Looking out over Lake Marion on a cloudy morning, I know that fish – big ones – lurk just beneath the surface of this murky water.
Baited fishing rods surround me on the boat I’m in. When I see one flex out of the corner of my eye, I jump into action and grab it, pulling the line toward me. A fish jumps out of the water and splashes back down, setting the hook. A few minutes later, I lift a 15-pound Arkansas blue catfish out of the lake and smile for the camera.
Here in South Carolina, where you can practically taste salt water in the air, I’ve just experienced every angler’s dream — landing the catch of a lifetime.
And my trip to the Palmetto State has only just begun. Before I head home, I’ll explore fishing lakes and golf courses, and kick back at restaurants that serve up some of the finest seafood in the area.
Fishing for the catch of a lifetime at Lake Marion
If you’re going to go fishing, you might as well go big. In South Carolina, that means Lake Marion, in the upper portion of the Santee Cooper Reservoir system.
Lake Marion is big — stand on one shore and you’ll feel like you’re gazing over an ocean. It’s also home to some whoppers, including largemouth bass, channel catfish, Arkansas blue catfish, crappie, sunfish, and perch.
I spent a morning fishing the lake and enjoying the scenic South Carolina views.
The lake has more than 300 miles of shoreline, and the public can access it via boat ramps in Santee State Park and the Santee National Wildlife Refuge. You can fish from the edge but getting out on the water is the way to go. Because the land wasn’t cleared before it was dammed, stumps, trees and other obstacles clutter the bottom of the lake. That means good fishing. But it also means tricky navigation. That’s why I recommend a guide.
For best results, hire a guide
Barbara Witherell, aka “Mouse,” the owner of Santee Cajun Guide Service, jokes that if you haven’t hit a stump, you haven’t fished Lake Marion. Short and small like her namesake, Mouse is full of verve and endless stories from her years of guiding here. She’s the only full-time independent female guide on Santee Cooper Lakes, and we benefited from her years of experience.
“It takes a mouse to catch a cat,” Witherell said with a smile, referencing her nickname and the catfish lurking below. She calls the cabin on her 25-foot boat the Mouse House, and she’s been fishing here since 2002.
With Mouse’s help, we used blue herring as bait and lured out some massive catfish. The catch of the day measured 30 inches and weighed 15 pounds. You can keep what you catch (if you have a fishing license) and they make for good eating.
The park allows tent camping and RVs and rents lodge rooms, cabins – including 10 on the lake – and villas.
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I stayed in one of the park’s cabins located right on a pier. From one side I could see a shore lined with trees and hanging Spanish moss. You can cast a line over the edge just a few steps from the front door. In the evening I’d crack the window and listen to the water lap against the shore. I could even feel the cabin sway slightly as the water lapped against the pier. The two-bedroom unit included a kitchen and living area with television. Rates vary depending on the season but start at about $120 per night.
Hit the links at Lake Marion Golf Course
South Carolina is home to some of the most storied golf courses in the country. Myrtle Beach is world-renowned, but nearby Lake Marion Golf Course and Palmetto Traverse Putting Experience fly under the radar.
This gem of a club, owned by Santee Cooper Resort, has it all – an 18-hole golf course, lodging, and food. You won’t have to leave the links at all. The resort’s 18-hole putting green, the only one of its kind in the state, is modeled after the famed Pinehurst and Saint Andrews putting greens and is designed by golf architect Kris Spence.
The challenging 35,000-square-foot green includes bunkers and palm trees, and two-putting on this beast is a challenge. But it makes a great warm-up before a round of golf. Families can also come out just to putt.
The 18-hole, par 72 Lake Marion Golf Course challenges golfers year-round with pine tree-lined fairways, lakes, and 47 sand bunkers to keep players on their toesThe Lake Marion Golf Villa and Townhouse complex is adjacent to the course and putting green and offers two and four-bedroom options, along with home-cooked southern-inspired meals.
Sweet tea & seafood: Where to refuel near Lake Marion
While you’re here, you should try the seafood. South Carolina restaurants serve some of the best and freshest seafood in the country.
At The Lake House on the shores of Lake Marion, hungry anglers can arrive by boat or car. The menu includes everything from fresh-caught catfish that were swimming in the lake that day to fried moon pies for dessert. It’s all served in a casual atmosphere with an alligator hide hanging from the rafters.
Another good option is Tubb’s Shrimp & Fish Company in Florence, just a few miles west of Marion. Tubb’s, founded in 2013, serves up locally sourced soulful southern seafood in a fun atmosphere. An old Airstream trailer doubles as a bar.
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Co-owner Kyle Hardee’s favorite menu item is the shrimp and grits, but the oysters are freshly caught and out of this world.
After you’ve had your fill of seafood, head to the Straw Hat Distillery, a hole-in-the-wall distillery in Florence that makes moonshine with big flavors.
Founded by home brewers Steve Winter and Marc Kremer in 2014, the distillery is named for the hats that many farmers in the region wear. The flavor lineup includes sweet tea and coffee, all swirled into whiskey and moonshines made from 100 percent natural ingredients that probably taste nothing like what your great grandpappy made.
Keep an eye out for the distillery dog Leo and belly up to the bar for samples before selecting a bottle or two to take home. The moonshine ranges from $20 to $50.
If You Go
Direct flights are available from Austin-Bergstrom International Airport to Columbia Metropolitan Airport.
Fish, boat, golf at the Lake Marion Golf Course, and explore Santee State Park. If you need a fishing guide, try Santee Cajun Guide Service.
Eat & Drink
For fresh seafood, try The Lake House or Tubb’s Shrimp & Fish Co. For moonshine, head to Straw Hat Distillery.