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The miracle of the bass

Feb. 16, 1959
Feb. 16, 1959

Table of Contents
Feb. 16, 1959

Daytona
Spectacle
Wonderful World Of Sport
Horse Racing
Fishing
Skiing
Food
19th Hole: The Readers Take Over
Pat On The Back

The miracle of the bass

The amazing story of the Santee-Cooper lakes in South Carolina where the salty striper is thriving in fresh water

Back during that biggest of all Depressions the State of South Carolina undertook a strange and controversial project. Through the use of federal funds, 40 miles of dams and dikes were thrown up to flood 160,000 acres of the sleepy, swampy, historic, moss-hung Low Country inland from Charleston. Armies of men and machines pushed the landscape around, cut or flooded great forests and diverted the Santee River into the Cooper.

This is an article from the Feb. 16, 1959 issue Original Layout

Opponents of the Santee-Cooper Hydroelectric and Navigation Project predicted disaster in many forms. A cherished chunk of the Deep South was being engulfed. Conservationists opposed the dam because of the loss of the virgin forests and the effects on wildlife. Others held that a power project built below the fall line in nearly flat terrain was impractical even if it did include the longest dam in the world and the country's highest lock.

Backers of the plan predicted it would bring an industrial millennium. It would create jobs, provide commercial navigation to Columbia, the state capital, and produce cheap power. Byproducts were to include fishing, hunting and boating.

Many of the hopes for the Santee-Cooper project never materialized. There is no commercial navigation to Columbia and the giant lock is used infrequently. Power is sold, but the predicted millennium never showed up. But now there is a burst of activity which neither the opponents nor the backers of the project could foresee. Increasing millions of dollars are being spent there because of the odd behavior of a fish.

Roccus saxatilis, the voracious striped bass, which provided a fishery worth millions when it was taken to California, changed its mode of living to bring a fisherman's bonanza to the Santee-Cooper area. The year-round activity there would make patient salt-water striper fishermen along the East Coast turn bright green. Some anglers contend the unorthodox behavior of the southern stripers is an event comparable to Eli Whitney's invention of the cotton gin. Avoiding such hasty comparisons, it is evident that Roccus already has taken its place in the stream of history in South Carolina, and down there the stream of history runs long and deep.

The striped bass, called "rock" south of New Jersey, is traditionally anadromous and, like any well-behaved anadromous fish, it has always gone up rivers to spawn in fresh or nearly fresh water, following which its young go down to the sea or saltwater bays to do their growing. But for once tradition has been flaunted in the Deep South. All the scientific evidence indicates that millions of stripers are spawned and grow up in the Santee-Cooper without the slightest taste of salt water during their entire lives. Already the once controversial waters are known as "the home of the landlocked striper."

It is apparent that these stripers have lost their anadromous habits, but not all the factors involved have been explained. The important result is that local and visiting fishermen are forsaking time-honored fresh-water species to go after stripers. Robert E. Stevens, state fish biologist at Santee-Cooper, is hard pressed to keep up with the expanding phenomenon. His estimates, based on a fragmentary creel census, show that in one recent 12-month period almost 100,000 fishermen caught more than 280,000 striped bass.

Stevens and his assistants have unique experiences in appraising these big lakes. On one occasion he set two 150-foot nets to catch crappie and mullet. The catch of crappie and mullet was disappointing but the nets contained 77 stripers weighing a total of 332.2 pounds. Gaping holes in the nets indicated that the biggest ones had gotten away.

Other sets had similar results, which led Stevens to report: "Striped bass were taken at all points, and if the numbers of striped bass frequenting the entire shoreline are expanded on the basis of the catch in a night of a few hundred feet of net, the contemplation of the total population of striped bass in the reservoir taxes the imagination." Using the most cautious estimates, he feels that the sports fishery already is resulting in an expenditure of $3.25 million a year.

"I think it could be as much as $5 million," he added. "And, in my mind, the lakes haven't realized much of their potential. Based on average success on a year-round basis, I'd say this is one of the best striped-bass fishing places in the world."

Stevens has other problems in fish biology. Black crappie, the most favored panfish in the reservoirs, reach inordinate sizes. The world's record, a 5-pounder, was caught in March 1957, and another caught last May weighed 4 pounds 13 ounces. When crappie get that size it is difficult to regard them as mere panfish.

The striper boom is not the result of a planned program. Instead, the fish have taken advantage of a set of favorable conditions inadvertently provided by the engineers when they designed the project.

Fishermen at Santee-Cooper ply their sport over historic ground. Fast outboards race after boiling schools of stripers over the plantations which were agricultural empires when cotton was king. Bottom-fishermen drop their lines where once avenues of ancient live oaks stood beside elaborate gardens and rows of whitewashed slave cabins. Between strikes the angler can ponder on the way of life and the historical events that took place before the $40 million project brought these wide waters.

Formed by the confluence of the Congaree and Wateree rivers, the Santee wound through the heart of the old French Huguenot plantation country to enter the Atlantic 50 miles above Charleston. It was a big stream, producing a greater volume of fresh water than even the Hudson.

In its lower reaches it flowed through the largest stretch of virgin forest left on the East Coast. Along its banks the forest formed a mighty wall, festooned with trumpet vines and hung with streamers of gray moss. In the jungle of the lower river Francis Marion, the Swamp Fox, had a hideout to which he and his men would retire after harassing the British. In the area since flooded were 24 plantations, some of them built before the Revolution.

At the time the project was started the plantations were generally in a rundown condition, although a few were going concerns. Some had been bought by Northerners. Among them was North Hampton, which had been the home of General William Moultrie. The water is now 45 feet deep where North Hampton stood.

A CUP ON THE MANTEL

Another plantation was Eutaw, where a fine old mansion with wide verandas stood among moss-festooned live oak trees. The Sinkler family had owned plantations on the lower Santee, and after the Revolution they moved up river and built Eutaw in 1808. At the time the machines started to build the dams the plantation was owned by William Henry Sinkler. The house still contained numerous examples of mahogany furniture built by master workmen of another age. On the walls were paintings of the race horses for which the plantation was once famous. On the mantel was a silver cup won by a Sinkler horse at the Pineville races in 1839.

Not far from Eutaw was Eutaw Springs, scene of a Revolutionary battle. From beneath a limestone ledge, amid a grove of old trees, flowed an enormous spring of clear, cold water, forming a stream which wandered off through cypresses. Near the spring a stone monument bore the following inscription:

"This stone marks the field whereon was fought the Battle of Eutaw, September 8, 1781, between a force of the United States under Major General Nathaniel Green and a force of Great Britain under Colonel Stuart. Neither side was victorious but the fight was beneficial to the American cause. Erected by Eutaw Chapter D.A.R. 1912."

When the armies of men and fleet of machines had finished their work the water of the Santee River was diverted on Nov. 12, 1941 to create the lakes that now cover that historic ground. An eight-mile dam across the Santee forms Lake Marion with an area of 100,000 acres. Below the dam the Santee is but a trickle of its former volume. The greater part of its water flows through a diversion canal 6½ miles long, which carries it into Lake Moultrie, which covers 60,000 acres. Below the power dam at Pinopolis a tailrace carries the Santee water into the Cooper River, which flows on down past Charleston.

At the power dam is a navigation lock 180 feet long, 60 feet wide and with a lift of 75 feet. Before Lake Moultrie was impounded the land was cleared of people, forest and buildings, but at Lake Marion, 46 miles long, most of the trees were left standing. The trees died, and today their gaunt trunks project from the water to create a lost-world type of scenery. The aspect may be eerie but among those old stumps is found the finest crappie fishing.

The stripers entered the picture mainly through the big lock, although some were undoubtedly trapped by the impoundment, as there had always been a seasonal run in the Santee. Not long after the waters had risen, fishermen were taking an occasional striped bass. By 1950 they began noticing an odd thing. Stripers were appearing in schools, and as soon as they did fishermen began experimenting with baits and methods for catching them.

George D. Scruggs, the first biologist assigned to interpret the curious behavior of the fish, concluded that most of the stripers in the reservoir were landlocked and able to complete a full life cycle without returning to salt water. For a time the lock was operated frequently to allow the passage of fish but this was discontinued, and during the three years ending in September 1957 the lock was operated only 207 times. Scruggs checked the lock with trammel nets and found only a handful of wandering stripers passing through.

Meanwhile new generations of bass were appearing in huge numbers. The biologist netted females with mature or spent ovaries, and collected eggs both in the tributary streams and in the lakes. Stevens, who succeeded Scruggs in March 1956, has established further proof that the landlocked fish are reproducing. This being the case, why are these stripers successful in fresh water when other introductions have failed? Some think the Santee stripers constitute a special race with uncommon abilities. Stevens thinks it is just because at Santee-Cooper the fish have found the exact conditions necessary to their complete life cycle.

The green, round eggs of the striped bass are slightly heavier than fresh water. After they are deposited near the surface a slight current will keep them bouncing along in suspension. If there is no current they sink into the mud and fail to hatch. Normally they drift along for 48 hours or more, depending on water temperatures, before hatching. Upon reaching brackish or salt water the young fish feed upon a variety of items, including crustaceans and marine worms. As they grow they shift to a diet of small fishes, and the larger they grow the bigger fish they eat.

When the stripers spawn up the Congaree and Wateree rivers the same events take place, but instead of entering salt water they find themselves in the shallow, rich waters of the reservoir. As they grow they find a prime source of food in the gizzard shad. In many fresh-water bodies in the South the gizzard shad is a pest, an unloved menace to game fishing. Large sums are spent in poisoning them, but in a few years their numbers are again legion.

But at Santee-Cooper the gizzard shad is looked upon as a blessing, for this fresh-water representative of the herring family is the important link in the simple food chain that leads to the striped bass. The shad live directly on plankton and get up to 16 inches in size. Stevens found a striper strangled on a gizzard shad 15.1 inches long. Stomach examinations at Lake Moultrie prove the stripers eat a wide variety of fish and insects but the gizzard shad is the main item.

The dramatic, vicious schooling activity that occurs when the bass rip into swarms of shad has led to a type of fishing far different from the stolid stance of the surf fisherman of the coast. In Lake Moultrie they hunt stripers with binoculars. Cruising along, they watch for gulls or the threshing the stripers make when they drive the shad to the surface. When a school is sighted, the boats head for it in a mad race, motors are cut, lures are cast into the melee, and the battle is on.

Many enjoy the wild race after the schools almost as much as the actual hooking of the fish. Sometimes during the height of the season in the fall as many as 20 boats will race after the same school. The school may be small or the water may be alive with threshing stripers over an area of two or three acres. When this happens the daily limit of eight is an easy and exciting task.

Early in the season, when the smaller fish are schooling, the spoon is the preferred lure, but later on, when the bigger fish are active, the bucktail is better. But here, as anywhere, fish are unpredictable. Sometimes they will snub both bucktails and spoons. At other times you could throw your handkerchief out there and they would tear it to pieces.

The binocular-speedboat method is called jump-fishing, probably because you have to jump from one place to another to get your fish. This method involves guile as well as speed. If a boat locates a school that surfaces periodically and another boat comes cruising by when the fish are below, the occupants of the first boat assume an air of utter dejection, as though they hadn't had a strike all day. As soon as the other boat leaves they fly into action again.

Another method is called bumping. Bump-fishermen let their boats drift with the wind over good spots. Their bucktail lures are lowered to the bottom and then brought up several feet with a quick jerk of the rod. Expert bumpers have such consistent success that some ignore the madcap chases after the schools.

Considerable trolling is done in the spring and fall with deep-running lures towed behind a relatively fast-moving boat. Sometimes a needlefish is rigged for trolling. Still-fishing for stripers is done mostly in the diversion canal with cut gizzard shad, live shad and herring. Here the long cane pole, the ancient symbol of southern fishing, comes into play.

While the Santee boom continues to grow, other southern states have tried to get stripers to reproduce in their own lakes, but so far Stevens has heard of no successful reproduction elsewhere.

Meanwhile the sleepy Low Country is alive with fishermen figuring out new schemes to land the fresh-water stripers. Game Warden Earl C. Tairney displayed new lures which have been devised, and one man who had caught the fever even produced some large flies with which he had been successful during large hatches of May flies. Everybody had ideas about how to cope with the growing population of Roccus saxatilis in these new but historic waters.

PHOTODREAM CATCH of both striped and black bass is shown by Oldtimer Eddie Finlay.MAPPHOTOHUGE CRAPPIE of 4 pounds 13 ounces is held up by Fish Biologist Robert Stevens.

Santee-Cooper, two huge fresh-water lakes and assorted canals and adjacent streams 25 miles inland from Charleston (small map), is now attracting fishermen from many distant points eager to share in the unusual sport of catching striped bass in fresh water. The large map shows two lakes totaling 160,000 acres, with designated areas for fishing and hunting.
WATEREE RIVER
CONGAREE RIVER
DIKE [bold dash line]
DAM [bold line]
FISHING ONLY [blue color area]
GAME REFUGE (No fishing or hunting) [grey color area]
SANTEE RIVER
SANTEE DAM
LAKE MARION
DIVERSION CANAL
LAKE
MOULTRIE
PINOPOLIS DAM
TAILRACE
COOPER RIVER
SOUTH CAROLINA
COLUMBIA
CHARLESTON
MILES