By Bennett Kirkpatrick
It’s no secret that Lake Wateree is a good place to go crappie fishing. Of course, that also means that the water is getting a thorough working over by many serious expert anglers.
We went to several of these experts to see how they fish, given their years of experience pursuing Wateree crappie.
First things first: I went fishing with Chris Curtis of Crappie Masters Guide Service to fish Lake Wateree. Curtis is a licensed crappie-fishing guide who lives in Lancaster and guides hundreds of fishermen each year.
Although it’s possible to have your gear very well organized and still not catch fish, part of Curtis’ long experience has taught him to be very organized, and that’s something that even casual anglers can aim for. Also, as we motored toward our chosen spot, Curtis paid attention to the depth recorder – not because we were going to fish in exactly the spots we were driving over, but because the recorder provided information about how generally active various fish species were. Luckily, the screen showed all sorts of fish below the boat; conditions were ideal for the spider rigging we planned to do.
Curtis runs multiple 10-foot rods when he uses spider rigs. The system was very effective: Quite often we had multiple crappie on the rods at one time. Before we wound up the trip, we had limited out with 30 crappie apiece – a marvelous day on the Wateree or any other lake for that matter.
I found the next expert by doing what any angler can do: I was buying some lures from AWD Baits down at Lugoff and asked the owner, “Do you know anyone who successfully fishes Lake Wateree on a regular basis that I could contact to get some information?”
Without blinking an eye he said, “Call my brother, Milton Dowey. He fishes the lake every chance he gets, and is the best crappie fisherman I know around here.”
After phoning Dowey, I found out he had been fishing Wateree for around 25 years. He is a tournament fisherman and came in third in the Southern Crappie Association Classic held in May 2003.
He likes to troll tight line, fishing straight down using a 1/2-ounce sinker with a 1/16-ounce jig below. The edge of the river run (river channel) in February is where he starts looking for fish on his depth recorder.
“When you find schools of shad, crappie won’t be very far away,” he said. “If you can’t find shad in the river run, look up on the edge or a flat beside it. Crappie are staging in these places prior to going down in the creeks to spawn. Fresh water, a drastic weather front or unusually warm weather are three things that will change this pattern.”
Dowey starts fishing the Dutchman Creek area in February and works his way upstream toward Wateree Creek.
“The water around the state park is real good this time of year. There are three landings to access the fishing from Dutchman Creek to Wateree Creek. I use the Taylor Creek Landing,” he said.
Readers should also note that the State Park Landing is a short distance away and the Wateree Creek Landing is just a few miles upstream.
Dowey also had a tip for readers who find themselves on the water on a slow day: Tip your jig with a live minnow.
Another local expert I contacted was Paul Shrader, who has fished Wateree 35 to 40 years. He also favors trolling for crappie. February finds him checking the water between Colonel Creek on up toward Wateree Creek; he likes to start fishing 20 feet deep.
“(Warm) weather will make crappie move up in the water column, especially if it comes three days in a row. If you can’t find fish in 20-foot water, start looking around the mouths of the creeks,” he said.
Crappie will usually hold in these areas until the spawn draws near, then they travel toward the head of the creek as the water warms up. If you aren’t on the water every day, you’ll have to determine where the fish are – but they’ll be somewhere on this path.
Anglers can launch from a number of access points.
“From where I live, the Colonel Creek Landing is the one most convenient for me to use. The June Creek Landing is just north of Colonel Creek and there are several good landings up river from there,” He said.
As for the best bait, he said that the best varies. He lets the fish decide.
“I let the fish tell me what they want that day. Trial and error is my game plan,” Shrader said. “If one thing doesn’t produce, try something else. If one jig color doesn’t get strikes, try another. The same is true with live bait. If a minnow alone doesn’t get results, try lip hooking a minnow on a jig. Troll slowly, and don’t get in too big of a hurry. The fish have got all day; you need to follow the same mindset.”
Mike Amick, another serious Wateree angler with over 20 years of experience on the lake, is an active member of the South Carolina Crappie Association, plus the American Crappie Association.
In February, Amick looks for crappie in deep water over brushpiles in the upper part of the lake.
“Crappie will be suspended over these brushpiles; they will also be over drops and river runs. I prefer to troll multiple rods using mini-jigs tipped with live minnows. This combination has been my most successful way to catch crappie,” he said.
The jig color gets their attention and the live minnow adds movement and smell. Like Shrader, Amick tries to give the fish what they want and is prepared for them to change their minds over the course of a day.
The cold water this time of year influences the fish, too, he notes. Anglers should fish slowly, as crappie are not interested in racing for a meal.
He begins looking for fish in Wateree Creek, Beaver Creek and Cedar Creek in the upper part of the lake and Colonel Creek, June Creek and the State Park area in the lower part.
Val Nash is the Chief of Fisheries in the South Carolina Department of Natural Resources. He says his favorite place to fish for crappie is Lake Wateree because of the sheer number of crappie there and their size. Structure is abundant, and access to the lake can be had in numerous public boat landings. (It do
esn’t hurt, he notes, that it is close to his home, too!)
There are many routes you could follow from Columbia to Lake Wateree, according to where you want to launch your boat. Some simple directions are to get on I-77 north toward Charlotte. Exit on Exit 41 and follow Highway 41 east toward the lake. Highway 41 will dead-end at Highway 101; turn to the right there. Two and seven-tenths miles from this intersection, Highway 55 will blend in with Highway 101; turn left there to go to the Wateree Creek Landing, which is less than two miles up on the right before you cross the bridge.
The Lake Wateree State Park is on farther down Highway 101 just a short drive; follow the signs to the state park. To get to the June Creek Landing, continue on Highway 101 4.8 miles; the landing is on the left just after you cross the bridge.
The Buck Hill access is the last landing on the east side of Lake Wateree down next to the dam. To get to this landing, continue on Highway 101 until you come to a dead end at the intersection of Highway 620; turn left here. Follow Highway 620 (part of this highway is a dirt road) until you intersect Highway 37; there is a large gray building that sells fishing supplies on the left at this point. Turn left on Highway 37; about a half mile down this road you will see the sign on the left directing you to Buck Hill Access.
To contact Chris Curtis at Crappie Masters Guide Service, phone (803) 285-1790. For river conditions and fishing reports, call Milton Dowey, (803) 438-4056; Paul Shrader, (803) 438-1801 or Mike Amick, (803) 635-3400.
Discover even more in our monthly magazine,
and have it delivered to your door!
Subscribe to South Carolina Game & Fish