Lake Murray is, by all estimates, a big reservoir.

It stretches more than 41 miles from the dam near Columbia past the forks of the Big Saluda and Little Saluda rivers, covers 50,000 acres and has 520 miles of shoreline.

So the task facing crappie fishermen this month is: "Where do I begin?"

Veteran Chapin crappie pros Mike Huffstetler and Tom Slice agreed anglers have to cut the lake down to size. Both said during December, at least, that's fairly easy.

"I've always said Lake Murray is like three different lakes: the upper end, the middle and the down the lake," Huffstetler said. "In December, you start to catch fish in the upper end: Cloud's Creek, the Big Saluda River, Hawlee Creek, around there.

"They'll be out in the open water, following shad, staging at the mouth of creeks and coves. They'll stay out there all winter, until around the end of January, before they start to move in."

The water at the upper end stays a little more stained than at the big, open lower end, Slice said, and he said it might be a little warmer. For whatever reason, it's the place to be - from Dreher Island to the forks of the rivers and all areas in between.

"Fish just turn on a lot quicker on the upper end than down the lake," he said.

Wade Bales, the top fisheries biologist for the S.C. Department of Natural Resources, said Murray is a typical reservoir because the upper and lower ends offer different habitats.

"Like most reservoirs, the upper end of Lake Murray is more productive because you've got a lot of nutrients brought in from the tributary rivers," he said. "It also tends to be more turbid, more stained, whereas on the lower end, below Dreher Island, you get into more transparent water, more deep set ups."

Huffstetler and Slice are veterans of some of the biggest crappie tournament circuits in the Southeast. They agreed Murray can be an excellent lake, and aside from the month or so when fish move to the bank to spawn, December is one of the best times of the year to fish for slab-sided crappie.

The key is locating decent concentrations of fish. Finding schools of baitfish is a concern, and typically, they're set up on the main lake, either just outside the mouth of creeks and coves or along the "corners" where the creek channel meets the a main-river channel or a creek channel just inside the mouth.

Strangely enough, looking for sea gulls or other birds is one way to get ahead. Although that's normally considered an excellent way to locate concentrations of striped bass, Huffstetler said crappie often will be in the vicinity.

"If you're near rockfish (stripers), you're pretty close to crappie," he said. "A lot of times, crappie will be under the rockfish."

But normally, there aren't many shortcuts. It's a matter of working different areas, covering a lot of water, to find fish - even though they don't move a great deal once they set up for the winter.

"Sometimes it's hard to find 'em," Huffstetler said. "I usually troll about 10- to 12-feet deep in 25 feet of water. There are certain places I like to fish in Cloud's Creek, the Big Saluda and Hawlee where I've caught 'em. But they're usually scattered. You just don't hit 'em where six or seven rods go down at one time. You might get two or three on one pass through an area, then go back and do the same thing."

Huffstetler said that summer and fall are the seasons when you're lost on Murray if you're not fishing around brush piles or other kinds of deep cover. Trolling is the ticket in the winter and spring when covering water is a key.

"I troll with 1/16-ounce Uncle Henry jigs, which are hair jigs, and I like black/chartreuse," he said. "I can adjust the depth I fish by the speed I troll. I like to fish 10-, 12- and 14-foot Silstar rods with little Quantum spinning reels and 6-pound-test line.

"Usually winter fishing in the upper end will depend a lot on how much rain you get. The bite will start up there first, and you can do well as long as you don't get a lot of rain that muddies the water.

"They'll stay on these kinds of spots until about the end of January, then they'll start to move in. There's about a month's difference between the upper end and the lower end. They'll move in by the middle of February in the middle of the lake, and by the first of March at the lower end. The best fishing at the upper end is from December to January 1."

Huffstetler typically picks up fish of different lengths and weights when he trolls through a productive area. Murray is an excellent fishery, he said, where anglers can expect to catch excellent numbers of fish, with some big fish in the mix "but you won't catch an awful lot of big fish," he said.

No one who regularly fishes Murray expects to fill their 30-fish daily limit completely with fish that weigh a pound-and-a-half, but there are plenty of those fish around.

Slice said he's seen a big improvement in the crappie fishery at Murray during the past two or three years, and he believes fish may be "recovering" from several years when the lake level was drawn down appreciably.

"Murray has really come back over the last several years," he said. "I rarely catch a fish now that doesn't weigh about 1 pound. Murray is a different animal; you have certain windows when you can catch 'em trolling or tight lining."

Bales said Slice's reports of excellent fishing the past year or two seem to be the norm for better fishermen.

"The guys who really know how to catch 'em say the fishing has really been great," Bales said. "In fact, all of the panfishing at Lake Murray has been good."

Bales said the lake's extended drawdown - for needed and major repairs to Lake Murray Dam - finally ended early in 2005 when the lake was "re-flooded."

"We documented a huge year-class of crappie from the spring of 2005; we sort of expected that would happen," he said. "Where the fishery is now, fishermen will see a lot of numbers, a lot of fish around 8 inches. But by the spring of '07 and the winter of '07, those fish should be really good-sized crappie."

Slice keys at the mouths of a handful of creeks at the upper half of the lake, including Cloud's Creek, Hawlee Creek, Buffalo Creek, Rocky Creek and Bear Creek, plus both forks of the Saluda River.

He pays special attention to the weather because a handful of really warm days will move fish off the main lake into the warming shallows in the backs of creeks. But a reverse in the weather pattern will send them back out to the deeper water near creek mouths even more quickly.

"I fished a tournament one time when I had a lot of fish located in the back of Bear Creek, then a cold front came in, and overnight, those fish moved out to the mouth of the creek and suspended," he said. "But if you get those three or four warm days, those fish will move up and move into the backs of the creeks where you can catch 'em shallow - if the water is at normal pool."

When Slice expects fish to be suspended in deep water around the mouths of creeks, he likes to slow-troll or spider-rig with multiple rods. When fish are shallow, he will tight line - fishing more vertically but still moving his baits.

"I like to pull eight rods at a time," he said. "I think I'm able to focus more on fishing. I think if you pull more than 10 or 12 rods at a time, you're missing more fish than you're catching because you're messing with your rods all the time.

"I fish 14-foot Wally Marshall (Bass Pro Shop) rods, with little Daiwa or Shimano spinning reels that will hold 100 yards of 6-pound test or 120 yards or 4-pound test. I like to use clear Trilene XL."

Slice is particular to "tassletail" grubs called Culprit Crappie Baits. The little plastic baits have curly tails, but the tails are divided into three parts. As far as color is concerned, he stays fairly simple, going with pumpkinseed or light greens when the water is clear and oranges or chartreuses if the water is a little dingy.

"If it's dirty, you need an orange or chartreuse to give off a little glow or flash," he said. "A lot of the time, color doesn't make a big difference, but some of the time, it makes a great difference."

Most of the time during December, Slice looks for fish suspended anywhere from 3- to 10-feet deep in deeper water.

"Usually, I'll pull with a 1/16-ounce jighead, but when they're close to the surface, I'll pull with a 1/48-ounce head, and I'll pull it real fast - maybe 2 miles an hour," he said. "That way, the baits will all stay between a foot and a foot-and-a-half under the surface."

Slice will also use a method for slow-trolling or drifting called "tight lining" that allows him to keep his baits in a small depth range. He typically uses a tight-line rig when he senses fish aren't suspended but feeding closer to the bottom.

His rig consists of a tiny, black three-way swivel. To one eye he ties the running line from his reel. To a second eye he ties in a foot of 6-pound-test line to which he ties a ½- to ¾-ounce sinker. To the third eye, he ties a short length of 10-pound-test mono to which is tied the jighead.

"I use heavier mono for that line because I want that bigger mono to float up away from the weight so the fish doesn't have the sinker right in front of him when he comes up to the bait," Slice said. "When I'm fishing a with a tight-line, I like to tip all my jigs with a live minnow.

"Sometimes it doesn't matter, but most of the time it does. It's just good to have that minnow on there. I'll tip my jigs with it when I'm trolling, but sometimes it will interfere with the action of the grub, so I won't."

Slices trolls at a relatively constant speed, slowing down or speeding up if he wants to change the depth at which his lures are dropping. When he's tight lining, however, he changes all the time.

"How fast I go depends on how the fish want it," he said. "A lot of people will go on one constant speed, but I like to bump it along and go at different speeds. And if I get a bite, I can stop and back up. That will usually trigger a bite if there are more fish around."

That may be why Slice tends to catch a few more fish at each pass through an area. He can stay right on the fish when he gets a bite, keeping his baits in the immediate area.