Drought conditions in 2008 had pronounced, but variable, influences on crappie across the state. Here's the latest on the relative strengths of crappie populations in South Carolina fisheries. (Feb 2009)
Chris Curtis of Crappie Masters Guide Service and Donald Smith with a nice stringer of crappie that were caught in Stumpy Pond. Photo by Bennett Kirkpatrick.
Although some of South Carolina's crappie waters are falling on hard times, there are many lakes -- especially in the mid-state and Piedmont -- that are brimming with crappie and begging to be fished.
Officer Dan Rankin is the Region 1 coordinator for the SCDNR. The main lakes in this region are the Savannah, Jocassee, Keowee, Clarks Hill, Russell, Hartwell, Greenwood and Lake Secession. Not surprisingly, some of these lakes are better for crappie than others.
Russell, Hartwell, Clarks Hill and Lake Greenwood seem to rise to the top with respect to how local fishermen rate these lakes. Essentially, in these top lakes, the growth rate for crappie is outstanding because the lakes each have a rich forage base. All this translates into big fish fast!
Rankin said that within Region I, crappie populations have not changed dramatically since last year. Angling exploitation of crappie (that is, mortality of crappie caused by anglers taking home the fish they catch) in Southeastern reservoirs is typically thought to be at levels where it is compensatory to natural mortality. This means angling exploitation is not at high enough levels to influence abundance or quality (average size) of crappie.
However, Lake Greenwood may be an exception. Primary findings from an exploitation study on this lake indicate angling exploitation does exceed natural mortality in Lake Greenwood. Therefore, the Lake Greenwood crappie population could be enhanced (that is, the average size and perhaps abundance could be increased) through more restrictive harvest regulations. DNR biologists will be modeling existing growth and mortality data for crappie in coming years to provide likely outcomes based on a range of management/ regulation scenarios for Lake Greenwood crappie.
Small crappie jigs in the 1/32- and 1/16-ounce sizes seem to get the nod here, with small minnows coming in a close second. Many of the anglers here hedge their bets by lip hooking a minnow on a jig when the fishing gets tough. As far as jig color goes, almost every fisherman has his own favorite, but anything with red, white or chartreuse in it seems to be a good choice. There are days, though, that crappie seem to prefer jigs with a green and blue combination.
Public landings dot each of these lakes. Once you decide which lake you want to fish, just stop at a country store and ask directions to the closest boat ramp. It usually won't be too far away. If that store sells fishing supplies, ask what is hot now and you can kill two birds with one stone: directions and the current jig color combinations.
Officer Elizabeth Osier is the Region 2 coordinator for the SCDNR, and is responsible for the Catawba chain of lakes. She told me that they had some new data on Lake Wylie, but she hadn't gotten a chance to review it as of the time of this writing.
I personally fish Lake Wylie for crappie often because I have in excess of 200 brushpiles that I have installed in the lake. Lake Wylie used to be one of the premier crappie lakes in South Carolina; this is no longer true. In my opinion, the population of Lake Wylie's crappie is down more than 75 percent of what it was back just five years ago. Just what has happened? When I put this question to the regulars I know that fish Wylie several times a week, the answer is generally the same: The fish aren't there in the numbers we have had in the past.
I keep records of the fish that are caught in my boat. Most of the time two friends accompany me on a fishing trip. My records show that catching a limit of crappie in the past was a common occurrence for the three of us. This is no longer true. By fishing hard, my boat might catch a dozen crappie in half a day.
In years gone by, this number could be caught in less than 30 minutes. One of the factors that might have brought about this situation has been the introduction of new species of fish into the lake, such as blue catfish, striped bass and white perch. Surely there are other factors involved, but this is the one that most crappie fishermen adhere to. Striped bass and blue catfish will eat crappie whereas white perch eat crappie eggs. If crappie eggs are eaten before they hatch, it is just a matter of time until major changes in the crappie population will occur. In trap net studies by the SCDNR in recent years, they show that very few, if any, young-of-the-year crappie are caught in the nets. This gives credence to the fact that crappie aren't reproducing as they normally do.
What can be done to remedy this situation? White perch have been removed from South Carolina's game fish listing, and are no longer restricted to game fish catch limits. This is a step in the right direction, but it is debatable if this will cure the problem. Stocking is another possibility, but this is an expensive alternative at a time that budgets are already stretched to the limits. Only time will reflect the answer to the situation.
Fishing Creek, Stumpy Pond and Lake Wateree have all improved somewhat over the past couple of years. These fisheries are ones that Piedmont crappie fishermen need to target, according to friends of mine that fish these lakes. These lakes are not at the production levels of the peak years, but they are steadily climbing up the ladder, which is good news.
I quizzed Officer Hal Beard (SCDNR Freshwater Fisheries Region 3 Coordinator) regarding upcoming crappie fishing prospects for the area he is responsible for.
"Lake Murray is the only reservoir within my area of responsibility," he said. "In general, indicators are promising for better than average crappie fishing opportunities in the upcoming season. The lake has been back to 'normal' levels this year after the drawdown for dam remediation, and despite the drought conditions. Biennial sampling to access the lake's crappie population was conducted in the fall of 2007. The results showed a large year-class of age 2-plus fish. Crappie in Lake Murray generally reach a catchable size (8 or 9 inches) by age 3, so the cohorts of the '07 sampling should be reflected in the anglers' harvest in the upcoming months if not already. Anglers should be reminded that the DNR maintains 23 fish attractors throughout the lake to aid in concentrating panfish such as crappie. The GPS coordinates and a map of their location is available on the DNR Web site."
Officer Beard went on to comment that there had been
studies conducted by a number of resource agencies that indicate white perch do compete with other species, and may be responsible for declines in some recreational important populations, such as white bass.
"I personally don't think that there is much to be done about their presence in South Carolina waters," Beard said. "A recent change in the law did remove daily harvest limits on this species, but as to what impact this may have on reducing their numbers is yet to be seen."
This law change is on the books as H.4497 Game fish-Act No. 227; this Act removes white perch from the list of game fish in South Carolina.
Officer Scott Lamprecht is the Freshwater Fisheries Region 4 coordinator with the SCDNR. The main crappie fisheries in his region are the two lakes of the Santee Cooper System (Lake Marion and Lake Moultrie).
"The basic foundation of our fishery has not changed drastically, and that is limited recruitment with extremely fast growth," he said. "The insipient drought that we have experienced for nearly 10 years has hurt our crappie numbers. Last season's drawdown of the reservoir produced conditions in 2008 that should favor an exceptional recruitment class -- that will not affect the 2009 fishery, but should strongly influence subsequent years. In the meantime, anglers have reported a season of spotty catches that have been less than desirable, and a cause for complaints from anglers and guides used to catching higher numbers. Currently, I would call 2009 a recruiting year, but like the Cub fan that I am, I am very optimistic for the future."
If you fish lakes Moultrie and Marion, don't expect to catch large numbers of crappie, but do expect the ones you catch to be better than average.
Crappie still go to the shallows to spawn in the spring, but crappie guides Barry and Pete Prichard say crappie are beginning to spawn in deeper water. This father-and-son combination primarily fish water depths of 20 feet, where they have planted an ample garden of brushpiles. These guides will fish with jigs from time to time, but their standby bait is live minnows fished with a fly rod. Their clients use the fly rod like a cane pole. If you would like to book a trip with the Prichards, give them a call at (803) 478-7533. I have personally fished with these men, and have been well pleased with the results.
Another crappie guide that was recommended to me by Officer Scott Lamprecht is L.C. Wolfe. I have not fished with this guide, but Lamprecht spoke highly of him. If you are interested in fishing with Wolfe, give him a call at (843) 753-2044.
With the deluge of water that fell as a result of Hurricane Fay, most of the state's lakes were filled; in some instances, they were flooded. My home lake (Lake Wylie) rose almost 4 feet overnight as a result of the storm.
THE GLORY DAYS OF LAKE WYLIE
Back in the "Glory Days" when Lake Wylie was in its peak years, I invited a fellow writer and friend of mine to fish for crappie one afternoon. Jim Casada arrived at my river cabin at the appointed time. My boat was tied to the dock and everything was on go for the trip. It was late summer and I was still using small minnows that we would seine out of the lake. We motored upstream to a sandbar that was loaded with minnows just the right size we wanted.
We parked the boat at one of the sandbars to act as a block for the school of minnows we were targeting. Using a 12-foot minnow seine, I took the deep-water side, and Jim handled the shallow-water end. It is preferable for the deep-water net man to stay about 6 feet in front of the shallow-water man to herd the minnows toward the boat. When I approached the boat, you could see a huge school of minnows trapped in the net. As we slid the net onto the shore, the net was alive with flipping minnows. We had roughly 20 dozen for our efforts. We transferred our catch to a large Styrofoam cooler in the boat, and added a frozen half-gallon plastic jug to keep the water cool.
The skies turned from just being a bit cloudy to very dark, and a warm rain proceeded to come down in torrents. We motored upstream to brush that had been especially productive that week just beyond the old Bethel Community House. It was raining so hard that we had to stay within 50 yards of the shore to be able to see land.
The particular brush we wanted to fish was in excess of 75 yards out in the lake and I could not see the trees I usually triangulated to find the brush. We began to circle as I told Jim, "We are bad close to where we want to go, but I can't pinpoint the brush."
After turning the depth recorder on, we finally located the brush and threw a buoy in it to mark it. It was pouring down rain, and the gas can began to float as the water gathered in the boat. My boat doesn't have a bilge pump, so we dipped water out with a cut-off gallon plastic jug. Jim Casada looked at me as if to say, "What kind of nut have I gone fishing with today -- he doesn't know when to quit!" We parked the boat straddling the brush with anchors both fore and aft to keep the boat from moving around.
I told Jim, "Even though the water is 20 feet deep here, it is only 7 feet down to the top of the brush. Open your bail and start counting as soon as your minnow touches the water; when you get to the count of six, shut the bail and start reeling very slowly until you feel a light tap. When this happens, set the hook, and reel your fish in."
Almost every drop that each of us made resulted in a nice crappie. It didn't take long for us to have our 60-fish limit and we headed back toward the cabin. Jim was shaking his head as he muttered, "I saw it and I still don't believe it!" Days like this one make me pray that history will repeat itself! I hope I live long enough to see Lake Wylie get back to the "Glory Days."
According to where you live in the state, you might have to travel the extra mile to get into good crappie fishing during the 2009 season. I prefer to fish old standby waters, but new territory is always exciting to visit and cover. You might have to have an attitude adjustment if your old strategies aren't working, but we all need to learn something new from time to time.
Some crappie anglers have the opinion that they "know it all," but this same person will undoubtedly lie about other things too. We never get too old to learn. I've often heard that the school for learning about the outdoors doesn't have a graduation date. I'm a firm believer in this. There is always more than one way to skin a cat. Turn off the TV, get in your truck, and try a new crappie lake this year. You just might be surprised at what you find!