Deep-thinking for Santee stripers

Hunting big schools of stripers on Lake Moultrie’s deep water drops is a great gameplan for May fishing. (Photo by Terry Madewell)

Lake Moultrie’s stripers are deep and hungry

Fall and early winter may be the time period most anglers think of sensational striper fishing at the Santee Cooper lakes. But that’s not the only time stripers go wild in this system.

The deepwater striper action on Lake Moultrie during May is equally productive. But tactics differ considerably from the fabulous fall fishing.

This spring striper action is primarily about targeting deepwater drops rather than topwater schooling fish. But this pattern produces sensational striper-catching action that rivals any found on these lakes throughout the year.

The May stripers are feeding heavily on huge pods of deepwater forage scattered along the drops and ledges throughout the deep-water recesses of Lake Moultrie. Finding that food source is the key, according to veteran striper guide Leroy Suggs. He guides out of Blacks Camp (843-753-2231) on the Diversion Canal and Lake Moultrie.

Suggs said the fishing is highly dependable and can match any striper fishing during the entire year.

“Everyone loves to catch stripers schooling on the surface, and so do I,” Suggs said. “But during May, I’ll find stripers in huge schools in and around deep water. My most consistent striper fishing for this season is by targeting ledges and drops throughout Lake Moultrie using live bait.”

Suggs (910-995-1168) said this month, blueback herring is the number one option for bait.

“If someone wants to catch a bunch of stripers, with an excellent opportunity to limit out on keeper fish, while catching and releasing multiple fish on a typical trip, then May through mid-June is prime time,” he said.

Season ends June 15

Suggs’ reference to mid-June reflects the current regulations on striper fishing on Santee Cooper where the summer fishing season is closed to protect the resource. Fisheries biologist have documented that catch and release during the hot months at Santee Cooper causes a high mortality among fish released, defeating the purpose of catch-and-release.

The season closes on June 15 and re-opens on Oct. 1 annually.

Truman Lyon is another longtime striper guide who has witnessed the striper fishery production ebb and flow through the years. Lyon is 91-years young and has been guiding since the 1970s. He’s a big advocate of this deepwater fishing.

No, they’re not hooked to each other, but two generations are hooked on the same feeling; big stripers in May on Moultrie. (Photo by Terry Madewell)

“The striper fishery is excellent right now. It’s the best it’s been in a while in terms of consistent fishing for quality fish,” he said. “May has always been a prime time for catching lots of stripers. Striper fishing would actually continue to be outstanding throughout the summer (if legal), because once these fish get into their deepwater patterns, after they return from the spawning migration, they primarily live in the deep water during the summer.”

Lyon (843-729-2212) said when the season re-opens in October, the fishing pattern has morphed primarily to schooling fish with packs of stripers roaming various depths of water pursuing forage.

He said no specific deepwater target works every day. But anglers employing electronics can find and catch stripers consistently.

“I’ll target deepwater areas primarily along drops, and around the edges of humps near deep holes,” he said. “The best depths are often 30- to 50-plus feet deep. Anywhere along the ledge can be productive, the key being where the forage is found on that given day. But even when fishing deep water, I do prefer the low-light time periods of the day.

“Forage patterns control the depth stripers are located. So when I approach a drop and begin scanning with the graph, I search the ledge from top to bottom and I specifically target deeper holes, searching for forage and stripers.”

Lyon said he hopes to locate both fish and forage together, or in proximity, and then set up and fish vertically on that target.

Interpreting the target correctly is crucial. Lyon said he’ll often mark a large concentration of forage with lots of individual fish marked just below.

“That’s the ideal picture to see on a graph,” he said. “But some of my best days have occurred when the situation didn’t look all that great at first. I do want to see individual fish before I anchor. But if I mark plenty of forage and a few fish that I believe are stripers, it has potential.”

Deepwater striper action using live bait produces quality fish in May at Lake Moultrie. (Photo by Terry Madewell)

Fast action

If he’s been graphing similar scenarios along the drops and seeing scattered forage and stripers, the fish may not be schooled tight that day, or at that specific time. But by setting up and being patient, the live bait will attract nearby stripers already under the boat. That fish-catching action seems to attract other stripers in the vicinity to the boat.

Lyon said when the mother lode of active stripers moves in the graph, it looks like scads of spaghetti strings hovering under the boat. When he sees that image, he tells all anglers to man a rod because the striper-catching is about to level up to awesome.

“When that occurs, I’m full-time netting and re-baiting for my clients,” he said. “Multiple fish hooked at the same time is common. This fast-action can linger for a while, or it may be a sudden flurry. Either way, several stripers are likely coming into the boat.”

But nothing this good lasts forever. Forage and stripers are both born with a nomadic nature.

“When the feeding frenzy is on, they keep on piling up under the boat as fast as we can reel them in,” Lyon said, “When the forage moves away, the stripers will follow. But we may need a short break by then anyway. And we can typically move and find another striper-catching setup just as good.”

Make some noise

Suggs said other techniques are important and relevant to the action as well.

He employs a small outboard mounted on the stern of his pontoon to pull bait in and keep them under the boat. He said a 4-horsepower Mercury ranks as his favorite.

“I’ll crank the motor after I’m setup in an area along a ledge in deep water where I’m seeing a lot of forage,” he said. “Even if the forage and fish aren’t stacked in a specific area, I may set up and fish. The motor noise must seem like a feeding frenzy to nearby stripers, because they’ll come to the sound. When they do, we’ll have live bait waiting on them.”

Suggs said typically the forage will be deep, not far off the bottom, and the stripers will be just under them. However, the bait sometimes suspends over deep water, but well up in the water column. In those situations, he said to drop the hooked live bait to the depth stripers are marked, or just a little shallower.

A spaghetti noodle image on the graph is a homerun when looking for stripers loaded under the boat this month. (Photo by Terry Madewell)

“Stripers will move up to feed, but much less likely to go down because they’re generally under the bait pods, feeding up,” he said.

Bait management is crucial and Suggs constantly checks bait to ensure it’s alive and active in his tank. When bait is dead after a missed bite, he’ll cut it up for chum and distribute it in the water around the boat.

“I don’t fish with cut bait for stripers during this month. I think live herring are better. But the cut chunks are just enough of a scent attraction and food sample to sometimes light the striper action up.”

Suggs said it’s possible to find some schooling action during May, primarily in low light situations when stripers may push bait to the surface. This is especially likely when fishing in the area around Pinopolis Dam.

“Schooling action occurs, but I consider it a bonus right now,” he said. “But it’s an opportunity I’m prepared for, and will certainly take advantage of. The predictable pattern that occurs throughout the day is the live herring fishing in deep water.”

Suggs and Lyon both said that fishing deep water with blueback herring often results in a big catfish loading up as a bonus fish.

“Using live herring, odds are good a big flathead or blue may gobble up the bait. That just adds another level of excitement to fishing the deep water with live bait,” Lyon said.

Don’t miss the opportunity to get in on this fast-paced, deepwater action on Lake Moultrie’s stripers this spring. The quantity and quality of stripers caught will ensure a memorable fishing adventure.

Fast action for stripers is the norm during May. (Photo by Terry Madewell)

Striper biology

The key to the striper fishing during May at Lake Moultrie is driven by the biological spawning and feeding habits of stripers at Santee Cooper. The timing of this pattern is the result of what’s transpired the past couple of months on the system.

According to Scott Lamprecht, former regional fisheries biologist for the SCDNR at Santee Cooper, the striper patterns at Lake Moultrie are part of the overall movement pattern for stripers for the entire Santee Cooper complex.

Lamprecht said stripers move a lot during the spring, traveling through Lake Marion into the Wateree and Congaree rivers from March through most of April. Studies conducted using radio transmitters equipped on adult fish indicate that some stripers continue moving upstream after the spawn, while many others head downstream back into the lakes.

Past studies have shown that in late-April, an abundance of post-spawn stripers move into Lake Moultrie. Lamprecht said he believes they are likely following post-spawn adult blueback herring that are now moving downstream to leave the Santee Cooper system by May.

“By the end of May, a real flurry of striper activity usually occurs in Lake Moultrie,” he said.

About Terry Madewell 809 Articles
Award-winning writer and photographer 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.

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