A guy whose nickname is “Stump Hunter” could only be destined for one thing: catching crappie. Stump’s alter ego is Ronnie McKee of Piedmont, a fisherman who loves all things crappie, runs a garage business making and tying crappie jigs and prefers nothing more than to spend a day on Lake Russell teaching his lures how to swim.
As February rolls into March, crappie on the middle lake of the Savannah River chain start to wake from their winter slumber as the water temperature climbs out of the 40s and into what McKee likes to call “long-lining time.”
The 50-degree mark is a transition point where crappie move from hugging the bottom to suspending higher in the water column. At the same time, they begin moving from deeper, main-lake areas and move into major tributaries. This begins the trek of staging, with crappie eventually winding up on shallow water flats around the end of the month.
During the migration, crappie tend to suspend and scatter as they migrate to the shallows, following break lines along creek channels in a rush-hour commute to the spawning grounds.
“As crappie start schooling and making their run to spawn, you’re going to start looking at the creek-channel mouths in the 25- to 30-foot zone,” McKee said. “They’re going to move up and, as the water starts to warm up, they’re going to keep staging a little bit less and less and heading into the spawning grounds. But, the 25- to 30-foot zone will be the place to start looking in late February.”
Before learning how to long line troll for crappie, you have to understand how and where to intercept them.
“It varies according to the water temperature,” said McKee. “If the water’s still holding in the 40s, they’re still going to be on the bottom. You’ll actually start seeing them maybe 2 to 4 foot off the bottom. If the water is warming up, breaking the 50-degree mark, you’ll catch them suspended. This is where a good graph comes into play. You just need to ride around and look and see the depth these fish are holding before you start fishing for them.”
Once he has identified a stretch of water containing crappie, McKee will line up on top of them, drop his trolling motor and cast 6 to 8 lines out behind the boat. It’s trolling in the traditional sense, though at some point, some crappie angler decided to call it “long-line” trolling to distinguish the tactic from the spider rig — slow, vertical trolling that’s also popular.
McKee said several integral pieces of gear must be used in tandem in order to be successful at long-line trolling. Those items, in no certain order, include a variable-speed trolling motor, rod holders, GPS/depth finder, long rods, durable reels and a handful of jigs.
“If somebody is just starting out, I would tell them to get them a quality reel that’s going to hold up to the pressure, a decent line in the 6- to 8-pound range and some quality jigs,” he said. “You’re going to need a basic set-up of rod holders off either the back or the front of your boat. If you start off putting your jigs out at 30 feet from the boat, you’ve got to know your speed. Using GPS, start trolling at 0.7 to 0.8 mph with a 1/16-ounce jig. That’s basically going to get you 6 to 8 feet down in the water column, and you’ll start to catch fish on that.
From there, adjusting the running depth is a balance of jig weight, boat speed and the amount of line out.
“If the fish are suspended at 12 feet, say 12 to 15 feet, I’m going to start off with 1/8-ounce jig, then I’m going to move up to 1/16-ounce,” he said. “Some people move all the way to 1/32- as the fish move up into 6-foot-and-up water depth, but I try to stay with the 1/16- and control the jigs by adjusting my speed.”
As the spawn arrives in late March, the key to fishing Lake Russell, known for its stumps and standing timber, is to locate areas that you can actually troll above fish-holding structure without too many hang-ups.
“A good map will show you where the stump fields are,” he said. “Look for creeks where you can get to the back of them, away from the trees. The history of Lake Russell is, they basically left all the trees standing, cleared off the back of the creeks and then filled it up. You can find good trolling lanes in the back of the creeks that are just stump fields or either find your channels in between the trees. Then, it’s game on.”
HOW TO GET THERE — Lake Russell likes along the Georgia-South Carolina line in Abbeville County. Calhoun Falls and Lowndesville are the closest towns. SC 81 and SC 184 are primary access routes to ramps at Sander’s Ferry on the upper end of the lake and Lowndesville and Calhoun Falls on the lower end.
WHEN TO GO — Crappie become active when the water temperature rises to around 50 degrees, usually in late February. The good prespawn bite will continue through March. The spawn often takes place in late March.
BEST TECHNIQUES — Long-line trolling with crappie jigs allows fishermen to follow the migration of crappie from deep, main-lake areas to the feeder creeks. Look for the 25- to 30-foot depth zone to hold the most fish in late February and early March; fish will get progressively shallow as they move back into creeks as March progresses.
FISHING INFO/GUIDES — Wendell Wilson, Wilson’s Guide Service, 706-283-3336, www.wilsonsguideservice.com. Stump’s Jigs and Flies, www.facebook.com/jigsandflies. See also Guides and Charters in Classifieds.
ACCOMMODATIONS — Budget Inn, Elberton, Ga., 706-283-0100; Days Inn, Elberton, Ga., 706-283-2300. For camping, Calhoun Falls State Park, 864-447-8267; http://southcarolinaparks.com/calhounfalls/camping.aspx
MAPS — Kingfisher Maps, 800-326-0257 www.kfmaps.com.