January’s cold weather pushes many outdoorsmen indoors to wait for the coming spring, but that’s a mistake for fishermen longing for that familiar tug on the business end of their line. 

The shellcracker bite is plenty hot on Lake Murray, and former guide Doug Lown of Newberry said it’s is the place to catch them. Not only that, but it doesn’t take any special gear or skill to catch a mess of fish, 

One of the best parts of shellcracker fishing on these cold days, according to Lown, is that it takes no special gear or even skill in order to catch a mess of fish. It’s fun, it puts good meat on the table, and it beats being a couch potato.

“Some days in January are brutally cold, but this is South Carolina, and we have our share of days that are plenty warm enough to get out on the lake and chase these fish,” said Lown, who dresses in layers and sometimes finds himself stripping from cold-weather gear down to T-shirts throughout a typical January day.

Lown also said it isn’t necessary, or even fruitful, to begin fishing for these red-eared sunfish too early in the morning. They are waiting for the sun to warm the shallows before they move in and begin feeding, so there’s no reason to crawl out of bed during the coldest part of the day. Some experienced anglers wait until 10 or 11 to hit the water, and once you get there, Lown said you should look for rock-lined banks that have rocks extending out into the water. These rocks heat up more quickly than other parts of the lake, and shellcrackers are attracted to the warmth. Plenty of these fish inhabit the points around the Dreher Island boat landing, and Lown catches his share of them within sight of the ramp.

Once Lown locates a likely-looking fishing area, he anchors within casting range, then gets to work. He uses basic gear like 5-foot-6 rods with spincast or spinning reels spooled with 8- to 10-pound mono and Nos. 2 to 4 hooks. He uses a cork about 12 inches above the hook with a split shot in between. 

“I’ll adjust the cork depending on the water depth; I want the cork to keep the hook from getting snagged in the rocks,” said Lown, who cautions fishermen not to be deceived by a cork sitting idle; these fish will sometimes suck the bait in, then just sit still, and the cork will barely move. Lown said anglers should move their cork just slightly from time to time to make sure there isn’t a fish sulking on the other end of their line.

Like his gear, Lown keeps his bait simple. Nightcrawlers are his key bait, and the only secret to using them, he said, is to not be stingy with them. 

“I use a whole nightcrawler each time,” he said, explaining that he threads the hook through a the worm a couple of times, then lets the excess hang straight down. Using a large bait like this, he said, equals fewer small fish pecking at your bait. 

Leesville’s Tony Alexander agrees with many of Lown’s words of wisdom on cold-water shellcracker fishing on Murray, but he pays a lot of attention to the weather and other scientific factors when pursuing these panfish. While no single factor will keep him off the lake if he really wants to go, they will push him into targeting fish other than shellcrackers at times.

Barometric pressure is one factor to which Alexander pays close attention. 

“If the barometric pressure is between 29.9 and 30.20, I feel confident the shellcrackers will bite,” said Alexander, who won’t stay home if he sees the pressure is higher but expects the fishing to be slower. “This time of year, it usually falls in the late afternoon, so, other than shellcrackers wanting the sun to warm up their feeding grounds, the pressure is another reason I will often wait until after lunch to begin fishing. 

And while he doesn’t worry too much over the air temperature, Alexander said a few days of stable weather do help the fishing considerably.

Alexander, who fishes about 200 days a year on Murray, also favors certain moon phases over others. 

“Most people say three days before and after the full moon are great times to fish,” he said. “I agree with that, but three days on either side of the new moon are usually even better, and three days on either side of the half-moon can also bring awesome shellcracker fishing.”

Alexander focuses on main-lake points out of the Acapulco boat landing in areas like Rocky, Whetstone, Buffalo and Hawley creeks, saying his best points have a combination of big rocks and shell beds. These shell beds, which are made up of freshwater mussels, are what really attract these panfish and give them their moniker, as they suck a small portion of the shelled mussels into their lips, crack a small hole in the shell, suck the meat out, and then drop the empty shell back to the lake floor.

While anglers can usually locate these beds by spotting the shells along the shore or in shallow water, Alexander knows where many of them are through experience. 

“Anyone who fishes these areas for a few minutes can feel the difference between rocks and shells when you are dragging your bait along the lake floor,” he said. “Plus, it is common to find shells tangled on your line after reeling in.”

Instead of using a cork to keep his bait off the bottom and avoid snags, Alexander uses 1/4-ounce bank sliders eight inches above his hook, and adds a small split-shot weight to allow the sliding weight to move up and down, but not all the way down to his hook. This allows his bait to wiggle around freely, and the shape and sliding nature of the main weight allows him to pull through most of the snags that plague anglers using regular worm weights — even the sliding versions whose shape can wedge tightly into rock crevices and sunken tree branches. 

Alexander prefers 8- to 10-pound mono and No. 2 Eagle Claw bait-holder hooks, which he loads up with two or more red wigglers. 

“Red wigglers have a strong smell to them, and they are cheap baits,” he said. Rather than thread the hook through one end of the wiggler, he likes to pierce the worm closer to the middle and come out close to the middle as well. This allows the worms to writhe around, drawing attention to themselves. 

On some days, Alexander (www.tonyslake.com) will use four to six rods at a time, spacing them out around his john boat, but other days, he ends up putting away all but two rods.

“When they are feeding aggressively, it’s impossible to fish more than two rods at a time,” said Alexander, who worries little over the air temperature but believes water temperature is critical. If it drops considerably in a short period of time, these fish will scatter — he assumes to very deep water — and even anglers who are able to locate them say they stay lock-jawed until the water temperature stabilizes. 

Lown, on the other hand, usually finds shellcrackers in very shallow water when the water temperature falls quickly over a matter of days. He said they are more difficult to find, but when the sun is high, some shellcrackers will still gather close to the surface around rocks or sandy areas, sucking up the warmth of the day and eager to bite an easy meal.

DESTINATION INFORMATION

WHERE TO GO/HOW TO GET THERE — The riprapped banks around the ramp in Lake Murray’s Dreher Island State Park are prime shellcracker spots. Access is most easy from I-26 via exit 74 from the west and exit 91 from the east and south to Dreher Island Road. The Acapulco boat ramp is on Rock N Creek Road off Old Lexington Road, which is most easily accessed from US 378 East.

TACKLE/TECHNIQUES — Light to medium-light spincast or spinning tackle, small hooks, corks and nightcrawlers and red worms. Look for rocky banks and mussel beds and keep the bait just off the bottom, away from the hang-ups.

GUIDES/FISHING INFO — Dreher Island Tackle Shop, Newberry, 803-364-3530; Sportsman’s Warehouse, Columbia, 803-731-3000; Lake World, Lexington, 803-957-6548. Better Bait & Tackle,  Lexington, 803-808-9596. See also Guides and Charters in Classifieds.

ACCOMMODATIONS — Dreher Island State Park Campground, Newberry, 866-345-PARK; Buffalo Creek Marina, Prosperity, 803-466-5335; Holiday Inn Express, Newberry, 803-321-3955.

MAPS — Fishing Hot Spots, 800-ALL-MAPS, www.fishinghotspots.com;  Delorme’s S.C. Atlas and Gazetteer, 800-642-0970, www.delorme.com; GPS Nautical Charts, www.gpsnauticalcharts.com; Kingfisher Lake Maps, 800-326-0257, www.kfmaps.com