Santee in the Spring
by Monty Hill
Shallow water techniques that work all year long.
I have been fishing Santee for over 20 years out of Hill’s Landing on the Diversion Canal. My favorite time of the year for fishing for trophy cats at Santee is spring and early summer. In fact, springtime at Santee can be some of the best fishing of the year.
The Santee Copper lakes system is made up of two lakes connected with a canal. The total area of the lakes is approximately 160,000 acres. The system is made up of Lake Marion (the upper lake) and Lake Moultrie (the lower lake).
Santee Copper Lakes are located in the low country of South Carolina near Charleston. It is approximately 62 miles from the Santee River at the upper end of Lake Marion above Santee, SC down to the dam of Lake Moultrie in Moncks Corner, SC. The canal that connects the two lakes is 7 miles in length. The lakes are considered shallow water lakes with a lot of stumpy shallow water flats and submerged tree tops.
The lakes are blessed with an abundance of salt water fish that migrate up the Santee and Cooper Rivers to spawn in the lakes. Starting in December, menhaden will come up the rivers and usually are in the lakes and rivers through January. In February and until April the big American shad and large blueback herring will migrate up the rivers for their spawn. It is this time of year that is my favorite time to target trophy catfish.
The blue cats are fattening up and preparing for their spawn which will occur when the water temperatures hit the 70’s. I’m fishing water temperatures that are hovering around the low to mid-fifties. The thread fin shad are schooled up in tight schools in the deeper 40- to 50-foot water.
During the day I like to drift in this water around the deeper channels and ledges while keeping an eye on the water temperatures.
When the water starts to warm a little the American shad and herring will migrate up the river into the lakes to spawn in the shallow water, an activity that brings the catfish in shallow to feed.
When the water starts getting into the mid-fifties I move up into shallow water in search of water temperatures that are a few degrees warmer than the main lake temps. Now, when I say shallow water I mean single digit shallow, 3 to 9 feet.
Don’t be afraid to idle around in a stump filled flat looking for a trophy. Keep an eye out around the boat. You might even see a swirl or see a big fish swimming off. When I find water 3 to 5 degrees warmer than the main lake water I anchor down and put out some baits. It helps if you can find a creek channel or old roadbed that may be just 2 or 3 feet deeper than the surrounding depths.
These same conditions are great at night too. I locate these spots during the day and go back at night and anchor up. I plan to be on my anchor spot an hour or so before dark. Get in your spot, anchor down and get your baits out.
It is kinda’ like deer hunting. You want to set up and be quiet. Another one of my tricks to not have any lights on the boat after it get darks. You don’t have to worry too much about getting run over by a boat if you are anchored down in 3 feet of water in the middle of a stump flat. More than likely you will be all alone in these conditions.
Once anchored up put out 6 to 10 baits, spread all around the boat. I use the American shad and herring for bait. Don’t be afraid to put out big baits. I will use the herring whole and have been known to use a shad head half as big as a dinner plate.
I fish with Abu Garcia 6500 reels on 7-foot Ugly Stick Tiger rods. I spool with 30-pound test mono mainline and 60-pound test mono leaders. I use a Carolina rig with a 2- to 3-foot leader, a 2- to 3-ounce no roll sinker, and a 8/0 Gamakatsu circle hook.
When using large baits, I will rig with just a leader, swivel and hook, no weight. A big old shad head that weights close to a pound will stay on the bottom and you have plenty of weight to cast it out.
I like to leave my reels released in the rod holders to free spool with the bait clickers on. There is nothing like the sound of a bait clicker on a 6500 screaming with a big fish running off with you bait. It’s kinda’ like when the green flag drops at the Daytona 500. It sends a tingle down my spine and makes the hair stand up on my neck.
When the clicker goes off I just step up to the reel and turn the handle to lock the spool. I run the drags fairly loose and let the circle hooks do the work. When the rod loads up in the holder and the rod tip is down to the water, then I will take it out of the rod holder and try to land my trophy catfish.
The bites you get in these conditions are usually good bites. You don’t catch many small fish using this technique. Be prepared to break off a few rigs. If you’re not tying on rigs you are fishing in the wrong place.
I prefer fishing on the lower lake but I have a few spots in the upper lake I like also. The key is to find shallow water, less than 10 feet, that is a few degrees warmer than the main lake. If you can find these conditions near a deeper channel that also helps. Catfish will stage in 15- to 25-feet deep channels near shallow water during the day and move up into the shallow water at night to feed. This technique works equally well on other lakes in different parts of the country. It seems to work about everywhere I have tried it.
Monty Hill owns and operates Makin’ It Reel fishing reel repair business. He can be reached through his Makin’ it Reel Facebook page.