I don't know who wrote that song, but the flat-out facts of the matter are that one prime quarry for the hot-weather angler, crappie, don't do much jumping. In fact, about the only popular freshwater species I can think of that might rank lower when it comes to aerial acrobatics would be catfish and bream.
Their lack of jumping ability aside, crappie can be a prime target for the fisherman with sufficient gumption to deal with the heat and humidity of a South Carolina summer.
The fishing for slabs offered by Lake Wateree, the last impoundment on the long chain of lakes dotting the Catawba River, is first-rate. Long overshadowed by Lake Wylie, its upstream neighbor, Lake Wateree has in recent years come into its own.
Several factors likely explain that development. First and foremost, the impoundment holds plenty of crappie. Beyond that, an unexplained, little publicized, but unquestionably dramatic drop-off in crappie numbers at Lake Wylie has refocused the attention of many fishermen. Then too, there has been a recent surge in development around Wateree, and with it comes fishermen living on or near its shores, the addition of brushpiles and other crappie "hides" to its waters, and more of the docks crappie love to utilize as home headquarters.
Whatever the case, slabs live there, and summer is a mighty fine time to catch them. With that in mind, let's turn to some of the tricks of the crappie-catching trade, Lake Wateree style.
Years ago, Jackie Hite, a veteran crappie fisherman who has scored high in his share of tournaments and has an uncanny knack for finding slabs, offered some significant insight as we shared a boat.
Although Lake Murray has to be considered Hite's home water, he has spent considerable time all over the Palmetto State in an ongoing quest for big crappie. When I mentioned Wateree to him and asked his thoughts on solving its crappie equation, Hite had some ready answers.
"There are a bunch of ways to find crappie," Hite suggested. "With really good electronics, you can locate both submerged structure and fish staging around it, but you don't have to have high-dollar gear to do quite well."
Thinking along that line, he mentioned three distinct possibilities: long-line trolling in main channels with a bunch of rods out, working docks where the lay of the land suggests a pretty sharp drop-off, or fishing "gardens you have planted" - brushpiles sunk by fishermen.
According to Hite, summer weather sends slabs deep, so focus on deeper areas. One way to accomplish this is with six or eight rods out while trolling, with the length of line out from each one and different sizes of monofilament enabling you to probe various depths. When trolling, it is important to pay attention to what is working best, and when you have clear results, adjust rod depths accordingly.
With its long creek channels and fairly expansive nature, Wateree lends itself to this kind of fishing. It is the largest lake on the lower Catawba chain, spanning almost 14,000 acres at full pond and featuring 242 miles of shoreline.
Precisely the same kind of "find-the-right-depth" method can be used when anchored over structure. Start out with each rod set at a different depth, and when bobbers start bouncing with comforting predictability at a given depth, switch all the rods there.
Another thing Hite suggests is reliance on either a good memory or notes.
"You'll find that records, over time, tell you a great deal about where to find fish in terms of depth, location on the lake, and more," Hite said. "A lot of anglers say they don't keep records, but in truth, they do - they are just in their minds rather than on paper. Whatever your approach though, keep in mind the fact that catching crappie with consistency is in effect being a student in a school where you never graduate. There's always something to learn."
Further insight - and of a somewhat different kind - comes from the crappie wizard of nearby Lake Wylie, Bennett Kirkpatrick.
Since Wylie's crappie population has taken a nosedive, Kirkpatrick, a Rock Hill resident, has taken to looking towards greener geographical pastures (Wateree) or more promising species (catfish). Yet his tried-and-true method for catching slabs is one anyone can apply at Wateree, and for those living conveniently close by, it is a not-to-be-missed technique.
As Jackie Hite puts it when referring to brush piles, Bennett Kirkpatrick is a "gardener." That is to say, he's an advocate of submerging suitable structure, then carefully marking it by visual triangulation.
"For summertime fishing," he said, "you want deep brush - sometimes as much as 25 or 30 counts down."
His "counts" equate closely to feet and come from the approach he uses when anchored over a given piece of structure. He will drop a minnow or jig over the side with the bale on his spinning reel open, then being counting "1001, 1002, 1003 . . ." until the hook reaches the desired depth. At that point, he closes the bale and begins a slow, painstakingly slow, retrieve.
"If you are ticking brush, add a count," is his mantra, and he'll keep doing that until the hook is in contact with underwater cover.
Never one to be limited in his choices, Kirkpatrick covers a lot of water, even though it might not be as much as is involved with trolling. On the other hand, when he finds a hotspot, he is in place, whereas the trolling fisherman has to make repeated runs.
Over the course of a day's fishing, Kirkpatrick might drop anchor around 15 or 20 brushpiles. As long as they are productive, there's no need to move, but when things slow or never start at all, it's "up anchor" and off to a new spot.
Applied to Lake Wateree, that means first of all knowing the whereabouts of a bunch of brushpiles, through personally placing them, finding them with your electronics, or getting helpful information from others. It's not like springtime fishing, where you can hit one dock after another, along with likely shoreline bedding areas, and expect action.
However, don't overlook what the water immediately in front of docks and piers situated in deep water can afford. It's standard practice for homeowners who fish to sink some structure, not to mention what pilings offer in their own right. If no one is fishing it, utilize it to good advantage. You can actually anchor off a dock and fish at any time, but angling ethics obviously dictate confining such activity to places where you don't interfere with others.
Live Bait vs. Artificials
Fly fishermen will heatedly debate the virtues of dry flies to streamers, and turkey hunters will differ on the relative merits of a box call and a diaphragm.
Crappie fishermen are no different when it comes to debating jigs vs. minnows. These are the two standard offerings for taking a straining stringer of slabs, and each has its plusses and minuses.
Overall, it is difficult to argue about offering the Real McCoy. After all, minnows are the daily diet of crappie, and common sense says to provide what they eat rather than an imitation. But it isn't quite that simple. For starters, minnows of the correct size can be difficult to come by at certain times of the summer, and unless you have a state-of-the-art bait tank, they'll die all too readily as heat takes a toll. Then too, the simple matter of wasted time spent in re-baiting when things are fast and furious may argue against minnows.
When it comes to jigs, not needing to re-bait after each fish is a real plus. They also cast better and will take the abuse involved in being bounced off a dock piling or bumped over brush. Beyond that, there's a certain mindset that somehow finds trying new colors or sizes comforting when things are slow. Jigs cost more than a hook and minnow, even if you take buying bait into consideration, and the very nature of crappie fishing says you are going to lose terminal tackle. "If you don't," Kirkpatrick said, "you ain't fishing right."
Most fishermens opt for jigs unless action is really slow; then they'll turn to bait or perhaps tip a jig with a minnow. Don't overlook the fact that there are some other options, although almost no one employs them. In-line spinners such as small Mepps, Beetlespins, and Roostertails work perfectly well on crappie, although in the heat of the summer they may not get deep enough to do the job.
Get Your Own Bait
Minnows tend to be quite pricey, especially when they are hard to come by, and invariably the scarcity side of the equation kicks in during the summer.
One solution is to catch your own. Years ago, more than one enterprising country boy picked up some welcome spending money seining bait out of branches, small creeks, or in the shallows of lakes. That is still possible, provided you've got a 2-man seine and a willingness to do a bit of wading to acquire bait.
One useful approach is to chum with wadded up slices of loaf bread or dough an hour or so in advance, or just look for schools of minnows of a suitable size for crappie in the shallows. Use a beached boat to block fleeing bait as you move through the shallows with the seine, or carry a softball-sized rock to lob out in front of the minnows. This will turn them back toward the net. Under the right conditions, you can get all the bait required for a day's outing in short order, and it's fun as well as being a money saver.