The long rod bowed into a deep, inverted “U” as another slab crappie was swung aboard the boat. Guide Buster Rush grabbed his client’s fish and sized it up.
“This one’s nearly 16 inches long, and is a thick-bodied crappie,” he said. “If we keep this one, we’re limited and done for the day.”
Rush grinned as his fisherman rolled his eyes, opening the cooler lid and pointing inside so Rush to deposit the slab. The arm-weary angler then took the bare hook, attached it to the hook holder and stacked that rig with the others.
If you’re thinking that sounds like a spring trip for slab crappie, you’ve got the slab crappie part correct. On Lake Marion, in October and throughout the fall, the crappie bite is as good as it gets from a guide’s perspective.
“September, October and even later, depending on the water temperature and tropical weather, is really my favorite time of the year for consistently catching limits of huge crappie,” Rush said. “The real key to fishing right now is the consistency of the action. During spring, big crappies are caught, but weather and water conditions can change a great bite to tough almost overnight. At this time of the year, the bite is as consistent as it gets. The cooler weather puts the slabs on the move, as well as large numbers of crappie. After a summer of feasting on the forage, they are fat, feisty and healthy. That’s everything I want in a crappie.”
Rush said the crappie bite really perks up in September as the water temperature begins to cool.
“The good news is that it usually gets even better in October and extends into November and sometimes longer, depending on weather conditions,” Rush said. “October is usually a peak in terms of action and great weather.”
Rush guides out of Goat Island and the Taw Caw Creek area, but he fishes all over Lake Marion, especially the lower two- thirds of the lake. His primary fishing pattern is working deepwater brush and other woody object such as trees and stumps out of his specially rigged and roomy pontoon boat.
“Consistency in fishing is relative; some days the fish will change a bit in depth,” Rush said. “Crappies are very depth- oriented based on cloud cover, wind, sun and even time of day during low-light periods. I’m working water that ranges from about 13 to 22 feet deep. Of course, I have a lot of brush piles I’ve put out myself, along with my son Russell, who also guides on Lake Marion. Typically, the best brush or woody cover will be along a drop or underwater hill where there is some depth change to the bottom.
“I use live minnows on a long rod with a light tip,” he said. “Instead of pulling several rigs like I would if spider-rigging, I have each fisherman hold a rod, and I position the boat right over the brush. I’ll use a couple of small, No. 7 split-shot for weight and fish around the top or edges of the brush.
“We’re catching more fish this way because we can feel the light bite, and my fishermen can present the bait exactly where it needs to be by counting down pulls of line in 2-foot increments right to keep the bait over the brush. When we get into fish, there’s no time to manage more than one rig each.”
This is where his unique method of hooking the minnow plays an important role.
“Sometimes, we have to get the bait in the brush, and that’s why I hook my minnow with a No. 2 hook right though the eyeball sockets and bring the hook back through the middle part of the minnow,” he said. “This makes the rig much less likely to snag, plus, it has the advantage of having the point of the hook in the middle of the minnow. That enables my clients to catch a lot of those short-strike type bites that are often missed if the minnow is hooked through the lips or eyes only. The minnow also has a discernible action to it as I raise and lower it around the brush. Rigged and worked this way, it provides good action and usually results in more bites.”
Rush said he prefers to use small tuffy minnows, which are a key to catching slab crappie.
“This time of the year, a small minnow works great for me,” he said. “I also like the tuffy minnows because they hardy and stay active after hooked. But when we get into a brush pile loaded with aggressive crappie, none of the minnows are going to last very long.”
Rush keeps his tackle simple and typically uses 10-foot B ‘n’ M poles with light spinning reels loaded with 14-pound Trilene Solar Collector line.
“I’m a line-watcher when crappie fishing, and sometimes, a crappie will just slightly move the line; with this highly visible line, I’ll put more fish in the boat,” he said. “In fact, those real subtle bites are often from the biggest crappie.”
Not all the big crappie caught on Lake Marion this month are in deep water; there’s spectacular skinny water action as well.
Whitey Outlaw is a 53-year-old veteran crappie tournament pro from St. Matthews who is a past national champion. Lake Marion is his home lake, and he especially loves the upper end where he enjoys some seriously strong shallow-water crappie action.
Outlaw said he catches shallow slabs this month in two primary ways, and both focus on water in less than 8 feet depth.
“Some fishermen prefer to randomly fish shallow water with one rod; I don’t do that,” Outlaw said. “One way I like to fish is to use eight rods in my Driftmaster rod holders and poke and probe in every opening I can find. It’s more work, but I cover a lot more area, and that can be the key to success during the fall.
“Tight-lining multiple rigs in shallow water is not always simple,” he said. “Some fishermen think tight-lining is a deep water-only tactic, but it’s lethal in the shallows. I’ll fish open flats, especially where there’s slight difference in the depth of water, such as areas with ditches or swamp runs coursing though it. There’s a lot for forage in that depth water in upper Lake Marion in October and the crappies are going to be there feeding. I’ll use a 1/8- to ¼-ounce Rockport Rattlers jigs and a Mid-South tube jig in white and chartreuse with silver flakes. I often tip it with a live minnow at this time of the year. Jigs in these size classes are heavy enough to work fast and effectively cover a lot of territory. The big crappies in the shallow water don’t hesitate to hit a jig that size.”
Outlaw said he’ll often get into tight cover and will maneuver his boat so the rods can often work between trees, logs and other visible cover.
“To be effective, I work the boat continuously to get the rods poked into small openings and between trees,” he said. “I don’t leave an area until I fish every place I can when searching for October slabs. They’ll often be moving, staying with the forage, but when I get on them I can catch a bunch of big crappie in little time. It’s common to find them loaded in a specific area where there’s abundant forge. We may fish for a while with only scattered bites, then hit the right spot and get done in a hurry. I’ll use the eight-rod setup with 12-foot B‘n’M rigs at slightly different depths until I find the right pattern for the day.”
Outlaw said another pattern is one of his favorite ways to catch big crappie out of Lake Marion.
“The grass beds in the upper end of the lake provide awesome action during October,” he said. “Typically, we haven’t had frost, and the grass is green, providing shade and oxygen for crappie. In addition, the weed beds are chock-full of forage for crappie and other species. I’ll literally run my small boat onto the matted grass, punch holes in it with a 10-foot piece of conduit with a hook on the end and if the fish are there, immediately start yanking crappie into the boat.”
Outlaw said this is a process he’s refined through the years.
“Fishing weed beds is not complicated, but I have learned that not all weed beds are created equal,’ he said. “I’ve learned through the years some weed beds are better crappie holding areas than others. Typically, I’ll scan a weed bed and look for stumps, logs or other debris to be there in addition to the weeds. Close proximity to trees — or even being around some cypress or gum trees — is often a good spot.
“The biggest problem many fishermen have is not realizing that crappie don’t scatter when running the boat into the grass,’ he said. “The grass is matted on top, but underneath, the water it’s open, and that’s why additional woody cover is an attractant. When I punch a hole in it and drop a jig or jig and minnow, the crappie see it, and it seems they race to get there first. Even in this shallow water, I’ll punch a hole, drop the jig and often get an aggressive bite almost at the surface.
“It may seem a boat running onto the grass and then poking a hole into their hideout would cause the fish to spook,” he said. “But the reality is it doesn’t bother them at all.”
Outlaw said fish will be taken very shallow under the grass, but sometimes they’ll hold deeper, especially if there’s some additional cover near the bottom. But he’ll punch numerous holes into the grass.
“I use a 1/16-ounce jig on a 12-foot rod rigged with 12-pound line, and as soon as I clear a hole, I drop the jig in it,” he said. “I’ll try shallow, mid-depth and near the bottom of each hole, and if I catch a couple of fish and the action slows, I fish another area for a couple minutes, then drop the jig right back into that same small hole and usually catch a couple more crappie. A single grass bed may produce a handful of fish, maybe a dozen or even a limit. The key is to keep moving and culling until you’ve got a heavy string of fish.”
Outlaw prefers the fish the Low Falls, Stump Hole and Packs flats area of the upper end of Lake Marion for shallow slabs.
“I stay in the shallow water and dense cover,” he said. “The crappies in these areas stay here year-round. They don’t go back to the river and deep water. There’s fish there as well, but they stay there.”
Rush said that fall crappie fishing on Marion rates among the best crappie fishing in the state.
“We had a few years a while back where the crappie population was down, but it’s really surged and has been very strong the past few years,” Rush said. “This is the time of year when I love to have youngsters or families on the boat because the action is so consistent and the fish are heavy. Day-in and day-out, the crappie fishing has again become the dependable, excellent resource we expect.”
HOW TO GET THERE — Access to various destinations around Lake Marion is easy. On the north side, Manning is a prime destination. Take Exit 119 off I-95 and SC 261 east. On the South side, the town of Santee is at mid-lake. Take Exit 98 off I-95 and SC 6 to the Diversion Canal area.
WHEN TO GO — October is awesome for consistent crappie action on Lake Marion, a time for great weather and consistent fishing patterns in both deep and shallow water areas of the lake.
BEST TECHNIQUES — Deep- and shallow-water options are available for October crappie. To fish deep, locate brush piles and submerged logs and stumps in 12 to 25 feet of water and either tight-line multiple rigs or hand-hold a rig and probe around the brush. Also, shallow-water tight-lining is good in the upper end as well as fishing the grass beds with a single rod by making holes in the grass and working a jig under the cover. Slab crappies are taken by all of these methods
FISHING INFO/GUIDES — Buster Rush, 803-432-5010. See also Guides and Charters in Classifieds.