Find out what the experts have to say about the state of crappie fishing across South Carolina. (February 2010)
In days gone by, crappie fishing was a springtime-only event. Crappie would move into the shallows to spawn and anglers would fill their livewells and freezers for a couple of months of the year, and then resume other activities. With the advances in technology and a better understanding of crappie patterns throughout the year, anglers now fish for crappie 12 months a year using advanced sonar and fishing tactics that leave crappie few hiding places.
Amidst fears of overharvest, South Carolina followed the example of several other Southern states last summer by imposing minimum harvest sizes (and a reduced creel limit specifically for Lake Murray). Many anglers applaud the move as a step in the right direction and would like to see more conservation efforts on the state's other crappie venues. A survey of state fisheries biologists and local anglers revealed some surprising and some not so surprising comments about the current and future status of crappie fishing in South Carolina. Here's what the experts had to say:
Covering the Savannah chain of lakes as well as lakes Keowee and Greenwood, regional biologist Dan Rankin has some of the best crappie waters in the state under his jurisdiction.
In Lake Keowee, just north of Seneca, the number of crappie in the lake have steadily declined over the years because of the unauthorized introduction of spotted bass in the deep, clear reservoir.
"Keowee has never been considered much of a crappie lake," said Rankin. "It doesn't have a lot of nutrients coming into the lake, and the fertility has declined since it was impounded. The crappie that are there are more abundant in the upper tributaries like Cane Creek, Stamp Creek, Little River and Crowe Creek. The good news is that what crappie are there are typically bigger fish that exceed 10 inches."
"Most people don't think of Keowee as a crappie lake," said Alex Orr, a state park ranger at Oconee State Park and avid crappie angler, "but there's some really good crappie in Keowee if you know where to find them and how to catch them."
During the summer of 2009, South Carolina emerged from a three-year drought that severely affected upstate lakes on the Savannah chain. Fortunately, the lake levels on Russell were kept relatively constant because of the height of the water intake at the Russell dam. "We would expect a little better spawning success on Russell because the water levels didn't go as low as they did on Hartwell or Thurmond," said Rankin. "In fact, water levels were coming up during the spring on all those lakes, which is much better for them than a declining level. Hopefully, the levels will remain high for 2010, and I would expect that spawning success would be really good given the grasses and shrubs that grew up in the shallows while the lakes were down."
Always a solid crappie fishery, Lake Greenwood was last sampled during 2009 and biologists are still digesting that data. According to Rankin, there is much angler concern about overharvest given the popularity of Greenwood.
"Greenwood definitely gets more crappie angling pressure in angler hours per acre than any lake in the state," said Rankin. "This is one lake where angler harvest exceeds natural mortality, and ideally we'd like to see some adjustments in regulations to reduce the creel limit and have a minimum harvest size."
"This past year was the best crappie fishing I've ever seen at Lake Greenwood," said local angler and Fish Stalker Lures owner Tom Mundy. "I look for it to be that much better this year in both size and numbers of crappie, but I'm afraid that drop in the creel limit at Murray is going to bring a lot of guys up here that want those 10 more fish. I wish the DNR would put the same limits on Greenwood and all these other lakes that get fished so hard as they have on Murray."
According to the last data collected by the DNR, numbers and size of crappie are up on Clarks Hill/Thurmond. The angling pressure there is not as great as on Greenwood, and the lake's size is much larger, which helps crappie survive.
"We've found the tributary arms are more productive, and there are a number of those on both sides of the lake," said Rankin. "It's not located very close to a major residential area, so Thurmond doesn't see the pressure that Greenwood does, and that fact shows up in our surveys. That allows these fish the time and space to grow."
"My average size on Clarks Hill is probably a pound or better with a lot of those fish going a pound and a half," said Dereck Fulton, a Clarks Hill crappie guide and B'n'M Poles pro staff member. "But there are bigger fish in there. Two and a half pounds is a good fish and are pretty common, although I catch more of those sized fish in the late winter to early spring. That's when I expect to catch a 2 1/2 pound fish, but you never know about this lake, it can be good year 'round."
One Piedmont lake that gets little press is Lake Secession, located between Abbeville and Anderson counties. This 1,450-acre lake is heavily fished for its size but still produces decent crappie.
"I would put it up toward the top, it's definitely one of the better lakes in the Piedmont," said Rankin, "although recreational boat traffic in the spring and summer are very high. Despite a rupture in the dam at Broadway Lake upstream last year, there was never any danger to Secession."
For Greenville and Spartanburg anglers looking to find good numbers of crappie close to home, there are six water district lakes spread out across the Upstate from Greer to Chesnee. From east to west, they are Robinson, Cunningham, Lyman, Cooley, Bowen and Blalock and range in size from a little over 300 acres to 1,600 acres. Most of the lakes have boat and motor size restrictions and all require the purchase of special use permits.
"We last surveyed these lakes in 2000," said Rankin. "They were very high in angler usage, but all have better than average crappie populations and good catch rates. Our findings were that the crappie in these essentially clear reservoirs were slow growing, which results in big numbers of small fish. The weights per crappie averaged 1/3 to 1/2 pound which puts them in the 8- to 9-inch range."
Including territory from Lake Wylie down to the Coastal Plain near Myrtle Beach, Florence-based Region 2 fisheries biologist Liz Osier also covers the Catawba chain of lakes, which include such crappie factories as Wateree, Fishing Creek and Stumpy Pond. "We sampled Lake Wylie during the winters of 2005, 2006 and 2007 and found that we were not getting the young-of-the-year crappie that they would like to see from our trap net surveys. It's unc
lear why this might occur, but we've also gotten reports of reduced catch rates from local anglers."
Those sentiments are reflected by Will Hinson, a frequent tournament angler from Kershaw County who bears the title of "first man" of crappie fishing, courtesy of his wife Melissa, who is the president of the Southern Crappie Tournament Trail.
"There's still plenty of crappie in Wylie," he said, "but I have seen a downturn from what we used to catch. Now you don't get the numbers that you used to, but the size is better -- fish average from 1 1/4 pounds up to 2 pounds."
According to Osier, the DNR has not sampled Lake Wateree, which lies some 15 miles northeast of Camden, in over five years, but they receive a lot of reports from anglers and understand that the fishing pressure has increased tremendously on this highly popular Catawba River impoundment.
"Last year was poor by normal tournament standards," said Will Hinson. "We had less fish weighed in, and the weights were down. I've fished Wateree for the last 25 years and you used to get a limit of fish in two to three hours. Now it takes a full day of hard fishing to get 30 keepers. I like what they've done at Murray with the new regulations and they need to do that here. You can go to any boat ramp on Wateree just about any day of the year and see 10 to 15 crappie rigs in the lot. There are a lot of good fishermen who catch a lot of fish, and if we don't change our laws like they've done up in North Carolina, we're going to see a lot more lakes in decline."
Osier said her department manages several state lakes in Region 2 and suggests that several of these may have some untapped crappie fishing. She did point out however, that crappie don't grow very large in small ponds, where their numbers tend to overpopulate quickly and a lot of crappie have their growth stunted because of food availability.
"There's Dargan's Pond in Darlington County, which is open from March to the end of September. We've heard that lake's crappie fishery was on an upswing this past year. Lake Wallace down near Bennettsville has had some good angler reports as well this past season. Our biggest challenge with these lakes is the proliferation of undesirable species like golden shiners and pumpkinseed bream that consume a lot of the food chain but do not benefit the local anglers."
As reported, the biggest news from the crappie world in South Carolina is Lake Murray. Murray is the only major reservoir in Region 3 that is overseen by biologist Hal Beard. He was hopeful for a positive impact on Murray's crappie fishery after the announcement was made that as of July 1, 2009, an 8-inch minimum size limit and 20 fish per day creel limit went into effect.
"Currently, this is the only site-specific size and limit regulation for crappie in the state," said Beard. "We've had complaints about overharvest, plus you have to factor in that Murray is losing fishery habitat due to development along much of its shoreline and that can have a negative impact on crappie species."
Beard was also quick to point out that they had seen a strong year-class in 2007, and those fish should be a good size for the current year. He reported that the upper third of Lake Murray was most conducive to supporting crappie species, 99 percent of which are black crappie.
"We do maintain 24 fish-attractor sites on Lake Murray in an attempt to help replenish the loss of habitat and also concentrate crappie for the anglers," he said.
Working the coast for Region 4 is biologist Scott Lamprecht. He presides over the Santee Cooper lakes as well as most of the Coastal Plain. He admits the last 10 years have been hard on the once immensely popular world-class crappie fishing in the two Santee Cooper lakes.
"Our crappie populations are just not in good shape," said Lamprecht, reporting from his office in Bonneau. "The last 10 years have been tough due to low water and low water inflows into our lakes. A lot of anglers want to blame the catfish, but there are fewer catfish mouths to feed than there have been in several years. Combine that with the fact that our predominant catfish species are blue catfish, which just aren't equipped to tackle healthy live fish. In truth, our lakes are extremely fertile, and we have some of the fastest growth rates in the country. We also have some of the highest natural mortality."
Lamprecht said his department was at a loss to explain the high natural mortality at Santee-Cooper, but explained that a minimal water level drop in the two lakes meant acres of lost spawning habitat in the relatively shallow lakes, especially in their upper reaches. Combine the loss of recruitment with the decrease in natural aquatic vegetation lost in the fight against hydrilla, and some of the pieces begin to form an explanation.
"We lost more than 50 percent of Lake Marion's surface area above I-95 during the last drought," he said. "The good news, since the water is back up and the hydrilla is gone in the lower lake, is that native aquatic plants such as eel grass and water willow are making a strong comeback and providing more shelter and spawning cover. I'm optimistic that with our tremendous growth rates and our long growing season and plenty of forage to eat, our crappie stocks will make a comeback."
"I tell people to go someplace else," said pro crappie angler Whitey Outlaw from St. Matthews. "Between the catfish and the cormorants and losing all the vegetation and no water, this place has been sorry. But I think things will start to turn around if we can get some fish to grow at Santee. What we need to do is to put a 12-inch size limit on here and cut the creel limit in half."
The biologists have some suggestions for crappie anglers looking for alternative crappie holes in the Lowcountry. The first of which was the Bushy Park area off the Cooper River. Bushy Park is a potential freshwater source for the Charleston area and encompasses a backwater area of the Cooper River, which is connected by Durham Creek.
"There's a fresh and a saltwater side to Bushy Park," said Lamprecht. "The landscape is pretty wild -- old plantations and marsh lands. During the early spring and late winter, there is a mixture of tannic and freshwater that infiltrates from the Cooper. Crappie can grow to good sizes there with the fertile waters and long growing season."
Goose Creek Reservoir, located between Goose Creek and Hanahan, is another water source lake with decent crappie populations. Despite an ongoing weed problem and the typical high fishing pressure associated with proximity to a major metropolitan area, local anglers report good crappie success rates from the phosphate-rich, highly fertile waters.
Lamprecht suggests not overlooking the multitude of Coastal Plain ponds that are widespread across his region. Many of these ponds are borrow pits where backfill was needed to create road embankments. Still others may be old oxbows from major rivers like the Savannah, Edisto, Santee, Black or Pee Dee. These waters are characterized as shallow, fertile, and with a few exceptions, mos
tly black water. Many hold untouched populations of black crappie, which often thrive in these environments.
One such public waterway is at Wee Tee State Forest in Williamsburg and Georgetown counties. Two public lakes, Wee Tee and Ferry Lake, are open for public fishing on Wednesdays and Saturdays and offer excellent fish habitat. These areas have a public launch facility and are restricted to electric motors only. The area was acquired in 2004 from a private hunt club and is locally known for its good crappie fishing.
From the mountains to the sea, South Carolina has a multitude of crappie fishing venues to choose from. Whether you're wetting a line in a clear mountain lake, an expansive Piedmont reservoir or a black water oxbow, crappie are a renewable resource but not an unlimited resource. How we as anglers choose to steward over this resource will affect whether or not future generations, our children and our grandchildren, get to enjoy it the same way we have in the past and hope to do in the future.