By Bernie Schultz
From time to time, BASS will introduce a relatively unknown body of water to our tournament schedule. Winyah Bay on South Carolina’s coast was just that.
Overwhelmingly vast, the area serves as a massive estuary, fed by multiple rivers and tidal streams. To prepare myself for the event, I visited Winyah Bay several months in advance — hoping anything I might find would pay off later.
Unfortunately, when I arrived, the entire area was under siege by flooding waters. Other than learning my way around, it was basically a wasted trip.
When the first day of official practice began, I decided to visit several backwater areas of the Pee Dee River arm — places I’d checked previously. Although the water had receded, it was still quite high.
Most banks were lined with flooded cypress and bay trees, lush with new growth. It was quiet and still — too still, in fact. I never had a bite.
From there, I worked my way downstream toward brackish water to take advantage of a falling tide. Implementing a strategy that works well on other tidal rivers, I moved from ditchmouth to ditchmouth, alternating casts with a variety of lures — including a Rapala SkitterPop, DT4 crankbait, Hildebrandt spinnerbait and buzzbait, and a variety of Yamamoto soft-plastics. Unfortunately, the fish weren’t using the ditches yet.
Next, I moved to where the Pee Dee and Wacama Rivers meet. Entering a large canal system, I found something more promising.
Classically sculpted, the area featured steep and gradual sloping banks with scattered cypress, laydowns and a few docks. Even though it yielded only two bites, I knew I had found a place to count on through any type of weather or tidal fluctuation.
Later in the afternoon, I worked my way up the Wacama River to a remote backwater. At the very back, in the mouth of a small feeder creek, I got several bites on the SkitterPop and a wacky-rig Slim Senko. I liked the area, but the number of boats going in and out concerned me. There just wasn’t enough water to go around.
On day two I opted to check the Santee River — the other area I had pre-fished. It looked awesome and I caught fish, but they were scattered and not in the numbers I was hoping for.
On day three, I trailered to the Cooper River. Although the scouting reports suggested this was the place to find the winning stringer, to be honest, I didn’t want to have to travel that far. The Cooper is a good two hours by boat from Winyah Bay and it would require fueling in both directions.
Nevertheless, I drove over and launched in the diversion canal below Cooper Dam. To the southwest was a backwater lake that reminded me of Florida. It was lush and thick with aquatic vegetation, and just by its appearance, it looked like the place to win in. Two hours later, however, I had only one bite.
I was disappointed, but somewhat relieved. I clearly did not want to make the long run.
Leaving there, I moved to an area known as the “Rice Fields” — old farming tracks flooded decades ago, now thick with submerged grass and scattered snags. The area looked good, but I caught only a couple of small fish.
By 2pm, it was time to head back for registration. At that point, I knew the Wacama canal system would be my only prayer.
Drawing out in the third flight, the next morning I raced to the canal system and idled past a couple of boats stationed at the mouth. Ten minutes later, I was making my first cast.
In a deeper section of the canal, I targeted shoreline cover with the popper, crankbait and wacky-rig. In minutes, I had a couple of fish aboard. Then the action slowed.
An hour later, two other boats had worked their way into the same section. One was my traveling partner, Cliff Prince. The other was Gary Klein.
Prince started a chain reaction by scoring first. Then I scored, and he scored again. Between volleys, Gary Klein also caught fish. By noon, Cliff and I both had our five and were relieved. We never expected to catch a limit that easily.
Then came the afternoon — a three-hour stretch of total meltdown, where I lost nearly every bite I had. I was fit to be tied.
By weigh-in, my 8-pound limit was teetering on the cutline. I knew I’d have to step it up on day-two in order to fish on Saturday.
The next morning, I raced once more to the back of the canal system, hoping for a repeat performance. It wasn’t meant to be, however. By noon, I had only two small keepers in the box. I struggled with what to do next: Should I leave, or stick it out? The only other real option within range was the tiny feeder creek way up the Wacama. My fear there, however, was that it had been too pressured by other competitors, or that the tide would be wrong when I arrived. I opted to stay put.
Around 1:30pm, I boated another small keeper. Then another that barely measure (or so I thought). I told my partner there was still hope. Little did I know, at that point it was over.
Three o’clock came and it was time to run back to check-in. The whole way there, I knew I was well short of the money. Even worse, when I arrived, I rechecked my smallest fish to be sure it would make the 12-inch minimum and discovered it was a hair short. That left me with only three. I wanted to crawl under a rock.
To make things worse, nearly everyone in the weigh-in line had a limit of chunky bass. Several even had monster bags. It was like they had been fishing an entirely different body of water.
When the dust settled, Britt Myers won the event by… making long, daily runs to the Cooper River. He proved what we all knew: that the winning stringer was there for the taking. It just took the courage to try. A classic case of high risk, high reward.
With this one behind me, I headed home to prepare for Bull Shoals and Norfolk, then Lake Wheeler — hoping for a much better outcome.