How good is the crappie fishery at Lake Wateree?

Well, Nick Babin and Brian Davis live in Gilbert at the south side of Lake Murray, and when they want to catch big slab crappie and lots of them, they drive completely around their home lake and head up the road to Lake Wateree, downstream from the town of Great Falls on the Catawba River, forming the border between Fairfield, Lancaster and Kershaw counties.

That's an hour's drive, one way, away from the place where both cut their fishing teeth years ago, learning how to catch crappie, to fish another body of water.

How much better can it be?

There must be enough 1 1/2-pound slabs lurking in Wateree's 13,250 acres to make the drive worthwhile, right?

Davis and Babin think so.

"In my opinion, Wateree is the best crappie lake in South Carolina, and it's one of best in the entire Southeast," said Davis, who has fished them all during different tournament circuits. "You get good, quality fish, as well as good numbers, and Wateree is more consistent than other lakes. You can go to Wateree 12 months a year and catch fish.

Babin said he started fishing Lake Murray 30 years ago, two years before he turned 10. He discovered Lake Wateree 15 years ago. Now, he doesn't feel like he needs to fish anywhere else unless he's following the Southern Crappie Association trail. In fact, to the guys who fish for crappies for cash, Babin has a nickname. He's "The Wateree Mauler."

Win more than two-dozen tournaments at a lake, routinely come to the dock with stringers that average closer 2 pounds than 1 pound per fish, and nicknames seem to come pretty easy.

"Wateree us an excellent lake," Babin said. "I guess the deal is, years ago, it was not pressured much, and now it's being pressured a whole lot more, but it's still a great lake.

"It's a good combination. You can catch good-sized fish year-round, good quality fish, and it's hard to find good, quality fish in all seasons on any lake. Plus, the numbers of fish are pretty good."

Babin is thrilled the S.C. Department of Natural Resources has a 30-fish daily creel limit in place, but he wonders when the lake's notoriety will attract enough pressure to warrant a size minimum.

That isn't enough to force him to even entertain ideas that Wateree might be sliding toward the rest of the pack, especially during spring.

"In my opinion, the best time of the year to catch quality fish is February," Babin said. "I've caught three fish over 3 pounds at Wateree, and all of them have been in late February. The peak of the spawn is in March, and in April, you've still got a lot of late spawning fish around, and the fish that have finished haven't really kicked into the post-spawn yet."

Both Babin and Davis prefer to fish the upper half of the lake late in the spring. Anglers can find them, almost exclusively, in the back third of a handful of creeks: Wateree, Dutchman, Singletary and Beaver. They rarely venture into the lower half of the lake because the water's too clear and doesn't hold nearly as many fish.

"For me, Wateree and Dutchman are the two creeks I can count on," Babin said. "They are good creeks in April. They're long creeks, and they'll hold a large number of fish. But they're different.

"For one thing, the back half of Dutchman is loaded with standing timber. It's all over the place, so the fish there pretty much never go anywhere else. You can count on catching fish in Dutchman throughout the year because of that structure."

Davis said most of the standing trees are broken off two to three feet below the surface, so careful navigation and hundreds and hundreds of baits are required.

"You've got to have plenty of patience and plenty of jigs to fish in there," he said. "If you fish 12 rods, there will be times when you have all 12 of them hung up. But it's a natural crappie haven."

Babin said Wateree Creek's drawing card are extensive shallow flats in its back half, flats where fish can pull up out of deep water and stage before they move to the bank to spawn.

"It has always seemed to me to have the most stained water, and I think it's the most fertile creek," he said. "It's a very long creek, and it offers a lot of different structure, and it's got huge bay areas. It warms up quicker than most creeks, and the fish move in early and just stay there. A lot of crappie fishermen like to fish Beaver and Colonel's creeks, but as far as I'm concerned, you don't find the concentration of fish you do in Wateree or Dutchman."

Davis disagreed slightly.

"I'll fish in the back of Singletary Creek," he said. "The way it's been the past five years, you can catch a pile of fish back there; they're just not as big as you catch in Dutchman or Wateree creeks.

"And another real good place to fish is behind the (Rt. 97) bridge in Beaver Creek. When the fish start moving shallow, you can catch a pile of fish there, but they won't be as big. Wateree Creek has always been the best creek for producing big fish."

Babin and Davis agree most of the crappie anglers find during April will be in relatively shallow water, anywhere from 2- to 10-feet deep. It's just a matter of finding out what the depth-of-choice is on any given day, or at any time of day.

"The fish will be in all different kinds of patterns, depending on where they are in relation to the spawn," Babin said. "You'll have some fish that have already spawned, some that are spawning, and some that haven't gone in yet. You catch fish that are moving in and moving back out. When I'm fishing, I'm constantly moving in and out. You don't want to stay in one place because the fish are moving so much.

"If you can find a staging area or a bedding area, you can catch 'em pretty good on one spot. That's what you're looking for, but while you're searching for that kind of place, you're picking fish up here and there."

Babin sets his alarm clock extra early because he said the first 30 minutes to hour after daylight can be the best fishing of the day.

"What I've found is, in the first hour of light, I can go catch fish - regardless of the depth of the water - very shallow," he said. "It's one of my favorite times of the day to fish. I've caught 'em 6 inches under the surface over deep water. They're scattered, and they tend to move deeper as the sun rises and penetrates the water better."

Davis starts the day shallow - in the extreme back of creeks - then works his way out. "I'll go back to 4 1/2 or 5 feet of water, turn and work my way out," he said. "Crappie will spawn in 10 feet of water as long as there's something to spawn around, whether it's a boat dock or brush pile or stick-up. If you catch 'em before they spawn, you can catch 'em ganged up."

Like the legions of crappie fishermen who fish so many rods that they look like spiders moving up and down the lake, Babin and Davis fish about a dozen rods each. But unlike the majority of fishermen who slow-troll mini-jigs well behind their boats, Babin and Davis opt to move slowly using electric trolling motors and fish almost vertically.

"The way I fish is what a lot of people call 'tight-lining'," Davis said. "Nick's uncle is the one who taught me and him to fish that way years ago. We're fishing pretty much vertically below our rod tips."

The difference, Babin said, is a quarter-ounce Bull Shot pinch-on bullet weight. He'll put it on his line about 18 inches above his terminal tackle, and when he drops the weight to the depth he wants to fish and starts moving his boat - normally between .6 to 1.0 miles per hour - the weight remains almost directly beneath his rod tip, with the rest of his line streaming behind it, like a striper fisherman might use a down-rigger to keep his bait at the proper depth.

"I spider-rig, but a lot of people call the way I'm fishing 'tight-lining' or 'pushing,' " Badin said. "I fish about a dozen rods, B&M spinning rods, from 12- to 16-feet long, with spinning reels and clear, 6-pound-test mono. I'll fish 1/16- and 1/32-ounce leadhead jigs and WOW grubs (AWD Baits of Lugoff, S.C.)."

Babin tests fish's preferences every day. He'll fish a variety of colors and jig sizes, tipping them with minnows or fishing the minnows on bare jig heads.

"The challenging part of crappie fishing is figuring everything out every day," he said. "There are so many things you've got to get right: speed, presentation, color, depth. Some days they're deep, some days they're staging in the prespawn, and some days they're shallow. There are days when fish may prefer a smaller bait, then a larger bait the next day."

Babin uses two rods each at one of six depths, mixing colors and jig sizes. After an hour or two, he can detect by the bites he's getting what the fish want that day, and he adjusts his spread of baits to match.

"Sometimes, inches can make a difference," he said. "The fish might be biting at 10 inches but not at 12 inches. That's how particular they can get. But once you find 'em, they'll all be at that depth."

Babin likes a variety of colors for his jig heads and grubs, including greens, yellows, blues and oranges. He'll use both the triple-tail WOW grubs and Slider-style grubs.

"I'll start with a mix of colors, sometimes a jig with a minnow and no tail, sometimes a jig with a (grub) and a minnow, all different shapes and sizes. When I figure out what the fish prefer that day, I'll shift 'em all over," he said.

Davis' style of fishing has fewer variables than Babin's. Davis pretty much sticks with 14-foot Crappie Master rods with spinning reels and 6-pound test clear Stren mono. He typically uses 1/16- and 1/32-ounce jig heads (orange, silver or chartreuse) tipped with a live minnow.

"In the spring, a grub or skirt with a minnow will work," he said. "I'll fish chartreuse/yellow or pink/yellow most of the time," he said. "You can fish a little faster in the spring, but you really want to move the boat just fast enough to keep your baits moving but keep them as straight up and down as possible."

One thing Babin swears by is a GPS unit. His is on his Lowrance X-15 depth-finder. Not only does it help him located underwater structure such as creek-channel drops, but also brush piles or stumps that might hold crappie. Then there are the places that seem to hold fish for no apparent reason.

"I've found that there are some things on the bottom that hold fish in an area that are a mystery," he said. "You can't see them on a depth-finder or tell what they are, but there's something about certain things on the bottom that will hold fish. I don't know, maybe it's something like an underwater spring, but there will be these very special spots in areas. If you don't go exactly to that spot, you may not catch fish."

One other thing he occasionally does when he's fishing in Dutchman Creek is to rig the jig head weedless by pushing the hook point through the jig head, then out the other side, then turning it and sticking it back in the plastic.

"I have rigged them weedless, like you Texas-rig a plastic worm, but I do that only if I'm really desperate because you miss some fish that way," he said.