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Mossy Oak Fishing Report: Bassmaster Elite Series Santee Cooper

JD Blackburn

The 94 Bassmaster Elite Series anglers returned to post-Classic competition just two weeks after the Champion was crowned, but they didn’t make it far down the road. In fact, they stayed within the state of South Carolina. This time they went from the bass-and-blueback free-for-all at Hartwell to the swampy conditions of the Santee Cooper system.

Brandon Palaniuk Santee Cooper 2022
Brandon Palaniuk


Santee Cooper has thousands of acres of inundated cypress trees, various kinds of vegetation and all sorts of fish-holding habitat. That’s what’s made it one of the most storied destinations in the history of professional bass fishing. Things worked out remarkably well for the Mossy Oak team, as six of our seven anglers finished in the money and remarkably four of them were in the overall top nine finishers.

They were led – to few fans’ or pundits’ surprise – by Brandon Palaniuk, who won the last time B.A.S.S. visited the sprawling fishery. After flirting with going back-to-back he ended up third overall.

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 grow monstrous by eating protein-packed shad. 
  • Weather: The practice period started off with temperatures in the 20s, but they were expected to be well into the 70s, and perhaps even the 80s, by the time the tournament rolled around. Those predictions turned out to be accurate, which makes for exceptional fishing in the spring. 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.
Brandon Cobb Santee Cooper
Brandon Cobb


How to Fish Santee Cooper in Late March

March, of course, is a time of transition for bass throughout the mid-south. As water temperatures approach and then reach the magic mark of 60 degrees, bass have their minds on one thing – spawning. They don’t all rush to the bank at once, however. As we learned throughout this tournament (primarily from Brandon Palaniuk’s multi-faceted attack), it’s possible to catch spawning, pre-spawn and post-spawn fish at the same time, often in adjacent areas. 

Largemouth Bass Spawn – Water Temperature and Moon Phase  

With a full moon occurring during the tournament, that led most anglers away from pre-spawn staging areas and into backwaters and shallow flats facing the bank and retaining heat. A cagey few mixed in some pre-spawn action and by the end of the tournament a few competitors were even targeting fry-guarders. 

There were certain key backwaters and areas that seemed to hold more and bigger fish, but the true Holy Grail was to find a place that would replenish itself with one 20-plus-pound bag opportunity after another.

Gerald Swindle Santee Cooper 2022
Gerald Swindle


Top Mossy Oak Performer

Brandon Palaniuk, the 2020 Santee Cooper winner and 2017 Bassmaster Angler of the Year put on a clinic this week on BASS Live, particularly on Day One where he caught several monstrous bass on a jerkbait before much of the field had even taken off. He mixed in a variety of soft plastics and even a hollow bodied frog to become one of just three anglers to weigh in at least 20 pounds every day of the tournament. His best performance was Day Three, when he sacked 27 pounds 7 ounces to claim a good spot in the top 10, although he never brought less than 21-10 to the scales. A total of 98 pounds even over four days was a virtuoso performance by “The Prodigy,” from whom we’ve come to expect nothing less. 

Drew Benton Santee Cooper 2022 weigh in
Drew Benton


He wasn’t the only Mossy Oak performer to get to compete for all four days:

  • Brandon Cobb held down the fort for the home state as the only South Carolinian to make the top 10. He finished sixth with 85-05, including 22-pound bags on Days Two and Three.
  • Greg Hackney weighed in a massive 27-14 five-bass limit on Day One to challenge for the pole position, and held on throughout the week to end up eighth with 82-01.
  • Drew Benton sight fished brilliantly for four days, and thanks to a monstrous 28-13 limit on Day Three, not only did he slide into the cut by held on to finish ninth.
  • Two-time Angler of the Year Gerald Swindle finished seventeenth, and Brandon Lester, who is already effectively qualified for next year’s Bassmaster Classic, came in thirtieth.

Top Lures at Santee Cooper

If you’re headed to Santee Cooper in mid- to late-March, be sure to bring some pre-spawn staples like jerkbaits, vibrating jigs and Carolina Rigs, just to keep the bass honest, but in normal weather years expect the masses of fish to be super-shallow, looking to reproduce.

If you’re a semi-proficient sight fisherman, bring craws and creature baits for the fish you can see among the pads and cypress knees. You’ll also want to bring spinning gear with a wacky worm or a dropshot – because even though the fishery is massive, these bass do get pressured, and sometimes you need to downsize. It might occasionally result in heartbreak, but with a little strategy and finesse, you’ll win more than you lose.

Brandon Lester Santee Cooper 2022
Brandon Lester


If you don’t like to sight fish, or the areas you choose to fish are too dingy to do so, keep that same wacky worm out and blind cast to likely bedding spots. You’ll want to flip and pitch a Texas Rig, too. Several competitors also caught key fish with the good old-fashioned spinnerbait.

As the month progresses and more bass start to guard fry, think topwaters, frogs and flukes to raise their ire and get them to strike.

What They’ve Been Wearing

Santee Cooper provided a challenge from the weather gods in the form of constant changes. It went from cold to hot, from calm to windy and back again. There was even an “off day” when heavy winds forced postponement of Day Three, resulting in the rare “Championship Monday.”

Mossy Oak Store fishing gear Greg Hackney
Greg Hackney

If you’re headed to Santee this month, plan on bringing a Mossy Oak Fishing Hoodie for the drastic weather changes, and also a Mossy Oak Elements Long Sleeve Tech tee – it blends into the sky, which makes it great for sight fishing. Our fishing Rain Jacket and Rain Pant should never leave the boat, and that’s particularly true over the next handful of weeks, as April showers bring May flowers. Luckily, they also bring some of the best bass fishing of the year, so stay tuned for more tips and reports from our Mossy Oak team.

Mossy Oak Store fishing gear

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