Spring has arrived, and across the south, April is many things to many people, especially when it comes to enjoying blooming trees, shrubs and azaleas, plus South Carolina’s outdoor treasures. For anglers headed to the Lake Marion and Lake Moultrie, the migration of big crappie into shallow waters takes precedences over everything else. It’s time to slay Santee Cooper slabs.
The two lakes cover 170,000 acres, arguably some of the best crappie habitat anywhere. Not only do Moultrie and Marion support booming populations of crappie, anglers can expect to bring home heavy stringers, with many giant crappie integrated into limits. Stringers full of 2- to 3-pound crappie get squeezed out of these lakes each year, and it’s not uncommon for a few fish to push and break the 4-pound threshold every year, even if the 5-pound state-record white crappie from Lake Moultrie hasn’t been threatened for almost 60 years.
Berkeley County’s own Whitey Outlaw, a tournament crappie angler and host of Santee Cooper Sportsman TV, has trampled both lakes from end to end for almost 40 years and knows when the fishing cranks up.
“When the water warms up into the 60s, crappie move from deep water to the banks to spawn,” Outlaw said. “You will not have but 45 to 60 days to catch them shallow in water from 7 feet down to 18 inches.”
Crappie are drawn to the massive jungles near the shorelines in the shallow regions of the lakes to reproduce. Outlaw likes places eaten up with cypress trees, gator grass, lily pads and water hyacinth with deeper, 5- to 7-foot water close by.
Kevin Davis, who guides out of Blacks Camp and is Outlaw’s TV co-host, also fills up many heavy stringers of crappie. Like Outlaw, he starts looking for crappie in shallow water under the right conditions.
“You need rising water temperatures, a full moon and rising water,” said Davis. “If you have two out of the three, they will start coming shallow to spawn.”
Davis looks for places that reach 62 degrees the earliest. He likes to hit the blackwater ponds in the backs of the creek coves with deeper water.
“It doesn’t necessarily have to be 2 feet. I catch most of my spring crappie in the depressions in the back of these coves in 5 to 7 feet of water,” he said.
These areas fill up with fish in prespawn and postspawn, as well as spawning modes, from juveniles to mature slabs. Davis concentrates on these depressions to fill a limit quickly during the spawning season.
Outlaw believes that fishermen who understand the different roles that male and female crappie do during the spawning process will be a step up on others in the search for monster slabs.
“Females will hold back until the water temperature and the moon are conducive,” Outlaw said. “They move in and squirt their eggs out, and then they drop back off in 5 to 6 feet of water. Male fish will stay on the beds and guard the bed.”
Since females grow larger than males, Outlaw concentrates on finding them when he’s out for a heavy stringer.
“As soon as moon gets right, they will be on or close to the spawning sites. I like to start fishing these spawning areas 4 days before the full moon and 4 days afterwards,” he said.
Females, he said, move onto the beds only for a brief moment, just long enough to deposit their eggs.
“On Santee, females will move in at night or on a dark, cloudy day to lay their eggs — and then move back out,” said Outlaw, who will drop small, brightly colored Rockport Rattler jigs into the heavy cover on cloudy days but will slow-troll the same jigs in deeper water the rest of the spawning season.
His favorite method is a toss-up between swamp-busting with a 10-foot B’n’M jigging pole in 18 inches of water and spider-rigging with eight rods in deeper water.
“If you want to try to target big females, tight-lining with eight rods in 5 to 7 feet of water is the way to go,” says Outlaw.
When tight-lining, Outlaw will use larger 1/8- to ¼-ounce jigheads paired with a 1 1/2- to 2-inch tubes. He will slow-troll through these deeper, holding areas.
“I hone in on structure in these deeper spots like old stumps and submerged trees,” Outlaw said.
Davis looks for depressions with deep vegetation around the edges.
“In depressions, I like to have cypress trees and other vegetation around the rim,” he said.
While these deeper areas are ideal to find big females staging, knowing exactly which stretches will be holding fish can be good information. Outlaw will fish in and out of the shallow water, hitting places with a mixture of cypress trees, gator grass and water hyacinth. When he finds a bank filled with males, he will sometimes leave the shallows and go deep.
“If you find a stretch eat up with bucks, the females will be ganged up together and very close by, in the closest 5- to 7-foot water. Females will hang out together in the deep water between spawning sessions,” he said.
While Outlaw will slow-troll eight rods at a time, Davis sets up in deeper water, drifting with minnows attached to jigs or by casting jigs under a float within the upper strata of the water column.
“I fish shallow in the deeper depressions. You will catch more fish if you fish the top of the water column, because the fish are always looking up, and they are not usually lying on the bottom in these areas,” said Davis, who will generally fish 2 feet below the surface, which is why the jig under the float works so well.
“I rig up a very light jighead, usually 1/32- or 1/64-ounce, under a small float. I slowly work it back to the boat, twitching it occasionally. They cannot stand that slow fall from that ultralight jig,” he said.
Santee Cooper offers anglers a wide variety of options from striped bass and largemouth bass to world-class catfish and panfish opportunities. For anglers looking for a prime place to catch truly large crappie, the Santee Cooper lakes are prime choices. As spring weather arrives along the shorelines, so do the crappie. Anglers can head to the shorelines to catch a whopping stringer of trophy slabs during the spring season.
HOW TO GET THERE — The Santee Cooper lakes are northwest of Charleston between I-26, US 52 and I-95. Numerous boat ramps are available around both lakes. For a complete list, visit www.santeecoopercountry.org/lakeside-facilities.html.
WHEN TO GO — Crappie spawn when the water temperature is between 62 and 68 degrees, which could occur as early as late February and as late as early May. Crappie will move shallow in waves and stage in slightly deeper water very close to spawning areas. The full moons in March and April are keys; the best fishing is usually four days before and four days after the full moon.
BEST TECHNIQUES — Crappie can be targeted in thick, shallow cover or in depressions in 5 to 7 feet of water. Typically, males will be in the heavy cover preparing beds or guarding eggs. Females will move back and forth between the two areas. To fish heavy cover, use 10-foot B’n’M jigging poles rigged with 10-pound Viscious mono or fluorocarbon and 1/16- to 1/32-ounce jigheads rigged with 1 1/2- to 2-inch tubes. Bounce the jigs up and down in any hole in the thick vegetation. Around deeper depressions, fishermen can spider-rig with mutliple rods or cast jigs across areas of deeper water. Move at slow speeds on your trolling motor to cover ground and locate fish. Crappie will strike jigs in a wide variety of colors, including: white, blue, pink, chartreuse, black, plus various combinations. Anglers can also drift live minnows on jigheads or cast them under floats.
FISHING INFO/GUIDES — Kevin Davis, Black’s Camp, 843-753-2231, www.blackscamp.com. See also Guides and Charters in Classifieds.
ACCOMMODATIONS — Black’s Camp, 843-753-2231, www.blackscamp.com; Santee Cooper Country, 803-854-2131, www.santeecooper.org; South Carolina Association of Visitors Bureaus, www.discoversouthcarolina.com