Just One Fish : My KBF Open Santee Cooper Report
by Troy Morgan

Three months of studying the lake, the time of year, tournament reports, the weather, bombarding Facebook groups for water temperature and clarity information, a hefty tackle order and tons of support from my friends, family, and most importantly, my fiancee, and I was ready for the Kayak Bass Fishing Open on Santee Cooper.

I fished from my Old Town Predator PDL. It handled winds up to twenty miles per hour well, with the rounded hull shedding wind. It handled swells and whitecaps with ease, the rocker cutting them like a knife. I cannot say enough good things about my kayak. My Blackpak carried six rods. One was a 7′ medium fast spinning outfit, this stick would handle all my finesse work. The next was a 6’10” medium fast casting setup for small spinnerbaits, lipless crankbaits, and jerkbaits should the opportunity to present them arise. A 7’1” medium fast casting outfit would launch the brunt of my Texas rigging in addition to my finesse jigs. On the lengthier end, a 7’3” medium heavy fast casting setup would pitch, flip, and cast jigs and trailers weighing in over one half an ounce. My 7′ medium heavy fast with a Tatula 100 would place chatterbaits and spinnerbaits where I needed them and retrieve them smoothly. Finally, I had my Daiwa DXSB 8′ heavy fast ready to hurl a swimbait if there was time for a kicker fish or two, or three.

The weeks before my sole practice day was a story of rain. The Wateree and Congaree rivers, which feed the Santee Cooper lake system, were flooded. Silty water would be my battleground, so I came prepared for no visibility whatsoever. In such situations a largemouth bass holds very tightly to cover and with a cold front coming in the night before practice, I had decided to press with issue with a vibrating jig. I planned to force my targets to bite by hopefully retrieving it on top of them and disturbing as much water as possible to send their lateral line into overload. The Z-Man Project Z Chatterbait in black and blue, tipped with a YUM Baits Pulse 3.5 in the Tin Foil cover, would be my main weapon in the chocolate waters. I boated the first fish I have ever caught on Santee Cooper relatively quickly, a 15” largemouth bass off a line of dead sawgrass with the occasional chunk of hyacinth mixed in. A waypoint was dropped on my Humminbird, and shortly thereafter I landed a larger bass on the same cover farther toward Sparkleberry swamp. The first fish had been happenstance, the second fish established a pattern. Hoping my two spots held fish, I pressed onward toward the rivers but found no more fish, no more sawgrass and hyacinth.

I then graphed a main lake ledge that transitioned from 8′ deep to 4′ in a very short distance but found none of the arches on my sonar that would betray a fish to me. There were no “grains of rice,” as I have come to view them as, on my side imaging. Oh well, I thought, the winds were too much as it were to target such an open area and they were projected to be worse on the day of the tournament. I pedaled hard for a creek arm I had identified so many weeks, perhaps months, before. The transition from murky to clear was astounding, but the depth simply was not enough to hold a population of fish in the 51-degree water, I thought. A hundred or so casts later would confirm that suspicion, and I decided there were no active fish where the creek met the lake. Undeterred, I remembered all the study I had done before I ever loaded my gear into my truck. Largemouth bass will seek out shallow water in the event of rising water, perhaps I would find some in the beginning of the creek. I laid my rods down in my tank well and began to slip deeper into the tannic waters of the cypress laden creek. Suddenly, 5′ of water abruptly dropped into 13′ and the depression continued for nearly 10 yards. Telltale arches filled my graph. The spot would shelter me from Saturday’s fierce winds and fill my limit of fish.

The winds had reached their peak, and I decided to head in and get a taste of what Saturday would bring. My Old Town Predator easily held speeds of three to three and a half miles per hour against the wind and current as I headed for my truck. I loaded my gear and decided to drive around the lake in search of an area less subject to the wind – second-guessing my proven spots. I met several other participants in the tournament as they came in to load their boats and gear in preparation for the night’s meeting. They were downtrodden and skunked. I decided to trust my initial plan and fish the three spots I had found, after all, two had produced a fish each and the third was sheltered from the wind and had shown them on sonar. It would be better to fish what I had become acquainted with rather than second guess myself and abandon my hard work. I left the lake and attended the Captain’s Meeting at D&H BBQ in Summerton, SC. It was there I met some welcoming, friendly anglers and ate some fried chicken before I returned to my Air BnB. 5 AM Saturday would come early.

I launched at 6:30 AM and pedaled hard for my first spot. There were a dozen or more bass boats staged at my landing, and three fellow kayak anglers. I wanted what I had worked so hard to find, and luckily I made it there before anyone else. I texted my fiancee at 6:45 to let her know I had arrived safely. Time came to a crawl as I waited for the phone to explode at 7:00 AM. Finally, it did, and I began to pick apart my first spot with my chatterbait. I burned up the grass line, trying every retrieve I knew and creating a few more on the fly to zero success. Forty-five minutes later, I had zero fish on my measuring board. Perhaps they had moved, or perhaps my change to a YUM Craw Chunk was not on their menu. Almost another hour was spent at my second waypoint for the same results. Mentally, I was a bit worried. Physically, I was cold as the winds began to pick up. I decided the drop in the clear creek arm would have to seal the deal.

As I pedaled, I checked the leaderboard. My fellow anglers were putting impressive numbers up already, but I would not be defeated so easily. The increasing challenge only resolved my will to pedal harder and the water behind my kayak began to wake and wave away. I arrived at my hole around 9:00 AM, and shortly thereafter I felt the distinctive feeling of tictictic as a fish voraciously attacked the 1/8oz shakyhead jig and the YUM Dinger in Watermelon Red Flake it was dressed with. I gave her a quick hookset, setting off drag in my Daiwa Fuego LT. Zzzzzzzt, came the report of my reel as I probably said, “don’t come off,” fifteen times in a ten-second engagement. A sweep of the net and a verbal celebration that was probably heard on the opposite side of Lake Marion from my creek on the North end of Moultrie, I had a bass in my hands. They were shaking. That fish was the first one I had ever caught in competition, and I was determined to do everything correctly so she would count. I failed. It was only after release that I realized my tournament identifier was absent from my picture. I decided it was not an issue and began to comb the hole. Two hours passed as I threw everything I had into thirteen feet of water and came up empty.

I was distraught and beaten. My heart was heavy. My first two spots would be much too difficult to effectively fish without placing myself at the mercy of the wind, and my creek refused to surrender the arches I had seen the day prior. I called my fiancee and vented my frustrations to her. Instead of allowing me to give up, pack it in, and head home, she encouraged me and for that, I will forever be thankful. I started casting again, but not truly fishing. My determination had left me. I was making easy casts into open water, monotonously retrieving my bladed jig and spinnerbait without giving them action, hopping my jigs instead of slowly dragging them as one should when the water is frigid. Noon came, and I decided to head to the ramp; I would fish the remainder of the day there, but I was hopeless. I began the journey back as a defeated man.

The conditions had mounted from bad to worse. I now battled the current of the merged Congaree and Wateree as waves broke over my bow, spraying me and chilling me to the bone. The negativity in my thoughts continued to chew away at my resolve. With spray in my eyes, I watched a fellow competitor paddle his mightiest against the same forces I fought. My Predator managed to overtake his kayak, and with a bit of coaxing, he agreed to allow me to help him back to the landing. My friend, if you’re reading this, thank you for allowing me to help you. Lending you a hand made me feel good about myself again that day. Together, he and I began to fight the powers against us. I pedaled as hard as I could in spurts, gaining ground as we approached the railroad tracks that cross at the Northern end of Marion. It was here we faced our biggest challenge. Debris from years and years of pushing current had dammed a lot of the wooden spars holding the tracks up, and two concrete pillars outlined our only entryway into respite. I’m sure my legs were twice as strong as they had ever been as we both gave the utmost effort to make it safely through. We did, and then we finally made it back to the cove that is Pack’s Landing. He and I talked about the adversity we had faced and how elusive our quarry had proven itself, but then he told me he was going to get back to fishing.

“I just want one fish,” he told me, and those four words reignited my spark. One fish. Santee Cooper would feel my skill in the waning hours of the tournament. I was going to go out fighting, not whining and moping over poor luck and missed opportunity. I no longer had to defeat the field ahead of me, I simply had to fish, to catch, to corner and lip the bass that had confounded me the entire day. Just one fish was all I needed. I selected a lure I had the utmost confidence in, one of my casting jigs. I clocked in and went to work after my new friend told me those four words, picking apart wood and grass down one bank of Pack’s Landing before I began to target the first dock I had set my sights on all tournament long. Tin roof, twenty posts lined with line cutting splinters and cracked edges, walkways that always sink an inch lower as one skips under them and boats to bang against on a missed cast. You know that dock I targeted. You have fished the same one. My first score of mixed casts, pitches, and skips failed to find a willing fish as I worked my way from the outside in. Finally, three-quarters of the way down the last set of posts, those closest to the bank. . .

Tac!

Wham! I crossed her eyes, boys and girls. Seventeen-pound fluorocarbon whistled through the air as instinct took over. I was in my element once again, fishing to beat the fish instead of my fellow man. I wrenched her away from the dock, pedaling my boat backward to further drag her away from the potential of a broken line. I have no idea what I said as I guided her into my net, but I thanked the powers that be for just one fish. Eighteen and one-quarter inches, on the board, tournament identifier visible. I submitted my picture to anxiously wait for it to be accepted. I lipped just one fish, pedaling her around for a moment to revive her before I returned her to Santee Cooper. That one fish will remain in my heart forever.

She was not enough to put me in first place, or second, or third, but she was enough. Just one fish was what I needed. I did not beat all 134 anglers who attended the Kayak Bass Fishing Open on Santee Cooper, but just one fish managed to slide me into 50th place. If my first fish had been submitted correctly, I would have managed 35th place. Knowing such a mistake had cost me from being in the top twenty-five percent, I feel confident to finish higher in the next tournament I attend.
I think I did well for my first Kayak Bass Fishing Open and I’ll see you all on Lanier in April. I hope you can join me once again as I recount my experiences and maybe, just
maybe, we will catch just one fish.

Thanks to my family, friends, and fiancee for supporting my dreams. Thanks to all the new friends I made. Thanks, Kayak Bass Fishing, for allowing us all to take part in this wonderful sport. Thanks, Amanda Brannon, for dealing with about five phone calls from me all probably on the same subject. Thanks, Henry Veggian, for directing the event like a veteran.

Thank you all for joining me as we just catch one fish.

Troy Morgan can be found on Facebook and Instagram