The crappie in Jerry Neeley's net didn't look like a fish I'd seen, much less caught.
It appeared to be large enough to fill the bottom of the biggest cast-iron skillet in South Carolina, as if it might take a whole bag of seasoned flour to cover.
Neeley cast a discerning eye at the fish and said: "Yeah, that's a pretty good one. But we get 'em a lot bigger."
A set of hand-held, digital scales revealed these numbers: 1-12 - 4 ounces short of 2 pounds, a "slab," if there ever was one.
Well, yes, to an extent. A good fish but certainly not the best Lake Wylie has to offer - especially during the winter.
"Last December I had a trip where I had a 2-12, a 2-10 and a 2-11," said Neeley, as if crappie a pound heavier than the behemoth I was holding were par for the course. "There are some big ones in here."
If anybody knows, Neeley does - and so does Ed Duke.
Neeley is a long-time Lake Wylie fisherman who operates Carolinas Fishing Guide Service. Duke is the president of the Southern Crappie Association, and he sees what the crappie look like at just about every lake in the Southeast on a regular basis.
In Duke's opinion, Wylie is pretty close to the best lake around, even if you don't often hear it mentioned in the same breath with traditional slab factories such as Lake Wateree or Santee Cooper.
"Wylie is just a super good lake," Duke said. "I reckon it's all the nutrients in that lake that continue to make it one of the best lakes in the South. It's a tremendously good lake. And the winter is when you catch the biggest fish in the biggest concentrations.
"It's not unusual to see a 10-fish stringer at Wylie tip the scales at over 20 pounds."
So it's not March and April and May, when every crappie in the lake heads for the shoreline and every fishermen follows, with minnows and jigs and quill bobbers and telescoping fishing poles in tow?
"Most serious fishermen, when everybody else goes and you're supposed to be catching fish in April, most of them are winding down," Duke said.
According to Neeley and Duke, December and January and February are when Wylie really spits out big slabs. Duke makes sure when he's putting his schedule together, when he's trying to bring fishermen to Wateree and Santee and Clark Hill and Murray when they can catch the most and best fish, that Wylie's slot is either December or January.
Because as the weather and water cools off through the fall, Duke said crappie start to leave the many tributary creeks that feed Wylie, from its headwaters near Gastonia and Belmont, N.C., all the way to the dam near Tega Cay.
"Lake Wylie is a river, and what happens is, when the temperature starts falling, all the fish move to the river," he said. "Any part of the river out in front of those main creeks - Crowders, Catawba, Torrence, Paw, the Allisons - any part of the river in front of those creeks, that's where the fish concentrate in December, January - and February.
"If you come out of a creek in 20 feet of water and all the sudden it drops down into 30 feet, crappie are going to concentrate in those areas - an area where there's a good ledge.
"Crappie are territorial fish; they like to be around structure, and ledges and drop-offs to the main river are some of the best kinds of structure you can fish, because the crappie can get on them, and depending on the kinds of weather fronts that move in, they don't have to move, other than up and down. They let the sunlight and the clarity of the water determine where they're gonna be at any certain time.
"In a clear-water lake, as you get to the lower end, you have to fish deeper. But Wylie is on the Catawba River, and in the winter, it generally stays a little more dingy, so the fish can feel more comfortable moving up higher in the water column. The dingier the water, the higher they'll come up, and that makes for some super good fishing."
"Around the mouth of creeks - that's probably your best bet to find 'em," he said. "I wouldn't go back past the first quarter in any creek except the South Fork. Fish will gang up around the mouth of the creek. All of them have got deep water around there, and you've got deep and shallow water close together.
"You get humps, and you can 'drag' around them and come off the back side or the front side of the hump, and if they're around, they'll be right there."
So there are usually large concentrations of crappie near the mouths of feeder creeks - and Wylie has close to a dozen of them. And, Duke claimed, those concentrations will hold the lake's bigger fish.
"Your big fish, all of your 2-pound crappie, they like to concentrate in the river, so this is when you catch your biggest fish in the biggest concentrations," he said. "In the winter, they're going to stay in the same general area. They're not going to travel into the creeks or move any great distance. They stay put, and they just move up and down. That's where a lot of people miss a lot of good crappie. Last year, it was on for a good four months down there."
So how do you catch 'em?
Duke and Neeley believe in trolling with a spread of multiple rods rigged with multiple mini-jigs, covering a lot of water on the surface and down through the water column.
"I like to call it speed-trolling - I like that term better than spider-rigging, because I don't run that many rods off the front of the boat," said Neeley (704-678-1043). "I probably run eight rods off the back of the boat, and I'll have one off each side up with me, or I might run 10 off the back.
"I troll at either .9 or 1.0 (miles per hour) - that's about the maximum. And I fish 6-pound test on all my rods, so that way I know where all my lures are running at what speed."
Like a lot of fishermen who troll with multiple rods, Neeley can just about pinpoint how deep each of his jigs is by the speed of the boat (he's trolling with his electric motor).
He can change depths by switching between 1/16th-ounce and 1/32nd-ounce leadhead jigs. He can change depths by altering his speed slightly, and he can move individual jigs up and down by decreasing or increasing the amount of line in the water.
"In December normally the water temperature is going to be no more than 52 to 55 degrees, and it can be cooler than that," Neeley said. "I look for them anywhere from 12- to 26-feet deep. If you get two or three good, warm days, the warm weather will bring 'em up a little, maybe to 10 or 12 feet."
Neeley likes to troll 1 1/2-inch Slider jigs tipped with live minnows. He uses a Rapala or "loop" knot because it allows the jig to swim more freely.
"If the water's dingy, I'll use purple, otherwise, it's pearl or smoke," he said. "I'm partial to the Slider because other jigs don't operate as well with a minnow hanging off the back of the hook, but Sliders do because of that tail.
"You can catch some fish without tipping your jig with a minnow, but I've found I only catch about half as many."
During December and January, Neeley said he rarely drops down to a 1/32-ounce jighead, doing most of his damage with a 1/16-ounce, unless the weather really gets warm and fish really move shallow, because the heavier jig will run at least 2 feet deeper than the lighter one.
Duke sticks with 1/16-ounce leadheads, and he likes the Slider-style jig but also an AWD Crappie Snack, a little bait he says has been the "hottest around" in the 1-1/2-inch size. The tiny baits work best, he said, because in the winter, with fish less likely to chase, a smaller is more productive. He likes yellow-black and blue-chartreuse.
"Anywhere from 40 to 50 degrees in water (temperature) range is just absolutely fantastic on Wylie - that's why we have most of our tournaments there during the winter," Duke said. "You can actually catch some monster slabs.
"Everbody used to say that if you get below 50 degrees, you could never catch fish trolling, but that's bull. That's one of the best times to long-line troll for crappie, in the 40- to 45-degree range, because all of the fish are suspended. Your bigger fish suspend, and where they suspend fluctuates depending on the amount of sunlight you get during the day."
Both Neeley and Duke use light-action spinning outfits, including rods anywhere from 6 to 16 feet in length, with B&M and Bass Pro Shops providing some of the more popular designs. The rods are soft enough that the tips bounce whenever a crappie even breathes on a jig.
"Generally the speed we troll is according to the depth we want to fish," Duke said. "In December and January at Wylie, I'll start out anywhere from 10- to 20-feet deep. As the day goes along and the sunlight gets brighter, the higher I'll fish. I've caught 'em as shallow as 4-feet deep over 50 feet of water last December.
"When fish are deeper, you troll around 1 mph. As the fish get higher during the day, you might troll as fast as 2 mph because the faster you troll, the higher your jig goes. The shallower they get, the faster you've got to go."
Even though trolling is the accepted way to catch winter crappie, Neeley has a couple more tricks up his sleeve, and one of them has to do with the hot-water discharge from Duke Power's power plant that flushes out into the South Fork Catawba River.
"When they're pulling water and turning the wheels, you can go into the South Fork and find water that will be 60 or 61 degrees," said Neeley, whose guide service employs another popular and veteran Wylie fisherman, Chris Nichols. "The closer you get to the 'hot hole,' the warmer the water gets.
"You have about a 3-mile stretch of water that warms up when they're pulling it, and the current on the lake will also push that warmer water into the Mill Creek and Catawba Creek, especially if the wind is coming from the east or northeast. And it doesn't take but a couple of degrees to make those fish turn on."
Neeley will test the South Fork, Mill Creek or Catawba Creek by trolling. Normally, if he can't find fish within 90 minutes to two hours, he'll try two more methods for putting slabs in the cooler: fishing docks close to deep water that are sweetened with brush piles, or finding warm banks and casting a jig right to the shoreline.
"If I can't catch fish in an hour and a half of trolling, I know the fish have moved to piers, and I'll start tight-lining or jigging around piers that have brush around them," he said. "I've got certain piers I know that will hold crappie during the winter. Most of them are near points - the first two piers on either side of the point are where those fish will stack up, in 12 to 26 feet of water, and I'll target them, either jigging up and down next to them or just tight-lining a minnow straight down.
"You won't catch as many big fish around docks as you do when you're trolling, but in the winter, they'll tend to group together by size, especially around piers. If you pull in and catch one hand-sized crappie, all of them will be hand-sized.
"The other way you can catch 'em is to use a 6-foot spinning rod with 8-pound test, an 1/8-ounce jighead and put on a 2-inch grub, either white or smoke," he said.
"I'll go down banks in Mill Creek and Catawba Creek and just throw at the banks, fishing it like a bass fisherman fishes a plastic worm, dragging it off the bank, back to the boat.
"I try to stay in contact with the bottom all the time. When you get a crappie to bite like that, he won't be a little one, he'll be a 2- or 2 1/2-pound crappie, and you can catch 10 or 12 of 15 a day.
"What you're looking for is sunny banks, banks that will get full sunshine for two-thirds of the day, so the water can warm up," he said. "I've fished that way in Crowders Creek - there are certain banks that it works, and if you can find a freshwater clam bed (mussel bed), if you can drag a grub through it, those crappie will hang around them, and they'll knock the daylights out of it.
"When he hits it, it'll be a solid pop, and you'll hardly ever catch a small one doing that. It'll usually be a big bite, like you get when you fish a jig for bass."