Within the chain of great lakes formed along the Savannah River, Lake Russell often is overshadowed by its older, more famous big brothers, Lakes Thurmond and Hartwell.

But Russell quickly has gained favor with anglers throughout the Southeast with its phenomenal fishing opportunities in a natural setting and pleasant shortage of recreational boaters.

And when it comes to catching big crappie - and lots of them - Lake Russell more than holds its own against the other heavyweight reservoirs.

The lake is a contemporary reservoir by its southern neighbor's standards, completed by the U.S. Corp of Engineers in 1985. Originally christened Trotters Shoals Lake, the name was eventually changed to honor the late senator from Georgia, Richard B. Russell.

The main channel of the lake straddles the South Carolina-Georgia border, with two impressive arms that stretch west into Georgia near the town of Elberton and north into South Carolina near Lowndesville and Lake Secession. Its 540 miles of shoreline are largely undeveloped, skirted with exposed banks of red clay and forested with a dense mixture of pine and hardwoods.

No private marinas, ramps or homeowner-owned boat docks dot the shoreline, but plenty of structure exists for fish. Approximately 1500 acres of the lake's total of 26,500 are flooded timber, which still stands throughout the lake. This makes for ideal habitat for cover-dwelling fish such as crappie.

Wendell Wilson is a fishing guide at Lakes Hartwell, Thurmond, and Russell, but he lives less than 5 minutes from Russell, and it's his favorite crappie location.

"Fish can sometimes be difficult to find at this lake because of all the brush and cover," he said. "But once they're found, and you can zero in on them, it's pretty much easy pickings."

Schooling fish can provide plenty of fun at the lake. It's only a matter of finding them.

"Once you catch one, others are sure to follow," said Wilson, referring to the schooling nature of this sunfish relative. "But brush piles, submerged trees, and flooded timber are definitely the keys to finding them in the first place."

Structure abounds throughout the lake, especially in the creeks off the main lake channel. Coldwater, Pickens, and Van creek at the Georgia side of the lake are good examples and excellent crappie fishing locations.

Deal and Bowman Branch at the South Carolina side are certified crappie hot spots as well. This is in addition to dozens of smaller creeks and alcoves that harbor underwater structure and excellent crappie habitat.

Water levels at Russell fluctuate little, making spawning for fish more predictable and successful, which might explain the superb crappie population. Water levels at both Lakes Hartwell and Thurmond fluctuate much more than Russell, leading fishermen to believe Russell is always at full pool.

Lake Russell is situated between the two larger lakes and its dam was designed and constructed after their conservation storage needs for the Savannah River were satisfied. Therefore, it could be engineered to operate much more efficiently, making large water drawdowns unnecessary. Lake levels at Russell are maintained within 5 feet of full pool at all times. Lake Thurmond has 18 feet of conservation storage and Hartwell has 35 feet.

Wilson's rod of choice for crappie is a 5-foot, 6-inch Eagle Claw ultra-light rod matched with a lightweight spinning reel and 6-pound-test line. His preferred technique is a live minnow and a slip rig.

"I've got a large split shot about 18 inches up from a number 6 long shank hook," he said. "The split shot keeps the slip bobber from sliding all the way down to the hook.

"Then I put a bobber-stop anywhere from 10 to 15 feet up the line, depending on my preferred depth. The bobber can slide to only 18 inches when I cast, but it settles down at the bobber-stop when it's on the water, right at the exact depth that I set.

"September and October are my favorite months to fish for crappie. The fish caught are normally a little bigger and they'll bite all day long."

During the spring, crappie migrate from deeper water to the shallows. This is spawning season, and it's a popular time for crappie fishermen to hit the water.

"Spring is when everyone wants to go crappie fishing and it's the time when I book most of my trips," Wilson said. "There is tremendous crappie fishing in the spring, don't get me wrong. But I think the fall is even better."

Structure is important to finding crappie, particularly in the fall.

"In the summer, the fish hold tight to the trees and brush piles, but you have only a few hours in the day to catch them, early and late," he said. "During the fall, the fish are in the same places they were in the summer, but now you can catch them all day long."

Arthur Roach of Abbeville, South Carolina is a self-described "crappie fanatic" and has been crappie fishing at Lake Russell regularly for the last 12 years. His largest catch, a 2 3/4-pound google-eyed slab, was caught during an Indian-summer October day two years ago.

"Clear as a bell and bright sunshine," he said. "The fish were holding tight to the trees and brush, and my partner and I were just killing them that day. I know there are bigger fish than that one."

During the fall, Roach ties his boat to one of the dead tree skeletons and works as much flooded timber as he can cover. He doesn't waste too much of his time at any spot.

"I drop the minnow or jig straight down along one of the trees - to 10- or 12-feet deep - and if I don't get a strike after four or five seconds, I move to the next tree," he said. "My experience with crappie has been that they are impulsive feeders. They will nail the bait right away. The longer they look at it, the less the chance they'll hit it."

Unlike guide Wilson's approach with a short, ultra-light rod, Roach opts for a 10-foot, telescopic limber pole for his style of crappie fishing. These extra-long fishing rods give the angler an advantage with accuracy and line control.
"I like the extra reach and control I have using this rod," Roach said. "I don't really need to cast; I just flip it out there right where I want it."

The limber pole's slower, full-flex action keeps the hook from easily tearing the soft, delicate mouth of a crappie.

"I believe the extra flex and soft tip on these rods have saved many a fish for me over the years," Roach said. "They don't call them 'papermouths' for nothing."

In addition to vertical-fishing live minnows at brush piles and trees, Roach fishes the same areas with 1/16-ounce bucktail jigs or jigheads with a 4-inch Mister Twister Curly Grub Tails trailer.

"Live minnows are the number-one baits, hands down," he said emphatically. "But there are times when they'll hit a jig just as well as a minnow. Then I'll switch it up just to make it interesting."

The jigs are fished straight down off the side the boat, near the trees and brush piles, or cast, allowed to sink and slowly retrieved.

There is one important rule to follow when fishing either live minnows or jigs for crappie. It's much better to be fishing too shallow than too deep. Crappie are like most gamefish, genetically programmed to look upward for possible food.

"You want to put the bait right in front of their nose," said guide Wilson as he pitched his slip rig into a grove of flooded timber. "But a crappie will come up to take a bait if it's hungry."

"Crappie have their eyes on the tops of their head," Roach said. "They see objects much better above than they do below. That's true of most fish, but it's particularly true with crappie."

The catch-all term "crappie" actually refers to two separate species of the fish - black and white crappies. This fact is lost on most dedicated crappie fisherman who would rather cast their lines back into the water than worry about counting dorsal spines and lateral line scales.

However, individual state and world records are kept for each individual species - with the record catches for each species belonging to South Carolina fish weighing almost 5 pounds.

Lake Russell also has good populations of largemouth bass, bream, catfish and striped bass, but crappie are still kings for most local anglers. The shear numbers of fish and relative ease of catching them, once located, make crappies ideal for getting kids involved in fishing.

"There's just no fish out there that's as much fun to catch as the crappie," Roach said. "Lake Russell, a Saturday afternoon, and a fresh bucket of minnows is, for me, the ultimate."