It’s a pleasant afternoon, but a chill runs up my spine. It’s not the temperature that causes me to shiver, however. It’s alligators.
The huge reptiles are all around us, calling out in baritone voices. I can hear at least five bellowing from different places, yet I cannot see a single one. They’re totally hidden in the dense vegetation of the swamp, and that makes me uneasy.
I wonder what might happen if the boat swamped and we were forced to swim to shore. The mere thought makes my hair stand on end.
Whitey Outlaw and I are sitting in his boat in a remote corner of South Carolina’s Lake Marion, one of the famed Santee-Cooper lakes. For Whitey, this is home water. He’s fished here all his life and knows the 110,000-acre lake like a country boy knows his favorite farm pond. That’s a good thing, I decide, because right now I’m as lost as a goose.
Around us, as far as we can see, are cypress trees and floating mats of water hyacinth, gator grass and duckweed. The vegetation on the water’s surface is so close-knit, it appears you could step out of the boat and walk in any direction as far as you might wish.
In reality, the surface weeds are only a blanket. The water beneath the plants is several feet deep. A stroll is out of the question, even if there weren’t alligators.
Gators there are, however, and lots of other wildlife, too. A water snake slithers past the boat. Overhead, ospreys and anhingas are bringing fish to their young in treetop nests. Turtles bask on logs. Herons and egrets stand like sentinels in the shallows.
No doubt, any naturalist would enjoy a visit here. But for most people, Stumphole Swamp (that’s what the locals call it) is no more inviting than a spooky old mansion on Halloween. It looks forbidding, and it is.
It’s definitely not what you picture when you think about crappie fishing, either. But that’s the reason Whitey has brought me here. He wants to show me a unique angling method he uses to catch the crappie swimming Lake Marion’s backwaters.
For starters, Whitey shows me the brute-force method one must use to reach the dark, swampy recesses he likes to fish. Sitting in open water at the edge of the weed beds, he revs his outboard and then goes barreling through the dense cover, full speed ahead.
As we wheel this way and that through the maze of cypress trees, I realize that alligators aren’t the only threat to life and limb.
When the short boat ride ends and I open my eyes, we’re buried in the swamp and Whitey’s on his feet fishing.
“Crappie fishing this way isn’t for everybody,” he says as he works a long jig pole through the cover to a tiny hole beside a cypress. “A man who likes open water has no business here. He’ll have a nervous breakdown.”
I hold my knees down to make them quit shaking and watch as Whitey deftly drops a jig into a hole the size ofa coffee mug and gives it a little flip.
No bite is forthcoming, and Whitey doesn’t wait for one. He backs the pole out, weaves it through the brush in a different spot and then drops the jig in another hole even smaller than the first.
This time, his pole bows, and he sets the hook with an upward snap. He grabs the line with one hand, pulls the fish snug against the pole tip and backs the rig into the boat so he can remove his catch. It’s a black crappie, pretty as a piece of silver jewelry.
“There was a time when there were lots more big crappie here,” he says as he unhooks the fish and tosses it into a cooler. “That was back before they started stocking blue catfish and flatheads. Catfishing draws a lot of folks here and brings a lot of business to the area, but I think those big cats have put a hurt on our crappie population.”
Whitey starts the outboard and guns it again, moving us even deeper into the swamp. The vegetation we motor through is as tangled as a backlash in a baitcaster, but the johnboat passes through surprisingly easy.
As soon as we stop, Whitey’s up and fishing once more, dropping his jig in little openings most anglers would never think might hold crappie.
“I caught a good one right by this tree a few days ago,” he says, holding the jig beside the knee of a cypress. “After you fish here a while, you learn there are certain places that almost always produce a fish or two. You catch one here, one there, keeping on the move and hitting all your good spots.
“The best fishing is when the water is about the same color as a brown paper bag,” he continues. “My favorite months are October, November and December, then again from early March through mid-April.”
The reason this sort of fishing is so good, Whitey tells me, is other folks never venture into these swampy areas. Earlier, as we motored across the main lake, we passed boats full of anglers. Each boat was less than a stone’s throw away from another, and there were dozens.
“I don’t like fishing where there are so many people,” Whitey said. “That’s why I like getting back into the swamp away from the edges. You never see anyone else, and the crappie fishing is far better than it is in more open areas that get pounded by every passing angler.”
Whitey lives in St. Matthews, South Carolina. He is among the country’s most respected crappie pros, fishing an average of 12 to 15 tournaments each year. He’s won many major crappie tournaments, including several Crappie USA and Crappie Masters events. Since 1996, he’s qualified for almost every Crappie Masters Classic.
Slow trolling jigs, long lining and trolling crankbaits are among his preferred crappie-fishing techniques, but the number one tactic on his list of favorites is vertical jigging vegetation in the manner he has spent the past hour showing me.
Whitey pulls a long metal pole from the boat and starts scratching a hole in the floating mat of vegetation.
“It’s made from thin, 1/2-inch conduit,” Whitey says. “Ten feet long with a 12-inch, 90-degree bend on the end.”
The angler pokes the bent end in the weeds and moves it about to create a small opening. Then he drops in a jig and quickly pulls out a crappie.
I’ve read about a similar technique used to fish weed beds on Florida lakes. Anglers use a rake to create big openings—sometimes several feet across—in weed beds. As the plants are moved, grass shrimp, insect larvae and other invertebrates are stirred up. These small forage animals attract baitfish, which in turn attract crappie.
The method used by Whitey, however, creates only a very small opening. “About the size of a 5-gallon bucket or less,” Whitey says.
His method also creates a chain reaction in the food chain, but it’s main function is to create openings where the fisherman can drop jigs to the numerous crappie below. The crappie already are feeding there. Whitey just needs a way to get to them.
The crappie pole used by Whitey was developed specifically for this type of fishing. Called the Whitey Outlaw Series Santee Elite, it is manufactured and sold by B’n’M Poles.
This pole has no guides or eyes and features a line-through-the-blank design. This allows more aggressive fishing in heavy vegetation because there are no guides to get hung in brush. The two-section, 100-percent graphite poles are available in 10-, 11- and 12-foot models.
“The line I use is Berkley Trilene Solar,” says Whitey. “Usually I spool up with 8-pound-test, but if the cover is really thick, I may go as heavy as 10-pound.”
“The jigs I use are made by Southern Pro Tackle and Mid-South Tackle. For this kind of fishing, I prefer 1-1/2-inch, 1/16-ounce jigs. I switch colors until I figure out what the crappie want on the day I’m fishing.”
Add all this together—the right tackle and the right technique in the right place—and you have a deadly combination for fall crappie. Whitey proves it’s so by landing several more nice crappie while I snap photos.
What bites next is a snake. I watch as Whitey sets the hook. Then when he swings his long, squirming catch over the transom and I dart to the other end of the boat to avoid the serpent.
“When fishing a swamp, you never know what’s gonna bite next,” Whitey chuckles. “You just hope it’s doesn’t bite you!”
That’s swamp fishing for you—lots of snakes and lots of alligators, but also lots of jumbo crappie. It’s certainly not for everyone, but if you give Whitey’s weed-bed fishing tactics a try, chances are you’ll be catching crappie when other folks are just trying. Give it a shot this season and see.