December signals the end of the calendar year, but not the end of great crappie fishing in South Carolina. The action can be sensational statewide through the cold months if anglers use the correct tactics for specific bodies of water.
Chilled water temperatures cause many fishermen to forget about crappie for a few months but actually, the fish tend to become very predictable in cold weather. The key for slab slayers is to adapt to the way fish are acting.
Crappie adapt to their surroundings, and several lakes offer excellent cold-weather crappie action, but each has specific features and conditions that make the crappie catching process specific to that lake.
Rod Wall of Greenwood said cold weather can be an excellent time for crappie catching on Lake Marion, but his tactics change considerably from other lakes he fishes during cold weather.
“In cold weather, you’ve got to slow down your presentation, be patient and expect subtle bites,” Wall said. “But the plus side is, crappies are often tightly schooled over very definable structure and cover. A very good example is Lake Marion, the upper of the Santee Cooper lakes.”
Wall, a B‘n’M pro staffer who fishes crappie tournaments across the country, said Lake Marion is ideal for cold-weather crappie fishing because of the abundance of woody cover and drops, ledges and deep holes provides the diversity needed to find crappie during cold weather.
“The key here is to keep things simple,” he said. “I target very specific places and expect crappie to be tightly grouped in small areas. I use my Humminbird electronics extensively to find fish at Lake Marion and lakes with lots of woody cover, especially using the side-scan feature with the 1199 model. With so much cover, crappie have many options, and the side-scan technology accelerates the fish-finding process. In December and deeper into the winter, I target cover along a drop or ledge for large concentrations of crappie.”
Wall said that when he finds fish, the keys are speed of the lure or bait and depth control, both of which must be very precise. In addition, the productive depth will change based on weather conditions such as bright or overcast days, as well as continued falling temperatures through December and into January. But the fish will bite.
“I rely heavily on side-scan to target deep brush as well as stumps rows on offshore humps and along ledges,” he said. “Often, the natural cover will hold fish as well as brush piles placed in the lake, and it’s not fished nearly as heavy. Have patience, because the abundance of cover on these lakes often requires a bit of searching.”
Wall likes to tight-line the upper end of Marion in 12 to 15 feet of water around standing timber, blowdowns, weed lines and man-made brush piles. In the lower end of the lake, fish are often a bit deeper, in conjunction with the deeper water available along the larger creeks and river channel. He said proximity to threadfin shad and woody cover are his keys to finding fish.
According to several experts, Clarks Hill is in a very up cycle of crappie. Guide Wendell Wilson fishes both Clarks Hill and Lake Russell during cold weather, but if someone specifically wants to target a limit of big crappie, he’ll go to Clarks Hill.
“Crappie are cyclic in terms of fish populations, and right now, we’re in a very good place for crappie fishing at Clarks Hill,” Wilson said. “High numbers and excellent sizes of crappie are available now and this winter, and the upcoming spring should be outstanding. But to take crappie consistently during the cold months on this lake requires a bit of thinking outside the box.
“Crappie are known to have an affinity for woody cover, but at this time of year, my target for attracting crappies is schools of threadfin shad on the flats adjacent to the river channel. Large schools of shad in conjunction with woody cover are excellent and give me an identifiable target. But that’s not my primary method during cold weather.”
Wilson (706-283-3336) likes to slowly move along a clean flat in 30 to 35 feet of water close to where the ledge drops into the channel. He uses a 3/8-ounce drop-shot rig to keep the bait near the bottom and has an 18-inch leader above the drop-shot with a No. 2 gold wire hook.
“I watch my graph closely, and when I see a school of shad higher in the water column, I’ll move one of my rigs from near the bottom to work that depth,” he said. “Depending on the success or lack thereof, I’ll position the other rigs to the appropriate depth.”
Wilson also uses two rigs out of the back of the boat as he slowly maneuvers over the flat. These rigs have a 1/16-ounce jighead with a live minnow hooked on the jig. He said this enables him to also fish a bit shallower for those schools of shad and suspended fish not close to the bottom.
“By the end of the day, we’ve usually caught lots of fish on both rigs, and with culling, we can catch some beautiful strings of crappie during the winter, a time when most anglers are not even crappie fishing,” Wilson said.
Lake Greenwood is consistently one of the best crappie-producing lakes in the state, and while it’s well-known for producing spring slabs, the lake is a crappie-producing winter wonderland.
Wall lives in Greenwood and has fished the lake extensively during cold weather; he has found the keys to success are to work the channel ledges.
“The entire lake is very productive during cold weather,” Wall said. “Most of the wintertime crappie fishermen on Lake Greenwood fish the upper end of the lake, above the Highway 72 Bridge. Exceptional fishing can be enjoyed in that area, specifically on the river ledges and up the Reedy and Saluda river arms of the lake. The junctions of small creeks with these rivers provide excellent crappie-holding areas.”
Wall said good crappie fishing is available further down the lake, especially for the huge crappie this lake can produce.
“I often target the lower end of the lake because I’ll usually catch more big crappies in the middle and lower part of the lake,” he said. “Bigger numbers of fish are found above Highway 72, but limits of larger fish are caught further down the lake. Both are good choices, depending on the desire for quantity or quality.
“The basic patterns are the same; I use a two-hook rig on each of my eight rods fished in a spider-rig pattern,” Wall said. “I use B‘n’M rods, and models from 12 to 16 feet are very effective. This enables me to cover a wide area of water as I fish along a channel drop and adjacent flats. I look for a combination of woody cover, in abundant supply at Lake Greenwood, along with schools of shad. Using my side-scan I’ll often mark fish holding on woody cover to the side of the boat, and I can quickly maneuver to it and fish that. Often these slightly out-of-the way areas are not fished as much and can hold lots of big fish.
Wall said one of his favorite tactics is to actually use small spoons for vertical jigging. On Greenwood, this is actually a high-profile tactic used by several fishermen, and one of the reasons Wall likes it is the fast action on a variety of fish.
“I use the ¼-ounce and even up to ½-ounce Berry Spoons, and because they’re flexible, I can bend them slightly for even better action,” Wall said. “During the winter, this can be more effective that the traditional spider rig on some days and has the bonus of catching a lot of fish in addition to crappie, including black bass, stripers and huge white perch. It’s not unusual to cull other fish and end up with a great limit of crappie.”
“Often, the fish will be near the bottom, but not always,” he said. “Depth is crucial for any type of winter fishing, and that’s another advantage of a good graph unit.”
Crappie are cyclic but for the past few years Lake Hartwell has produced outstanding crappie fishing, according to local guides like Preston Harden of Bucktail Guide Service.
Harden (706-255-5622) primarily guides for stripers, but beginning in December, he plucks large strings of crappie out of Hartwell. His idea is to target docks with small jigs.
“Docks are abundant here, but they are not created equal in terms of crappie fishing,” Harden said. “I prefer docks with something different, and I want them to be near deep water for winter fishing. The difference can be shape of the dock or just the size of the dock, since large docks offer more shade. The presence of brush is valuable as well. Fish docks located near the mouths of major creeks.”
Harden uses 1/32- and 1/16-ounce jigs with plastic grubs, chartreuse being his favorite under normal water conditions. Most of the fishing is in and around the nooks and crannies of docks. Harden said he uses light action rods with 4-pound 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 sling-shot 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 tight 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 20 feet down to 40 feet of water.”
Harden said the key is to keep moving until you find the right pattern or just finally find a dock loaded with crappie.
“On a typical day, we’ll catch scattered fish on several docks, then find one dock where the fish are stacked up, and you can limit out in a hurry,” he said.
“Occasionally during cold weather, we’ll be the only boat I see on the lake fishing for crappie, but we’ll be catching crappie like crazy,” Harden said.