Lake Wateree Crappie Fishing with Will Hinson
When I call my contacts for fishing updates and reports, from time to time I will be told that they don’t have a new report for me. Occasionally a tackle store will tell me that it has received few reports on a particular species recently, a guide will tell me that he has not been on the water in a few days, or a tournament angler will tell me that lately his sole focus has been on an out-of-state lake where he has an upcoming event. Not so with Southern Crappie Tournament Trail tournament fishermen, and Lake Wateree master crappie angler, Will Hinson, who always seems to have the scoop on Lake Wateree crappie! In the nearly three years that I have been relying on Will for my crappie reports on that lake, each and every time that I call he has an accurate read on where the lake’s crappie can be found – usually based on his own catches in the last day or two! South Carolina Fishing Report’s readers are lucky that not only is Will a Lake Wateree crappie expert, but that he is also as generous with his knowledge as any fishermen I know. I was excited to have the chance to go crappie fishing with Will and interview him for an article about catching Lake Wateree crappie through the year, with a particular focus on catching them during the warmer months, and in this article I am passing on what I learned. I hope to follow this up during the winter with an article about catching them when it is cold.
Located downriver from Lake Wylie, and below the less well known Fishing Creek Reservoir, Lake Wateree is the most southern lake on the Catawba River chain; below Lake Wateree the river is known as the Wateree River and joins with the Congaree River to form the Santee Cooper lakes. Lake Wateree was created in 1920 with the construction of a 3,380 foot dam and the Wateree Hydroelectric Station, and it is still managed by Duke Energy for hydroelectric power generation. Slightly larger than Lake Wylie, the lake’s surface area is just less than 14,000 acres and it has around 242 miles of shoreline. At full pool the lake’s elevation is approximately 225.5 feet, and its deepest point is around 90 feet. To purchase a map of Lake Wateree with information about marinas and landings visit: http://www.scfishingtackle.com/.
An extremely fertile lake with a healthy baitfish population and a relative lack of development compared to other, more urban lakes, Lake Wateree is known to anglers as one of the premiere all-around fisheries in South Carolina. The popular species targeted by fishermen on the lake include largemouth bass, striped bass, several species of catfish, bluegill, a growing population of white perch, and of course crappie. Despite the presence of striper fishermen there is not a dominant population of blueback herring in Lake Wateree, and the main forage base is threadfin and gizzard shad.
Lake Wateree is known as a good all-around fishery, but perhaps no individual fishery within the lake is as strong as the crappie fishery. Today Will estimates that on any given day of the year at least 15-20 boats are fishing for crappie on Lake Wateree. It used to be that only a small percentage of crappie anglers could catch limits the year round, and Lake Wateree crappie fishing was known chiefly as a spring sport. Now, however, Will believes that 75% or better of the crappie anglers on Lake Wateree can catch a 20 fish per person (minimum size 8 inches) limit the year round. This is truly a testimony to the continuing strength of this fishery, and to improvements in angling technology and knowledge of crappie. Official lake records are not kept but Will has caught two Lake Wateree crappie that both weighed over 3 pounds, and he has also caught a seven fish tournament limit that weighed more than 14 pounds (an average of two plus pounds per fish). It is worth noting that Lake Wateree crappie are black crappie, and in 29 years of fishing on the lake Will has never caught a white crappie from its waters.
Lake Wateree crappie follow some relatively predictable seasonal patterns. Although the timing will vary from year to year, the general progression that Lake Wateree crappie will make over the course of a year is fairly predictable.
In the dead of winter the majority of Lake Wateree crappie will be in the river run at the upper end of the lake from Wateree Creek north. They will generally be found in the main river channel, and the most reliable pattern is very slowly tight-lining (or “pushing,” a technique where rods pointed out of the bow of the boat and weighted with sinkers present a bait or lure near-vertically). In the winter Will always has a minnow on the hook, and he may have a jig/ minnow combination or a colored jighead/ minnow combination. Note: when it gets extremely cold fish can on occasion go very shallow, as the water may be a degree or two warmer in those areas when it has been heated by the sun. Will has broken ice to launch his boat and then caught crappie behind the bridges up major creeks.
When water temperatures rise to 52 or 53 degrees, Lake Wateree crappie will start to transition out of the main river run and into the mouths of creeks, from which they will eventually spread out and go shallower. Depending on the weather the initial move from the channel into the creeks can happen in February or early March. Beaver Creek is usually the first creek to warm on Lake Wateree and is therefore a good early season crappie location. Early spring fishing can involve tight-lining, but trolling (also “pulling” or “spider-rigging,” a technique where multiple rods are fished out the back and sides of the boat) is generally a faster technique which allows anglers to cover more water. At times Will also employs both techniques simultaneously. Mid-spring Will generally takes the minnows off and goes exclusively to jigs, reasoning that fish are active enough that they don’t need a minnow and that in warmer water minnows are harder to keep alive.
Many anglers think of spring as crappie season, and to be sure it can be a great time to catch crappie. However, Will believes that spring can also be a difficult time to catch fish since they are constantly on the move, looking for places to spawn and chasing bait. Fish can be unpredictable from day to day and even over the course of a day, moving from deeper to shallow and back deeper again.
When water temperatures hit the high 50s and then low 60s large numbers of fish will head to the banks. When anglers first catch fish off the banks they are usually feeding up before the spawn and looking for places to make beds. Crappie make beds just like bream and bass, and some of their favorite places to spawn are around fallen trees in 2-4 feet of water, pea gravel, grass near the banks and sometimes on sand. Within two weeks of the males moving up to prepare beds the females will come up to spawn, and the sexes will generally be together for about a week. The spawn generally begins when water temperatures are between 64 and 70 degrees. A favorite technique to locate shallow crappie is tight-lining, often with 16 rods out the front of the boat set about 2 feet deep and pushing in 3-4 feet of water. If fish are around rods can all of a sudden go down everywhere as there can easily be 100 or more fish in an area. Once fish are located Will may back off and cast a jig below a cork, to avoid snags, to the fish. This is also probably the strongest period for dock fishing on Lake Wateree, as the majority of docks on the lake are fairly shallow.
After the females spawn their bodies are extremely stressed and they will go out to deeper water and lay on the bottom. The fish are thin and poor looking, will not eat and are essentially uncatchable during this period. Once they have recovered after a week to 18 days they will head out to brush and begin to start feeding again. Meanwhile males, the last to leave the shallows, will have stayed to protect the nests, but they too will soon head out to brush. The first brush where fish will be found is in 15-17 feet near the mouths of creeks and coves. As the water gets warmer during the late spring and summer fish will move deeper, from 15 to 18 to 22 or more feet, but they will never go super deep because there is no oxygen in those ranges. Will’s favored technique, addressed below, for catching fish off brush is to use one long pole and a jig. Other anglers may opt to tightline with several rods and minnows. Bridges are also good habitat during the warmer months and will be discussed below.
Towards the end of October or beginning of November one of two things may happen. Fish could go back to a traditional late spring pattern, in which they are found around shallow brush in 13-15 feet or even docks. If this happens then Will likes to troll jig/minnow combinations from the front of creeks to the backs, reasoning that the fish are coming from deep water and so if he trolls towards the shallows he should hit them somewhere. Alternatively, the fish could migrate to outside points on the main lake and stay until water levels drop in the winter. They can move up to feed then back off again during the day. Some points will not have fish and others will be loaded, and Will’s preferred technique when fish are in this pattern is to troll the points in 12-18 feet of water. The fall pattern varies from year to year, and some years both patterns may take place. Just like spring, fall can be an unpredictable time to locate crappie since they are constantly on the move. Will believes that the most stable period is the dead of winter, when fish may stay in one area for 2-3 weeks.
The remainder of this article will focus on two warm-water techniques for catching crappie, fishing around brush and bridges.
To most fishermen, crappie and brush go together like French fries and ketchup. And there is good reason for this – crappie love brush, and for much of the year they will be found in and around it. Amazingly, Will has 683 brushpiles marked on Lake Wateree, and in the summer he spends a lot of time riding and looking for new ones. Particularly if the water is warm, it’s a good bet that crappie can be caught around brush.
Not all brush piles are created equal, and some brushpiles last a lot longer than others. Will finds that generally hardwood brushpiles last for 3-6 years, while pine brushpiles will only last 1-2 seasons at best. You would be lucky to get two fishing seasons out of a Frasier fir Christmas tree. Some popular woods for making brushpiles are persimmon, oak, white oak and gum. Brushpiles can also be made out of PVC pipes sunk in concrete buckets, and these can be very difficult to locate on depth finders. Algae growth can make them easier to find, but even on a fancy high definition depth finder you won’t see the actual shape of the structure and are unlikely to locate the “brushpile” unless you know what you are looking for. GPS coordinates are the easiest way to locate these PVC structures.
After a brushpile loaded with crappie is marked on Will’s graph, he will throw a marker buoy overboard for a visual reference point visible above the water. From there he will back off and, holding a single 8-10 foot rod, dangle a jig vertically around the brush. Will makes his own rods and prefers a stiff backbone and a sensitive tip. He pairs the long rod with a Mitchell Avocet 11 – S500 reel, which is available at Walmart for about $20.00. A good drag is important because you can hook catfish or carp and don’t want the reel to be torn up. Will uses 4 or 6 pound test line because he wants something that will not ruin the brush if it snags.
On the business end of his line Will puts a #4 split shot above a 1/64 ounce jig. He will lift and give the bait a tiny jiggle, then let it sit again. When the fish bites you will sometimes feel nothing or possibly a single thump as the crappie is really just sucking the jig in and not biting it. This is one reason Will prefers the very light jig. It is also very important that the jig body not cover the barb of the hook or else it is difficult to hook the fish. Because of the finesse nature of this type of fishing Will tries to avoid the wind as much as possible, as wind makes it much more difficult to feel the fish bite. If fish don’t bite on a given brushpile within ten minutes then Will is off to the next one.
Fishing Around Brush – Note the Marker Buoy
As far as the type of jig Will uses, he says that he has used every jig made including Kalin, Slider, Triple Ripple, Hal Fly and feather hand-tied jigs. However, he swears that Fish Stalker makes the best jig which you can stick on a hook. Will says that it’s not often in the crappie world that something new comes along which works, but the Fish Stalker jig is that something new which has revolutionized his fishing. I am generally a devoted live bait fishermen, and when I think of crappie bait I think of minnows, but catching dozens of fish with Will I too became a devotee of Fish Stalker jigs.
Fish Stalker Jig, Ugly Green Color
Beyond Will’s general rule that it’s hard to go wrong with Fish Stalker jigs, there are some general rules of crappie jigs that Will teaches. In muddier water some anglers like to go to a bigger jig for a better silhouette, and in clear water downsizing everything from line to the lead weight is usually a good idea. Another general rule is that on cloudy days you want a brighter color such as chartreuse, and on sunnier days you want a more translucent color. On Wateree green is a very strong color, and the afternoon we fished we didn’t put a jig on a hook besides Fish Stalker Ugly Green. On Wateree Will also likes purples, pinks, red, chartreuse, white, black and orange. He does not use a lot of motor oil colors or heavy glitter colors on the lake. Trolling he will sometimes tie on 16 different jigs and then start narrowing down what color the fish want. Fish preference can also change over the course of a day, and as the sun changes fish could go from wanting solid black to solid white. The day Will and I fished together we caught about 30 crappie off five or six different brushpiles, and we definitely left with the fish still biting on brush.
The other major warm-water pattern on Lake Wateree is fishing around bridges, where baitfish and thousands of crappie congregate. From March to October Will says that fish can be caught around bridges, and while they can be a good place to catch tournament fish their best attribute may be as a place to entertain kids. Interestingly, the day we fished together our biggest fish all came off a bridge and the action was fast.
Bridges are attractive to crappie for a multitude of reasons, and in sunny conditions crappie will seek out the shadiest areas of the bridge. As I saw first-hand watching fishermen on top of the bridge not catch fish, and watching boats not guided by Will target the wrong areas and not catch fish, you have got to be getting your bait into the shadiest spots to get bit.
For this type of fishing Will uses a very different set-up than his brushpile gear, and we fished 4’6” ultralight gear less than half the length of what we had been using earlier. The reels were spooled with 4 pound test line, and we used a mix of 1/64 and 1/32 ounce jigs. At first the fish were taking the 1/64 ounce jigs (with Fish Stalker Ugly Green bodies), but then the action slowed and Will predicted that it was probably because boat traffic had pushed the fish deeper. He switched to 1/32 ounce jigs and started catching fish again, and I quickly followed suit. Crappie will also display a preference for different jig weights depending on their level of activity and whether they want a slower or faster fall.
Sometimes it was possible to cast the jigs, but at other times the narrow spaces and angles required us to shoot the jigs in order to find the darkest, shadiest spots. To shoot a jig you open the bail, let out about two feet of line, and in one hand hold the jig with the hook away from you and in the other hand hold the line. By bowing the rod and then releasing the line and jig at the right moment you can make a precise presentation in tight spaces. It only took me 10 or 15 minutes to get the hang of it, and Will assured me that kids usually pick it up in 5 or 10 minutes! Once the jig hit the water you can either start reeling immediately for a shallower presentation or let the bait fall and then reel for a deeper presentation.
Will Shoots a Jig
Some Nice Fish Caught from a Bridge
Will says that all of the bridges on Lake Wateree hold crappie, but the best bridges are Dutchmans Creek and Colonel Creek bridges. It’s also noteworthy that the best pilings at the bridges have depth changes from shallower to deeper water.
Without a doubt I had an outstanding day on Lake Wateree with Will Hinson. The action was fast, the fish fought well and there were enough big fish mixed in with medium sized and occasional small fish that you never knew what you would reel in next. I was hooked! Lake Wateree has more than its fair share of crappie, and probably as a result the lake also has some extraordinary crappie fishermen. I was fortunate to get to fish with one of the very best. To learn more from Will Hinson check out his “The Southern Crappie Angler Show” which can be seen on Truvista Channel 39. For more information check out the Southern Crappie page on Facebook, and stayed tuned to this site for his cooler weather techniques.