“Year-round, there are fish in this hole,” said Clifford Swygert, who was keeping track of eight rod tips, his depthfinder and his GPS as we slow-trolled over a deep area far up Little River on the South Carolina side of Clarks Hill Lake.
“There’s one bumping it,” he said, nodding toward a 12-foot rod off the side of his boat. Twenty five or so feet behind the boat, that rod pulled a minnow-tipped jig.
Then the rod bumped again and bowed over. Clifford pulled the rod out of the rodholder and raised it to set the hook on the biggest crappie of our trip. In a half-minute he slid his long-handled net under a fat slab that would weigh more than a pound.
Clarks Hill is down 12 feet, the water has finally cooled off, and slow trolling for crappie is catching fish.
Clifford grew up around Clarks Hill and has been fishing the lake for 45 years or so. Six years ago he left a job as an electrician to take on guiding for crappie, and occasionally stripers, full time under the name Full Moon Guide Service. He is a licensed captain, having taken the classes to become certified by the U.S. Coast Guard.
Slow trolling for crappie is Clifford’s specialty.
“I have some brushpiles out, and I can sit on brush and catch fish,” he said. “But I prefer to troll.”
This time of year, trolling is a slow and deep affair. Clifford uses his depth-finder to monitor the depth and watch for structure, and he keeps a close eye on his GPS unit to monitor his speed.
While at presstime Clarks Hill wasn’t at record low levels, the lake was down about 12 feet. But it was surface temperatures that remained high late into the fall that have affected the fishing more than the low water level, he said.
“The fish are late getting into the creeks,” he said. “The water temperature stayed in the 70s longer than usual. Usually the water cools earlier, and the bait and the crappie move back into the creeks earlier.”
In mid November, the surface temperature was about 60 degrees, and the fish were beginning to move into the creeks, and that’s where Clifford and I pulled jigs to catch them.
Using minnow-tipped jigs is a tactic Clifford believes in. Every jig went into the water tipped with a minnow.
“A minnow gives the jig more scent, more action, more flavor and a little shine,” he said. “I use them all the time.”
Clifford’s 18-foot Carolina Skiff had two 5-gallon buckets with minnows. One bucket had a school of shiners; the other held tuffies Tuffies and shiner minnows work equally well catching crappie, but the nod goes to tuffies for, well, toughness.
Clifford uses battery-operated aerators to keep the fish fresh and lively.
“The aerator isn’t as important when it’s cold, but it definitely helps keep the minnows alive,” he said.
Clifford carries a few crappie jigs in his boat. The Carolina Skiff would ride higher in the water if not for the load of plastic cases and tackle bags jammed full of crappie jigs. Clifford has a selection that seems to include every make and style of jig imaginable. Two, however, spend the most time tied on to the end of his lines.
“I mostly use Charlie Brewer slider grubs or Jiffy Jigs,” he said.
Clifford’s biggest Clarks Hill slab hit a red/green/yellow Jiffy Jig. That fish weighed 3-lbs., 1-oz.
Even when you consider only sliders and Jiffy Jigs, the rainbow of color combinations he has is still nearly overwhelming.
“The color of the jig I use depends on the color of the water,” he said. “Usually it is lighter colors in clear water, and darker colors in stained water. In heavily stained or muddy water I want darker colors like a black/chartreuse or black/blue. I like blues — like a white/blue/white works all around in any color water — it doesn’t really matter.”
On the day we fished the acid-rain color, a yellow/white combination, was an effective color. Another color that caught fish, and another of Clifford’s favorite is popsicle-colored jigs.
With almost no recent rain, Clarks Hill is getting clearer by the day. For clear-water fishing, Clifford has a couple of favorite colors.
“In clear water an avocado-green slider with sparkles is a good color,” he said. “They really like that. Red-and-white combinations are also good in clear water.”
When all else fails, his go-to bait is an ice-blue slider.
During the winter, Clifford pulls mostly 1/16-oz. jigs.
“In the spring, when the fish are up shallow, I might go as light as 1/48-oz. jigs, and I troll at 1 1/2 miles per hour,” he said. “But this time of year you need to troll slower and deeper.”
The trolling pattern in mid November when I fished with Clifford was to troll flats 12 to 14 feet deep near the Little River (S.C.) channel. Clifford watches his depthfinder for two things: brush and bait.
“The fish will hold around structure like brush, and they also hold around schools of shad,” he said.
In one creek mouth just upriver from the ramp at the Hwy 378 bridge we trolled in between brushpiles that would be 10 or 12 feet deep when the lake is at full pool.
Clifford runs circuits on these flats, pulling his jigs over brushpiles if they are deep enough. He tries to vary his presentation, sometimes zig-zagging across a flat to find fish.
“When you make turns, the outside jigs speed up, and the inside jigs slow down and fall,” he said. “Sometimes that helps catch fish.”
Too, if he goes over deeper structure or marks fish a little deeper, he will slow the boat down, allowing the jigs to drop to the fish.
Trolling speed is critical to allow the jigs to sink to a depth that puts them just above fish being marked on the depthfinder. While our speed varied according to depth and interference from the wind, we usually puttered along at between one-half and three-quarters of a mile per hour as indicated on the GPS. That’s slow.
Compared to most crappie-jig trollers, Clifford is careful about how far behind the boat he is pulling his jigs. Most anglers simply cast their jigs out behind the boat. Not Clifford. He drops each jig in the water and then pulls line off the reel so he has a pretty good idea of how far back the jigs are.
“How else can you keep track of how deep you are trolling if your jigs aren’t a consistent distance behind the boat?” he says.
Usually he counted off 20 or 25 pulls approximately one foot each, placing the jigs about the same number of feet from the rod tip.
Once you have caught a few fish, you can usually depend on catching fish at that same depth the rest of the day, he says.
“If you catch one at 10 feet, you will catch them at 10 feet all day,” said Clifford. The first thing he wanted to know when a fish hit was, “How deep was that?” He wants to know what’s the trend. The day we fished, the fish were hitting over water 9 to 10 feet deep, and he began concentrating on trolling over that depth.
Wind is not your friend when you are trying to troll a specific speed. A tailwind can increase your speed and pull the jigs too high in the water column. Clifford has a solution for that, a drift sock, which drags behind the boat, slowing it down.
“It’s like throwing a 5-gallon bucket out behind the boat,” he said. “It will slow you down.”
Once you find the right combination of depth, color and trolling speed, fishing can be a blast, says Clifford.
“It’s a lot of fun when you get four or five rods hit at the same time,” he said. “You just pick them up to try to set the hook then put them back in the rodholder, and go to the next one.”
Clifford said he will be slow-trolling in the creeks into January.
“In January there will be a lot of gulls on the lake feeding on bait. And the crappie, stripers and bass feed on the balls of bait from below, and the gulls feed on them from above.”
The gulls can guide you to the bait, but you are likely to run into trouble in the form of striped bass that think minnow-tipped jigs are a delicacy.
“Sometimes it feels like you are striper fishing,” said Clifford. “And with 6-lb. test line on these long rods it can take more than a little while to get a big striper in.”
A cloudy day is preferable to a bright, sunny day because the crappie tend to feed higher in the water column when it is a gray day.
“I like cloudy days because the fish stay up and feed better,” he said.
Ideal days during the winter are the third or fourth day during a warming trend, which also pulls the fish into shallower water. The second-best day is any time you can break away.
For a day catching crappie on Clarks Hill Lake, you can reach Clifford’s Full Moon Guide Service at (803) 278-0856 or (803) 640-1985.