournaments. But that's drying up. A major goal is to get hydrilla back into the lakes.

"Other goals include having largemouth bass stocked into the lakes to get the population on the road to recovery," Avin said. "Our group also feels the creel limit on largemouth should be lowered from 10 to five fish per day and the minimum size increased from the current 12 inches to 14 inches."

Avin feels the key groups are in agreement in terms of getting together to fix the problems, but there are some differences on how to best accomplish the goals set by Santee Bass Matters.

"We are greatly encouraged by some developments such as the expansion of aquatic native grasses, especially eel grass," Avin said. "Larry McCord, with Santee Cooper, gave us a tour of areas where eel grass is growing. We think eel grass may be the native grass of the future of lakes Marion and Moultrie. However, we think that hydrilla should be part of the solution."

Allowing hydrilla to return is not in the best interest of the lakes, according to Santee Cooper. McCord is Supervisor of the Analytical and Biological Services at Santee Cooper and is their expert on the grass issues facing the lakes.

McCord said hydrilla was first discovered in the lakes in 1982. Since then, Santee Cooper has worked to maintain control of the vegetation.

"One of many problems of this plant is that hydrilla fills the entire water column, from the bottom to a matted surface on the top," McCord said. "It is an exotic plant, not native to our lakes. And it spreads incredibly fast."

McCord said Santee Cooper feels it must totally control hydrilla or it will again take over much of the lakes.

"Plus, this plant uses up the dissolved oxygen and can actually be a detriment to fish populations," McCord said. "It has resulted in numerous documented fish kills on the Santee Cooper lakes."

The stocking of fish and changing creel and size limits directly involve SCDNR. Scott Lamprecht, a fisheries biologist for the department whose focus is Santee Cooper, has met with the Santee Bass Matters group on these issues.

"The size- and creel-limit changes proposed for Santee Cooper are biologically sound." Lamprecht said. "Our lakes have the appropriate growth potential to support a 14-inch size limit. The same is true for the creel limit going from 10 to five fish per day."

Lamprecht said he does have some concerns with the stocking of largemouth bass.

"We would like to see the right genetics for the fish if stocked into Marion and Moultrie," Lamprecht said. "Mother Nature has carved out just the right genetic niche for the largemouth bass in our lakes. I would want them to stock fish that fits what our lakes can best support. We will be glad to work with them on this."

John Land, a state senator from Manning, supports the goals of Santee Bass Matters. He said legislation regarding the proposals for the creel and size limits will be introduced in the next legislative session.

"The key is to continue working together," Land said. "We've got citizens involved, and the right state agencies. We'll all work together to get this fixed."