On a day when the shade of the pontoon is welcoming, crappie guide Steve English believes crappie take refuge in the brush. (Photo: Jim Mize)
Coaxing Crappie on Santee Cooper
Brushpile bonanza with guide Steve English
by Jim Mize
The morning sun crawled over the horizon, sluggish as I was at this time of day. Clouds were scarce and the clear sky promised to trend from warm to hot. It was the sort of day that made you want to hide under the shade in a pontoon boat and turn your face into the breeze whenever it rippled the water. I took another sip of coffee, perking up from the caffeine and the thought of fishing for crappie on Santee Cooper with Steve English.
Steve is the third generation of guides in his family and his son makes the fourth. Steve targets crappie with his clients from April to mid-December and bass in the remaining months. As a result, his work keeps him on the water over two hundred days during the year.
He picked Lake Moultrie for our trip today. We talked about crappie fishing and his approach on the boat ride out. Our plan was to hit brushpiles in a variety of depths to get onto the fish in quick order. While we drove, I asked him how many brushpiles he fished around the lake. He said he had somewhere between 150 to 200, so he could fish a lot of conditions and not overfish any of them.
Sometimes Steve would make a comment that caught me by surprise and I’d circle back to get him to clarify. One of those was about people not always fishing brushpiles well.
“Not everyone is equipped well to set up on a brushpile,” said Steve. “You can throw your marker out and not really be on it. For instance, if your transducer is on the back of your boat and you drop your marker off the front, you can be a boat length off the brush. Even with a side-transducer you don’t always find the right location.”
“So when the fish are tight to brush and you’re not on it you won’t catch fish. It takes practice. Sometimes you have to move your boat around to make sure you have it where you want.”
“When crappie are hungrier and moving around, they are easier to catch,” said Steve. “It’s when they are tight in the brush that you have to get close. Sometimes you have to drop a jig into the brush and they hit it coming out.”
Steve pulled us onto a brushpile in about fifteen feet of water. On occasion, I managed to snag a branch about ten feet deep. We dropped small minnows just over the brush and set the rods in holders while we jigged with other rods. Steve was fishing alongside me today as I needed some photos. I quickly noticed that with both of us using jigs and separated by just a few feet, he was catching twice as many fish as I was. The only difference I could see was a subtle one. He hardly moved his jig. I asked him about it.
“Most people overwork a jig,” said Steve. “Sometimes you can set a rod down and come back to it with a fish on it. These fish have different moods and sometimes you can lift a jig five feet and they will hit it on the fall.”
“So when the fish are tight to brush and you’re not on it you won’t catch fish.”
~ Steve English
Today, they clearly preferred minimal movement on the jigs.
As the sun rose, I found myself admiring the scenery. Lake Moultrie and Lake Marion are connected by a canal to form the Santee Cooper Lakes. The two were built during the Great Depression through a massive land project, the largest clearing of timber on record at the time. Over 177,000 acres of swamp and forest land were cleared by 12,500 workers.
World War II impacted the project before it was finished. Lake Moultrie was mostly cleared of timber with just stumps left behind in the lake. Lake Marion, on the other hand, was not completely harvested of timber. This upper lake was filled leaving behind submerged stumps, standing dead timber, and live cypress trees. Lake Marion is the shallower lake, a large flat area with river and creek channels cutting through it.
At one lull I asked Steve what he does differently in the summer on Santee Cooper to catch crappie.
“I generally fish a little deeper in the summer,” said Steve. “On a full moon, you can go shallower. But on Santee, a bright sun seems to force the crappie into the brush. During low light, the crappie travel more and use the brush as resting areas.”
“Dad said there are always more crappie traveling around the lake than there are in the brushpiles and I believe that.”
Should you want to take a trip to Santee Cooper, here are a few contacts to get started.
A good tourism website for Santee Cooper is santeecoopercountry.org. You can find general information on dining, lodging, and other attractions in the area.
I stayed at Blacks Camp in Cross, South Carolina. Blacks Camp is located at the lower end of the canal between the lakes and makes it easy to access either lake. Blacks is a full-service camp with launching, gas, guides and fish-cleaning services. Also, they offer a restaurant as well as a wide range of lodging choices from single rooms to cabins, or sites for campers. You can find more information at blackscamp.com or call them at 843-753-2231.
Steve English has a Facebook page you can follow and read more about current fishing conditions. You can also reach him at 843-729-4044.
(Jim Mize is an award-winning outdoor writer whose work has appeared in Gray’s Sporting Journal, South Carolina Wildlife Magazine, American Angler, and many other publications. His two award-winning books of outdoor humor and nostalgia are available at www.acreektricklesthroughit.com.)