Certain bodies of water have earned a reputation for being top producers of certain species of fish. Depending on your point of view, the Santee Cooper Lakes produce great catfish, Lake Murray and Lake Wylie are largemouth bass hotspots, stripers abound in Thurmond and Hartwell, and crappie fishermen flock to lakes like Greenwood, Wateree, and Secession.
Without a doubt, those lakes can and do produce multiple species and have tremendous fisheries for several species. That is the case with Lake Hartwell located along the Carolina-Georgia line in Pickens, Anderson, and Oconee counties. Better known as a great lake for striped bass and largemouth bass, Hartwell holds its own when it comes to crappie fishing.
"I'll take Hartwell any time over any other crappie lake in the state," said Randy Pope, a 2007 Crappie USA Classic Qualifier and four-time Southern Crappie Association Champion. Pope and his fishing partner, Jerry Pruitt, are both confirmed dock shooters, and they believe that Hartwell has some of the most productive boat docks of any lake they fish.
Using a rod and reel to "shoot" docks has become a favored tactic for crappie fishermen, comparable to the art of "flipping" for largemouth bass.
A quality spinning rod and reel are required. Shooting entails the angler grasping a crappie jig in one hand and holding the line like a trigger with the bail free spool in the other hand. The fingers of the jig hand are held open in the "OK" sign, and the line is pulled tight, bowing the rod over in a "U" shape.
The art of shooting is timing the release of the "trigger finger" after the jig has been released and is catapulted forward by the action of the rod tip. Experienced shooters can sail a jig 30 feet or more in a straight, flat trajectory.
"There's more to catching crappie than just being able to put the jig against the back of a covered dock," said Pope, who believes that crappie are notorious suspending fish and will hold tight to cover on the far side of the dock.
Pope and Pruitt rely on Lindy's Fuzz-E Grubs, whose soft plastic body and marabou feather tail allows the jig to descend slowly through the water column after splash down. Finding the level where crappie are suspending below a dock is important to eliciting strikes, since crappie feed in an upward position and rarely go down to take a bait. While most anglers rely on a countdown method, counting the 1/32-ounce jig down until a bite is detected, Pope relies on what he terms "instinct."
"In truth, it's the angle of the line" Pope confessed. "The jig will be doing a slow fall, and I'll look over at Jerry and say 'They're right there,' when the angle of the line and the distance from the boat looks right."
While shooting boat docks is a year-round pattern for Pope, hot weather and warm water will have Hartwell's crappie seeking the "three S's."
Shelter, safety and shade are key ingredients for finding fish. Look for docks that provide access to deep water. Docks with at least 20 feet of water on the deep end are ideal. The deep water provides safety for suspended crappie, giving them "room to run" if the need arises.
Another plus for locating docks that will hold slabs are covered docks that provide relief from direct sunlight. Boat docks with large roof-coverings or canopies create a lot of shade. Substantial shade will provide cooler water, sometimes as much as five degrees below surrounding water that is hit by the sun.
The third ingredient is shelter, which for crappie, comes in the form of cover such as brush piles, dock supports or other vertical cover under the dock.
Being a U.S. Army Corps of Engineers lake, all docks approved for Hartwell must be floating docks, with no permanent attachment to the lake floor permitted. Often, dock owners will sink fish attracting structures like brush piles or stake beds under and around their docks.
"It's not necessary to find the biggest dock" Pope said. "A smaller dock that provides lots of cover will often hold more fish."
Don't discount man-made structure attached to docks such as boat lifts, sprinkler plumbing, or mooring cables.
Tell-tale signs for locating productive docks that hold summertime crappie will be those situated near or over a drop-off. A change in bottom contour from 15 to 20 feet under a dock is a real plus.
Other signs include sodium lights and rod holders mounted to a dock, indicating the presence of brush and a steady food supply of bugs and minnows drawn to the lights at night. A dock that has all three factors and sits alone in a 100-yard stretch is almost a "sure thing".
Randy Brown of Anderson is a crappie fanatic, but only during the two hottest months of the year. The rest of the time, he spends his time chasing the striped bass for which Lake Hartwell is famous.
"In most lakes, I think that crappie move out into open water during July and August to escape the heat and find more comfortable water," Brown said, "but Hartwell is a different story, because open water is not a safe place for crappie. Because of the striper population, I think crappie feel more protected (when) bunched up under deep boat docks."
Brown further indicates that while crappie may hold on brush piles on the main creek channels early and late in the day, when the sun gets overhead, they will move under docks to escape the bright light. Once there, finding comfortable water is only a matter of a vertical adjustment for the fish.
Crappie will be deeper under the docks on bright, sunny days because of light reflection, but on partly-cloudy or overcast days, they will range further from the structure.
Brown has also discovered that on some days, docks that usually hold fish seem vacant. Through a chance situation, Brown determined that big crappie, slabs pushing the 2- pound mark, were holding far back under the docks but were so shallow their backs were rubbing the bottoms of the platforms.
He found that by impaling a 2-inch tube skirt on a 1/64th-ounce jig head, he could shoot the bait deep into crappie territory and keep it in the strike zone by reeling at a steady speed as soon as the bait hit the water. The "splash and flee" is usually more than the crappie can stand, as the bait closely mimics shad and other baitfish that feed on the plankton growing on the bottom of the docks.
It would seem that loading the boat with summer boat-dock crappie is a piece of cake. Some days it is. The determining factor is getting the bait to the fish.
Several things sway the game in the crappie's favor. One is that Hartwell is typically a clear lake. Second, boat docks amplify sound and motion, so a fisherman has to be especially stealthy when approaching docks.
Boat positioning is critical. On one hand, you need to stay close enough to the dock to be able to cast to the back to catch fish. On the other, while the water is public property, the dock is not. Dock owners do not appreciate fishermen trespassing on their property. Always use courtesy and consideration.
A good trolling motor is essential, as well as a boat with a flat front deck, preferably with enough room to accommodate two anglers. Often, to reach tight spots between the inside of the dock and a boat that's moored, a fisherman may need to kneel to get the jig through a 6-inch vertical gap or a 4-inch horizontal gap to shoot the jig back under a dock float. The small gap between the motor mount a pontoon boat is another likely shot, as suspending between pontoons is a favorite crappie trick.
Achieving pinpoint accuracy shooting jigs requires a graphite rod with a fast tip and a spinning reel that lets line peel off effortlessly. Pope and Pruitt prefer light-action Fenwick rods in 5- to 5½-foot lengths. These are paired with Shimano Spirex reels spooled with 4-pound test Stren Magnathin line.
"The light line is a must to get any distance out of a small jig," Pope said. "Another advantage is being able to see the line to know where the jig is and detect light bites."
Even the most accurate dock shooters agree that you should expect to leave a few jigs behind. Light monofilament is no match for sliding along rusted steel or the prop of a moored boat. The best way to retrieve a jig from the back end of a boat dock is to surround the hook with a crappie and walk the crappie back through the maze of holes and gaps the jig passed through on its way to the strike zone.