The Tar Heel State's Border Crappie

The Tar Heel State's Border Crappie

These lakes may be on the border of North Carolina, but there's nothing borderline about the crappie fishing they provide. (January 2006)

Photo by Ron Sinfelt

Virtually any angler can visit almost any reservoir in North Carolina during the peak of the spring "crappie run" and find some fishing action up a creek. Fishing is easy when the crappie pile up around shallow cover, and even marginal fisheries can serve up good action.

Late winter also can provide good crappie fishing. In fact, the action can be outstanding, but finding fish requires a bit more know-how and far more searching because the fish are generally deeper and they move regularly with fast-changing conditions.

Arguably, the single most important thing an angler can do to shorten the searching process and up his odds of success this time of year is to select a lake that supports a first-rate crappie population. With that in mind, we've chosen two of the very best -- Lake Wylie and Buggs Island -- and have gotten the inside scoop from veteran guides on both lakes regarding how and where to find winter crappie.

LAKE WYLIE

"It's hard to go crappie fishing on Lake Wylie and have a bad day," said Jerry Neely of Jerry's Fishing Guide Service. It's hard for Neely anyway. He has been fishing Lake Wylie for 43 years, so he knows what to expect from the lake and its abundant slabs and always knows where to begin looking.

A 13,443-acre impoundment of the Catawba River that straddles the North Carolina/South Carolina border near Charlotte, Lake Wylie is highly fertile, and it produces seemingly endless numbers of high-quality crappie year after year, despite very heavy fishing pressure. Neely expects to catch numerous 2-pound-plus crappie any given day on Lake Wylie, and every now and then he or one of his clients hauls in a legitimate 3-pounder.

Neely, who guides for crappie, bass and catfish, has watched crappie fishing techniques evolve over the years. Four decades ago, when he first began fishing the lake, the only way anyone ever fished for Lake Wylie crappie was to tight-line a jig into brush or around rocks. Over time, however, anglers began to learn new ways to present jigs and minnows to the fish. Crappie fishing also used to be primarily a springtime game on Lake Wylie, but it has grown into a year-round sport for many anglers.

Among the longest established winter approaches, which Neely said is still very effective, is to pitch jigs around laydowns in the South Fork River, within a couple of miles downstream of the warmwater discharge from the Allen Steam Station. The warmer water stacks up the crappie, especially if power is being generated and there is a fresh, warm current. Neely suggested pitching a jig just upstream of the cover and letting the current carry the offering to awaiting fish. If there's no current, he's apt to choose a different technique.

During late winter and early spring, crappie also pile up at the ends of deep docks in and around the mouths of major creeks, especially in the lower half of the lake (in North Carolina and South Carolina). Neely catches many really big crappie from mid-January though March by vertical jigging 1/16-ounce hair jigs around dock pilings and especially around brush, which can be found at the ends of many docks on Lake Wylie. This time of year, Neely prefers docks that stretch into 20 or so feet of water.

For anglers who don't know which docks have brush around them, it's worthwhile to invest a bit of time graphing the waters at the ends of several docks. The best waters are deep enough that fish are unlikely to be spooked, and the time spent is worth the trouble if it makes fishing time more productive. It's also worth noting that docks equipped with cleaning tables, fishing chairs and lights designed to shine on the water are the most likely to have brush sunk at the ends of them.

Neely only fishes the shady sides of docks, and he noted that it's important to focus on the shade. Even in the dead of winter and even 20 feet beneath the surface, the crappie won't be in the bright sun if there is shade nearby, he has found.

The most consistent way to load up on Lake Wylie slabs, however, is by trolling -- a technique that has been popularized and perfected on Wylie in more recent years. Neely was first exposed to the general concept of trolling about 20 years ago when he saw an angler drifting with several lines out on South Carolina's Lake Wateree. He soon brought the idea home and began developing his own trolling technique.

Neely, who now has his technique down to a science, trolls with 10 lines. He fishes six off the back of the boat and two off each side, staggering pole lengths on the sides to keep the lines separated. He makes two short casts, two medium casts and two long casts with his back poles so the jigs ride at different depths. Then he adjusts the rigs as the crappie reveal themselves. Within a few hours, he might be making all long or short casts, depending on which lines the crappie are hitting.

Neely keeps his line sizes uniform at 6-pound-test and uses all 1/16-ounce jigs, having learned exactly how deep those rigs run at various trolling speeds and with different cast lengths. He typically trolls between 1.1 and 1.3 miles per hour, measuring his speed by GPS for the greatest precision.

During the winter, Neely expects most fish to be somewhere in the vicinity of the mouths of the big creeks, whether just outside the creeks in the main lake or actually up inside of them.

"It doesn't take long to figure out how far they've gone into the creeks and how deep they want the jigs," he said.

Neely fishes almost exclusively with hair jigs when he trolls, having found them to have the most enticing action and to be the least likely to snag. He noted that if a single leg on a tube jig gets wrapped around the hook, that causes the bait to run differently and crappie will not touch it. Neely's colors of choice are chartreuse and black, chartreuse and red, white, and "bumble bee."

As the season progresses and strings of sunny days or major warm rains cause crappie to move onto shallow flats, Neely will take the same style of hair jig and rig it a foot or two under a float. He'll then work along the banks of major creeks, casting the rig around dock pilings, tree tops and other shallow cover and work it with twitches of the rod. Then, when cool snaps push the fish back toward the creek channels, he'll return to trolling.

While Lake Wylie offers terrific early-season fishing, anglers should not expect to find the solitude that sometimes comes with venturing out during the cool months. Partly because of the quality of the bass and crappie fisheries, the lake receive

s heavy use right through the middle of the winter. Along with being loaded with fish, Wylie has two "hotspots" from power plants, making it extra popular for the winter approach. In addition, it lies between Charlotte and Rock Hill, South Carolina, so its fish-filled waters are convenient to many fishermen.

The Carolinas do not have a reciprocal licensing agreement. Wylie anglers must be licensed for the state in which they are fishing. Most folks who spend much time on the lake spring for both licenses because it opens up far more territory. Anglers who possess only a North Carolina license must be careful to stay on the proper side of the border, especially through Wylie's midsection, where the state line runs right through the middle of the lake's main body.

The Buster Boyd Access Area, located in the lake's midsection, near the Highway 49 bridge, is a popular access point on the North Carolina side of Lake Wylie.

To plan a trip with Jerry's Fishing Guide Service, give Jerry Neely a call at (704) 629-9288. For more information, check out

www.carolinafishing.com.

BUGGS ISLAND

Just as Wylie is a perennial slab producer along the South Carolina border, Buggs Island serves up consistently fine fishing for quality crappie along the Virginia border. John H. Kerr Reservoir, as Buggs is officially named, is a big impoundment, spreading over nearly 50,000 acres. The larger portion of the lake lies north of the border, but a reciprocal agreement between the two states allows Tar Heel anglers to fish anywhere on Buggs with one fishing license.

Like Wylie, Buggs is highly productive. The crappie grow large and stay well fed. Crappie populations also replenish themselves well, despite heavy spring fishing and no crappie limit, probably because of the tremendous amount of cover that surrounds the lake and the variety of habitat.

The Virginia Department of Game & Inland Fisheries, which shares management responsibilities for Buggs Island with the North Carolina Wildlife Resources Commission, listed Buggs as one of the best places in the state to fish for crappie in the most recent version of a listing of rivers and lakes that the department publishes annually.

Roger Jones of Hook, Line and Sinker Guide Service sees very little variance in the quality of the crappie fishing from one season to the next. Whether the water has been high or low -- and no matter how fishing may be for other species -- there are always plenty of big crappie to be found at Buggs Island, he said.

Jones keeps crappie fishing very simple -- typically using one of two basic approaches. Either he will troll slowly, putting out a modest spread and working up and down a creek until he homes in on the fish, or he will fish minnows or jigs under slip-corks, casting them over or around specific pieces of cover.

Late in the winter and into the first part of spring, Jones relies mostly on trolling. Most Buggs Island crappie are in the creek channels early in the year, but they move often, as conditions continually change. The fish move up the creeks and onto the channel slopes with strings of sunny days; they drop deeper in the channels and closer to the main body when fronts cause temperatures to plunge.

In addition to changes in water temperatures, ever-changing water levels cause ongoing movement of crappie at Buggs Island. The lake is used for flood control and power generation, and its level changes often -- and sometimes radically -- based on various factors, including rainfall in the Roanoke River basin, water-level control requirements elsewhere in the watershed and local power-supply needs. Anyone who has ever fished this lake in the spring knows that high water will push the bass and the crappie way up into the bushes. However, fluctuations also affect the positioning of the fish during winter. Even when the crappie are 18 feet deep, they're apt to move a couple of feet up on a structure when the water rises substantially.

Jones pointed toward Butchers, Rudds and Grassy creeks, all of which are in the middle portion of the lake, as three of the best areas for early-season crappie action. These waters have no cool-water influences, he indicated, and their waters warm quickly with the first sunny days of the new year. The crappie generally move up the creeks and onto the flats as spring begins to creep in, but they move back and forth often. Therefore, an angler must go with a searching mentality, Jones said.

Jones' trolling strategy is simple. He puts out half a dozen jigs or minnows (usually using some of each) and varies his line lengths. With all rods in holders, he moves the boat along slowly and waits for the rod tips to bend. Jones generally keeps the boat over the creek channel during the spring, but he will wind back and forth over the channel edge as he searches for the fish.

Like most veteran trollers, Jones pays attention to the location of every strike, and he keeps a close eye on his electronics. He takes note over every detail he gathers anytime a fish hits, especially if he hasn't really homed in on the pattern yet. He'll often backtrack over areas where a couple of rods go down at once, and if he stumbles across a significant pod of fish, he'll anchor and switch to tight lines or slip-corks, depending on the depth and the kind of cover the crappie are using.

As spring progresses and the fish begin moving into brushpiles and even to treetops along the edges of the creek, Jones switches to casting tactics, rigging minnows or jigs on slip-cork rigs and putting a rod in every angler's hand. Jones' clients have fun placing their baits, watching their corks dive under and hooking the fish. More importantly, if the fish are concentrated on specific pieces of cover, he has found casting with cork rigs to be highly efficient.

Jones fishes mostly with minnows under corks, but on some days he finds that the crappie would rather have a jig. He uses slip-bobbers because he can explore a wide range of depths with the same rigs. Even on unseasonably warm days, when many fish have moved up into shallow brush along the edges, other schools may be over brushpiles on the edges of creek channels in 12 feet of water. Jones can position his boat right beside a deeper pile, set stoppers for each cork at appropriate depths and let angers fish the rigs the same way they would if the fish were 2 1/2 feet deep. Cast out and watch for the cork to dive under.

The reciprocal licensing agreement between North Carolina and Virginia allows anglers properly licensed by either state to fish anywhere on Buggs Island that is accessible by boat, on the Dan River east of the Brantley Steam Plant and on the Staunton (Roanoke) River east of the Highway 360 bridge.

More than 30 boat ramps provide very good access to all parts of Buggs Island. Occoneechee State Park, just north of the U.S. Highway 58 bridge, and the Rudds Creek access offer good access to the middle part of the lake.

To plan a crappie fishing trip on Buggs Island, call Roger Jones at (800) 597-1708 or visit his Web site,

www.hoo

klineandsinkerguides.com.

For lodging and other area information, visit

www.clarksvilleva.com.

If you want to couple a fishing trip with a family vacation, try looking into staying at The Little Retreat (www.kerrlake.com/cottages or 800/ 843-0633). They offer beautiful A-frame cottages in a wooded setting, with 800 feet of lakefront and a docking space for your boat.

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