For folks from other places, the Santee Cooper Lakes are Lake Marion and Moultrie (locally called the Upper Lake and Lower Lake), which are connected by a canal and impound the Santee and Cooper rivers through some complex engineering. The two lakes are distinctive, and each has its own character, but because they are connected and operated together, they tend to be viewed as a single massive (170,000 acres) fishery. The lakes are fertile and offer highly diverse forage and extensive habitat, resulting in world-class fisheries for multiple species.
Santee Cooper first gained fame as the original home of landlocked striped bass when anadromous fish got trapped during the lakes' construction in the 1940s and ended up surviving and making spawning runs up the rivers. Big catfish are probably the lakes' current largest claim to fame. Folks travel from all over the country to sample Santee Coopers's legendary catfish, and many guides stay busy year-round with catfish trips. Blues and flatheads draw the headlines, but Santee Cooper holds claim to the world record channel cat, and channels still provide a fun opportunity for fast action at certain times. Santee Cooper is also famous for its giant shellcrackers and bluegills, highlighted by a former world-record shellcracker that came from the canal that connects lakes. And then there are the bass and the crappie, which are the main reasons why many anglers travel to these waters year after year.
Fishing is the main attraction for me, and I could go on and on about Santee Cooper angling opportunities. My fondness for the lakes extends far beyond its fisheries, though. I appreciate the variety of settings, from vast swamps at the upper end of Marion and around both lakes to the flooded forest in Marion's main body to the wide open water of Lake Marion. With that comes diverse wildlife, including gators, ospreys, wading birds and much more.
I also enjoy the atmosphere throughout Santee Cooper Country. These are fishing lakes first, and both are serviced by several true fish camps, where an angler can get a cabin or motel room, buy fresh bait and the tackle needed, hire a guide that goes out of the camp's docks, launch a boat and hang out in the restaurant to enjoy big servings of down-home cooking and hear plenty of fish stories.
I've spent many hours in the Black's Camp restaurant, enjoying catfish stew and a burger or a dinner buffet while gleaning wisdom from veteran guides.
Really, the biggest challenge about planning travel to Santee Cooper is figuring out when you would most like to go, which area you want to visit, and what species you want to target. Santee Cooper Country is a great resource to help with the planning. The website provides loads of great information, and if your plans allow you to travel through the town of Santee between 8:30 and 4:30, stop by their visitor center to look around and talk with someone in person.