Winter Crappie Fishing on Lake Wateree with Will Hinson
Last year I was fortunate enough to go on a Lake Wateree crappie fishing trip with Southern Crappie Tournament Trail fishermen and Wateree master crappie angler Will Hinson. Our trip did not disappoint, and we caught several limits of crappie using his preferred warm-water techniques of fishing around brush piles and targeting bridges. Crappie are known for relating to cover and particularly brush, and getting to see how someone with Will’s skill targets fish around brush piles felt like a quintessential crappie fishing experience. In the article from that trip, which can be read here, I noted that I hoped to go fishing with Will again and write an article about catching crappie during cold weather. Fishing around brush is one essential aspect of crappie fishing, but I’ve always thought another defining aspect of crappie fishing is the multi-rod set-up anglers use to fish for them. And fishing with 8 or more rods just sounds fun.
On a chilly late December day I got my chance to try winter fishing with Will, and I learned that he is every bit as proficient at catching Lake Wateree crappie when it’s freezing as in the summer heat. I also saw first-hand why Will says winter is one of his favorite periods for catching crappie. He had been off the lake for a couple of weeks because of his seasonal side-business selling Christmas trees, but the fish had barely moved from earlier in the month. They were grouped up and feeding well, and with Will at the bow filling his live well was no problem.
Located downriver from Lake Wylie, and just below the less well known reservoir Stumpy Pond, 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/.
A very 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, 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 black crappie fishery (in 29 years of fishing on the lake Will has never caught a white crappie from its waters.) In the warm water article I reported that Will estimates that on any given day of the year at least 15-20 boats are fishing for crappie on Lake Wateree, as crappie fishing is no longer considered chiefly a spring sport. Will believes that today 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. 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).
Cold weather crappie fishing
Lake Wateree crappie follow some relatively predictable seasonal patterns, and the general progression they will make over the course of the year is fairly consistent. For a complete review of where crappie will be found each season and how Will targets them check out the warm water article here. This article will focus on the colder months, from the time when crappie leave the fall pattern (usually hanging around 13-15 foot deep brush or main lake points) and until they start to move into a pre-spawn early spring pattern.
Will points out that at any given time of year not all of the crappie will be doing the same thing, and the winter is no exception. However, he has found that in the winter months the largest concentrations of crappie, generally with an average size of 8-13 inches, will be found at the top of the lake up the river run. Will defines the river run as starting above Wateree Creek and continuing up to the dam that forms Stumpy Pond (the reservoir above Lake Wateree). Much of the time he is fishing within a couple of miles of the dam. Crappie may move up into this area because of current, the presence of bait, or because it may be a bit warmer than down the lake. The migration usually begins sometime between late October and December. A good indicator of when the move will start is when water temperatures hit 55 degrees and below.
The average depth of the river channel Will is targeting is about 21-22 feet, although he notes that there are also holes known as “washouts” or “blowouts” which may be 40 feet deep or more. Duke Energy frequently runs water down the river, and so the bait is constantly moving in response. Because of this Will likes to fish along the river ledge, which allows him to fish deep if bait is deep or shallower if the bait moves up.
Like that of most rivers, the contours of the channel at the top of Lake Wateree are not straight. Without understanding where the channel lies it is difficult to fish the river effectively. The channel crisscrosses the river and goes back and forth, and anglers new to the river will need to monitor their depth finder to figure out its exact location. Another trick for learning the channel’s location is to watch boats moving up and down it – novices can gain direction by watching more experienced boaters zig and zag to follow the deeper lane.
Bait and crappie relate to the river channel, but there are certain spots where the action is concentrated. Will says that the best spots are the insides of submerged channel banks when the river channel bends. At theses spots everything washing down the river accumulates before moving on, and predators gang up to feed. Boats are also concentrated at these hot spots, and on any decent winter day anglers new to Lake Wateree can get a good idea where to crappie fish by looking for boats bunched up that have multiple crappie rods out the bow, stern and/or sides. Will notes that his depth finder is useful for staying on the channel and marking depth, but at this time of year he is usually not using it to mark fish.
Fishing up the river run during the cold months Will is tight-lining (also known as pushing), a technique explained more below where he is fishing multiple long rods out the front of the boat with his bait presented vertically or near-vertically to the fish. The particular reel is not especially important to Will for this type of fishing, but rod choice is very important. He fishes a 16-foot B ‘n’ M crappie rod, and he says this sensitive rod improves his hook-up ratio by allowing him to see soft winter bites. Sometimes during the winter fish will merely swim up to a bait and hold it in their mouths, and by using the more sensitive B ‘n’ M rods he misses less of these bites. He likes the long rods because they allow him to get a spread of rods out far away from the boat in several directions. On the day we fished Will “only” put 8 rods out the front of the boat, but he often fishes 12 and on occasion 16. However, Will points out that an obsession with getting as many rods as possible out is not helpful, as more rods can lead to more tangles and lost time. His brush pile technique is proof that one well-presented bait can be enough to catch fish. The day we fished we had several multi-rod hook-ups (two rod hook-ups were pretty routine), and it’s difficult to imagine how we would have managed with even more rods going down.
All of Will’s reels are spooled with 6-pound high visibility fluorescent green line. Just like the sensitive rods, he believes this kind of line is important because it allows him to see bites by watching the line move. It also allows him to keep track of where all the lines are to avoid tangles and cover as much water as possible, and in the generally stained water up the river fish do not seem to mind.
In order to make as close as possible to a vertical presentation Will uses 3/8 or 1/4 ounce sinker, although on some days he will move up to a 1/2 or 3/4 ounce weight if the boat or current is moving faster and it is needed to keep the line down. Generally he tries to utilize as light a weight as possible. A single split shot clamped 12-18 inches above the bait keeps the weight in place.
A lot of the year Will uses plain jigs without a minnow, but in the winter he likes a minnow to give the jig some action since he is fishing slowly. A straight minnow will also work, but he prefers the jig to give the bait color. When he can get them Will usually prefers toughies to minnows (shiners). Toughies are generally a bit smaller than minnows – 1-1 ½ inches as opposed to 1 ½-2 inches – but the most important difference between the two baits is that toughies have a harder body and are more rugged. However, the durability of toughies versus minnows is most significant in warmer water, and during the winter both are pretty resilient. Will has found that minnows will stay alive for 3 or 4 weeks in only six inches of water during cold weather, and he has left them covered in the back of his boat for a month to find them alive and swimming upon returning.
Will does fish other jigs, but he finds that a 1/64 ounce Fish Stalker jig is tough to beat. For a more complete discussion of jigs and colors see the warm weather article, but our winter experience on Lake Wateree underlined one important point about jig fishing. An advantage of having multiple rods and jigs out is that you can see which color the fish demonstrate a preference for, and on one of the rods we had a translucent purple jig usually considered suited for clear water conditions. Even though we were fishing stained water, on this day the fish demonstrated a clear preference for the clear purple jig. Even though the textbook said it would not work the fish wanted it, and so we changed over several more rods to this color and it continued to out-produce the others. Will points out, “If you’re not catching something on one color, why would you leave it on?”
When the current is running bait and crappie move up onto the top of the ledge to get away from the swift moving water, and when Will arrives at the river he generally is not sure just how recently the current has been running. Accordingly, he generally starts looking on the top of the ledge, then fishes the side of the ledge, and then works out deeper until feeding fish are located. Most of the time he is concentrating his efforts in 16-20 feet of water.
The rods (8-16) are placed in the rod holders and left stationary, and the minimal motion of the bait comes from the current and the movement of the boat. Winter fish are not very aggressive and so Will pushes the boat very slowly, at times almost sitting still. Sometimes he will orient the boat with the current so that he is bringing the bait down the river, and the day we fished we spent time working in both directions and caught fish both ways. Either direction the goal is to present the bait almost vertically and keep pushing forward very slowly.
Since there is no casting and retrieving for this technique and the rods follow the movement of the boat, being able to control the boat effectively is vital. The wind often wants to push a boat onto the flats beside the channel, and so the captain has to fight the wind. In addition to using the trolling motor to maintain the boat’s orientation, there are other tricks on windy days. Sometimes Will makes use of a 20 foot logging chain tied to a rope in order to slow down the boat, and he finds that the rope does not muddy the bottom or disrupt the fishing. Letting out more rope creates more drag.
Crappie will move up and down in the water column depending on where the bait is, and on warmer days they should theoretically be a little higher while on colder days they will be closer to the bottom. In general, though, Will is generally fishing about 8-14 inches off the bottom. When the line is truly being presented vertically it is possible to simply measure off the correct amount of line against the 16 foot rod in order to keep the bait just off the bottom, but if the line is going out at an angle it is more effective to let the line drop to the bottom and then reel a couple of turns off the bottom – instead of guessing. This trick is only effective if you are moving at a relatively constant speed, however. I saw firsthand the importance of keeping your bait near the bottom, as after one stretch when Will caught 5 or 6 fish and I had no bites we realized that my bait was too high in the water column.
One other professional trick that Will taught me is the importance of lowering your bait slowly through the water column in order to avoid tangles. Unlike drop shot fishing where the weight is at the bottom of the line, for this technique there is a heavy weight a foot or so above the 1/64 ounce jig and fluttering minnow. The weight wants to drop faster than the light jig and minnow, and allowing it do so too fast can tangle everything.
On a daily basis current is probably the most important factor for this type of fishing, and Will finds that the bite is usually better when the current is not running. He speculates this probably has as much as anything to do with his ability to keep his bait in the strike zone. As mentioned earlier fish will still be shallower when the current has recently been running. Time of day does not seem to matter very much in the absence of other factors, and fish will also feed at all stages of a front. They will often feed best before the front comes through, but they will also feed while it is arriving. Will says that the wind is really more of an irritant than a deterrent to catching fish. The one exception is that a cold front accompanied by snow and ice that drops the water temperatures several degrees will sometimes shut down the bite completely, and fish will not feed for several days. This happened in the winter of 2010-11. If it is warm for a week or more fish will sometimes move shallower, and their first move will usually be to go up in the water column. Their second will be to head towards shallower water. Finally, a lot of rain can lead to a mud line, and on already stained Wateree it is usually more productive to head down the lake and stay ahead of the mud.
Fish will usually stay in the river run until they start to move into pre-spawn mode, and this winter pattern can be effective until temperatures rise into the mid-50s or higher. Temperatures usually jump once they begin to rise above 55 degrees, but if they move above that point and then drop again fish will move deeper. Will notes that a lot of the fish that make their way up to the river run in winter head down the lake in the spring and gang up in creek mouths before spreading out to spawn, but there are also a lot of fish that spawn in Wateree Creek. Still other fish spawn in the flats just off the river.
The day Will and I went fishing I told him that I did not mind the cold early morning run up the river and so we made the trip, but there are other options. First, throughout the winter a number of fish will stay on the main lake and orient to structure such as humps and drops with brush, ledges with cover, timber, bridges and even deeper docks. The best depth to look for these fish is in about 16-24 feet of water close to the bottom. Will says that while he has caught fish on the lower end during the summer around brush piles in 35 feet, it is rare to catch Lake Wateree crappie deeper than 25 feet.
The second alternative winter pattern that Will sometimes fishes centers around Beaver Creek. He usually doesn’t go there until January or so when the main lake temperatures have dropped into the 40s, but there is something about the topography of this shallow creek which often makes it a degree or two warmer than the rest of the lake. He has broken ice at the landing and then caught limits in the back of the creek without going past the bridge. One day the fish may be big and the next day they may be small, indicating that the population is moving, but Beaver Creek proves that during the winter not all fish will go deep. Sometimes the warmest water will be very shallow, and fish figure this out even when anglers do not.
Some crappie fishermen are very good during a certain season, or at utilizing one particular technique, but Will Hinson can catch fish at both ends of the South Carolina temperature spectrum with a variety of techniques. We slayed them in the summer, and we slayed them in the winter. I have also seen firsthand Will’s ability to catch crappie on Lake Wateree when other fishermen are struggling. Out-catching the other boats up the river reminded me of how we had fished bridges last year and caught 10 or more fish for each single fish being caught by the other boats around us.
Even more impressive than Will’s ability to catch fish, though, is his continued willingness to share decades of hard-earned knowledge and insight about what the crappie on Lake Wateree are doing with me and in turn the South Carolina Fishing Report’s readers. For now Will still works a day job with SCE&G, but it’s a pretty safe bet that when he retires in a few years he will be spending even more time crappie fishing on Lake Wateree – and perhaps even guiding. At that time he would be available to take out anglers for paid trips on the lake.
For my part I have fished brush in the heat with Will, I have tight-lined in the winter with him, and next I hope to have the chance to troll rods out the back of the boat with Will this spring. I have a good feeling we will catch fish!
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.