Both air and water temperatures are on the rise, and just like a trophy buck after the rut, it's time to go nocturnal. For guide Brad Taylor of Taylor Outdoors, the night bite for crappie can bring some of the best fishing of the year.
"Most of the people who head out night-fishing on Lake Murray are after striped bass," said Taylor (803-331-1354), "but the crappie fishing on the middle and upper parts of the lake can be just as good at night."
Crappie are definitely in a post-spawn pattern in late May and through June. They have moved out of the shallows and are seeking cooler and deeper water out near the main-lake channels and around hardbottom drop-offs. As the summer pattern develops, crappie will orient to structure, such as brush piles and channel edges.
"When you find the fish right at daylight, before the sun comes up, they'll be suspended above the brush and may only be six to eight feet below the surface of the water," he said. "As the sun rises, the fish will drop deeper in the water and sink down into that brush. The higher the sun gets, the deeper the fish will bury into cover, so when we're fishing at night, crappie may be holding over deep water, but they'll still be pretty shallow."
It's nearly impossible to consider fishing for crappie at night without thinking about bridges. Taylor said that crappie have a definite love for bridges and believes that some will spend their entire lives hanging around pilings if there is sufficient water depth. His reasoning is that they offer crappie everything they need: depth changes to accommodate them through the seasons, algae growth to draw plankton and baitfish and structure and cover - in the form of the pilings and debris that washes in under them - for cover.
"Bridges are almost a guaranteed bet," Taylor said. "The South Carolina DNR and DOT have made it easy to tie up under most of the bridges on Murray by installing mooring hooks on them."
Taylor points to Black's Bridge and the Little River Bridge - both of which are on SC 391 - and the Adam's Camp Bridge above Crystal Lake as some of the best bridges to fish at night. They aren't secret, and they get plenty of fishing pressure through the summer, but it's a trade-off for Taylor since he can usually catch higher numbers of fish for his clients by fishing under a bridge at night but generally catches bigger crappie by anchoring up over deep brushpiles around drop-offs in the area between Rocky Creek and Dreher Island.
"You'd think there wasn't a crappie on the lower end of the lake, because all you ever hear about down there is striper fishing," he said. "The lower end holds a lot of crappie, but they are tough to catch during the day because the water is so clear. You'll find better water quality, less people, and bigger fish in Bear Creek, Hollow Creek and Crystal Lake.
Once you've settled on a spot, the next-toughest task is deciding on how deep to fish. Crappie will suspend up in the water column after the lights go out, but the prospect is tricky due to the establishment of the thermocline.
Taylor offers that the highest oxygen levels mix with the cooler waters right above the thermocline, and that's where he wants to be fishing. Last summer, he found the thermoclines in June from Buffalo Creek and up to be in the 14- to 15-foot depth range. Down around Hollow Creek, where the water is much deeper, the thermocline was at 30 feet. As a general rule of thumb, Taylor doesn't bother trying to locate or catch crappie in water that's more than 30 feet deep at any time. For the middle parts of the lake, his magic depth is in the 15- to 20-foot range.
"My personal preference is not to go any further down the lake than John's Creek at Wessinger Island if I'm after crappie," he said. "I'm sure people catch plenty of crappie down there from their docks, and some guides do well, but for me the lower end and the open water is for striper fishermen."
Taylor has a trick for finding the ideal depth once he's either tied up under a bridge or anchored near a creek mouth. He uses two rods baited with live minnows, setting one at 12 feet and the other at 14 feet, checking his baits after about five minutes. A bait left in the thermocline will die within that time frame. If both baits are alive, he'll inch down about a foot and test again. Ideally, he wants his deepest bait to be a foot or so above the thermocline, then, he staggers the baits upward at 2-foot intervals.
"Most nights, we'll catch all of our fish between eight and 12 feet deep," he said. "I always set up on a contour line, a hard break that may be 18- to 20-feet (deep) on top and 30 to 40 to the bottom. Crappie will move along that contour line, so when we get one bite, we're likely to get several, then the fish will move off and we'll wait for the next run."
The final piece of the puzzle is lights. Taylor favors green Hydroglow lights and puts one over near the bow of his boat and one over the stern. As baitfish move along the contour line, especially in Murray's gin-clear water, they are drawn to the lights; the moon stage plays an important role in attracting bait as well. The darker the moon, the more bait will come to his set-up, but the fuller the moon - with it's ambient light - the more scattered the bait will be, making it difficult to concentrate crappie.
"Regardless of the moon, there's usually two distinct bite periods through the night," Taylor said. "The first is from right after dark till about midnight, and the second is from about 4 a.m. until sunrise. Once the sunlight hits the water, the bite cuts off like a switch."