CLARENDON COUNTY, S.C. — They’re often called South Carolina’s “Great Lakes," and the Bassmaster Elite Series field will certainly find plenty of Palmetto State potential.
However, seasonal conditions will put the nation’s top bass pros to the test during the Bassmaster Elite at Santee Cooper Lakes, Oct. 8-11. Takeoffs will be at 7:05 a.m. ET each day from John C. Land III Sport Fishing Facility in Summerton, and daily weigh-ins will be held back at the facility at 3:20 p.m.
About a week ago, Lake Marion stood within 1 1/2 feet of full pool, while Lake Moultrie was less than a foot low. Noting that these levels are higher than seasonal norms, South Carolina Elite pro Todd Auten says the situation has pros and cons.
“There’s a lot of shallow wood, especially in the upper lake, so the higher water will make it easier to get around,” Auten said. “But I think the high water will hurt more than it will help because it spreads the fish out.”
Auten said he has experienced tremendous fall bites on Santee Cooper, but the tournament will probably arrive a little ahead of prime time.
Shorter days trigger fall feeding instincts, but Auten said these lakes really need a shot of cooler weather to ignite the bite. With the tournament week’s forecast showing daytime highs holding steady in the mid- to upper 70s, it’s looking more like an early fall grind.
“I don’t think it’s at pure fall patterns yet,” Auten said. “I think a lot of these fish haven’t moved (shallow) yet.”
With its upper end receiving the major inflow, Marion is most likely to retain some of the turbidity from the late-summer rains, while Moultrie typically holds cleaner water. Common habitat features include docks, lily pads, stumps, flooded trees and swamps (upper lake) and offshore brushpiles (lower lake).
“Brushpiles could play, especially if the water comes down a bit,” Auten said. “But if the water stays up, they’re usually not good. When they’re pulling down the water, some fish may move out to the brush.”
Auten expects jigs, Texas-rigged plastics, spinnerbaits, ChatterBaits, topwaters and buzzbaits to see a lot of shallow water action. With the week’s warm outlook, he believes frogging the duckweed and pads will also come into play. The offshore game will likely comprise drop shots, swimbaits, shaky heads and Texas-rigged worms.
“With the water being up, it’s going to make the shallow water bite maybe a little better,” Auten said. “When the fish are scattered, it’s harder to catch numbers. But Santee has such good fish, you might catch two or three and still have 15 pounds.”
Indeed, with stocked Florida-strain largemouth mingling with native bass, a double-digit kicker could make an appearance at any time. The challenge, Auten said, will be establishing consistency.
“A guy who’s flipping cypress trees might get into the right area and bust a big bag,” he said. “I’m sure you’re going to see a 25-pound bag, but I’ve seen it where you do that one day and go back the next day and struggle to catch a limit.”
Time management always matters, but with two lakes available, anglers will need to carefully weigh the urge to relocate. As Auten notes, the diversion canal includes idle zones that can chew up the clock.
“I think it’s feasible to fish both lakes, but I wouldn’t do it more than once a day,” Auten said. “One thing to consider is that there are rocks along the edges of that canal that will hold fish.”
Looking at the tournament’s potential productivity, Auten points to local team events that are won with 20 to 22 pounds. The Elite field will likely produce several such limits, but doing so across a four-day event is a tall order.
Auten’s looking for 15 to 16 pounds a day to reach the final round and 17 to 18 a day for the win, but he’s also optimistic about the kicker factor.
“If you’re fishing that swamp (in Marion), one flip and you could catch a 10-pounder,” he said. “That’s the thing about this lake; it has so many big fish in it. If you catch two good fish, you’re in pretty good shape sometimes.”
That being said, Auten acknowledges Santee Cooper’s humbling ways: “This lake will hand it to you. You’ll go in there and slay them one day and the next day, it’s pretty stingy to you.”
Live coverage of the event will be available daily on Bassmaster.com and ESPN3.