December: It’s all about bait

Guide Bob Winters will target Santee Cooper blue catfish with drift rigs in December, while fishing live-bait rigs for striped bait at the same time.

Gamefish will concentrate even more than usual on forage as Thanksgiving passes

As water temperatures dip in December, with frequent cold fronts blasting through South Carolina, the fishing on the Santee Cooper lakes, Marion and Moultrie, seem to defy logic and actually improves instead of slowing.

It’s not just one or two high-profile species providing the action, most of the top-targeted species at the Santee Cooper lakes are at a very high level of activity. And as usual, with good fishing anywhere, a lot of that is forage-driven.

Kevin Davis, owner of Blacks Camp on the Diversion Canal and an active guide, said both lakes are highly productive throughout December, and the availability of forage is one reason.

“By December, this year’s crop of shad has grown to a desirable size for many species of gamefish,” he said. “As water temperature cools, both the threadfin and gizzard shad begin to bunch up in large schools, making it easier for predators to utilize as a primary food source.”

Davis (843-312-3080) said that December is an outstanding month for striped bass, with excellent topwater schooling action, and also, live-bait fishing. December ranks as one of the top months for catfish, with quantity and quality catches commonplace

“Largemouth bass fishing is typically excellent, with some schooling action often occurring early in the month, but solid patterns hold throughout the month, and they’re forage related,” he said. “By January, the fast-paced bass action begins to slow a bit, but then we’re getting close to big-bass season again once we get into 2019, so that’s a fair trade-off. 

“Crappie fishing is an often-overlooked December highlight, and limit catches of slabs in deep water are reasonable expectations. And early in the December, it’s still possible to catch limits of huge bream off the deep brush, too, so double-dipping of crappie and bream is a fun fishing trip.”

Davis said one huge game changer for December is the arrival of menhaden, primarily into Lake Moultrie, but they’ll flood into both lakes. When this occurs, menhaden are forage No. 1, but since they are typically found in the open waters of Lake Moultrie, stripers and catfish are the primary species making the best use of the short-term resource.  

Brett Mitchell, a bass pro who guides on the Santee Cooper lakes, said December can produce outstanding results.

Shad=bass

“The winter patter is a favorite of mine, in part because it’s gets easy to predict because of their affinity for shad,” said Mitchell, who points to both big numbers and big fish being in play. The key to success, he said, is having the patience to work through the slow periods while searching for the localized hotspots.  

“Typical of winter fishing, bass are usually grouped together near shad, and when you find one good bass, more are usually nearby,” he said. 

Mitchell focuses on areas where shad are abundant, but points, pockets and slightly deeper shorelines are typical targets. He usually works water less than 12 feet deep, often in the 5- to 7-foot depth ranges. His favors crankbaits in December; he typically prefers shad colors to mimic what bass are eating. 

Bob Winters, who guides for stripers and catfish, said December is a favored month on both lakes when targeting shad schools. But when the menhaden flood into Lake Moultrie, fishing for both species can be outstanding.

“Some days, we’ll target stripers, others we’ll work primarily on catfish, and it’s often dependant on weather conditions,” he said. “But when the shad school up tight and menhaden are in Lake Moultrie, one common technique is to pull catfish rigs by drifting, but also have down rods with live bait for stripers. It’s a great way to double up on these two species at the same time.”

Winters (843-709-0626) said to watch your electronics to learn the precise depth stripers are holding and keep your baits set at or slightly above the depth they’re marked. For catfish, he fishes blueback herring, perch or menhaden on the bottom with a Santee drift rig: a Carolina rig with a small float on the leader between the hook and swivel.

Crappie are caught exceptionally well in both lakes by fishing live bait or small jigs over deep brush in open water. Brush or natural cover found along drops, humps and deeper holes are all prime crappie fishing targets.

One major catfishing tournament is held in December: the Blacks Camp Big Cat Shootout, set for Dec. 7-8.

“The tournament is 100-percent payback and is an opportunity for catfishermen to fish for substantial prize money,” Davis said. “We’re expecting even more boats this year than in 2017, but the winner last year, who also caught the big fish, won over $7,500.” 

Terry Madewell
About Terry Madewell 689 Articles
Terry Madewell of Ridgeway, S.C., has been an outdoors writer for more than 30 years. He has a degree in wildlife and fisheries management and has a long career as a professional wildlife biologist/natural resources manager.