Santee shellcracker bite is already hot

Slip corks and red worms

A lot of anglers wait until May before chasing shellcracker, but these feisty panfish are already biting in big numbers on the Santee Cooper lakes. They are not crowding the very bottom like they will in the coming months, so they are not quite as easy to catch. But these fish are worth the extra time it’s taking to find them.

Capt. Brandon Freeman of Gators Outdoor Adventure and Guide Service has been scouting the lakes for the spring bite. He’s catching his share, including some big ones, among the Santee cypress trees. He’s using red worms for bait, and fishing them under slip corks. These corks make it quick and easy to adjust your depth, which is critical this time of year.

“In four feet of water, they can be feeding just 18 inches deep. And in some spots, they are real tight against the cypress trees. And when there’s surface vegetation like lily pads around, they can be right up against those. When you catch one, you can bet other ones are around,” he said.

It’s already good, but it’s only going to get better

Some anglers are tempted to cut a red worm in half before threading it on their hook. Others will bunch a single worm up onto the hook. But Freeman does it a little differently. He takes a whole red worm and runs the hook through it just once or twice, leaving the rest to dangle and wiggle freely once in the water. This step can make a big difference in whether you’re catching fish or not.

These early season shellcrackers are good and healthy, are a blast to catch, and are tasty to eat.

One some days, Freeman guides clients in his aluminum johnboat, Other days, he uses Warrior one-man boats with battery-powered trolling motors. These boats help him slip through the flooded cypress trees quietly, ensuring he can reach these fish. The foot-steering keeps his hands free for fishing. He owns a small fleet of these boats, so he can guide a number of anglers while maintaining social distancing standards throughout the coronavirus pandemic.

These fish are biting readily right now. But Freeman (843-409-9162) said this time of year does require a little more patience than the hotter months.

“You might have to let your cork sit for a minute right now. You want to give it a little more time at this stage in the year,” he said.

Freeman said the shellcracker fishing on Santee will only get better as the weather continues to warm.

About Brian Cope 2783 Articles
Brian Cope is the editor of Carolina Sportsman. He has won numerous awards for his writing, photography, and videography. He is a retired Air Force combat communications technician, and has a B.A. in English Literature from the University of South Carolina. You can reach him at

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