December is also holiday season, and some folks may find it special to mark their favorite fishing spots by lining up with that decorated Christmas tree in somebody's backyard or better yet, the plastic Santa Claus on a jet ski that's decorating a boat dock.
Fishermen who frequent Lake Wateree, particularly those who live to chase papermouths, yearn for this time of year because crappie stay in some of their most consistent patterns.
Pro fisherman Jay Bruce and his tournament partner, Carolyn Reeves will be fishing the ledges along Wateree's river channel, concentrating on the bends to collect big schools of fish.
"During late November and into December, these fish are solidly in their winter pattern," said Bruce, who, like Reeves, hails from Greer. "Nothing is really going to move them off this pattern. If the weather is stable, they'll rise up off the bottom a little, and if a cold front pushes through, they'll drop down to the bottom. Basically, that means they'll move about two feet, depending on the weather."
Bruce likes to fish the main channel ledges because he finds crappie will orient to the channel bends, depending on the amount of current being pulled through the dam. He scans the bottom using his side-imaging sonar to locate any logjams or debris trapped in the bend that will hold fish. He said fewer people fish the river channels this time of year because the wind and cold is a little tougher to take out on the open water.
"If they are pulling water through the dam, and there's current in the lake, I'll concentrate on the inside bends of the river channel and look for some type of holding structure along the drop off of that inside bend," Bruce said. "If there is no current, I'll look for the same type setup on the outside bend. The difference is that inside bend offers more of a current break when they're pulling water."
Bruce slow-trolls or spider-rigs from the front of his boat. He employs a Kentucky rig with a half-ounce weight on the bottom and two hooks in the rig. The bottom hook is a No. 2 drop-shot hook on a dropper loop set 10 inches above the weight. The top hook is a No. 4 drop shot that is tied on a loop 12 to 14 inches above the bottom hook.
Bruce will be fishing live bait, mostly store-bought minnows. He uses four poles per person on either side from the bow of the boat, and he is especially fond of 16-foot B'n'M graphite jig poles. He admits that wrangling the long rods takes some getting used-to, but he definitely sees a difference in the number of fish he catches when he's not directly over the top of them, especially on sunny days.
"With a lively minnow, I can see the rod tip wiggle," said Bruce. "The way to tell when you have a bite is the rod tip stops moving. To say the bite is light is an understatement."
Bruce prefers the Kentucky rig because it lets him bump the bottom without hanging up. It also puts his bait right on top of crappie, which show a particular fondness for laying in the mud on the bottom, especially during a passing cold front.
"Last year's (Southern Crappie Trail) Wateree tournament was held on the 16th of December; the temperature never got above 40 degrees, and it sprinkled rain all day," he said. "We found the fish laying flat on the bottom in 24 feet of water, right on the edge of the channel.
"The wind was pretty strong, and the only way we could catch them was by nosing into the wind and holding the boat dead-still for a few seconds. That's when a rod would go down, and we'd catch a fish or two before the wind would blow us off, then we'd line back up and run it again. We caught some good fish that day and barely missed winning the tournament - by two ounces."
The team that beat Bruce and Reeves was Joe Branham and his son, William James, of Lugoff. They were also fishing deep, but that's where the similarity ends. Branham said he used to use a bunch of rods to troll around the lake but soon discovered that method wasn't for him. He prefers to use a single rod to catch crappie, and his favorite is a fly rod.
"I like to vertically jig using a 9-foot fly rod," Branham said. "I leave the fly reel on the rod but spool it with straight monofilament line and tie on a 1/16th-ounce jighead. I make all of my own jigheads and use nothing but straight artificial lures, usually one of the AWD baits made over in Camden."
One of the secrets to Branham's success is knowing where to fish. He spends a lot of time sinking brushpiles in Lake Wateree and said he has upwards of 200 placed all over the lake.
"In December, the whole lake can be good, from Stumpy Pond dam to the Wateree dam, but the crappie will be deep," Branham said. "When we won the tournament last year, everything we fished was from 18 to 25 feet deep.
"I pick a number of water depths to put out brushpiles so that I'll have places to fish year round," he said. "An underwater hump or river channel is a great place to put out brush, and in the winter, when the water is somewhere between 45 and 55 degrees, we catch fish on them."
Branham said that establishing a pattern is important in December. When he finds fish at a particular depth on a brushpile, he usually finds them at the same depth on another one.
"This lake gets fished hard, but there is still a lot of crappie in it," claims Branham. "We catch a lot of small fish and have to cull through them to get to the bigger ones. You can find plenty of 1½- to 2-pound fish if you know where to look."