Shellcracker spawning time in Lake Marion depends on water temperature and other physical factors, but anglers can gauge the peak bedding season by the myriad of boat trailers lining roads leading to launching ramps. Long walks are expected, even welcomed by many, because it means shellcrackers are bedding.
Excellent shellcracker fishing is found throughout Lake Marion, but the upper end of the lake is a hot spot for huge numbers and outlandish sizes of this popular panfish.
Matthew Outlaw of St. Matthews has a passion for these fish; at 27, he was practically raised in the shellcracker rich swamps of upper Lake Marion.
“I love catching huge shellcrackers and have done it for so long, my earliest fishing memories are of fishing there, either with my dad or other friends,” Outlaw said. “Shellcrackers don’t have to be bedding to be caught in big numbers and sizes, but the bedding period does pack them in tight areas, providing incredible fishing.”
Outlaw said the full moons in April and May are usually ideal, but some shellcrackers will bed earlier some years depending on water and weather conditions.
“By late-April and into May, the water temperature in upper Lake Marion is such that shellcrackers are active, so catching plenty of big fish can occur whether they’re bedding or not,” he said. “Some think shellcracker fishing is all about the moon phase, and for peak bedding, that’s true. But I like to stay mobile, move and hunt the fish down. If you find them on the new or full moon bedding, it’s likely you’ll catch 25 or more from a spot. When they’re not bedding, you may catch 10 from a spot. You just hit more places when they’re not bedding and can still end up with limits of big shellcracker.”
Outlaw said he’s fished all of Lake Marion’s 110,000 acres but prefers the upper end.
“I love the swamp, been fishing there since I was in diapers,” he said. “But the technique I employ is basically the same throughout the lake and works whether the fish are bedding or scattered. They still prefer similar habitat while in the shallows whether prespawn, spawning or postspawn.”
“Shellcrackers are cover oriented and I begin most days fishing around 3 to 4 feet deep,” he said. “Depending on water conditions, I’ll fish deeper and shallower until I find the pattern for the day, but that’s a good target depth to begin. I use a 12-foot B‘n’M Double Duty rod for shellcrackers because it’s got backbone for the huge fish but is still great fun for bream. I don’t use a reel; I loop 8-pound test Vicious line the length of the rod. I use a No. 4 Tru-Turn hook and a BB split-shot on the business end and a small float held with a toothpick so I can change depth as the water depth changes. When targeting shellcrackers, red worms are usually best, but I often fish crickets as well to catch bream and shellcrackers. When I catch a shellcracker, I’ll often switch to worms. Both baits will catch both species, but worms are best to target shellcrackers.”
Outlaw will work trees, logs, stumps, weeds and most any cover he sees. He does like to get deep in the swamps to get away from boat traffic and find isolated areas.
“Although I am mobile in my searching process, I’ll give an area time to produce,” he said. “I like small openings in dense clusters of trees, and I’ll work the edges and the scattered stumps and other cover — places many pass by. A small stump in the open can hold a pile of shellcrackers. If I catch several in one area and the action slows, I’ll return to that place later and often have an encore fish-catching experience. Whatever attracts fish to a specific place on that day will pull more fish if you let it rest and sneak back. Watch for a mayfly hatch for excellent localized fishing as the weather warms.
“Get the bait tight to cover,” he said. “With the cypress and gum trees, it’s easier for me to use the long pole. For shellcrackers, I like clusters of gum trees as well as cypress trees. For big bream, the isolated stumps are very good for bunches of fish, but the trees will hold lots of big bream.
“Catching big bream is going to be a side benefit of fishing for shellcrackers in Lake Marion,” said Outlaw, who will release bream he catches when he’s focused solely on shellcrackers because odds are good when he hits a shellcracker hot spot, they’ll provide plenty of action to limit.
Outlaw said during this time of the year, the difference between catching shellcrackers scattered or on the beds is more of a situation of catching plenty of huge fish — or way more than the limit allows him to keep.
“It’s simply a process of effectively fishing and moving to hit hot spots,” he said. “I always return to a productive place unless I get a limit too quick and have to go home and clean fish,” he said.
“But that’s a problem I can live with.”
HOW TO GET THERE — Lake Marion, referred to as the “upper” lake of the Santee Cooper reservoirs, is easily accessed by I-95, which crosses slightly upstream from the mid-lake area. Public boat ramps are all over the lake; visit http://marion.uslakes.info/POI/Boat-Ramps.
WHEN TO GO — Shellcrackers will spawn in Lake Marion on the full moons in April and May, with the best action usually from the last week of April through May.
BEST TECHNIQUES — Fish any kind of visible cover in the shallows, but getting off the beaten path will help you find big concentrations of shellcrackers. Red worms are preferred when targeting shellcrackers, but fish will hit crickets — a preferred bait for bluegills. Use a long pole to dab bait under a float around cypress trees, stumps and laydowns.
FISHING INFO/GUIDES — Santee Cooper Country, 803-854-2131, www.santeecoopercountry.org/fishing-hunting-guides.html. See also Guides and Charters in Classifieds.
ACCOMMODATIONS — Santee Cooper Country, 803-854-2131, www.santeecoopercountry.org/accommodations-rentals.html.