By Vic Attardo
Picture in your thoughts the indomitable Whitey Outlaw braced against a November chill. He’s not wearing anyone’s fashion 9’s but clothed in country comfort – we’re talking crappie fishing in South Carolina after all. He is working a late fall tournament on his beloved Santee Cooper – actually the twin lakes of Moultrie and Marion, both created in the early 1940s. During the tournament the other boats are struggling to catch crappie, but not Whitey. He’s dialed in.
Using baits that are smaller than summer’s usual fare, he’s reaping crappie from Santee’s chilled waters. Also, by choice, he’s working a feeder creek where the crappie have come to roost, like cold chickens. When he lifts a fish on one of his 14-foot B’n’M poles he just might say, “Howdy bud. Nice to meet you.”
When it comes to cold-water crappie, Outlaw knows the fish aren’t moving around much. He knows they deposit themselves in certain places and stay there for long periods. He also knows the best of these places. It’s a pattern that Outlaw has pecked at for years. But despite the cold and the sluggishness, these fish are hungry, Outlaw knows that too.
“Here in the Carolinas and up and down the East Coast, when the water goes to cooling down, the crappie do two things,” he says. “First they start gorging theirselves with shad. They’ll gorge theirselves in September, October, November and part of December. They’ll gorge theirselves and get fat as a butterball just to make it through the cold months when they get dormant and their metabolism is down.”
But despite this hunger, Outlaw knows the crappie don’t do a lot of moving. That’s the second thing.
“They won’t run and chase no bait. They’ll just sit still, just kind of making through the winter, kind of surviving so to speak,” he says.
So where do they do their roosting? Well without any warm coops handy, they go to creek channels and the structure associated with creek channels.
“They’ll get on these creek channels and stumps and they’ll just sit there,” Outlaw notes. “They’ll still eat but they won’t run and chase bait like they will in the spring. In November and December they’ll just sit there until the water starts warming up next spring.”
The term ‘creek channels’ is good as far as it goes, but it is also as broad as Santee itself. Outlaw has it narrowed down a lot more than that. He’s in the channels but he’s working specific depths. And there are some other hotspots he’s looking to fish.
“To target these fish we just fish the deep channels, 14 to 18 feet,” Outlaw said. “I like creek channels with stumps and also feeder creeks going into big flats. Getting off the river and fishing the feeder creek and little roads off the river. I call them roads but they might not be but a six-inch difference (in levels) and they’re using them to intercept shad on the highway. They use these little old ditches and they sit on those stumps and when the shad come by they pick them off. It sure happens that way on Santee Cooper, yes sir.”
As everyone knows location is a three-dimensional picture so in addition to creek channels, feeder creeks and little roads, Outlaw must fish a place in the water column. Remember he is working in 14 to 18-feet of water.
“Most of the times these fish are close to the bottom, within four feet of the bottom most of the times, all day long,” he says. “Every now and then you’ll get one of those warm sunny days the fish will move up in the water column a little bit to eight or ten feet. Then in the evenings and the mornings they are going to go back down.
“We get out there somewhere like Wild Buck Creek or Potato Creek on the lower end of Santee and we’ll start out with eight rods fishing around twelve-fourteen foot. We’ll use our electronics to mark the stumps and brush piles and what have you.”
On any day out with Outlaw he’ll pick his November locations with care. After that, the November techniques kick in. The method is compatible with the cold water as anything. “We just go slow,” Outlaw explains. “And when I say slow I’m talking realllly slowwww. Bumpin’ along, just bumpin’ along. Letting the jigs just hang there and the bait hang there and when you catch one you throw a marker out and sometimes you catch ten or 15 in one spot.”
That’s the thing with November crappie. They’re often ganged up, just like those chickens. When you knock one off its perch chances are you can knock off a whole bunch.
According to Outlaw the majority of creek-gathered stump-holding crappie are going to be black crappie, dark as the coming winter.
“Every once in a while you’ll get some white ones,” Outlaw says. “But I always target the black ones on Santee because they’re always bigger.”
There’s reason Outlaw calls the twin Santee’s his home lake. With a combined acreage of 174,000 acres and 450 miles of shoreline, it’s a big lake to have beside anyone’s chicken house. And it’s as productive as a fresh hen.
“There’s fish in just about every creek. I don’t know of a creek down here that doesn’t have fish in it,” Outlaw says.
But man does not live by chicken alone, and crappie live in more than one lake. Fortunately this pattern holds in another of Outlaw’s South Carolina’s favorites.
“Lake Wateree is another location. I do the same thing there. Just find you a feeder creek coming off a big flat, coming off a river onto a big flat. They are easy to find, then just fish them slow.” (Created in 1920, Lake Wateree is one of South Carolina’s oldest man-made lakes with 242 miles of shoreline in three S.C. counties, Kershaw, Fairfield and Lancaster.)
While location and speed of presentation are major factors when crappie come home to roost in November, there are a few other items that Outlaw relies on. He believes in going small.
“I like to use an inch and half minnow with a number 2 Eagle Claw hook. Also I use a lot of jigs at this time of year.”
Outlaw’s jig of choice is a Rockport Rattler — a jig with rattle bead in it.
According to the company website (www.rockportrattler.com) the jig has a rattle chamber flush with the hook so the hook amplifies the sound outside of any added soft plastic. The company says it is louder than a glass rattler by itself or one inserted into a soft plastic.
In addition, Outlaw wants a rod that is fast on the draw.
“Most all the time I use the 14-foot B’nM graphite jig pole. That has enough action on them and enough backbone to pick the fish up and you see the littlest tap on them,” he says. “If that fish touches that line and breathes on it, you’re gonna know.
Also he downsizes his line in November. In warmer seasons he employs 10-pound test but in the cold-water times its Vicious six-pound test.
When crappie come home to roost for the cold water times, Outlaw knows that creek channels, feeder creeks, with their roads, ditches and stumps are where they’ll come to feed. Then the trick is slow and small. Outlaw says this way you can knock off a lot of birds, well crappie, in the November season.
Just as Whitey Outlaw says, when the November chill sets in crappie are moving into feeder creeks off the main river and main lake areas. Look for them in major channels through the creeks or in the slightest ditches or breaks heading toward a flat. These structures surrounded by stumps or other hard structures are where you’ll find good numbers of black crappie at this time of year.
Slow down, use smaller bait, try jigs with rattles especially if the water is riled and watch your B’n’Ms for a breath of air floating over their tips. It could mean the strike from a cold-water crappie.