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Bassmaster Elite Series Breakdown: Santee Cooper

Santee Cooper tournament

Santee Cooper Lakes, South Carolina

B.A.S.S. has held multiple Elite Series events at Santee Cooper, most recently in October of 2020 and March of 2022, and they’ve always been high-scoring affairs. Furthermore, leaving the exceptional event at Lake Murray and heading southeast, there was every reason to believe the big system – which consists of lakes Marion and Moultrie – to pump out giants. It’s been on the upswing for several years and April is prime time to catch not only big fish, but lots of big fish. Last year the field produced two 100-pound-plus “Century Belt” catches and the expectation was that the top weights would be in that neighborhood.

For the first three days, the weather was reasonable and anglers pursued everything from sight fishing to fry guarders to a shad spawn to topwater patterns. The fishing wasn’t easy by any means, but the weights were still good. It took an average of over 14 pounds a day to make it into the top fifty cut, and there were numerous 20-pound bags, including an amazing 28-1 limit on the first day.

Mossy Oak pro Brandon Cobb was consistent, slapping down 21-0 and 24-15 the first two days to head into Saturday in 2nd place, then adding 21-8 to hold that position heading into Championship Sunday. He struggled a bit on that final day, falling to 4th, but has his eyes on the biggest prize of all – the Angler of the Year title. The young veteran has a lead of 18 points over his nearest competitor, after notching four top-eight finishes in his last five events, including the Bassmaster Classic in Knoxville. His only “miss” was a still exceptional 20th place finish at Lake Seminole. The whole fishing world has its eyes on him as the season nears its midway point.

Mossy Oak Fishing Lake Breakdown

Host: Clarendon County, South Carolina

Launch Site: John C. Land Sport Fishing Facility in Summerton

Lake Description: Santee Cooper consists of two lakes – the lower Lake Moultrie resembling a Florida “bowl” and the upper Lake Marion being more elongated and swamp-like. Marion, at nearly 110,000 acres, is the largest lake located wholly within the state of South Carolina, touching five counties.

Navigation: The Santee Cooper project was undertaken in the 1930s as a new deal initiative aiming to provide power, jobs, recreation and flood control. At the time, it was the largest land-clearing project in American history. However, not all of the standing timber or other obstacles were cleared, and while there are marked boat lanes, the lake is challenging to navigate.

Bass Species Present: While Santee Cooper is world-renowned for its monstrous striped bass and channel catfish populations, only largemouth bass were eligible to be weighed in during the Elite Series events. The lakes have either zero or negligible populations of spotted and smallmouth bass.

Forage Species: There are of course bluegills, white bass and crawfish, among other species in Lakes Marion and Moultrie, but these bass grown monstrous by eating protein-packed shad.

Weather: With the tournament a month later than last year, water temperatures conducive to the largest waves of spawners were largely in the rearview mirror, but despite Chamber of Commerce weather for most of the pros’ stay there were still some bedding fish. Others responded to the heat by starting their move toward summering holes, although most still have a long way to go to get there – and the majority of the fish remained shallow. One wild card on a massive fishery like Santee Cooper is the wind, because anglers often have to stay in dedicated but unprotected boat lanes to traverse the lakes. On the final day of competition, heavy incoming storms brought with them stout gusts that made the boat ride back to the weigh-in an E Ticket experience.

How to Fish Santee Cooper in Late April and Early May

April, of course, is a time of transition for bass throughout the mid-south. Most of the bass at Santee Cooper had already spawned, but a handful of exceptional sight fishermen still managed to find several days’ worth of fish with their eyes. Eithers pitched soft stick baits to cypress knees – it’s critical to find the right trees in a field of thousands, as many are barren and others have multiple fish. Because there was a shad spawn going on, some anglers used big swimbaits – mostly pre-rigged soft models – as well as oversized topwaters, both walking baits and prop baits like the old-school Gilmore Jumper. As May progresses, more and more fish should head to offshore haunts, where they could be susceptible to Carolina Rigs, dropshots and crankbaits, although on a big body of water like Santee, with ample “swampy” areas, there’s a percentage of the population that never leaves the shallows.

Top Mossy Oak Performers

Brandon Cobb kept the heat on the rest of the field with his 4th place finish. It wasn’t necessarily a surprise because he finished 6th here in 2022, and has ample history on his home state’s many prolific fisheries. He earned quite a bit of television and BASS Live time for his effort and status, and showed himself to be a light line wizard, both finessing and manhandling giant bass one after another with spinning gear.

Drew Benton, coming off his win at Murray, also earned a check, finishing 27th. He too has been remarkable this year, finishing no worse the 27th – in addition to the South Carolina swing, he was 4th at the Bassmaster Classic in Knoxville and 22nd at Okeechobee.

Angler of the Year Race

Santee Cooper angler

Pictured: Drew Benton headed in.

As noted above, Cobb, who came to the Elite Series in 2019, is atop a field of hammers right now. The season is still young, and to some extent this is new territory for him, although he had two 12th place AOY finishes in 2017 and 2018 to close out his successful FLW career. Since coming to BASS, he’s never missed a Classic, and finished a career-high 9th in the AOY race in 2021, and then 20th last year. Now he’s the lead dog in the race.

Benton is also in the top ten in the AOY race, sitting in 9th.

Lee Livesay and Greg Hackney are 15th and 17th, respectively, well within the 2024 Bassmaster Classic cut.

Brandon Lester and Gerald Swindle find themselves slightly outside the Classic cut, but it’s expected that the two veteran stalwarts will be at the starting line when the world championship launches at Grand Lake near Tulsa next March.

What They’ve Been Wearing

Things are heating up – not just the fishing and the weather – and while Santee Cooper necessitated rain gear on the final day, the key was sun protection. Those anglers who were sight fishing relied heavily on patterns that meshed with the sky, like those found in the Tidal Breeze Ombre long sleeve shirt, while others liked the simplicity of the single-color long sleeve fishing tech shirt. Mossy Oak Back Country Shorts and Flex Workout shorts kept anglers comfortable and flexible even after long hours in the boat and working on tackle.

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