- The Washington Times - Sunday, March 2, 2003

CROSS, S.C.
Loons eerily trilled and yodeled in the distance. The birds were hidden in a dense fog, but their cries were unmistakable.
"Yeah, they come down here during the winter," fishing guide Tom Bradley said before quickly changing the subject when he glanced at the stern section of his boat. "The center rod's down! Somebody grab it!"
Some minutes and many muscle-jolting reel handle turns later, a 20-pound blue catfish thrashed the surface of Lake Moultrie. Bradley slipped a huge landing net under the pot-bellied fish, pulled it up onto the boat deck and smiled broadly. "That's what it's all about," the guide said.
Less than half an hour before the fat "cat" inhaled a two-finger-thick slab of bait mullet, Bradley had loosened the ropes of an incredibly comfortable pontoon boat that had been tied to a dock at Hill's Landing. The Hill's facility is a popular fishing camp, marina, bait shop and restaurant combo, a strategically located gathering place for fishermen from all over the U.S. mainland who come to what is known as Santee Cooper Country, which includes the giant Lake Marion and adjacent Moultrie 171,000 combined acres of water. If you stay at Hill's landing you'll be between the two lakes, along a diversion canal that allows you to head west up into Marion or east to Moultrie.
The guide chose Moultrie to hunt for bruiser-size catfish in a lake complex that is actually more famous for its bass, crappie and striper populations.
Bradley chuckled when asked why he preferred to chase after blue catfish. "If it weren't for our catfish, we'd be in a heck of a fix during the cold months," he said.
His partially covered pontoon boat bobbed gently in 18 to 25 feet of water that showed an undulating bottom dotted with old cypress stumps and assorted other line-tearing snags in which the catfish hunted food when the water temperatures fell. In warmer situations, the whiskered fighters would hang around in less than six feet of lake water, Bradley said.
So what happened to the beautiful crappies, the bass and the rockfish that Santee Cooper was so justly famous for? After all, the Santee Cooper lakes used to be home to a world record black crappie of well over 4 pounds, largemouth bass that didn't even raise an eyebrow from the locals when they tipped the scales at 10 pounds and huge stripers that drew visitors from afar. A look at the record books revealed that Santee Cooper also turned up a world record 109-pound blue catfish, a world record line-class 61-pound, 15-ounce flathead catfish and a flyfishing tippet record for white crappie.
"All those fish species are still here," said Jamie Courtney, the owner of Hill's Landing. "Not long ago, these two lakes were choked with marine grasses, such as milfoil and other types. Then an eradication program began because the weedbeds had grown so massive that navigation became a nightmare, especially in the feeder creeks where property owners couldn't even motor their boats up to their homes. The weeds are gone now, and the angler who visits will have to figure out the bass and crappies all over again. You can't just run up to a grassy area anymore and throw a lure at it and hook a fish. These days you need to check out the cypress trees and submerged stumps, the deep ditches and channels near a shoreline just like we used to in the old days."

The fog over Lake Moultrie became even more dense shortly after Tom Bradley said it would be gone within minutes. He intently checked his depth locator's screen as his pontoon boat slowly drifted across a deep underwater cut, a kind of channel that sat not too far from a place called Coon Island. The depth sounder revealed a number of sharply arched markings along the edges of shallow-to-deep dropoff. "Catfish," Bradley said.
Four 7-foot medium/heavy rods and fine Abu-Garcia 6000 or 6500 baitcasting reels, loaded with 30-pound-test monofilament line, rested in the boat's rod holders. Our baits consisted of generous chunks of mullet or blueback herring.
"Don't worry about the fog," Bradley said for the umpteenth time, then repeated his promise that the pea soup would be gone within minutes.
The minutes stretched into hours, and the fog still surrounded us.
"Might need to use my GPS unit to get us back home," Bradley said with a broad smile. Somehow he knew the fog would disappear.
Suddenly, one of the rods on the port side of the pontoon boat quivered oddly, then violently bent downward. The rod was snatched from its receptacle, and the hook was driven home into an as yet unseen fish.
"This is a good one," the guide said, as if a previous 20-pounder was chump change. A lot of pumping and reeling ensued. Valuable yards of line were gained only to see it disappear again whenever the fish a blue cat, no doubt, probably a heavy female decided to strip some of the nylon from the reel. The fight went on and on until Bradley caught a glimpse of the behemoth.
"She'll go 60 pounds if she weighs an ounce," he said excitedly, then shook his head in disbelief when the big blue catfish sounded, went to the bottom and promptly wrapped the line around some kind of obstacle. The fish would not be moved.
"Maybe she'll come out of there on her own," Bradley said. She didn't. The eventual tug of war that ensued was won by the barbled creature, who knew her watery neighborhood a hundred times better than any human ever could. She obviously took advantage of that and, of course, her considerable strength. Eventually, the 30-pound-test line snapped like it was sewing thread.

After we returned and began to clean and fillet several blue catfish to prepare a sumptuous dinner, one of the customers at Hill's landing was asking for a bucket filled with bait minnows. "What for?" he was asked, and the answer came quickly, "Crappie fishing, that's what," said the visitor, who lives in Lynchburg, Va.
Said a bystander who hoped for the wind to slow down so he could launch his boat: "The crappies aren't easy to come by." Wonder what he thought when Jamie Courtney walked up to one of his rental house trailers and shouted, "Take a look at these!" He held a bucket filled with some of the fattest, most beautiful crappies we've seen in a long time.
"My father caught them," Courtney said. "He caught them up toward Eutaw Springs, close to shore."
So much for the hard-to-locate crappies. And sometime this month, the huge FLW tournament organization will have a major bass tournament in the Santee Cooper lakes. Life is good.
Look for Gene Mueller's Outdoors column every Sunday and Wednesday and his Fishing Report every Thursday, only in The Washington Times. E-mail: [email protected]washingtontimes.com.


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