Dog-day Crappie

Veteran crappie anglers at Lake Wylie can fish at brushpiles they and other anglers have placed in the lake over the years. Fishermen sink trees that form good baitfish refuges and lure crappies.

Fishing deep or shallow, soaking minnows or “shooting” lures underneath docks, Lake Wylie offers prime slab hunting during summer’s torrid days.

According to the old song, when it’s summertime, the living is easy. But no doubt, the dog days of July and August can make fishing tough — hard on anglers who have to endure the heat, and tough on fish that choose locations unlike those where they were found a couple of months earlier.

Nonetheless, Lake Wylie’s magnificent crappie fishing still can be realized by anglers with enough gumption and sunscreen to get on the water.

Lake Wylie’s nearly 13,000 surface acres are wedged between Rock Hill and Charlotte, N.C. However, these states don’t have a reciprocal license agreement, such as Kerr Lake anglers from Virginia and North Carolina enjoy. So anglers should be sure of their fishing locations or carry a permit from both states. Moreover, size and creel limits of the two states don’t always match.

Wildlife officers from both states usually are professional and courteous, but if an angler doesn’t have the required paperwork, the experience can seem unpleasant and be costly.

Deepwater brushpiles

Along with a few fishing buddies, Bennett Kirkpatrick, who fishes Lake Wylie year-round, pulls several thousand — that’s right, thousand — crappie across their boats’ gunwales each year.

He has sunk roughly 200 underwater brushpiles he can fish.

“Cast as far as you can toward that tree, count to 14 and start to reel very slowly,” he said after he maneuvered the boat into position, dropped an anchor off the bow and stern to hold the boat in place, and pointed at a shoreline tree.

Of course, the number of “counts” varies at each stop, but Kirkpatrick has brushpiles at different depths at Lake Wylie, and he knows the precise depth of each spot.

Our first hits were almost immediate when the bait reached the proper depth.

Kirkpatrick’s anchors are custom-made, weigh 35 pounds and are cylindrically shaped.

“The long cylinders let me drop an anchor and extract it from the midst of a brush pile,” he said. “Mushroom anchors or anchors with flukes tangle in brush piles. And because my anchors are unusually heavy, the wind won’t pull us off a brush pile.”

Kirkpatrick avoids commonly-used Christmas trees (discarded holiday-season cedars or pines) as brushpiles. The dense limbs of conifers, Kirkpatrick said, don’t offer openings where forage fish can hide and where crappie can chase and catch them.

“See that tree?” he said, pointing to a tall oak tree as we motored slowly across the lake. “Lightning hit it. My neighbor said it’s OK for me to cut it down. When it drops, I’ll pull it out in the lake. It’s my next brushpile.”

As a consequence of using entire trees as a single brushpile, Kirkpatrick has created fish havens that extend across substantial distances and include a variety of depths at Lake Wylie.

Fishing boathouses, docks and piers is a good way for anglers to catch a “mess” of excellent-tasting crappies at Lake Wylie.

Hardwoods, said Kirkpatrick, make the best brushpiles.

“Hardwoods don’t need weight,” he said. “Oak, black gum, wild cherry — they sink on their own. Sweet gum and poplar float, so they’re not so good.”

For tackle, Kirkpatrick chooses 10-foot spinning rods. The long rods let him anchor and fish the entire distance of his brushpiles.

“These rods are very sensitive,” he said. “They take a little getting used to on the cast. As soon as the bait hits the water, close the bail and let the bait drop. After you count to the right depth, lift the rod tip gently, drop it and reel up the slack. Do that until you get back to the boat or a fish grabs it.”

Kirkpatrick uses 8-pound test line.

“Lots of my buddies use 4- or 6-pound test,” he said, “but I spend too much time re-tying after breaking off. With the lighter line, I spent as much time re-rigging as fishing. And that’s not good, so I switched to 8-pound test.”

Kirkpatrick also uses tiny minnows. He built a large tank at a shady spot next to the house from which he can dip the required numbers of bait fish before each fishing trip.

“I like little minnows, 1¼-inch or 1½-inch long,” he said, “and I like little hooks, Eagle Claw No. 4.”

A foot or so above the hook, Kirkpatrick attaches a sinker large enough to take his minnows to the desired depth. An alternative rig for fishing deep brush piles, called by some a “Kentucky rig,” uses a bass-style sinker tied to the end of the line with a dropper line and hook a couple of feet above the sinker. This rig can be fished vertically in brushpiles, and the sinker easily can be pulled through the brush, reducing hangups. Judicious location of the dropper can keep the bait just above the brush.

While some of the original anglers who developed this method at Kentucky Lake and Lake Barkley used heavy line and weights, 8-pound test line and quarter-ounce weights will work well at Lake Wylie.

Steve Durham, another of Wylie’s excellent crappie fisherman, also fishes deep brushpiles during summer.

“Crappie are concentrated pretty deep, 18 or 20 feet usually,” he said. “There are lots of small fish in the shallows, but if you want to catch the big fish, the 2-pounders and heavier, you need to fish deep.”

Durham fishes with tiny jigs and grubs at depths comparable to those Kirkpatrick prefers, but it takes longer for his small jigs to sink to desired depths. Durham uses 4-pound test line, which compensates somewhat for the heavier line used by Kirkpatrick, in establishing a faster sink rate.

Depending on the depth of a brushpile, Durham sometimes uses a float to control the depth of his jig. He clips a small, round plastic bobber at the desired depth and trails the business end of the rig off one side of the boat to straighten the line. Then he hurls the bobber and jig toward a brushpile.

For depths more than about 10 feet, a slip-bobber works much better than one secured to a specific depth. A favorite rod for fishing a slip-bobber is a 7-foot, light-action spinning rod. At least a quarter-ounce weight, usually a jig, is needed to pull the line through the slip-bobber.

“Shooting” crappie lures underneath hard-to-reach and protected waters at boat docks is a technique perfected at Lake Wylie.

With a little breeze, waves will lift and drop the bobber and in turn the jig holds just above the brush.

Tom Turner, a close buddy of Kirkpatrick’s, also fishes deep brushpiles for Lake Wylie crappie during summer.

“The best brushpile could be 10 or 15 feet deep — or even as deep as 50 feet,” he said, “I’d guess the average range is 15 to 20 feet. I’m pretty quick to catch the brush, so I know right away if I’m at the right spot.

“I use minnows and jigs. The hand-tied jigs are best, the ones with a little fuzz in black — pink or yellow.”

If an angler doesn’t have his own brushpiles at Lake Wylie, how does he know where to fish? Kirkpatrick, Durham and Turner aren’t the only anglers who have sunk brushpiles at Wylie. Among the best places to look are near dropoffs and ledges or at the intersections of the main channel and feeder creeks. With an eye on the depthfinder, anglers should slowly maneuver near suspected spots.

During July and August, anglers should begin their searches about eight feet deep and zig-zag back and forth between that depth and depths of 25 feet.

The good news is that brushpiles at Lake Wylie are quite easy to find. After they locate a brushpile, anglers should triangulate the position, finding a couple of shoreline spots to orient themselves or drop a marker over the side (pushing a GPS unit to record a brushpile’s location also works).

It’s easy to spend time casting lures or baitfish to where one believes he may have detected a brushpile — but be off the mark. The bad news is that crappie, unlike largemouths or other species, generally won’t chase baits or lures. Anglers have to place offerings on a crappie’s nose, in most instances.

Shallow structure

Lake Wylie is as heavily developed as any reservoir in South Carolina. Homes line the banks, and most have a boathouse, dock or pier.

Crappies, including some of the slabs for which Wylie is famous, seek the cooler water shaded by shoreline structure.

Kirkpatrick often maneuvers his boat into position near selected boathouses, docks or piers, and with his experience, he has a pretty good idea which places will hold fish during any season.

Usually he or someone else has sunk a brushpile nearby. If the homeowner has sunk a brushpile, rod-holders or lights shining into the water are good clues as to the presence and location of a brushpile.

Kirkpatrick begins fishing several feet from his selected spots, moving closer and closer until he is fishing right against a dock, pier or boathouse. He also adjusts lure/bait depths from shallow to deeper, about a foot at a time, with a bobber.

“When they’re near the piers, you can usually catch five or six at a single pier, moving back and forth with a trolling motor,” he said.

Durham also is an expert at a crappie-fishing method for Lake Wylie boathouses, docks, and piers — it’s called “shooting.”

When he first mastered the technique, he used a short, fiberglass rod with a soft action and a push-button reel, loaded with 4-pound-test line. Durham would maneuver his boat close to the cover, grasp the jig and pull it toward him until the rod had a nice bow. With expert timing developed through years of practice, he releases the jig and push-button simultaneously and “shoots” the jig — skipping it underneath the bottom of the boathouse into the shadows where crappies lurk.

With this method, Durham could present his jigs to crappie that may not have seen an angler’s offerings all summer.

“They’re under there, and they won’t come out,” he said. “You have to be able to fish underneath the boathouse if you want to catch them.”

More recently, Durham has switched to an ultralight rig, a 5-foot rod with a spinning reel, for “shooting.” He said the ultralight rod is a more versatile weapon than a push-button spinner.

“I can do about as well with the ultralight,” he said. “And this way, I don’t have to switch back-and-forth when I want to use a traditional cast or want to ‘shoot’ under a pier.”

Anglers who haven’t tried “shooting” Lake Wylie’s boathouses and piers have missed a good bet for summer crappie if they don’t master this fishing technique.

Best spots

In the South Carolina portion of the lake, Kirkpatrick, Turner and Durham fish Catawba Creek, Big and Little Allison Creeks, Mill Creek, Nivens Creek and Torrance Creek.

A half-mile south of the Buster Boyd Bridge, there are several top-notch crappie boathouses, docks and piers.

At the North Carolina (northern) portion of the lake, Studman Branch (also known as Boyd’s Cove) and the South Fork River are prime crappie spots.

Durham, Kirkpatrick and Turner move consistently when they are looking for and fishing for crappies. If they try a spot and fish for 15 minutes or so without a hit, they try another spot.

And once they find a productive location, they may catch half a dozen or more fish before moving to another area.

Lake Wylie has a well-deserved reputation for abundant and sizeable crappie. But many local anglers who have fished at the lake throughout the years have special memories of fishing with fathers or friends.

Fishing at Lake Wylie can bring those thoughts back to the present. And that’s perhaps another reason to enjoy this lake’s summer crappies.

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