by Jeff Samsel
Black and white crappie are big and plentiful in South Carolina’s Santee Cooper lakes, and spring delivers the finest opportunities of the year to put slabs in the boat.
Guide and Santee Sportsman television host Kevin Davis shows a couple of typical Santee Cooper crappie. Lakes Marion and Moultrie produce incredibly consistent fishing from one season to the next.
It has been more than two decades since Pete Pritchard taught me not to touch the reel when I landed a crappie while vertical fishing so I could drop the bait back to the exact same depth. I still remember that lesson clearly, and tend to think about days in the boat with Pritchard any time I’m use a vertical approach. I also recall struggling to hoist stringers of slab crappie caught from Pritchard’s boat.
Much has changed about many things over the past two-plus decades. Unchanged is the quality of the crappie catches produced by the Santee Cooper lakes. These fertile waters deliver tremendous catchaes of crappie year after year, and March brings the best fishing of the year.
Most lakes’ crappie populations are highly cyclical, with noteworthy ups and downs both in numbers of fish available and in average sizes. Santee Cooper serves up similarly good crappie action year after year, always with plenty of big fish in the mix. Stability stems from expansive and diverse habitat that ranges from swamps to grass flats to deep flooded timber, equally diverse forage that includes half a dozen shad and herring species, and strong populations of both black and white crappie.
Although the record is more than 50 years old, it’s worth noting that South Carolina’s state record black crappie came from Santee Cooper. North Carolina angler P.E. Foust was fishing in Lake Moultrie in 1957 when he caught the record crappie, which weighed an even 5 pounds.
The author’s first crappie excursions on the Santee Cooper lakes date back more than two decades to some fun and productive days with longtime guide Pete Pritchard.
Santee Cooper Lakes
Something commonly misrepresented that probably warrants clarification is that there is no such thing as “Lake Santee Cooper.” Instead, lakes Marion and Moultrie, which impound the Santee and Cooper rivers and are owned and operated by the Santee Cooper Power, are together known as the Santee Cooper lakes, Santee Cooper or simply Santee. The system also includes the 6 1/2-mile-long Diversion Canal, which connects the two lakes, plus the Re-Diversion and Tailrace canals.
Together, the Santee Cooper lakes spread across roughly 170,000 acres. Lake Marion, locally called the upper lake, is roughly twice the size of Moultrie (the lower lake). The upper end of Marion floods expansive, wild and beautiful swamps, which eventually give way to the flooded forests that border the ever-twisting channel of the Santee River. Many trees have broken off at the water line, but flooded timber abounds through much of the lake.
Lake Moultrie looks like a wide open bowl on a map or from the surface, but hidden beneath the water are endless hills, valleys, ditches, roads and creeks, plus the ruins of farms and towns. Extensive shallow backwaters bound both lakes and provide some of the best spring crappie habitat.
The bad part about Santee Cooper’s diversity and expansiveness is that options can seem overwhelming. Everything looks like it should hold fish, and at times most of it does. Endless-seeming stands of cypress and tupelo distract many anglers, but in truth, hidden brushpiles, depressions in eelgrass flats and rows of sunken stumps along channel edges often produce more crappie than the most visible stuff. Not that the trees aren’t good. They can be spectacular. They are only one piece of the puzzle, though.
Because the Santee Cooper is so large and varied in character and because navigation in some areas can be slow and treacherous, it’s a good idea to ask a few questions at the bait store when you buy your minnows. You don’t need GPS coordinates for someone’s top-secret brushpile; just an idea of the depths and cover types the fish have been using in that part of the lake and maybe a few tips about travel routes.
Early in March, when late-winter fronts and warm sunny snaps normally battle for dominance in the Deep South, many crappie will remain somewhat deep (as in 10 or 15 feet), often holding tight to brush, along creek channel edges or in deeper holes that break up flats. They’ll be close to shallow areas, though.
Use you electronics to search for brush just outside of the shallow flats that surround the lakes. Examples of areas include the lower end of Moorefield Swamp beneath Lake Moultrie, and the main channels of major creeks like Taw Caw and Eutaw and Big Poplar, which feed Lake Marion. However, good crappie areas with plentiful brush are spread all around the both lakes, so don’t limit yourself.
Position the boat directly over any brush you find, holding position with the trolling motor, not with an anchor, and count jigs down to the top of the brush with measured pulls against the rod. Minimize the action you add to the jig. If the fish don’t cooperate in 20 or 30 minutes, find another brushpile. If you catch fish in brush that sits in 12 feet and tops out in 10 feet, look for more brush in the same depth range.
Lacking the electronics to find and effectively fish isolated brush, another very good strategy for fishing the same areas is to drift with minnows on tight lines. Drifting with multiple lines allows you to let the bait do the searching for you and to explore a few depths at the same time. If you opt to drift, keep a floating marker buoy handy and toss it out if a couple of lines get bit at once. That spot warrants a second pass and may turn out to be an area that you’ll want to set up over with a vertical approach.
As March progresses, the crappie stray shallower, moving into areas that look like they should hold fish. Extensive backwaters along lower Lake Marion’s south shore, including one big area known appropriately as “Crappie Neck,” hold big numbers of fish, as do the shallow pond areas around both lakes and the swampy upper end of Lake Marion.
When the fish move up, guide Kevin Davis turns to the simplest of approaches, putting a minnow on hook, crimping a split shot or two onto the line and adding a float a few feet up the line. In select spots where he expects there to be plenty of crappie, he’ll put out a handful of “minnow poles” and wait for the corks to start darting out of sight. More often, everyone in Davis’ boat has one long crappie pole in hand, and move from spot to spot, so they can pick apart little holes eelgrass flats, tree lines, stump rows and other likely crappie-holding spots.
The best approach for working trees and many of the lakes’ shallowest swampy areas are similar, except with a jig instead of a minnow, and no float on the line. Anglers working the swamp fish jigs on short lines just off the tips of long poles so they can drop a jig next to a cypress knee or hole in the vegetation, jiggle it a few times, and then pull it out and move on to the next piece of cover.
When You Go:
Area Information: www.santeecoopercountry.com
Guided fishing: www.santeecoopersportsman.tv
Food, lodging, boat launch: www.blackscamp.com