Working his way under a bridge and back into one of Lake Hartwell’s feeder creeks, Steve Pietrykowski had his attention divided between the depth finder on his pontoon boat and the water in front of him.

On a chilly, mid-March morning, Pietrykowski, who runs Fishski Business Guide Service, was looking for either the end of a stick or limb breaking the surface or a big blob of cover on the depth finder screen — the evidence of brush piles.

Brush piles that hold crappie.

“I mostly guide for stripers, but Ill do crappie-fishing trips in February and March,” Pietrykowski said. “Overall, Hartwell is a pretty good crappie fishery, and at certain times of the year, it’s a very good crappie lake.”

And obviously, the time is right. Picking his way along a creek channel that fish use to move toward their spawning areas in the spring, Pietrykowski goes from brush pile to brush pile until he finds them, and in short order, he’s got two-dozen big slabs in his livewell, fish running from 12 ounces to a solid 1 1/4 pounds — the makings of a great fish fry.

Plenty of fishermen love to catch crappie in the spring; when the dogwoods bloom, it’s said, it’s time to drown a minnow or two. And most of those fishermen like to pick their way along the shoreline, dropping that minnow or a tiny jig in the extremely shallow cover around which crappie typically spawn.

Pietrykowski would rather catch them coming and going to spawning areas, and that explains his love of brush piles and early to mid-March fishing.

“It’s cold at the beginning of March, and you can find crappie in 30 feet of water or on deeper brush,” he said. “The weather is hard to predict. But if I can, early in March, I look for crappie on brush piles.

“They make their first move out of deep water when it starts to warm up; at about 50 degrees, they start to move.”

That move involves creek channels, the highways that crappie travel as they leave main-lake areas and head toward their spawning areas in flat pockets in the backs of creeks. And along those creek channels, they stop to feed wherever they find concentrations of baitfish, and that means brush piles or other forms of cover — laydown trees on channel banks, bridge pilings, stump fields.

“I think it’s a little easier to catch them before they go to the bank to spawn,” Pietrykowski said. “It can be very productive to go out with a slip cork or bobber and throw at blowdowns and brush. Until the water gets close to 65 degrees, you’ll find them out there. In early March, you’re going to find them in brush along the creek channels from the middle to the backs of creeks, staging, and then, when they head to the banks, they spread out.”

“I think it’s a little easier to catch them before they go to the bank to spawn,” Pietrykowski said. “It can be very productive to go out with a slip cork or bobber and throw at blowdowns and brush. Until the water gets close to 65 degrees, you’ll find them out there. In early March, you’re going to find them in brush along the creek channels from the middle to the backs of creeks, staging, and then, when they head to the banks, they spread out.”

Brush piles can be natural — portions or trees, big limbs or piles of brush swept downstream by the current until they hung up on a stump or a creek-channel drop — or they might be constructed by anglers and sunk, tethered to the bottom by cinder blocks or other weights. Green stuff grows on the wooden cover, which attracts baitfish, and when crappie stumble onto a school of baitfish, they stop and enjoy the buffet.

With Hartwell covering 56,500 acres of water, concentrating on a couple of smaller portions of the lake and learning them is Pietrykowski’s advice for fishermen who want to catch person crappie. He sticks to the Seneca River area of the lake near his home outside Clemson, picking up fish when they move out of the main river area and into feeder creeks. He’s looking not only for brush, but for brush in stained water.

“When I look for crappie I find the better fishing is in colored water,” he said. “First, I don’t think they’re as spooky in stained water; they feel more comfortable in that kind of water. Even though they feed by sight, they’ve got big eyeballs and can feed at night, so they can see in stained water. And I think stained water warms up in the spring more quickly and will hold more fish.

“You don’t want it chocolate, but kind of an olive color with a little tint of read — what bass fisherman call ‘spinnerbait color.’”

That makes certain creek drainages more productive, in his view, and that includes Eastanollee, Six and Twenty, Big Choesto and Little Choesto creeks and the Seneca and Tugaloo rivers.

“Drainages that have more color in the water are definitely better than the others,” he said. “If you have a river system coming in, there’s a good chance you’ll have more color and good crappie fishing.

“More people put out brush piles in the more-populated creeks, which helps the fishery, adds to the fishery.”

Pietrykowski said the best March fishing around brush piles will usually be later in them morning or in the afternoon after the sun has been on the water a while. The penetrating rays of the sun, even 10 or 15 feet deep, will push crappie back into brush, where they may be scattered, foraging, in low-light periods.

“In the afternoon, when the sun gets up, crappie will get tighter to the brush,” said Pietrykowski, who starts looking for fish when he finds the top of creek-channel drops in 10 to 15 feet of water.

“That’s a typical early March situation,” he said. “Crappie will stage in brush piles about 10 to 15 to 18 feet deep. They’ll move up out of the creek channels and stop there before they move onto the big spawning flats.”

So how does Pietrykowski go about catching them once he’s in the right area?

Like many fishermen who target brush piles, he likes to fish a live minnow or a tiny, mini-jig under a slip cork or slip bobber that allows him to adjust the depth he wants to fish by moving a tiny bobber stopper of some kind up and down the line above the cork. When he’s ready to cast, the cork sides all the way down to a spit shot or two he’s got pinched on a foot or so above the hook or mini jig, allowing for easy casting. When the minnow/jig starts to sink, the float stays at the surface, and when it slides into the bobber stop, the float keeps the minnow/jig at the right depth.

“I use a 6-foot-6 spinning rod and reel spooked with 6- to 8-pound test braid tied to a No. 4 or No. 6 gold Aberdeen hook or to a 1/16-ounce jighead. I like to fish tube jigs — and white/chartreuse is a staple around here, but pink, chartreuse and white, and any mixture, can be a good choice. I also like marabou jigs, because that hair gives them a lot of movement and action.”

Pietrykowski will find brush using his depth finder and GPS — he has hundreds marked as waypoints — and he’ll ease in from downwind or downcurrent, casting on the far side of the brush and allowing the current or wind to drift the bait across the brush. It usually takes only a handful of casts to get the drift correct or to determine whether or not crappie are home.

“You might find a really good brush piles on your graph and it not be holding fish,” said Pietrykowski, who will move from brush to brush until he finds them. Often, a brush pile will hold plenty of big fish.

“I think the male fish go in a week or so earlier than the females,” he said. “The females will typically be deeper that time of the year. You might catch male fish on brush in 10 feet of water and females on brush in 15 feet.”

Pietrykowski will fish vertically with a mini jig or minnow under a slip float if fish are holding around brush in deeper water earlier before they start to move in or later when the spawn is over and they’re moving out.

Most of the crappie he catches are blacks, Pietrykowski said, and that’s true across a lot of the reservoir. The great majority of Hartwell’s white crappie, he said, will be in the Tugaloo River drainage, which has more of the rocky habitat that the white subspecies prefers.

“Hartwell has a good mixture of numbers and big fish; it’s probably better in the spring for numbers, but overall, it has pretty good size and numbers,” he said. “Catching 40 to 50 in a day is a good day, and at any given time of the year, you can come out and catch that many fish in one spot.” 


DESTINATION INFORMATION

HOW TO GET THERE — Lake Hartwell, part of which serves as the border between Georgia and Upstate South Carolina, is easily accessed from I-85, with public boat ramps dotting almost the entire shoreline. The Broyles Ramp on Smyzer Rd. off SC 24 at I-85/Exit 11 is a popular ramp, as are the Twelve Mile Recreation Area off SC 123 north of Clemson and Big Oaks Recreation area off US 29 at the dam. For a complete list, visit www.mylakehartwell.com/POI/Boat-Ramps

WHEN TO GO — Late February and much of March are prespawn months for crappie fishermen on Lake Hartwell. Depending on weather conditions, the spawn can begin anywhere from mid-March to mid-April.

BEST TECHNIQUES — Target prespawn crappie around brush piles along creek channels in 10 to 15 feet of water as fish stage before moving to the bank to spawn. Fish live minnows or tube jigs below a slip cork, cast upcurrent of the brush and allow the minnow to drift past the cover. After the spawn, work back out the same brush piles until fish go deeper than 20 to 30 feet.

FISHING INFO/GUIDES — Steve Pietrykowski, Fishski Business Guide Service, 864-353-3438, www.fishski.info; Lake Hartwell Fishing & Marine, Anderson, 864-287-9782. See also Guides & Charters in Classifieds.

ACCOMMODATIONS — Mountain Lakes Convention & Visitors Bureau, 877-MT-LAKES, www.scmountainlakes.com; Upcountry South Carolina, 800-849-4766, www.upcountrysc.com.

MAPS — Kingfisher Maps, 800-326-0257, www.kfmaps.com; Fishing Hot Spots, 800-ALL-MAPS, www.fishinghotspots.com.