February 04, 2015
By Terry Madewell
The cold winter of 2014 and throughout the early part of the year did seem to slow down the crappie movement to the shallows for the spring spawn in 2014. It certainly didn't have a negative impact on the overall crappie fishery in South Carolina, however, based on numerous reports from biologist, guides and expert crappie fishermen.
While the prime shallow-water fishing during the spawn was delayed, plenty of fish were caught and many lakes enjoyed banner years. Overall we had a very good year in 2014.
And it looks like 2015 should be another good year.
According to Ross Self, Chief of Fisheries for the South Carolina Department of Natural Resources (SCDNR), the overall status of the crappie fisheries in South Carolina is healthy and regulatory changes have been put into place with the goal of making them even more productive.
"Last year we implemented the statewide 8-inch size limit along with a 20-crappie creel limit," Self said. "It will take a few years to get the necessary scientific data to determine how well this effort will work, (but) we believe it will work well for the crappie fishery."
So far, Self said, the SCDNR has received only a little input from the public, but that input has been supportive of the size and creel limits.
A number of lakes could make the list of top crappie fisheries but we've narrowed down the best of the best. We'll begin our look in the lower part of the state and work toward the upstate.
Lakes Marion And Moultrie
There are only two lakes here that we'll look at, but in the world of crappie fishing, they pack a wallop: Lakes Marion and Moultrie, of the famous Santee Cooper system.
Both of these lakes had outstanding crappie years in 2014 and the same or better can be expected in 2015. Scott Lamprecht, the SCDNR fisheries' biologist for the Santee Cooper lakes, works out of the Bonneau facility.
"Right now we are in a very good place for the crappie fishing in both lakes," Lamprecht said. "We have had ample water the past couple for years for spawning success and recruitment and the past two years have been good for crappie recruitment. That bodes well for the future. We've got really good black crappie gill net data for 2014. In addition we have some strong year classes now of larger crappie. Crappies in Santee Cooper grow faster than anywhere in the state, but there's a lower density of fish than what some South Carolina lakes have. But that means these lakes have an extremely high growth rate. The bottom line is that lakes Marion and Moultrie consistently produce the largest crappie in the state."
Lamprecht said before they reach a year old, crappie are small enough to be susceptible to predation. But after that they grow so fast they get to great sizes in only three or four years.
Andy Pack, out of Packs Landing (803-452-5514) in the upper end of Lake Marion said that typically the shallow-water crappie fishing begins in February in the upper reaches of the lake and into the swap section.
"We're often catching limits of crappie in February in very skinny water on small jigs or live minnows," Pack said. "Often this excellent fishing continues for a few weeks, then the fish slip out into deeper water, but are still available at depths where most fishermen can be successful."
In the lower end of Lake Marion and into Lake Moultrie, the shallow-water spawn will typically occur later, peaking March and April. But some of the very best fishing on these lakes, and likely some of the best fishing anywhere in the state, occurs during the summer, fall and early winter months. At this time the crappie will stack up, literally, over deepwater brush and other cover and can be caught in limit numbers and huge sizes. The SCDNR and the Santee Cooper Country Tourism Commission are working together on a project to restore and re-establish a number of fish attractors on both lakes. These locations can be found on the SCDNR website.
The primary technique is to lower your bait to the top of the brushpile at the depth depicted on your graph. Usually the aggressive, feeding crappie will be on the edges and you can catch them without snagging the cover. However at times you have to probe a bit deeper into the brush to catch the fish. But at both lakes Marion and Moultrie catches of limits of fish in the 1 1/2- to nearly 3-pound class are likely on any given day. This is "monster crappie" country.
Also in this lowcountry area there is some outstanding crappie fishing in the Santee River. Guide Joe Dennis (843-245-3762) said that in 2014 the crappie fishing was outstanding in May and June on the Santee River. Dennis said limit catches of hefty crappie were made using jigs and/or minnows. This may be a real sleeper hotspot in terms of fish availability and with respect to being overlooked by a number of anglers. Dennis also guides on Lake Moultrie for crappie and other species.
EXPERT TIP FOR FISHING DOCKS FOR CRAPPIE
Preston Harden is a striper guide on Lake Hartwell, but often when the water temperature is low, he'll take a bit of time to have fun with crappie. And he'll catch limits of slabs using his favorite technique."Docks provide ample cover for the fish whether there are brushpiles located below the docks or not," Harden said. "The shade from the dock itself will attract crappie. I prefer sunny days because the fish will better orient to the docks." Harden uses small jigs in 1/32 and 1/16 ounce sizes with a plastic grub, chartreuse. Most of the fishing is vertical jigging in and around the nooks and crannies of docks. Harden said he uses light action rods with 4-pound-test line. "I'll ease up to a dock and Ill flip the jig in and work it back along the edge of the dock," Harden said. "I'll slingshot the jig back in the tighter pieces of cover and under the docks or boats and swim the jig. Then I'll try dropping the jig vertically in and around tight, dark places. Often the crappie will be holding in big bunches in these small, dark areas. Another method is to fish the jig vertically. I drop it down then jiggle the rod tip and slowly reel to get a depth preference. We may find the fish holding on floating docks in twenty feet down to forty feet of water. As the water warms, the fish will move shallower and toward the back of the creeks."
— Terry Madewell
MIDLANDS AND PIEDMONT
Hal Beard is the Regional Coordinator for Region 3 of the SCDNR and said the crappie fishing is good on the lakes in this region and that the size and creel limits are likely to help future fishing.
"It will take a few years before we collect the data we need to do the scientific studies, but I think these regulations will help protect the resource," Beard said. "But for now the fishing is good, and on Lake Murray, while not as fantastic as it was in the boom stage of the lake, the fishing is solid and productive. For those who fish the lakes a lot, their odds are better than some others. But the recruitment of young fish into the population is good based on our recent sampling on Lake Murray.
Located in the heart of the Midlands this lake produces quality crappie throughout the year. The crappie typically will be in a pre-spawn mode during February and March. By the end of March the fish will be beginning to make their move toward the shallows. April is typically the best month for consistent shallow-water fishing, although shallow fish can be caught any time from late March into May.
The key is to work a lot of shoreline cover in the mid- to back part of the major creeks and larger coves throughout the lake. Many anglers will use long poles rigged with live minnows, or will simply have a small jig attached and will swim it in and around cover. Some anglers will put a float about a foot or two above the jig or minnow.
After the shallow-water action slows, the fish move into their post-spawn patterns and, eventually, into summer patterns. While they are in summer patterns, they actually produce a very reliable fishery for a few months.
Most guides will have brush piles in the 15-to 25-foot depth range and will fish depths based on where the lake stratifies. Usually the fish will be suspended just above the cover and you can mark the depth using your graph and lower your bait to that depth.
In the upper end of the Lake Murray, the lake doesn't stratify into layers, especially above the confluence of the rivers. In this sector of the lake, crappie are usually caught in water less than 15 feet deep. Again, the fish are caught over and around woody cover, but usually suspended just above the cover, not buried in it. The key here is to cover enough water and try plenty of spots until you locate the fish. Once you locate them, generally you'll find several in one location. Do that two or three times and you've likely got a limit of good-sized crappie.
Located in Fairfield County between Winnsboro and Newberry off of Highway 34, Lake Monticello is often overlooked as a crappie destination. This is likely due in part to the lake being clear and deep. Anglers fishing this lake rave about the crappie fishing, however, and although everything is relative here in terms of depth, the crappie fishing is excellent.
Local anglers know that the crappie don't come in as shallow to spawn as they do on many other lakes. But during February and March, and then again after the spawn, the crappie can be found using modern electronic equipment. Casting jigs or dropping minnows to these targets, often in depths of 30 feet or more of water on points, humps and ledges, can lead to limits of heavy fish. Numerous crappie in the 1- to 2-pound class are taken from this lake throughout the year.
According to one local fisherman, the biggest problem with catching crappie when they are not in the shallower water (and they aren't shallow most of the year), is that the lake is also full of white perch. Unless an angler is very adept at interpreting the signals from a graph it's often difficult to tell whether you're marking crappie or white perch. But the good news, he said, is that big white perch are very good eating and there's no limit on them so catching and keeping them does not impact the number of crappie he can keep. When he catches a few white perch when crappie fishing, he'll put them in the live well and move on and look for crappie in another place.
Also, as a pumpback reservoir for a nuclear facility, the lake has a hot water discharge at its lower end. A large area is off limits to any boat traffic, but during cold weather in February and early March and again in late fall and winter, the water temperature will be several degrees warmer on the lower end than on the upper end. During cold weather most anglers will work the lower end of the lake because water temperatures here are usually closer to 60 degrees than 50 degrees found on the upper end.
Dan Rankin is the Regional Coordinator for Region 1 for the SCDNR. Rankin said not a lot of crappie data has been accumulated on Lake Hartwell in recent years, but biologists have collected enough to have a perspective on the crappie fishery in the lake.
"Lake Hartwell is a good, stable crappie fishery which can be seasonally excellent," Rankin said. "There are some good numbers and sizes of crappie in Lake Hartwell. It is not the dominate fishery in the lake (the dominant fisheries are those of the stripers and hybrids, followed by black bass)."
Rankin said that may be cause for crappie anglers to overlook the potential of this species at Lake Hartwell.
"We do have enough data to know overall the crappie fishery is good, based on our last survey in 2012," he said.
Crappies are cyclic but for the past three years Lake Hartwell produced some outstanding crappie fishing according to local experts.
Preston Harden of Bucktail Guide Service (706-255-5622) on Lake Hartwell is a striper guide. But during the cold-weather months when the water temperature dips into the mid-40's and water conditions are not ideal for striper action, Harden has an extraordinary backup plan for catching fish and starts plucking large strings of crappie out of Hartwell's water. That action is great most of the cold months. Then the crappie move in for spawning then back to deep water, where some of his cold weather techniques will still produce. By then Harden is back to catching limits of stripers.
The key to Harden's success is to target docks for crappie catching.
"Docks offer everything a crappie needs at this time of the year and for much of the year in fact," Harden said. "Hartwell is a deep, clear lake and crappies gravitate to cover. Brush piles on deep points are good, but there are thousands of points and sometimes it's hard to find cover at the right depth (especially since the lake level changes frequently). It's easier and more productive to target docks, especially in cold weather.
"It's not unusual to find crappies deep near the bottom or in only 4 or 5 feet of water right under the boats or the dock floats," he said. "Sometimes I can just swim the bait just below the dock float in 4 or 5 feet of water, even if the dock is in 20-to 40-feet of water and crappie will be holding tight to cover in the shallow portion of the water column. Sometimes I catch a limit of hefty crappie in short order doing this."
Harden said the key is to keep moving until you find the right pattern or just finally find a dock loaded with crappie.
This process continues though the spring and even into the summer where anglers often use lights on piers or docks, or when they are anchored under bridges, to attract crappie.
"Crappie can be caught year-round and Lake Hartwell holds some quality fish," Harden said. "Sometimes during cold weather we'll be the only boat I see on the lake and we'll be catching crappie like crazy. Even when I'm striper fishing I talk to fishermen who specialize in crappie. [They] do well year round."
The timing for crappie action is now and if you get on the fish now while the water temperature is still low you can stay on them as they make their move toward shallow water and back again this year.