By Bernie Schultz
Of all the events slated on this year’s Bassmaster Elite Series schedule, none was more concerning than Winyah Bay. Serving as the confluence to numerous rivers, this South Carolina tidal system can be unpredictable and stingy … even when the conditions seem right.
Flowing into Winyah Bay are the Waccama, Great Pee Dee, Little Pee Dee, Sennett and Santee rivers. Eighty miles to the south at Charleston is where the Cooper River reaches the coast. And it, too, was deemed accessible by B.A.S.S. tournament officials.
With such an expansive fishery, you would think the Elite field would spread out. Yet many of the competitors found themselves fishing in a crowd … me included.
On day 1 of practice, I launched at a canal just off the Cooper River. My plan was to test those waters first, then decide whether to stick with the area.
My first stop was in Back River — a small oxbow off the Cooper. There I found familiar surroundings. The shoreline was lined with matted vegetation, and there were also beds of submerged hydrilla to explore.
My first few bites showed promise — one was nearly 5 pounds — but as the day wore on, the bites came fewer and farther between. By sunset, my best five weighed barely more than 10 pounds. Realizing that, I decided I would spend the rest of practice nearer to take-off and try to avoid the long run south.
The next morning, I put in at our official launch ramp at Sennett Creek. With quick access to the Intracoastal Waterway, I ran north to a series of tidal creeks off the Waccama — places that looked good on the map.
Fishing all the way to their back ends, I found numbers of keeper-size bass holding at the mouths of nearly every run in. Most struck a Storm Arashi Cover Pop or Senko rigged wacky-style. I tried duplicating the pattern in other reaches of the marsh, and I found some success, but not in the numbers expected.
As the tide began to rise, I moved to the Pee Dee, where I pitched and swam jigs around cypress trees along the main channel. On one stretch, I scored a number of quality bites. Shaking most of them off, I marked the key trees on my Garmin GPS and called it a day.
On day 3, I visited a canal system just off the Waccama — the place I committed to the last time the Elite Series visited Winyah Bay.
Scanning the bank at low tide, I marked numerous beds. Some were active, others inactive but freshly fanned. Seeing that and knowing the conditions were right for more bass to move in, I decided this would be my starting spot when the competition began.
Drawing out late in the take-off order, I second-guessed the logic of starting in the canals off the Waccama. Other competitors would obviously get there ahead of me and many of the better stretches would be taken, but I had to try.
When I arrived, I noticed fewer anglers than expected. Unfortunately, of those there, they had already monopolized the key areas. I would be fishing leftovers.
Faced with that, I opted to stay and fish behind them anyway — a mistake that cost me precious time during a critical part of the tide. Three hours later and with nothing in the livewell, I abandoned the area and headed straight for the Pee Dee River.
Around 11:30am, I boated my first fish — a solid two pounder. Immediately after, I put another bare keeper in the livewell. Then began a flurry of lost or short fish. The hours whisked by and by check-in time, I had only four bass to put on the scales.
Their weight? A whopping 5 pounds 13 ounces.
On day 2, I was faced with another decision. Either return to the canals off the Waccama or try the marsh. The tide wouldn’t be right for the Pee Dee until late morning, so that wasn’t an option. Figuring the canals had been beat to a pulp, I decided on the marsh.
Three hours later, I had a single three pounder to show for that effort. Although a quality-size fish, without others like it, I wasn’t going to make up any ground. I needed the Pee Dee to pay off.
My first stop yielded a second three pounder. I told my Marshal, things were looking up. If I could just luck into a couple more, I might make the cut.
Soon, I boated a 2½ pounder. I was just two good bites away, but then the unthinkable happened.
While retrieving my jig to make another cast, a two pounder raced out from the base of a tree and grabbed the trailer. Even though I could see it had only the tail end of the jig, I instinctively set the hook. It was costly mistake. The fish let go and swam back toward the tree. Pissed, I told my Marshal that I would return in a few minutes and try it again.
Thirty minutes later, I did just that.
As I swam the jig next to the tree, I noticed a flash. Again, I set the hook. And after a couple of short runs, I tried swinging the fish over the gunnel. That’s when I lost it a second time.
It wasn’t a big fish — perhaps two pounds — but it was one I desperately needed. And it was the last bite I had that day.
At weigh-in, I put nine pounds of largemouth on the scales. Although a good weight in comparison to others, it wasn’t enough to make the top 35 cut. It was, however, a good save. Instead of finishing at the bottom, I was somewhere in the middle of the pack. And with five events remaining, I’m now nine spots out of qualifying for the Angler of the Year Championship.