Amazing fishing with a side of hiking, paddling and history, please? It's what's on tap in Santee Cooper Country.
South Carolina is an angler’s paradise, of that there can be no doubt. From freshwater trout in crystal-clear mountain streams to saltwater action in the surf, sounds and estuaries of the coast, the Palmetto State is one place that truly “has it all” when it comes to fishing. The lakes at the heart of the Santee Cooper Country tourism region are certainly no exception. Known far and wide as the birthplace of the freshwater striped bass (now found in impoundments across the U.S.), the lakes – Marion and Moultrie – also offer amazing crappie fishing, fine opportunities for largemouth bass, and last but not least, crazy-good catfishing.
I found out just how good on a recent photo outing for South Carolina Wildlife magazine with frequent contributor Michael Dewitt and his son. Going “to Santee” to catch some catfish is something that native South Carolinians (and visitors) have been doing for years, and many amateur anglers possess the know-how and the equipment to do it right themselves, but if you don’t, no worries as they say in Australia, there are plenty of guide services that will be happy to help put you on fish so that you can take home enough to fix fried catfish, catfish stew and all the trimmings for a crowd. We met up with one of those folks in the pre-dawn hours at one of the many marinas dotting the shores of Lake Marion and slipped out through the morning fog to the main channel to soak freshly caught (that morning) cut herring along the bottom, hoping for an encounter with a big cat. I don’t want to tell you too much more than that, cause it will ruin the surprise for the upcoming article, but suffice it to say that we had a boatload (literally) of fun, and thanks to our guide, who is one of the more unique and capable individuals you would ever want to meet, we also caught plenty of catfish – mainly blue catfish, which SCDNR biologists began stocking into lake Marion in 1964. You can read all about it in SCW’s May-June issue.
While catfishing is a mainstay for guided trips on the lakes, it is far from the only fishing available. If bass or crappie are more your bag, you’ll find those here too, and plenty of knowledgeable guides with the expertise to put you where the action is. Visit the Santee Cooper website at the link above to get some help finding the right guide for your fishing adventure, or stop by the Visitor’s Center on Old #6 Highway just south of town to get information or one-on-one assistance with planning your stay in the area.
It’s not just fishing, either. With several state and local parks, some great golf courses, the Audubon Society’s Francis Beidler Forest, AND the Santee National Wildlife Refuge located within the region, it’s not hard to find a place for just about any outdoor activity you want to pursue. The area is also rich with history, particularly Revolutionary War history, and with the (finally!) unseasonably warm temperatures we’ve been having, I decided in mid-February that a visit to the SNWR would be just the thing to shake off January’s winter doldrums. Outdoor lovers have a lot of options at SNWR. There’s actually four separate units within the refuge; if paddling, mountain biking or a long hike is what you are after, the Cuddo and Pine Island units east of I-95 offer miles of trails with abundant wildlife viewing opportunities and a wide diversity of habitats. The Cuddo Unit also has a driving tour available, so folks with limited time or who don’t have the stamina or inclination to hike or bike over long distances can see a lot of the Unit’s interior areas via car. The Dingle Pond Unit encompasses a large Carolina bay wetland, which makes it a great spot for birding. From the parking lot, a one-mile-long hiking trail will take you to an observation platform overlooking the pond.
On my trip, after a quick ride through the Cuddo Unit via the Wildlife Drive auto route, I made my way back to the visitor’s center at the Bluff Unit, because the thing that I really wanted to see was the site of the Fort Watson and the “Santee Indian Mound,” just a short drive from the center. I love hiking a new spot, particularly one where the possibility for seeing and photographing birds is strong, but I like history too, and this place is crawling with it. First of all, the Santee Indian tribe occupied this key spot of high ground overlooking the river for thousands of years, and archaeologists believe the mound (approximately 1,000 years old) served as an important ceremonial site. The Santee River itself would have been a key route for native Americans traveling from the coast to the interior, so occupying a high point along the river probably had strategic value for the Santee as well.
The British Army certainly thought so. The Santee abandoned the site in the early 1700s, their numbers decimated by diseases brought by Spanish, and then English, settlers. During the Revolutionary War, the British occupied the mound and built a fort – Fort Watson – on top of it. The spot provided an ideal vantage point overlooking the river and the primitive road between Charleston and Camden and points west. In April 0f 1781, guerillas operating under the command of General Francis Marion, the “Swamp Fox,” and regular Continental Army forces under the command of General Harry “Lighthorse” Lee (father of none other than Confederate Army commander Robert E.) laid siege to the fort. The action was concluded successfully for the Colonials when the idea was hatched to build a tower using logs cut from locally abundant pine trees, which gave Marion and Lee’s forces the ability to reach the inside of the fort’s walls with deadly accurate rifle fire. Not a major battle by any means, nor a particularly well-known one, but it spelled the beginning of the end for the British in the backcountry of South Carolina.
I love that you can climb up and stand in this spot – the intersection where so many strands of South Carolina’s storied history come together. Across the water, in the distance, cars and 18-wheelers rumble across the I-95 bridge. With a little imagination, it’s not too difficult to close your eyes and imagine that instead you are looking out across the valley and the Santee river, scanning the far bank for signs of travelers -- a party of Cherokees maybe, loaded down with deerskins bound for the docks of Charlestowne, or a sortie of mounted “redcoats,” that will necessitate a fast trip via horseback overland and through the swamps to notify General Marion.
It’s an amazing spot, and after climbing down, I hike the short distance through the woods along the Wright’s Bluff Nature trail, a one-mile loop that includes a boardwalk and observation platform overlooking Cantey Bay. While I’m there, taking some pictures of a great egret across the way and wishing for a longer lens, a pair of herons flies in. “Well this will be neat,” I think to myself, my photography mentors having taught me that three animals in the frame at one time is optimal. But the herons aren’t friendly, they’re apparently rivals vying for the same spot, and a spirited fight ensues during which one heron gets dunked, thrashing, under the water and retreats, and the egret scatters as well. Nature is always surprising, you just have to be there to see it, and there’s not a better spot anywhere to watch and wait, than the Santee National Wildlife Refuge and Santee Cooper Country.