With 56,000 acres of surface water and a wealth of linesides and largemouths, Hartwell may be known as a striper and hybrid fishery, as well as a great place for topwater bass explosions in the spring. But one thing that is often overlooked on this large lake on the Georgia/South Carolina border is the crappie fishing, and those in the know are reaping the benefits.
“Hartwell is known as a striper and hybrid lake, but you can catch some crappie here,” said Capt. Bill Plumley, who guides for crappie, hybrids, striper and catfish just across the border in Townville, S.C. “It’s really better than the publicity. Kind of like with catfish, it’s overlooked and under-fished.”
Capt. Bill said 90 percent of the business he does with Georgia and South Carolina anglers is for linesides; the remaining 10 percent is split between crappie and catfish. And, while he’d prefer to spend all his time chasing whiskerfish as a Santee Cooper transplant, he definitely understands the allure of crispy fried crappie.
Caught in the morning rush of boat-toting trucks, I met Bill and his 21-foot Carolina Skiff just across the border in The Bait Shop at exit 11 off I-85. While other customers filled their bait tanks with forearm-length trout and gizzard shad, we left the shop headed for Broyles public boat ramp armed simply — with a bucket full of crappie minnows, some jig heads and a few floats. This is fishing the way your grandfather did it, cheap, easy and resulting in a cooler full of tasty morsels.
Well, it’s not that simple. In the middle of March or early in April, when water temperatures reach the high 50s and low 60s, Hartwell crappie begin moving up the small creek channels in preparation for the spawn.
“They’re gonna move right up those little creeks and spur off into the flats along those creek channels,” Bill said. “Normally the little bucks move in there first, like the little largemouths, when the water gets into the upper 50s. There’ll be a few bigger ones with them.
“The big females follow when temps hit about the mid 60s. They won’t really start spawning til the water temperature gets to the mid 60s.”
The temperature was already in the high 50s when we hit the lake in mid March. Bill said early April should be just right for crappie fishing, if the weather cooperates.
“The average fish here is about three-quarters of a pound,” Bill said. “You catch a good many in the pound and a quarter range, and occasionally a 2-pounder, but not many.”
He typically uses two techniques for catching spring crappie on Hartwell, and in early April flatlining is his go-to method.
“If you want to cover a lot of ground, this is the way to do it to find them,” he said while slow trolling beyond the iron bridge in the back of Little Beaverdam Creek. “Once you find them, you can anchor up on them and fish over them with a float or you can just drop it down to them.”
Bill put six lines out of the back of the boat. He prefers a 9-foot Ugly Stick Crappie rod with a Mitchell ultra-light reel spooled with 6-lb. Berkley Trilene XL. On the ends of those lines, he fishes minnows on jig heads, using an assortment of different weights from 1/8 to 1/32-oz. to cover depths from just a couple of feet down to 6 or 8 feet.
He freelines all but two of the lines and puts Eagle Claw snap floats on the two inside lines next to the motor.
“We do that for a couple of reasons. One is obvious, to keep ’em up, but it also helps to keep the lines separated,” he said. “Slip floats don’t work very well on small-diameter line. With a snap float, if you want to change the depth you can do it in just a second.”
Bill likes to keep his trolling speed at about .4 or .5 mph this time of year but said the speed can pick up a little as the water temperature warms into the mid 60s, and the fish get a little more active. Often, on windy days, he’ll use drift socks to keep his speed down.
“A lot of times, to control your speed if the wind is up or if you’ve got an electric motor that you can’t control real well, you can use a drift sock or two off either side of the back of the boat to control your speed,” he said. “I use ’em all the time.”
While trolling will produce fish through the month of April when the fish are up shallow in 3 to 8 feet of water, Bill also has a lot of luck late in the month and on into the summer downlining live bait to brushpiles when some of the fish move back out into deeper water after spawning.
He maintains 25 or 30 brushpiles scattered around the lake in 15 to 30 feet of water to attract fish, and even when he’s trolling he keeps an eye out for brush or cane piles to run his bait past. When making brushpiles, Bill sticks with hardwood or cane, because it lasts longer and provides more structure for the fish.
Bill begins targeting his shallower brushpiles in the 15-foot range when water temperatures reach the low 70s. He works his way deeper as temperatures rise through the summer months. Using the same tackle, bait and jig heads he uses for trolling, Bill anchors over the brushpile and begins by working the jig and minnow just above the top of the brush.
“Start out fishing right above the brush at first. If the top of it is at 15 feet, get your jig down to 14 feet. That way you don’t get hung up as much and you don’t disturb the fish that are deeper,” he said.
He also suggested using a variety of different-sized weights on the jig heads to find out what the fish key in on.
“If they’re on a real light diet or if they’re not as active, they seem to like the light jig head better,” Bill said. “It sinks a little slower, but they also tend to hold onto it a little better. When they’re not as active, they sense that little bit of weight and let it go.”
For folks who don’t already have prepared brushpiles, lake maps marked with fish attractor locations and GPS coordinates from both South Carolina DNR and Georgia DNR can be found online at either <www.dnr.sc.gov> or <www.georgiawildlife.dnr.state.ga.us>. Good electronics can also locate brush, and Bill said the best brushpiles are the ones near drop-offs.
“Your best brushpiles are normally the ones along creek channels,” he said. “It doesn’t have to be a big 20 foot drop, but the best ones are, without a doubt, the ones next to those creek channels.”
Capt. Bill, of Capt. Bill’s Fishing Adventures, is a full-time, licensed guide on Hartwell who specializes in crappie, striper, hybrids and catfish. He can be reached toll-free at (877) 307-3079. See his Website at <www.lakehartwellfishing.com>.