Santee Cooper Is The Best Place You’ve Never Been for Great Fishing, Swamp Fox Tales, and World-Class Golf
By Ginger Warder
Senior Travel Writer
When you think of visiting South Carolina, you may think of three places: Hilton Head, Myrtle Beach, or historic Charleston. And these are all wonderful destinations.
But South Carolina also has an intriguing off-the-beaten-path region that will appeal to outdoor lovers of all sorts, whether they are fishermen, golfers, campers or history buffs. Welcome to Santee Cooper Country.
If you’re a political junkie, you may know that Santee is Congressman Jim Clyburn’s district. If you’re a serious angler, you may have fished the mammoth man-made sister lakes, Marion and Moultrie.
And if you love Revolutionary War history, you may have heard of its most famous resident, General Francis Marion, a.k.a. The Swamp Fox, for whom the biggest freshwater lake in the state is named.
Right off I-95 in central South Carolina—and about an hour’s drive from the Columbia airport—Santee is situated on the south shore of Lake Marion.
It’s a small, rural town loaded with big outdoor recreation opportunities—home to a beautiful state park and a national wildlife refuge—and also a popular golf destination. And as far as fishing, this is where the pros go.
Santee State Park
I was totally surprised at the sheer size of this South Carolina state park —a whopping 2,500-acre playground with 30 rondette cabins, two large campgrounds for tents and RVs, 10 miles of hiking and biking trails, two boat ramps, and a camp store.
If you don’t want to overnight there, you can purchase a day pass to enjoy the facilities and the visitor’s center sells the required state fishing and hunting licenses.
My cabin was not one of the 10 that sit atop the pier over the water, but it was the poshest park cabin I have ever stayed in, and I even had my own personal armadillo, who mostly came out after dark.
The land cabins like mine are all lakeside and feature a private deck or patio with a picnic table, charcoal grill, and an adjacent fish-cleaning station. Several of them in one section are also pet friendly.
Open Concept Comfy
The full kitchen had granite counters, a coffeepot, a microwave, a full stove and oven, a full-size refrigerator. and all the pots, pans, dishes, and utensils you could need. It was an open concept with a large dining table and a comfortable living area furnished with sofas, chairs, and a flat-screen TV, and the two bedrooms shared a jack-and-jill bathroom.
And although there is free public WiFi in the park, I could never access it from my cabin, but surprisingly was able to use it in the middle of the lake while on a guided fishing tour!
Note that the cabins and campsites book up to a year in advance during the high season from April through October.
The park rangers who greeted us when we arrived gave us a brief overview of the park and its facilities, and also told us that in South Carolina, park rangers are required to live in the park where they are working.
As we were standing there overlooking Lake Marion, they also told us about a unique local custom.
After Christmas, instead of putting the trees out for trash pickup, residents instead drive to the edge of the lake and throw them in the water. The trees then become a Christmas gift for schools of fish, who love to make their homes in and around the branches. I have never heard of a custom like this, but I think we should spread the word. That’s taking recycling or sustainable agriculture to a whole new level!
The Ghost City of Ferguson
In the early 1940s, as part of FDR’s New Deal, the WPA initiated the Santee Cooper Project, damming the Santee and Cooper Rivers to create the lakes, Marion and Moultrie for hydroelectric power and to create a canal connecting them to establish a water route for trade purposes. The entire town of Ferguson—once home to a lumber mill—was drowned in the lake, as were several plantations including Pond Bluff, once the home of Francis Marion.
The Santee Cooper tourism rep told us that 900 families were displaced and more than 6,000 graves were relocated and the Ferguson residents—primarily African American families—were given 100 chickens as payment for their homes.
Loved by locals and visitors alike, The Lake House is THE place to watch a magnificent sunset while grabbing an after-fishing drink or dinner.
Don’t be alarmed by the feline greeters at the front door—they love to say hello to guests at their adopted home and the restaurant owner makes sure they have their shots and are spayed or neutered, so they have a pretty great life with the perk of daily seafood!
If you’ve always wanted to try gator tail, this is the place and no, your appetizer did not come from the 12-foot alligator corpse hanging from the dining room ceiling.
Specialties include a bounty of seafood from catfish and flounder to scallops and shrimp, alongside Southern favorites like fried green tomatoes, fried okra, fried moon pies, and the owner’s family recipe for peach cobbler.
A Mouse in the House: Santee’s Iconic Female Fishing Guide
Barbara Witherell, the only female fishing guide in Santee Cooper Country and the owner of Santee Cajun Guide Service is known in the region simply as “Mouse”. Her late husband, Boudreaux, gave her that nickname many years ago and it stuck.
He was also the inspiration for her becoming a guide when he told her that her fishing hobby was too expensive and she needed to find a way to make money doing it.
Louisiana-born, Mouse said “ I started fishing at two years old, sitting on a coffee can between my daddy’s legs” and it was love at the first catch.
When she got her captain’s license and began guiding 23 years ago, several of her male counterparts—and many of her male customers—gave her a hard time. But over the years, she has proven that, more often than not, when you go out with Mouse, you are likely to come back with a cooler full of big catfish.
Mouse said, “There have only been seven days over the past twenty-some years that I haven’t caught a fish.” The company motto is “Where you can always catch a Cat with a Mouse” and that certainly has proven true over the years. Eventually, her husband quit his day job and got his captain’s license and now their son, Scott, has followed in their footsteps.
A Rainy Day On The Lake With Mouse
We headed out around 7 a.m. in a light drizzle that picked up into a steady rain by the time we had crossed Lake Marion, trying to avoid the many cypress tree stumps that lurked under the water or barely poked above it. We did hit one on the way out and Mouse said “If you’ve been fishing these lakes and have never hit a stump, you ain’t really been fishing.”
Mouse has several favorite spots amidst the cypress trees that have grown up in the water not far from shore and have what she calls “good mud”.
She backs the pontoon boat up and extends a long hook with a rope to attach the boat to one of the trees before dropping anchor, and always turns off the sonar, which she says scares the fish away.
Even though the rain made it pretty miserable on the front of the boat where our baited poles waited for a bite, we were able to take breaks in the “Mouse House”.
Mouse and Boudreaux created a custom hardtop with zip-on canvas enclosures that have vinyl windows, allowing a 360 view and a warm spot to fish from in the winter or as we did, to take a break from the rain. Fellow boat owners were so impressed that the orders started rolling in and now Mouse designs and makes custom enclosures when she’s not on the water.
Bad Luck Bananas
Mouse knows these Santee Cooper lakes like the back of her hand and has several Mouse-tested locations. And she doesn’t give up. She says “We’re guides, not God and it ain’t over til the fat lady sings and she ain’t singing.”
After trying one favorite Mouse spot after another and only catching two 15-20 pound Arkansas Blue cats, we called it a day. Mouse had been telling us the legend about why bananas on a boat are considered bad luck. Her website has a big headline under the Need to Know section that says “No Bad Luck Bananas On Board”.
And although Mouse says fishermen are notoriously superstitious, to begin with, she believes the bad luck notion has roots in history and has posted this explanation on her website:
“Needless to say, a transatlantic crossing in the 17th and 18th centuries was a very risky endeavor. Often the vessels would stop along the way on tropical islands to gather provisions such as food and water and bananas.
The snakes and other critters would make their way into the bilges of the ships, multiply, and then find their way into the captain’s quarters. The captains circulated the rumor that bananas were bad luck in an attempt to keep the critters off the ship and out of their cabin.”
Sure enough, when I went to the cooler to get a bottle of water as we were heading in, what did I see but three bananas laying on top of the drinks. Mouse went nuts when I told her what was in the cooler. Was it the weather or the bananas? I guess we’ll never know.
A Fish Fry and White Catfish Stew
The multi-talented Mouse doesn’t just do guided fishing charters and make boat enclosures. Later that night, she catered a fish fry for us, complete with homemade tartar sauce, coleslaw, and her famous White Catfish Stew—think clam chowder with catfish instead of clams and a bit of Cajun kick to it! I grabbed the recipe off her website as soon as I got home.
Santee’s Favorite Son: The Swamp Fox
For baby boomers and history lovers, you may remember the television miniseries about South Carolina’s Revolutionary War hero, Francis Marion, who was known as the Swamp Fox. I first learned of this patriot by reading a series of books about historical figures when I was in the second or third grade. And since my given name is Marian, I chose the one on Francis Marion first.
Marion, a Revolutionary War hero and considered to be the father of modern guerilla warfare—and by extension, the Army Rangers—is by far, Santee’s most famous resident. Born with malformed legs, he never allowed that to interfere with his physical activities and sailed out to the West Indies at the age of 15, where he was one of the few survivors of a shipwreck. After that, he stuck to land-based activities, managing his family’s plantation until purchasing his own, Pond Bluff.
He joined the South Carolina militia when he was 25 to fight in the French and Indian War, and it was there he learned the ambush techniques of the Cherokee Indians that he would later apply in the Revolutionary War.
Ambushing the British
Leading a small ragtag band of irregular troops, Marion would hide in the backwoods and swamps and ambush British troops. Legend has it that it was British Lt. Colonel Tarleton who inspired his nickname of “The Swamp Fox”. In 1780, he chased Marion and his troops for 26 miles until giving up when they escaped into a swamp, saying” As for this damned old fox, the devil himself could not catch him.”
Supposedly, the movie The Patriot was based on the legend of Swamp Fox, but Marion was no Mel Gibson by any stretch of the imagination and used cunning, rather than physical prowess, to achieve his victories during the Revolutionary War.
The Santee Cooper tourism group likes to say Santee is just “a 3-wood off I-95”, offering three great courses: Lake Marion, Santee National, and the Santee Cooper Country Club. Affordable packages are available through the tourism office and are also offered by some of the local hotels.
In addition to the full courses, Santee is home to Palmetto Traverse, the state’s only 18-hole, natural grass-putting course.
The 35,000-square-foot course sits between the Lake Marion Golf Course and the Lake Marion Golf Villa and Townhouse complex, which is popular for groups, corporate retreats, and special events.
The course—a great practice round for serious golfers or a fun family outing— changes weekly and is open to the public. Kids 16 and under are free and the course provides complimentary putters and golf balls. Think mini-golf without the windmills!
No Longer Off-the-Beaten-Path
Anyone who loves parks loves fishing, loves golf, loves history, or just loves nature should visit Santee Cooper Country. It’s fun, not fancy, with down-home hospitality, down-home cooking, and great outdoor recreation. It’s a great place to be a “Swamp Fox”!
Helpful Santee Websites
Santee State Park https://southcarolinaparks.com/santee
Discover South Carolina https://discoversouthcarolina.com
Santee Cooper Country www.santeecoopercountry.org
Santee Cajun Guide Service http://www.santeecajunguide.com/