Looking to reel in a trophy-sized fish on your next South Carolina vacation?
Marion and Moultrie, the state's "Great Lakes," are prime territory for fish-tale worthy catfish, crappie and largemouth bass. A number of state-record fish have been pulled from these waters, among them a 58-pound channel catfish that holds the world record today.
But it's the landlocked striped bass that have earned the lakes their legendary status. When the Lake Marion dam was built across the Santee River in 1942, stripers that had come up the Cooper River from the ocean to spawn became trapped. Despite the freshwater habitat, the saltwater fish adapted and have been thriving ever since. Preferring cold water, stripers reside in the deepest parts of the lake until fall when they begin their migration, making October a prime time for fishing.
Centrally located within the coastal plain, Lakes Marion and Moultrie and the diversion dam between them comprise the Santee Cooper reservoir, so named for the two rivers they connect.
Marion, the largest lake in the state at 110,600 acres, is filled with old standing timber that serves as excellent fish habitat for crappie, bream and catfish. The stumps can prove to be a navigational nuisance so, if you're new to the area, it's best to stick to the well-marked channels.
Unlike Marion, most of Lake Moultrie was timbered before impoundment, but submerged tree trunks remain in the shallow waters along its banks. The best time to fish in the stump fields is in the low light of early morning or evening or when it's overcast. Local anglers use cut bait to catch the 30- to 40-pound fish that frequent the shallows.
The diversion canal is another sweet spot to drop a line, especially on cool or windy days. You can catch some really nice fish using live bait in the protected waters of the canal. A rock pile in the middle of the 6 ½-mile waterway serves as a sheltering place for stripers to ambush bait that's influenced by current.
With more than two dozen boat ramps scattered around the lake, getting on the water is easy. Don't have your own boat? You can rent a jon boat, pontoon, skiff or kayak from one of the many local outfitters.
Nearly as many public banks and fishing piers are available for those who prefer to cast from the shore.
For your best chance at hauling in the big one, book a trip with an experienced guide familiar with the lakes and where fish are biting each season. Some specialize in a particular species like catfish or bass.
If you plan to spend several days fishing, Santee State Park offers cozy waterfront accommodations, along with two boat ramps and a handicapped-accessible pier. The park's unique "rondette" lodging includes 20 cabins located on the lakeshore and 10 on a pier overlooking Lake Marion. More than 150 campsites also are available, accommodating tents and RVs up to 40 feet long.
A number of other campgrounds and resorts can be found along the shoreline, most of them on Lake Marion. There are even a few on the banks of the diversion canal. You'll also need a fishing license, which you can pick up at the state park or almost any local business that caters to fishermen.
Whatever you catch, you'll be treated to a beautiful lake vista with vast expanses of flooded cypress forest. And with more than 150,000 acres of water and 700 miles of shoreline, you won't have any trouble finding a quiet cove or backwater slough to enjoy the scenery.