Catching Clarks Hill Crappie Deep In The Timber
Capt. William Sasser said vertical jigging in brush works in January. He shares four GPSed trees where you can jig up some slabs.
Picture, in your mind’s eye, a 45-foot-high hardwood tree lying on its side 35 to 40 feet down in Clarks Hill Lake. It’s one of about 200 trees Capt. William Sasser, of Evans, has placed in the lake over the last 30 years or so.
“I’ve sunk trees from the dam to (Lincoln County’s) Georgia Flats, up Georgia’s Little River to Lloyds Creek, and there are many I haven’t been back to in several years,” he said.
Why has the U.S. Coast Guard-licensed fishing guide kept himself as busy as a beaver? Simple. He knows the once-vertical trees provide food and shelter to one of the lake’s most popular game fish, the crappie. Largemouth bass move in and out among the branches at certain times of the year, and at other times the trees and their denizens attract the attentions of hybrid and striped bass.
William prefers hardwoods over conifers. Included are pin oaks, sweet gums and “some sort of berry trees,” he said. “I weight the hardwoods with concrete blocks, and they sink faster and straighter than do the firs. I’ll sometimes sink firs on top of older deteriorating hardwoods, placing Styrofoam blocks in their tops so they’ll land in a vertical position.”
He has placed other hardwoods at various depths ranging from 10 feet to 50, providing him with areas where his clients can fish year-round — trees for all seasons, if you please. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers doesn’t mind fishermen sinking trees as long as they stay away from pines. In fact, anglers are encouraged to sink the many trees the Corps collects after Christmas and places at public launching ramps around the lake.
The main rule is that trees cannot be left jutting above the lake surface where they would become hazardous to boat traffic.
William demonstrated the value of such sinkings during a crappie-fishing jaunt to the lake last month. He was joined in his 26-foot center-console boat by this writer and his wife, Bea, and Albert Moody, owner of the Clarks Hill (S.C.) Herring Hut.
One thing to remember, William says, is an often overlooked key to crappie-fishing success in January — proper positioning of the boat, which takes place from the downwind side of the tree. He uses a homemade anchor in the bow and a commercially available mushroom anchor in the stern. His bow anchor is made from lead wheel weights (used in balancing tires) melted into a round pot 4 inches deep and 6 in diameter. He places a muffler clamp on top of the 20-lb. snag-proof weight. He ties on 50 feet of soft 5/8-inch blue and white rope that doesn’t hurt your hands when you pull it up a lot.
Here’s how it works:
“I watch the depthfinder until I see the tree I’m looking for,” said William. “I always wait until I find the tallest part of the tree closest to the surface before anchoring. I wait until it passes from view on the screen, and then I drop the anchor and back the boat until the anchor touches the leading edge of the tree. I then lower the stern mushroom-type anchor (it doesn’t get into the tree) to prevent the boat from swinging out of position.”
He said the fish will always be found at the front of the boat and hardly ever in the back. How does he know that?
“When I lower the bow anchor, every fish in the tree is curious,” he explained. “They won’t run from the anchor, but to it. It’s like being around a dock in the summertime and throwing a piece of bread into the water. What happens? Every fish around that dock will come to the bread.
“Some years ago, my children gave me an underwater camera. Time and time again, I watched crappie move out of the trees to the anchor. So, that’s how I discovered the ‘sweet spot’ around trees. Of course, after the boat is anchored, I never know if the bite is going to be on the left side or the right, but I know it will come from off the bow.”
During our trip last month, many fish were caught right next to the anchor line, and none were caught off the boat’s stern. We fished small golden shiners impaled on No. 1 Aberdeen gold long-shanked hooks tight-lined on 8-lb. monofilament 15 to 20 feet down. A No. 7 split shot was pinched onto the line several inches above the hook. We cast either open-faced spinning reels, or closed-faced spincasting reels provided by the skipper. Our party wound up with 30 plump crappie, some weighing nearly 2 pounds each.
“I use either Eagle Claw or Mustad hooks,” our guide said. “The Eagle Claw hook is made of stiffer wire, and you’ll leave a lot of them stuck in the tree. Mustad hooks are made of more flexible wire, and you usually can get them back if you hang up.
“January crappie-fishing patterns are easily identified if it’s a typical winter month — cold. The fish aren’t to be found in the backs of creeks, but stay along the main river and creek channels over trees and brush to be found in little pockets. If January temperatures are warmer than usual, we can catch fish as shallow as 5 feet down instead of the usual 25 to 35 feet. The only time I’ll use a marker buoy is to mark the position of a shallow tree if temperatures soar into the high 60s or low 70s over a period of a few days.
“Then my clients can cast small shiners fished 6 feet below corks over trees in 10 feet of water or less, or we can pull jigs over the tree using the trolling motor.”
William prefers 1/16-oz. jigs if it’s windy, 1/32-oz. if it’s not.
“I use Crappie Country jigs or Popeye jigs, and I always tip them with small golden shiners I purchase from the Herring Hut in Clarks Hill. Twenty-dozen shiners usually are plenty to take on a guided crappie fishing trip.
“If the water is clear, I prefer white- or blue-colored jigs; if it’s muddy, orange, yellow, red or black. If we had fished jigs on our trip, I would have told you to cast them out 15 or 20 feet on 8-lb. line, let them settle to the bottom, then jig them up and down. If nothing happened, reel them in and cast again. Sometimes crappies will hit the jigs as they fall.”
William uses his GPS to locate some of his trees but doesn’t use the GPS when sinking them. Instead, he lines up marks on land such as cell phone towers, telephone poles, points or shallow-water markers.
“But I find the GPS system invaluable in locating some of my trees, and I don’t mind sharing a few Clarks Hill locations with Georgia Outdoor News readers. Best thing about the system is they can use their GPS units in their own backyards to pinpoint the trees’ positions before they head to the lake. Each coordinate is unique to the respective target, and it’s accurate to within 15 feet of each tree.”
One such “fish magnet” is located 27.3 feet down at N 33º 43.261 – W 82º 15.261. Another is at 28 feet down at N 33º 42.989 – W 82º 16.040.
“That last one is a real fish-catcher,” William said. “It’s in the back of a locally well-known area called Bass Alley. The fish will quickly return to that tree after spawning, and fishermen will be able to consistently catch them during April and May.”
Here are two others, the first located in Clark Hill Park on the South Carolina side above the dam: N 33º 40.860 – W 82º 11.334.
The other is located in the back of what is locally known as Owl Branch (Modoc Shores), also on the South Carolina side. The coordinates are N 33º 42.297 – W 82º 12.359.
The 49-year-old Augusta native comes by his vast fishing knowledge honestly. You might say he inherited it. His late father, Carl, was known for his ability to catch crappie. He’d go fishing with 20- to 40-dozen small golden shiners inside an ice chest (this was before aerated live wells) and come back in with limits of slab crappies.
“When I was a kid, I’d go out with Dad many times,” said William. “Sometimes before taking a trip, he’d visit supermarkets and get spoiled produce like lettuce, cabbage and other things. He’d put that into a croaker (burlap) sack and sink it on top of his trees. That mess attracted lots of bait fish, which attracted the crappie. I occasionally use the same technique.”
His father also holds the lake’s largemouth bass record, catching the 14-lb., 14-oz. largemouth while fishing for crappie over a deep logjam in Grays Creek in February of 1992. Several years later, his son landed an 11-lb., 3-oz. bigmouth, also in February. How did he catch it? You guessed it — crappie fishing.
“Once I took out two guys from Ohio and one caught a 12-lb. bass. The catch was witnessed by local bass fishermen Ron Brown and Barry Frazier. We weighed it and released it.”
The biggest three crappie Sasser ever caught weighed 4 pounds, 8 ounces; 4 pounds, 6 ounces and 4 pounds, 4 ounces. On another trip, he and his clients caught eight fish heavier than 3 pounds with two heavier than 4 pounds.
“The big ones were always white crappie,” he said.
William, who has a great sense of humor, is a pleasure to be with on the boat. He charges $350 for one to three people, with a $50 charge for each person over three. He can take up to six people on a single trip. His fishing specialties also include hybrid and striped bass, in addition to crappie. While some guides limit a trip to eight hours or a limit of fish, whichever comes first, that’s not William’s style.
“Some people want to fish only four hours, while others can go all day,” said William. “I try to accommodate all of them as much as I can. I also want my clients to have what I call the total fishing experience. I’ll have each of them cast with rod and reel, hold onto the tackle so they’ll feel the strike and then play the fish until I can net it.
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