For decades, lakes Marion & Moultrie have been the mainstays of this region’s thriving nature-based tourism economy. That used to mean fishing, fishing and more fishing (and it still does), but these days, there’s more to experience in Santee Cooper Country.
You could say it all started with Tiny Lund. When the well-known racecar driver, angler, sportsman, fish camp owner and all-around raconteur pulled a whopping 55-pound striped bass out of Lake Moultrie in 1963, someone snapped a photo, sporting journalists reported it, and recreational anglers around the region and across the U.S. sat up and took notice, and the race was on.
The black and white image commemorating Lund’s famous catch still hangs in a prominent spot at the Santee Cooper Country visitors center on S.C. Highway 6 in the town of Santee. Lund’s state record would stand for 30 years, eventually broken long after hatchery-reared striper populations were established in Piedmont lakes like Hartwell, Thurmond and Russell by S.C. Department of Natural Resources biologists in the 1960s and 70s. In fact, the current state record striped bass of 63 pounds came out of Lake Russell and was caught by an angler who broke his own previous record – a 59 pound, eight-ounce monster out of Lake Hartwell. But in 1963, thanks to Lund’s lucky catch, striped bass and the Santee Cooper lakes were inextricably linked in the public’s imagination.
The photo is a testament to the marketing power a single image can have. In truth the lakes, and the region, were already gaining a well-deserved reputation regionally as a “Sportsman’s Paradise” by the early 60s, as well as being a popular vacation spot for thousands of South Carolina families. Lund himself owned and operated a popular “fish camp” on the shores of Lake Moultrie when he wasn’t blasting around the track at Daytona or Darlington. But after that famous photo of Lund holding up his 55-pounder went out across the U.S. on the wire services, things hit another gear, and tourism, particularly of the outdoor variety has been a MAJOR part of this region’s economy ever since.
The modern-day equivalent of the “PR” goldmine a photo like that can bring might just be the boost provided by a Top-25 finish on the “bucket list” of a major fishing publication. Bassmaster magazine’s & Bassmaster.com are read by hundreds of thousands of fishing enthusiasts. The inclusion of the Santee Cooper lakes in their “Top 25 Lakes of the Decade” list will provide a real boost when it comes to attracting visitors, according to Santee Cooper Country Executive Director Jane Powell, as will the lakes being featured in an upcoming Bassmaster Elite Series tournament in October.
“Oh it absolutely does,” said Powell. “It highlights the beauty of our natural area and it highlights the types of fish that we have in the lakes. When these guys come in and they catch these bass, and they promote it – because they have such a fantastic following, you get all that marketing boost from people seeing that on TV. People are able to see the cypress trees and the natural beauty that we have. And it helps our lakes by encouraging the people who are watching to want to come here and catch that fish.”
Santee Cooper Country provides visitors with a wealth of options for family fun in the outdoors, everything from golf outings and waterparks to museums and fine dining, but it’s no secret that fishing on lakes Marion and Moultrie have been a mainstay for tourism in the region since they were constructed in the late 1930s. “Going to Santee” to camp, fish, or perhaps stay the week in a rustic lakeside cottage has long been a beloved tradition for South Carolina families.
[Photo gallery below] SCDNR undertakes a wide range of monitoring and management activities to maintain fishing in the lakes. From left to right: The fish lift at the St. Stephen’s dam allows passage of anadromous species into the lakes. SCDNR staff replenish fish attractor sites using cedar trees and other materials on a yearly basis. Striped bas fry ready to be released into Lake Moultrie. Propagation of striped bass for stocking purposes at the SCDNR’s Bayless fish hatchery. [SCDNR photos]
The S.C. Department of Natural Resources Freshwater Fisheries Section works hard to maintain all of the lakes’ popular fisheries. Now, once again, the word about Santee-Cooper Country is going nationwide, thanks to that coveted “Top Fishing Lake in the U.S.” designation. It’s also a reflection of the lakes’ continued popularity as a perennial stop on the Bassmaster Elite series tournament trail and a popular location for BASS Nation amateur tournaments. Tournaments – and the attention and nationwide media interest that comes with them – help drive an estimated $415 million in annual visitor spending in the Santee Cooper Country Tourism region and the approximately 3,500 tourism-related jobs that comes with it. For an organization like Santee Cooper Country, all those live feeds of professional anglers hauling in big bass against the scenic backdrops so common on lakes Marion and Moultrie are like money in the bank.
These days, a family vacation to Santee Cooper Country is just as likely to include other outdoor adventures as well. Interest in hiking, paddling, birdwatching and other “nature-based” activities, as well as “history-based” travel, has grown tremendously in the last few decades, and the many assets the region brings to the table for those pursuits have left it well-positioned as a tourism destination with a broad-based appeal for outdoor adventure travelers of all skill levels.
“Fishing is our number one attraction, that’s always been true, and it still is,” said Powell, “but with 170,000 acres of waterways, recreational boating is also a major draw, as well as birdwatching, hiking, golfing (13 courses open year-round are within a 45 minute drive of Santee) and camping.”
On Lake Marion’s eastern shore lies 13,000 acres of the Santee National Wildlife Refuge, a hugely popular spot for day hikers, paddlers and bird watchers. In the wintertime, birders flock to the refuge’s Cuddo unit in search of painted buntings, sandhill cranes and other migratory visitors. Santee Cooper Country is also popular with another fast-growing travel niche – “historical tourism” – due to the areas many connections to the Revolutionary War. The refuge’s Bluff Unit is home to the Santee Indian Mound and Fort Watson, an important ceremonial and burial site for the native Santee Indian Tribe for more than 1,000 years, and also the location of a pivotal battle for control of the South Carolina Backcountry in 1781. Forces led by General Francis “Swamp Fox” Marion and Lt. Col. Harry “Lighthorse” Lee defeated the British garrison at the mound, giving U.S. Patriot forces a vantage point overseeing the Santee River and the Charleston Road. Anyone who’s ever seen the movie “The Patriot” is bound to get excited about that. Another day trip might include a visit to Marion’s gravesite at Belle Isle Plantation on the shares of Lake Moultrie near Pineville. The small family cemetery located about a mile off S.C. Highway 45 is maintained by SCPRT. The annual Battle of Eutaw Springs re-enactment is another popular event that brings Revolutionary War history buffs back to the region year after year.
Paddling is another outdoor activity that has gained tremendously in popularity in recent decades, and there’s no shortage of paddling destinations in Santee Cooper Country. Sparkleberry Swamp at the headwaters of Lake Marion is a popular destination for kayakers and canoers (be sure and bring a GPS or go with an experienced guide – the swamp’s many twists and turns can confuse even the most seasoned paddlers), or how about the “Swamp Fox Trail,” an epic five-day, four-night camping/paddling odyssey that will take you across both lakes, one of the many paddling trails outlined at Berkeley County Blueways.org.
[Photo gallery below] Historic attractions connected the the region’s role in the American Revolution such as the gravesite of General Francis Marion, the “Swamp Fox,” are another popular draw for visitors to the region. [SCDNR photos by David Lucas]
If hiking or mountain biking’s your outdoor jam, there are literally dozens of trails of varying length to choose from, but you could do a lot worse than choosing one of the sections of the state-spanning Palmetto Trail that pass through the region. At one time, the old Highway 301 bridge between the town of Santee and the western shore of the refuge was a key link for hikers on the trail headed towards the coast. The old bridge is closed (for now), so through hikers have to portage across the lake to the trailhead located in the refuge, but raising the funds needed to reopen that crossing is a top priority for the region, said Powell.
If you’re looking for something a little more leisurely, there are plenty of local parks like Cypress Gardens or the stunning Old Santee Canal park, both near the town of Monck’s Corner, that will put beautiful scenery and wildlife viewing opportunities in reach of even the most casual hiker.
In short, there’s little doubt that Santee Cooper Country still lives up to its popular mid 20th Century description as a “Sportsman’s Paradise, “it’s just that n 2020, the meaning of that phrase has surely to cover a lot more activities. But any way you slice it, if it’s outdoor experiences you’re seeking – from adventurous to relaxing — you’ll find you’ll find it all right here.
Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed on South Carolina Wild are solely those of the authors, and do not reflect official policies, positions, or endorsements of activity or products by the South Carolina Department of Natural Resources.