Santee’s springtime slabs

March is the time to find big crappie, and Santee Cooper is a prime destination. (Picture by Terry Madewell)

Time for big crappie on lakes Marion and Moultrie

Crappie anglers seeking super-sized spring slabs may find their crappie-fishing Mecca at the Santee Cooper lakes right now.

Lakes Marion and Moultrie produce sensational spring fishing for crappie. And this fish-catching process continues for several weeks.

Two local experts with lifetimes of crappie-catching experience have developed dependable strategies for catching these super-sized slabs.

Kevin Davis from Cross, SC, and Stacey Weatherford from Moncks Corner, SC said anglers willing to fish both lakes, and employ multiple techniques, can catch big crappies from pre-spawn right through post-spawn.

“The mid-February to April period is the single best stretch of multiple weeks of the entire year to consistently catch huge crappie at Santee Cooper,” Davis said. “The biggest crappie of the year may be the first to spawn. So fishermen need to be on the water for these fish by the middle of February. But not all crappie spawn at the same time, and plenty of fish will be available throughout this entire period.”

Weatherford said one key to success for the spring fishing is adaptability to fishing different parts of the lakes and employing different techniques.

“Typically, the pre-spawn movement starts in Lake Marion,” Weatherford said. “The water temperatures warm quicker in areas protected from the north. The major creeks are prime targets with Taw Caw, Wyboo, Potato and Jacks creeks all productive. And a lot of unnamed, smaller creeks and coves are also loaded with crappie.”

Weatherford said multiple tactics produce good fishing, with the best choice based on the water temperature, prevailing weather and water conditions, and the lake fished. Spider-rigging, longline trolling and tightlining vertically over brush are all extremely productive.

Spider-Rigging

Weatherford said his go-to early season tactic is spider-rigging because he can fine-tune his presentation and keep multiple lures precisely where he wants them.

“I’ll use eight rigs with varying length of rods, spread out in an arc in front of the boat, and push them slowly,” he said. “I use longer poles for this to keep the bait away from the boat and have the bait presented to the fish before the boat arrives.

“I rely on my graph to find where fish are located, and I target that depth,” he said. “Early in the season, I’ll find the crappies orienting to ledges. They may be at the base of the ledge, the top, or at a specific depth along the slope. They’re prone to suspend in the water column as the season progresses. With a graph, I can speed the fish-finding process up considerably.”

He said this is a prime technique for early season crappie fishing because the fish are typically in the pre-spawn phase and moving up defined channels and ledges toward shallower water. Plus, the water temperature is lower and he can keep the speed of his presentation slow enough to entice bites.

Jig color and jig size can have a direct impact on longline trolling success. (Picture by Terry Madewell)

Weatherford said he’ll use jigs or live minnows on 4-pound test line with a No. 4 wire hook. He uses a 2-ounce weight to keep the line vertical.

“I’ll slowly work along the ledge, usually about 0.5 miles per hour at first. But as the water warms, I may need to increase the speed,” he said. “Speed and depth controls are crucial to properly target crappie. But when you get on fish, you can load the cooler with slabs.”

Long-Line Trolling

Kevin Davis employs the long-line trolling method in both lakes. And while it’s effective early in the process, he said it becomes more reliable once the fish are moving up the creeks in big numbers by March.

“Long-line trolling is the process of pulling multiple rigs behind the boat. I’ll typically fish eight rigs,” he said. “I’ll have longer rods off the side of the boat in the back, and incrementally shorter rods in each rod holder toward the back. So I’m covering as wide a swath of water as possible.”

Davis said he uses 6-pound test line, and long-lining is not a random method of fishing. It’s a precise presentation of lures to cover a specific part of the water column.

“Typically, I’m fishing the creeks and coves. So early in the season I’m orienting along the creek or ledge,” he said. “In late-February the fish may be relatively deep, near the bottom. But as the process continues, I’ll find them suspended more often shallower along the ledges, but holding over deeper water. Typical depths to longline troll are in the 8- to 20-foot range, but that’s not a hard rule. Adapt to what the graph shows you.”

Davis said as the actual time of the spawn approaches, he’ll be trolling on the flats where the crappie stage right before they spawn, perhaps in only 6 to 8 feet of water. He said the same creeks and type areas Weatherford noted for Lake Marion are productive. And in Lake Moultrie, the area around Angels, Bradwell Slough and any of the fingers off the main lake with ditches or channels leading to shallow water, are excellent.

“The key is employing the long-lining process to target specific depths of water. And once I find the pattern of the day, I target that depth specifically,” he said.

Davis said the distance behind the boat he’ll troll jigs varies. But it can be from 30 feet up to 80 feet or more. He’ll begin with 1/16-ounce jigs. The distance behind the boat and his trolling speed impacts the depth the lure runs.

Both Davis and Weatherford fish the Santee Cooper Country fish attractors located throughout both lakes. (Picture by Terry Madewell)

Davis said traditional color patterns work, with bright colors more effective during sunny days, and darker patterns on overcast days.

“But I’ll experiment throughout the trip until I find what works best on a given day,” he said.

Tight-Lining Over Brush

Both Weatherford and Davis recognize the importance of  woody cover to crappie throughout the year, including the pre- to post-spawning process.

Weatherford said brush piles, and any natural woody cover, are prime crappie magnets.

“As crappie move along the channels, they’ll tend to cluster in big numbers around brush,” he said. “I’ll use the graph to determine if fish are present. And if they are, I’ll slip up to the brush and tighline minnows or jigs around the cover.”

Davis said he employs 8- to 10-foot long rods rigged with spinning reels loaded with 6-pound test line with a No. 4 Aberdeen, extra-light wire hook. He adds a No. 2 split shot, 8 inches above the hook.

Using Live Scope can enhance fishing success, but it’s not a requirement to put slabs in the boat. (Picture by Terry Madewell)

Davis said that brush is a prime target during the post-spawn period, in late-March and into April.

“When crappie complete spawning, they move back into 10 to 15 feet of water and hold tight to brush as they move back toward deeper water,” he said. “By this time of the season, a lot of my fishing is in open water, fishing along ledges in either Lake Marion or Moultrie.”

Davis said an overlooked target for spring crappie is the artificial fish attractors scattered throughout both lakes. Santee Cooper Country Tourism has maps with coordinates available on their website at https://www.santeecoopercountry.org/listing-item/fishing-attractors.

Keys To Crappie-Catching

Both fishermen utilize these basic tactics throughout the spring because they’re effective.

“Not all crappie spawn at the same time. And during this spawning process, some fish will be in pre-spawn mode, some spawning, and others moving into post-spawn,” Weatherford said. “They’re literally coming and going. So these tactics stay productive.”

Davis said keys to this fishing success include adaptability to ever-changing water and weather conditions, and following crappie on their pre- and post-spawn migrations.


Live Scope for spring slabs

Davis said using the ‘Live Scope’ feature that’s available on some electronic equipment is becoming more popular, and the spring provides an excellent opportunity to use that feature.

“This provides ‘real-time’ viewing of crappie,” he said. “It’s effective in any of this spring fishing. A good example for me is when fishing brush. It enables me to see exactly where the fish are in relation to the brush, and in relation to my bait position and presentation. I can analyze how they react to my presentation of the minnow or jig.”

Davis said when he watches fish approach the minnow or jig in an aggressive manner, that typically results in catching multiple fish and he knows his technique is correct.

“Occasionally, the fish show no interest in the bait, but don’t seem alarmed,” he said. “In this instance I’ll keep working the bait around the fish and eventually that can trigger a bite. I don’t mind working a little extra for a 2- to 3-pound slab.”

“On the other hand, sometimes the crappie will shy away as the bait approaches,” he said. “In that case I may back off and work in from another direction. This electronic feature is a big help in making the precise presentation needed to catch crappie.”

Davis said that this feature is a great tool, but not a requirement for success.

“But it does help and certainly makes my fishing more precise and effective,” he said.

About Terry Madewell 812 Articles
Award-winning writer and photographer Terry Madewell of Ridgeway, S.C., has been an outdoors writer for more than 30 years. He has a degree in wildlife and fisheries management and has a long career as a professional wildlife biologist/natural resources manager.

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