The South Carolina Department of Natural Resources' annual Santee Cooper system survey indicates that the waterway's adult striped bass population is building from historic lows and the prospects for recovery are strong.

In response to the decline in the fishery, the Santee Cooper striped bass stakeholder committee was formed in 2007. Stakeholders represented each legislative district surrounding the system, including tourism officials, fishing tour guides, landing operators, recreational anglers, fishing club members, as well as several legislators, including the late David Umphlett.

The efforts of the stakeholders led to a new regulation for the Santee Cooper system in May 2008 that changed harvest limits to three fish greater than 26 inches in length and prohibited fishing for striped bass from June through September, due to a high catch and release mortality that occurs at higher water temperatures.

The Santee Cooper population depends on both natural spawning and stocking by the SCDNR. Prior to the 2008 regulation, about 90 percent of females were removed before getting a chance to spawn even once. The goal of the 2008 regulation is to allow the average female striper to spawn at least once before being harvested. Available research indicates that Santee Cooper stripers are mature by age 5, or about 26 inches in length. Allowing more females to reach spawning size increases the chances for a successful natural spawn in any given year.

Each winter, DNR sets research sampling gear to estimate the abundance of age-2 and age-3 striped bass, which are about 18 and 21 inches long, respectively. Sampling completed in 2010 showed that the abundance of age-3 striped bass was the fourth highest recorded since monitoring began in 1983. Regional fishery biologist Scott Lamprecht reports that "schooling stripers have once again become a common sight."

DNR's monitoring data shows that "excellent" production of young fish only occurred in seven of the past 28 spawning seasons, while "poor" production was noted in 13 of 28 years.

"This pattern is somewhat normal as stripers have a boom or bust spawning strategy" said Jim Bulak, DNR's fishery research coordinator.

However, even with stocking, there has been only one "excellent" year of young fish production since 1998.

"We have been concerned with the recent history of spawning and stocking success and have been examining all the potential reasons for this, such as prolonged drought and associated low inflows, decline in system productivity, predation, and competition among native and invasive species," Bulak said. "We are also continually looking for ways to improve our stocking efforts," said Lamprecht.

Female stripers produced in the "excellent" 2008 production year will be protected from harvest until they reach sexual maturity at age-5 in 2013.

"This will be an important first step in rebuilding the Santee Cooper population, creating a fishery that is sustainable over the long-term," said Bulak.

Regional biologist Lamprecht also recognizes that as the population continues on its road to recovery that there will be interest among some anglers to relax the current regulation.

"We are already hearing from anglers that want to loosen the regulation to allow the harvest of smaller fish as stripers become more and more abundant," Lamprecht said. "However, any relaxation of the current restrictions will undercut and delay the recovery."

The use of good catch and release technique is always important but never more so than during recovery periods.

"I've heard reports of and seen a few dead striped bass around the lakes that likely died after being caught and released," said Lamprecht. "Some of this mortality is inevitable, but it can be minimized with proper care."

DNR recommends the use of circle hooks while fishing with live or cut bait, cutting the line when a hook is swallowed, using single hook artificial baits, and using barbless hooks, which make it easier to catch and successfully release a striper. Stripers are more prone to stress and delayed mortality than largemouth bass, but if proper techniques are used during the fall, winter and spring, release of stripers can be as successful as largemouth bass, according to Lamprecht.

More detailed information on how to practice successful catch and release in a special SCDNR publication.