If you wait for the peak of spawning in March to go crappie fishing, you are missing out on some of the best fishing of the year, especially for big fish.
Clarks Hill, a 71,000-acre reservoir on the Savannah River, offers great crappie fishing. There are many creeks and smaller rivers entering this huge lake that run in different directions, so you can always find a place to get out of the February winds, and you can find just about any water clarity you want to fish.
Rod Wall grew up and still lives near the lake in Ninety Six, South Carolina. He has a place on the South Carolina Little River arm of the lake, and he builds docks and seawalls on Lake Greenwood and Clarks Hill. All his life he has been fishing Clarks Hill for crappie.
About six years ago, Rod started fishing crappie tournaments. He set small goals, first trying to catch a limit in each tournament, then to place. Now his goal is to win. Rod does well on the Crappiemasters, Crappie USA and Georgia Slabmasters trails. He guides for crappie on both Lake Greenwood and Clarks Hill.
Rod has done well enough on the trails to be sponsored by B’n’N crappie rods, Vicious Line and Humminbird. He likes Southern Pro jigs and Midsouth Tackle jigs and trailers for his fishing, and he carries about 400 color combinations of jig heads and trailers with him in his boat.
Rod’s usual partner in tournaments is his 15-year-old son Braxton, who has learned well under this father. Braxton has won two youth national championships, the 2010 Crappie USA Pickwick tournament and the 2011 Crappiemasters Alabama River tournament.
“You can catch some of the biggest crappie of the year right now,” Rod said. The fish are moving into the creeks toward spawning areas and are feeding actively. There are several ways to catch them that work from right now through March.
To prove his point, he took me fishing in mid-January, and we landed about 10 crappie. The biggest seven went from 1.40 to 1.91 pounds on his tournament scales. Those are big crappie, but he catches even bigger. His best seven-fish tournament limit weighed 17 1/2 pounds, and he has landed 3-lb. crappie on Clarks Hill this time of year.
Rod likes to longline, also called pulling or trolling. His Lund boat is set up with Driftmaster rod holders allowing him to fish 14 B’n’N rods out the back. This setup lets him cover a lot of water quickly to find the schools of fish and catch them when he does.
To start the day, Rod will look for stained water, since he says crappie hit better on a reaction bite when they can’t get as good a look at the bait. He will watch his depthfinder for baitfish and schools of crappie to determine the depth he wants to run his jigs. He’ll use either 4- or 6-lb. test Vicious line and vary the weights of the jig heads to keep his baits at that depth.
“One of the biggest mistakes a beginner crappie troller makes is to not know the depth he is fishing,” Rod said.
The best way to learn is to put out some 1/16-oz. jigs and troll them over a flat with a consistent depth. Vary the speed of your boat until the jigs start to bump the bottom. If it is 12 feet deep, that tells you a 1/16-oz. jig will run 12 feet deep at that speed.
Speed and line size is as critical as the size of the jig. The length behind the boat you troll is also important. Rod has made a chart, so he knows exactly how fast to troll a jig size and line size combination to fish a set depth.
Normal trolling speed is from 0.6 to 1.2 mph. A good GPS will tell you exactly how fast you are trolling, and Rod keeps a constant eye on his speed. His boat is rigged with a Minn Kota remote-control trolling motor, and he can work it from the back of the boat near the rods to keep his boat on an exact course and speed.
Crappie relate to the channels as they move toward the spawning areas, so he starts near the channel, fishing points and flats along them. We caught most of our fish in January off the end of a big flat that ran out to the Little River channel and dropped off on one end into a small feeder creek. They were stacked up on the drop.
Another mistake beginners make is to try to start with too many rods. Although Rod uses 14 B’n’N rods, you should start with just six to eight rods until you learn to control them and not get tangled.
It is also important to keep your rod tips down at the surface of the water, especially if there is any wind. Wind will catch the line and make it change depths and speeds, making control difficult if the rod tip is up off the water.
On his boat Rod will have four 8-foot B’n’N rods across the back beside the motor. Three more rod holders on each side have a 12, then a 14 and finally a 16-foot rod. This allows you to cover 32 feet plus the width of the boat on each troll, a swath almost 40 feet wide.
In more clear water or if you want to run your jigs deeper, use 4-lb. test line. In stained water, or if you want to keep your jigs higher, you can use 6-lb. test. First thing in the morning, Rod will try several different colors but will switch most of his jigs to the color the crappie prefer.
Rod warns that the color choice can change rapidly during the day, so if the fish slow down hitting one color, try others. Also vary your speed if the bite slows on one color that has been working. Watch your depthfinder so you stay at the depth the fish are holding, and keep your bait there by changing jig size or line size for the speed you need to go.
A loop knot to attach your jig head to the line definitely gives it more action, and Rod always ties his jigs on that way. With the light line, a good knot is critical. You need to tie one that will not cut the light line.
Some of Rod’s favorite places to fish on Clarks Hill are: the South Carolina Little River arm above the Highway 378 bridge, Soap Creek above the Highway 220 bridge, Haw and Wells creeks on the Savannah River arm, and Germany, Rousseau and Kemp creeks on the Georgia Little River arm. He also fishes up Big Hart Creek and Little River around Kemp Creek.
In February, start toward the backs of these creeks in the mornings, and pull out toward the mouths until you find the fish. On Clarks Hill you can find plenty of space away from other boats, giving you room to troll and make the wide turns necessary to be successful. Once you find an area holding crappie, either when you start catching them or seeing a lot of bait and crappie on your depthfinder, stay in that area.
Rod likes a curly tail jig and will tip it with a live minnow to see if that helps. He often puts jigs out on one side of the boat with minnows and jigs without minnows on the other side to see what the fish prefer. If they are hitting the jigs without minnows, there is no need to use them.
Crappie often are just barely hooked on the jig, so you should not set the hook or fight them too fast. Just pick up the rod and start reeling. Keep the fish in the lane that rod is in so they don’t tangle other lines, and let them run when they want to. You have to keep the boat moving, so reel very slowly.
You will need a long-handle net for bigger fish. Rod said you should never get the fish closer to the boat than the length of line equal to the rod length. When the fish is about a rod lengths line away, slowly lift your rod tip to bring it to the net.
No matter how tempting it is to try to land a big striper, hybrid or largemouth when you hook one, they will make a mess of all your lines. In tournaments, Rod will instantly break them off. The day we fished he hooked a nice striper and tried to land it. It tangled 12 of our 14 lines. If you want to try to land a big fish, be prepared to untangle lines. Just be sure it is not a really big crappie before you break it off!
Another trick when trying to find out exactly what the fish want is to run a zigzag pattern with your boat. That will speed up jigs on one side and slow them down on the other. This not only changes speed, it will change depth, so you can find out what they want.
On sunny days Rod will use translucent jigs, on cloudy days more colorful jigs. A little breeze often helps, but stronger wind makes boat control difficult. To control his speed when trolling with the wind, Rod keeps a drift sock in his boat and puts it out to slow the drift down, if needed. He will also put his motor in gear at times, and he said that alone will slow your speed by up to 0.1 mph.
Some current definitely positions the fish deeper on cover, and that makes trolling more difficult. No mater what, make sure your jigs stay clean. Any small piece of grass or other trash on the jig will guarantee the fish won’t hit it.
Don’t hesitate to change speed, color and depth when you are not catching anything. As Rod says, if you aren’t catching any fish, it certainly doesn’t hurt to change.
The trolling season for crappie extends a long time. Warming water even for a few days can turn the fish on, and anytime the water is over 50 degrees the fishing is good. There are both black crappie and white crappie in Clarks Hill. The blacks move in earlier, followed a couple of weeks later by the whites, so that extends the good time for fishing.
Rod said black crappie generally will spawn when the water temperature is 60 degrees, and whites will spawn a couple of weeks later, so keep up with the water temperature. Fish move in waves of spawning schools, so you can keep up with them and catch them over a longer time than you might expect.
Smaller fish are often more aggressive and hit more shallow, so drop your jigs a little deeper if you are catching only small fish. But be sure to always keep your jigs above the fish. Rod said crappie will sometimes come up 6 feet to hit a jig, but they will never go down to take one.
There are other ways to catch crappie this time of year. Rod has rod holders on the front of his boat for pushing bushpiles and standing timber. This method involves putting the rods out in front of the boat, moving up close to the brush or tree, and letting the jigs or minnows drop straight down.
Depth is critical when pushing, too, so try different depths until you find what they want. Standing trees in the mouths of spawning creeks and pockets often hold large numbers of crappie, and you can catch a lot while pushing jigs through them.
Clarks Hill used to be known for its crappie fishing during the spawn in the buttonbushes, or buckbushes, but the lake has been low for so long that has not happened in years. Fish will spawn just about anywhere along the bank and even out in deeper water on brush and standing timber.
The lake was 16 feet low the day we fished, just before all the rain in the middle of the month. The lake had come up about a foot since Christmas and should still be rising. The rain will give more color to the creeks, and that should improve the trolling.
Rod’s depthfinder has a barometer indicator on it, and he likes to see a rising or falling barometric pressure. He says a steady barometer is not good, but movement in either direction will help make the bite better. An approaching front, with changing pressure, definitely helps.
To book a trip with Rod on Greenwood or Clarks Hill, call him at (864) 993-8868, or visit his website at http://slabmasterguideservice.com.