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The miracle of the bass
John O'Reilly
February 16, 1959
The amazing story of the Santee-Cooper lakes in South Carolina where the salty striper is thriving in fresh water
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February 16, 1959

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

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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.

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."

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