The crappie fishing is hot at Santee, and even during the coldest part of the day, anglers can catch plenty of slabs if they know what to look for and use the proper bait.

Capt. David Hilton and his clients have been having no trouble filling a cooler full of crappie, including some big ones. The key, he said, is finding sunken brush piles, using lively minnows, and staying at the proper depths once you find the fish. He warns against sitting in an unproductive spot for too long.

“If you don’t catch a few pretty quick, it’s best to move on to another brush pile. These fish are biting, and they’re hanging out on brush piles, but they move in between them, so if they aren’t biting good in one spot, they’re probably biting better at another one,” said Hilton (843-870-4734).

When Hilton finds a brush pile on his depth finder, he drops a buoy, then pulls up to the buoy and fishes all around it at a depth that is slightly above the brush pile. If the brush is 20 feet deep, he will have his anglers fish around 16 feet deep. He uses long fly rods with spinning reels mounted to them, and his fishing style surprises some folks, but it works.

“You just pull line off until you’re at the proper depth. Grab the line at the reel, and pull until your arm is fully extended. That’s about two feet. Just keep doing that until you’re at the proper depth. I try to find fish that are the depth of the rod length, plus two feet,” he said.

And once you find the proper depth, the best way to keep it is by not turning the reel handle, even when you’re fighting a fish.

“When you get a bite, set the hook, hold the rod straight up, then pull the line in just like you’re fly fishing. Pull line with one hand, then hold that line down with the hand that’s holding the rod, then pull more line, trap it under the hand that’s holding the rod, and keep doing that until you’ve got the fish in. Now the depth of your fishing line is still correct so you don’t have to worry about that anymore,” he said.

And if you’re not crazy about getting on the water first thing on these cold mornings, Hilton said that’s not a problem for the crappie.

“As the day warms up, the crappie start biting better. You’re not missing anything by not getting there at day break. These fish like to feed once the sun is up and the temperature is warming,” he said.