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A Tutorial in Long-line Trolling for Crappie During the Pre-Spawn on Lake Wateree

  • by Jay

The first time I went fishing with crappie tournament specialist Will Hinson of Cassatt was a warm-weather trip where we targeted crappie around brush and bridges. There were multiple other boats as well as bank fishermen in the same general areas we fished, and I noticed that we out-caught the other fishermen 10 to 1 or better.

The second time I went crappie fishing with Will was in the dead of winter and we made the run up the lake to fish the river run. Again, there were multiple other boats in the same area we were fishing, but I noticed that we were the only anglers regularly landing lots of quality fish.

Today I went fishing with Will for the third time, targeting pre-spawn fish behind the bridge in Beaver Creek, and we were part of what seemed like a fleet of boats all working the same relatively small area. At one point I counted 8 boats within about 200 yards of each other. Once again we blasted the crappie, while in a half-day of fishing I only noticed a couple of other boats land fish. We got a lot of stares, particularly when we had doubles and triples on, and my suspicion that we were having a dramatically better day than other anglers was confirmed when we took out Will’s boat about Noon. A couple of anglers from North Carolina lunching back at the ramp asked us if we had had a bite yet, and they almost choked when Will acknowledged that we had caught about 40 fish. While I knew he was good after the first trip, and was certain of it after the second, after today I realize that Will Hinson is a master Lake Wateree crappie fishermen. SCFishingReport.com’s reader’s are very lucky that he is generous with his expertise.

Lake Wateree

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, 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, but there is a very strong forage base of 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.) Will believes that regulation changes in the past few years have made the fishery even better, and the 8-inch minimum length/ 20-fish per person daily limit has meant that anglers are catching bigger fish than just a few years ago. 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).

Annual Progression/ Spring pattern

Lake Wateree crappie follow some seasonal patterns which are relatively consistent from year to year. For a complete review of where crappie will be found each season and how Will typically targets them check out the warm water article here. This article will focus on the pre-spawn period, and in particularly I will focus on long-line trolling, Will’s most common technique during this phase.

For the purposes of this article the pre-spawn period begins when fish leave their winter haunts (often the river run), and ends when fish spawn, recover, and then move to late/ spring summer homes including brush and bridges. When water temperatures rise into approximately the mid-50s fish will start to move out of a winter pattern and become more active, and Will finds that there is a particular order that crappie fishing typically turns on in the various creeks. Beaver Creek is typically the first creek to get hot, as early as mid-January, and Will has actually caught crappie in the relatively shallow water behind the bridge in the dead of winter when he has seen ice around the banks launching the boat. Unique topographical features of Beaver Creek, including large, shallow flats, and inflow mean that it warms up first, and very early in the year fish may be in there seeking warmer water and food. Singleton Creek is usually one of the next creeks to come alive for spring crappie fishing, perhaps because the river channel runs so close to it, but Will says that Taylor Creek (which the river channel also runs beside) can be early or late to become active.

Wateree Creek is one of the next creeks to become active, both because of its proximity to the river run where so many fish have wintered as well as due to the abundance of shallows which warm up quickly. Will notes that, even later in the spring, tournaments are often won on Wateree Creek, and it is speculated that this is because Wateree Creek is the closest creek to the river where some of the biggest fish on the lake live. Because of engine trouble we were unable to ride up to Wateree Creek, but with a tournament the next day Will’s original plan for the day had been to head up that way and explore.

Creeks that are later to warm up usually include Dutchmans Creek and June Creek, both of which are further away from the river, and then Colonel Creek to the southwest. There is a general trend that the northernmost (and hence most sun-drenched) creeks will be the first to activate, as well as the ones closer to the population of fish that winter in the river, but there are obviously exceptions due to topography and other factors.

Fish will generally be pre-spawn during approximately March and April, or when surface water temperatures are in the mid-50s to mid-60s, and crappie will eventually move into all the creeks in the lake. The day we fished surface temperatures have been hovering between about 59 and 64, depending on time of the day, which Will says is just on the verge of full-blown spawning season. The peak spawning season occurs on Lake Wateree when water temperatures are between about 64 and 67 degrees, although Will notes that not all of the fish will spawn at once. In very rare circumstances where water temperatures were very slow to warm, particularly on the main lake, Will has found fish with eggs into the summer, but generally the spawn is finished by the end of April.   Note: Will believes that, because Lake Wateree is a relatively stained lake, the crappie spawn typically occurs later than on clearer lakes such as Lake Murray. This explains why many of the crappie being caught on Murray right now are post-spawn, while on Wateree almost all the fish are pre-spawn.

Fish will spawn at the very back of the creeks in anywhere from 6 inches to 5 feet of water, and the males will be the first to move up and search for/ prepare beds. Will notes that when pollen is on the water fish will be shallow. A few fish will also usually spawn out on the main lake, and more could do so if water levels or temperatures drop precipitously. Crappie make beds just like bream or bass, and they like to bed around pea gravel, grass, hard banks, shallow brush, fallen logs, vertical pilings or any other type of shallow cover which offers something that the females can rub their eggs out against.

Will says “the females will only be up shallow for 3-7 days, or even less – they dump their eggs and then go. There will usually be one good hard week of spawning where most of the females go, and then a trickle for the next few weeks.”

After the females have spawned they are in recovery mode, and often the fish will lay on the bottom for a week or two while they get their strength back before returning to brush and resuming feeding. While the males are the first to move up shallow in the spring they are the last to leave, and so anglers will continue catching males even after the females have left. Will says that he used to believe that this was because they were protecting the nests/ guarding fry, but he has realized that the males stay shallow in the hopes that more females will come up whose eggs they can also fertilize. After the females go, and then the males vanish, eventually both sexes will be found out on brush and the bite will pick up again – after a lull.

Prespawn female - note the bulge
Prespawn female – note the bulge
Post-spawn female - note the two holes where eggs have been released, as well as the thinner belly
Post-spawn female – note the two holes where eggs have been released, as well as the thinner belly
The same angle with a pre-spawn fish
The same angle with a pre-spawn fish

Long-line Trolling

Generally

In the spring Will’s favored technique is long-line trolling, also known as “long-lining” or “pulling.” Long-line trolling is one of two main techniques for trolling a large number of rods simultaneously for crappie. It is in contrast to the other major method of trolling – “tight-lining,” “pushing,” “spider-rigging” or “down-lining” (discussed in the winter article). While both methods offer a way to fish 8, 12, 16 or even more rods, tight-lining is more of a vertical method of fishing, usually involving weights – the equivalent of small downriggers – to keep the baits down, which allows anglers to hover in a particular area and fish a certain contour. It is generally a slower method of fishing, often used in the colder months but also utilized year-round.

In contrast, long-line trolling does not involve significant weight besides the bait itself and is more of a horizontal, shallower method of covering water. Long-line trolling usually involves fishing a less specific area and moving at a higher rate of speed, and Will likes to utilize this technique when the fish are scattered over a dispersed areas. Both long-line trolling and tight-lining can be done out of the front or back of the boat, but generally Will likes to tight-line out of the front of the boat (“pushing” the baits) and long-line troll out the back (“pulling” the baits).

Typically Will employ long-lining to catch crappie during the early spring, and it is most associated with aggressive, pre-spawn fish.

“These fish are active and aggressive because they want to feed up before the spawn. For me long-line trolling is basically a March and April pattern, although some fishermen do it all year.” They are also shallow and spread out, and long-lining allows Will to cover a lot of water.

Equipment

For Will long-line trolling involves fishing a lot of lines out of the back of the boat, and since the lines are all running relatively horizontally (as opposed to close to straight down tight-lining) it is necessary to make sure that they are spread out to avoid tangles. The day we fished together Will employed a total of twelve rods at a time, with six basically straight out behind the boat and three off to each side. The six lines behind the boat were all fished on 6-foot rods, while the three rods out to the side were 8-, 12- and then 16-foot rods (in that order). These longer rods essentially serve like outriggers, helping to take the baits away from the boat, and the goal is to have each of the baits about 2-3 feet apart. Right now Will fishes a variety of rods although he is switching over to all B ‘n’ M crappie rods, but he says that rod choice is a matter of angler preference.

Will overseas the spread of rods
Will overseas the spread of rods

When I fished with Will in the winter all of his rods were spooled with 6-pound high visibility fluorescent green line. At that time of year he believed it was important to fish this kind of line because it allowed him to see bites by watching the line move. However, in the spring it is different because the fish are more aggressive, and instead of having one shot at each fish, aggressive pre-spawn crappie will hit, miss and then hit again at times. Today Will had different lines on different reels, and he says that the bottom line right now is, “it doesn’t matter what kind of line you use as long as it doesn’t break.”

However, that doesn’t mean that a tournament specialist like Will doesn’t have preferences for his personal use, and he is in the process of switching over to fluorocarbon lines because of their strength, sensitivity and slightly smaller diameter. The line he is using also offers single-pound increments (5, 6, 7, 8 pound) instead of just two-pound gradations.

When he sets out the lines Will casts the jigs as far back as possible, usually about 50-75 feet. He says that “at times I may let out extra line so that the jigs are as far as 100 to 120 feet behind the boat, because at times they don’t want to take the bait unless it is way back from the boat.” As in other areas, Will stresses the importance of “letting the fish tell him what to do.” Will also notes that if and when a tangle does develop – often because of multi-fish hook-ups or wind changes – the best bet is to wind in all the lines and start over.

Jig choice

For long-line trolling Will typically starts with an array of 1/16th ounce curly tail grubs, which he finds to be better for this technique since they have a lot of action. He will give the fish a variety of colors to choose from until he sees what is working on a particular day, and Will usually designates a couple of rods for changing colors to see what the crappie are biting. While there are a ton of different colors that will catch fish, Will says that chartreuse is a generally a good, all-around color. He also likes to employ natural colors on Lake Wateree such as browns and blacks.

Today on Lake Wateree I recorded the color that we caught each of our crappie on, which was an interesting experiment. The colors included green variations, black and blue with a chartreuse tail, bubblegum with a chartreuse tail, burnt orange with a chartreuse tail, purple and chartreuse, brown and green, and blue. While I compiled an extensive list I missed the overall pattern, and Will pointed out that early in low-light conditions bubblegum was very effective – as it was during a brief spell when the sun clouded over. When the sun was out, however, we did far better on brown, green and more translucent colors. Certainly there are aberrations, such as a recent trip to Clarks Hill for Will when pink jigs caught fish in the sun in clear water, but Will generally finds that bright jigs work better in cloudy conditions while more muted or translucent colors work better in clearer conditions.

While Will generally starts out long-lining with plain jigs, if the fish seem sluggish or need some extra scent he could tip the bait with a minnow. The day we fished, however, there were no minnows in the boat and we certainly didn’t miss them.

Presentation/ depth

Will says that in the spring it is no secret where the fish are headed, and overall they are making their way to the very backs to spawn. Since anglers know where the fish are going Will says a good pattern in the spring is to start in the backs and work your way out, and at some point you should run into the fish. He notes that there are other factors besides stage of the spawn at work in determining depth, and on the morning we fished dropping water levels had pulled the fish further out than just the day before. Mud from rainfall can also push the fish out of the backs of creeks on an already stained lake such as Wateree – while on more clear lakes fish will often head for the stained inflow.

It is also worth pointing out that, unlike winter tight-lining up the river run when we were hugging the river ledge and keeping on a particular path, the pre-spawn fish we were targeting were dispersed over a large flat. It was really open water fishing. Fish are moving and so it is possible to go back and forth over the same area repeatedly and catch fish each run that may not yet have seen the bait. We repeatedly watched several boats gravitate to spots where they saw Will and I catch fish, but the reality was that there was nothing special about those particular spots since fish were on the move.

As far as depth, by definition long-line trolling involves fishing higher in the water column that tight-lining, and today Will generally ran the baits about 4 feet down over 6-8 feet of water. Once we were in 10 feet. When we went as shallow as 4 feet (and ran into tons of small striper) he ran the baits about 3 feet below the surface. In clearer water fish may be somewhat deeper, but on stained Lake Wateree 4 feet below the surface is a good pre-spawn trolling depth.

Will makes it look effortless and we did not hang the bottom a single time all day, but with twelve rods with exposed hooks out that is no simple feat. There are several factors that he adjusts to control depth, and the easiest to change is the boat’s speed. Will says that for pre-spawn long-lining with a 1/16 ounce jig that he wants to keep about 4 feet deep he aims for about 1.1 or 1.2 miles per hour, and throughout the day he said we ranged between .8 and 1.2 mph. Moving slower makes the baits run deeper, and anglers can also vary head size (heavier go deeper, lighter go shallower) to affect how deep the baits are running.   The wind complicates these calculations and forces the captain to make adjustments, and Will says there is no magic formula and it is simply a matter of feel – as well as constantly watching the GPS.

Overall Will says that the key is, again, to let the fish tell you what you need to be doing, and he says that if anglers can’t seem to catch fish anywhere they probably need to slow down. “The biggest mistake most anglers make with long-line trolling is trying to go too fast.”

However, we did notice some anglers basically staying in one place the day we fished, and that didn’t seem to be what the fish wanted either. Again, it takes practice, listening to the fish and paying attention to what is working. Will says the bites we were getting were reaction strikes, and anglers who went to the other extreme and were basically stationary did not seem to be doing any good. If slowing down, or tipping the baits with minnows, doesn’t work, then perhaps try switching from curly tail jigs to hair jigs or slider jigs, particularly if other people are catching fish in the area.

Our day

At times crappie fishermen will get into schools of similarly-sized fish, and my recollection is that tight-lining the river run in the winter a lot of the fish we caught were clones. During the spawn, however, Will points out that there is a great diversity of sizes, and today we caught fish from 6 inches long to over 2 pounds. The vast majority of the fish we caught today were over the 8-inch limit, and about half the fish we caught would have gone over a pound and about 20% were 1 ½ pounds or better. The fishing was also characterized by streaks, and it was not uncommon to catch 4 or 5 fish within very rapid succession and then go 15 minutes without a bite. We also got into several schools of small striper, and yesterday Will had seven striper on at one time! I saw first-hand that the population of white bass is coming back as we caught several of them, and we also caught a couple of white perch and even a channel catfish. There are a lot of fish that will take a jig trolled in the backs in the spring.

As noted above Will believes that the spawn is on the verge of exploding, and with temperatures in the backs around 64 degrees he predicts that this coming week or the next the heaviest spawn will take place. Not all fish will move up at once and it will certainly be possible to catch fish the way we caught them a while longer, but soon there will also be big females up in only a couple of feet of water. The males may already be up there, and Will says that most all of the grown fish we caught today were pre-spawn females. Once the females move up shallow to spawn some anglers will target them casting corks at the banks, but the most effective method to catch them may be tight-lining very shallow in only 2 or 3 feet of water, often with the weights out of the water – the subject of a future article…

Me with a nice fish
Me with a nice fish
Will shows off a healthy one
Will shows off a healthy one

Conclusion

Thinking back on our success today, especially compared to the tough bite other fishermen in our area were finding, it strikes me how important the “little things” are. Simply throwing out baits in the right general area is not enough. Our success today was probably a result of a combination of things, from the way Wills ties on his jigs, to the speed and baits he presents, to the direction the wind told him to fish in, to the depth he knew to target based on dropping water levels. Making the right calls versus the wrong calls was the difference between a good day (excellent for me) and a day where we thought that the fish “just weren’t biting.” Will makes the right calls partly because he has been crappie fishing Lake Wateree for 30 plus years, but he also makes the right calls because he pays attention. The fish will tell you what to do if you listen very, very carefully to them.

My thanks to Will for his continued and overwhelming generosity in sharing his knowledge with SCFishingReport.com’s readers and me!

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