Clarks Hill Crappie In the Trees

William Sasser's efforts to place brush and trees in the lake ensures that he'll catch crappie when he goes fishing.

Few people have the reputation for their ability to catch fish that William Sasser has for catching crappie on Clarks Hill. Year round, William can catch fish.

You may have seen him recently on the UPN fishing show, “Fishing with Ralph Barbee.” The trip took place on Valentines Day, when William says the fishing hadn’t been that hot. With the cameras running, William, Ralph and Augusta Chronicle outdoor writer Bill Baab caught around 80 crappie in two hours fishing minnows over a sunken tree. Any size to them? Bill Baab reportedly caught three in a row that weighed close three pounds each!

William and his wife Donna run a Mr. Transmission repair shop in Augusta as well as Sasser’s Used Cars. They also fish together. They went deep-sea fishing on their honeymoon, and in the summer they often take their kids to the lake on camping/fishing trips.

William has been fishing Clarks Hill since he was a kid. His dad Carl Sasser was a renowned fisherman, too, and still holds the lake record for largemouth bass with a 14-lb., 14-oz. brute caught in 1972. William fishes for bass, and hybrids and stripers, but his specialty is catching crappie — lots of them, and big ones. William’s biggest Clarks Hill crappie was a slab that weighed 4-lbs, 4-ozs.!

On March 7 I met William, and his wife Donna, at the Cherokee Recreation Area on Little River for an afternoon of crappie fishing. I joined Tarver and Sally Bailey (no relation) who are recent retirees from Wyoming to Appling. Tarver and Sally, like me, wanted to see how William goes about catching big strings of crappie.

We motored into Grays Creek on William’s spacious, 24-foot pontoon boat to his first crappie-fishing oasis.

Crappie are structure-oriented fish. Much of the bottom of Clarks Hill is flat and featureless, with nothing for a fish to call home. Crappie love to snuggle up to wood structure, and they will readily school up on Christmas trees, bamboo bundles, brushpiles and sunken trees. With that in mind, what William has done over the years is create a network of prime crappie habitats on Clarks Hill where crappie like to stay. Then whenever William wants to go fishing, he can depend on his sunken brush and trees to produce big catches nearly any time of the year. The practice of creating fish-catching cover is something he learned from his dad, he says.
In Grays Creek, William watched his graph as he double-anchored his boat over an oak tree, 18-inches in diameter at the base, that he had sunk four years earlier in 30 feet of water.

“I have been putting out brush and trees for years,” he said. “It is a lot of work that most people won’t do, but I have more than 150 different brushpiles out.”

The reason for going to the trouble was easy to see on the graph. As we pulled over the tree, it lit up on William’s color Lowrance graph like a Christmas tree spangled with fish.

“It was a lot of painstaking work to get that tree in the lake,” said William. “We used a low-boy 18-wheeler to haul it to the ramp and then pulled it into the lake with a friend’s offshore boat. It is a job to get a tree that big into the lake. You won’t put a tree like that out with a single-engine boat. Most people won’t go to that much trouble to have a good place to fish.”

When the 50-foot-long tree was in position, it was sunk on its side by tying on cement blocks.

The result of his effort was easy to see. We were anchored over the tree at 1:25 p.m. William began putting out minnows on lines approximately 15 feet under the boat, just above the tree.

“If the fish are there, they will usually bite right away,” he said.

At 1:26, Sally reeled in the first crappie of the afternoon. By 1:30 there were six crappie in the cooler that Sally and Donna had reeled in.
If you build the habitat, the crappie will come.

William fishes minnows on a No. 1 gold bait hook, and he pinches on a No. 7 split shot a foot or so up the line, which is 6-lb. fluorocarbon. He hooks the minnow through the back just behind the dorsal fin, and he changes baits often to keep a frisky minnow in the water.

In April, the crappie at Clarks Hill will be up on the banks, but William’s brushpiles still produce, he just moves shallow, too. He has brush and trees placed in water ranging from 40-feet deep to about 10-feet deep, in April he will concentrate on the shallow-water brush.

“You can catch crappie in April by throwing a jig up almost onto the bank, but that kind of fishing is a lot more hit-or-miss, even during the spawn,” he said. “The fish will be scattered on the banks, but the shallow brush helps concentrate them. Even during the spawn there will be fish on the brush that is 10- to 15-feet deep.”

When the fish are spawning, he works his shallow brush and he uses both minnows and jigs.

William prefers Pop-Eye jigs.

“A lot of people fish Hal Flys, but I have switched to Pop-Eye jigs,” he said. “I think there is a tremendous amount of difference — it is the best jig around.”

To fish the jig over shallow brush, William ties a white 1/16-oz. Pop-Eye jig four or five feet under a float. He also uses a hook and split shot under a float to fish minnows over shallow brush. With his boat anchored a half-cast away from the brush, he casts past the brush and brings the float slowly back so the jig or minnow will swim just over the brush.
By June, the crappie at Clarks Hill will have moved off the banks and the shallow brush after the spawn, and William will move back to his brushpiles in deeper water.

So long as the brushpile does not interfere with navigation, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers does not mind anglers bringing brush from off-lake sites to sink in the lake. They are, however, protective of lakeshore trees, and these should not be cut down without permission from the corps.
Once the trees have been “planted” in the lake, if there is a trick to this kind of fishing it is in precise positioning of the boat. The crappie won’t move far off the cover, even to take a bait.

“It’s weird,” said William. “You have to be within a few feet or you won’t get a bite.”

When the wind gradually blew us off the tree, the bite slowed noticeably.
William has trees placed as crappie (and bass) habitat from Lloyds Creek in Little River to Plum Branch up the Savannah River. Positioning trees on the lake bottom makes a difference, although sometimes it is an inexact science.

“Some trees just produce better, even when they are in the same kind of spot,” he said. “I prefer to put them on a flat next to a ditch. They seem to do better there.”

The tree we fished was in the corner of a flat between a creek channel and a ditch. The intersection of ditches and channels is typical positioning, and the channel can be as big as the Little River channel where a major creek joins in. Deeper water nearby and being close to a creek channel or ditch that fish use as migration routes seems to help a brushpile attract large numbers of fish.

A good brushpile will produce fish for at least 10 years, says William, but he often adds willows or cedars in the meantime to sweeten the fish-attracting appeal. The bigger the brushpile, the better.

William doesn’t keep GPS or written locations of his 150 honeyholes, but finds them by memory, a good graph and a bit of triangulation. William’s kind of tree planting pays off with fish: we pulled 42 keeper crappie up from that one sunken tree.

William guides part time on Clarks Hill for crappie, and live-bait fishing for hybrids and stripers. You can reach him at (706) 589-5468.

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