Clarks Hill Early Spring Crappie

Before you put away your winter jacket, the big crappie bite at Clarks Hill.

Lindsay Thomas Jr. | March 1, 2002

Billy Murphy’s success as a crappie fisherman on Clarks Hill, and his local reputation as someone who knows where the crappie are and whether they are biting or not, comes from several factors.

One is the fact that he has been fishing the lake full time since it was impounded, first with his father and later with his two sons. Another is Billy’s forest-renewal efforts — that’s the best way to describe his annual tours of the lake on a pontoon boat bristling with used Christmas trees. The “forests” he has established, and continually renews, all over the bottom of Clarks Hill are places Billy can go almost any time of year and find fish.

This time of year, Billy starts visiting his tree plots more often, getting ready for the swarms of big, spawning slabs that Clarks Hill consistently produces every March.

“From the first of March to the middle of March is when we’ll see more of the big crappie,” said Billy. “We’re in a jacket when we catch the bigger ones. You don’t see those big fish as much once T-shirt weather comes in.”

Billy, who is from Augusta, works at Tutt Middle School where he has been a teacher and a football and basketball coach for 25 years. Having the summers off meant that he and his twin sons, Jim and Brad, could spend every summer day at Clarks Hill, and they usually did, fishing for hybrids in the morning, skiing during mid-day and bass fishing in the afternoon.

Billy Murphy, of Augusta, with crappie caught at Clarks Hill on February 14, 2002. The bite was slow, but scads of fish were showing up on the graph, and they were already moving shallow. The bite for big Clarks Hill crappie turns on during March.

Since 1982, Billy has also been a fishing guide on the lake, specializing in crappie but taking folks to catch anything else they wanted to try. He and his sons have also fished crappie tournaments on Clarks Hill and Lake Russell, including father/son events — a couple of years ago Billy and Jim won a tournament on Russell with a stringer anchored by Jim’s 2-lb., 8-oz. crappie, which also won big fish. You’ll even find the name Murphy in the list of Clarks Hill Lake Records; in December of 1989, while Billy and Brad were casting jigs to submerged trees trying to locate crappie, Brad hooked a 2-lb., 8-oz. yellow perch that is the biggest on record for the lake.

Crappie fishing intensifies for Billy in February, although the best fishing is in March and April. In February, Billy said, the crappie move in along the major creek channels into the larger coves, first into 20-25 feet of water on the channel drops, on into the 15-foot range in the coves, and eventually into eight feet of water and less.

Water temperature is the factor that moves the crappie in or out of shallower water — when the water temperature hits 60 degrees the crappie will be in eight to 10 feet of water, moving shallower as the temperature rises. The smaller male crappie will get to the banks first, said Billy, followed by the larger females. It is usually early March when these big fish, hanging just off the banks and not quite committing to the spawn yet, feed heaviest.

Billy’s technique for catching crappie is a standard one – 1/16-oz. Hal-Flys trolled on 10-lb. test behind his Stratos bass boat or from his pontoon boat. When the crappie move right onto the banks to spawn in the shallows, Billy will switch to 8-lb. test for casting Hal Flys on corks to the bank, but he doesn’t adjust jig sizes when he’s trolling. Instead, he controls the depth of his jigs with the trolling motor and corks, if necessary.

“I’ve learned how to fish a 1/16-oz. jig,” said Billy. “If you go to something smaller you have to adjust the speed of your boat, the size of your line, how far you cast out, etc. It’s just easier for me to stick with one size.”

Trolling speed is important enough for Billy that he doesn’t work the trolling-motor foot petal with his foot — he mounts his bow seat on the floor of the boat deck without the pole, then works the speed dial with his hands, helping him make more subtle adjustments in speed.

On the day I fished with Billy, Friday, February 15, the water temperature was in the mid-50s and Billy already knew that the crappie were not feeding heavily. A slow presentation was necessary. But Billy was graphing plenty of fish in 15 feet of water and some in 10 or less, so he added corks to his lines to keep the jig from sinking to the bottom while dragging them as slowly as possible. The day before, Billy had caught two crappie in a couple of hours of effort, and we caught two together as well, but all four fish were good, fileting-sized crappie.

In Gray’s Creek on the Little River arm, Billy’s Lowrance showed fish 12 feet down in 15 feet of water. In some locations, we found fish six feet down in eight feet of water. Around Billy’s Christmas-tree spreads, fish were scattered higher in the water column over the structure. Wherever we went, Billy adjusted the corks to suit what the graph was showing.

The average size of crappie at Clarks Hill is outstanding, and early March is the best time of year to catch big ones.

By the first of March, provided the water temperature is closer to or above 60, corks shouldn’t be necessary. Crappie will go for faster food, and faster trolling will keep the jigs from dragging too deep.

“A couple of years ago in March I was fishing by myself, and I put out eight rods at once,” said Billy. “I passed over some trees and got eight hits at once, one on every rod. You should have seen me — I had a rod in each hand, one under each foot, one between my knees and one in my mouth. There was a bass fisherman in the cove, and he was watching me and just laughing. I landed five of the fish, though!”

The well-known “Christmas tree” pattern of red/green/yellow is Billy’s favorite color combination in a Hal-Fly, though on the day we fished a red/white/pink produced bites. Another favorite color of Billy’s is green with a yellow head, and later in the spring he fishes a white jig under a cork for casting to the banks.

Billy relocates his trees from landmarks on the shoreline, though having a lot of different tree sites sometimes makes it difficult to go right to every one. But you don’t have to hit them directly to pick up fish — the locations Billy chooses to drop trees are natural destinations for crappie in the spring. He looks for coves off the larger creeks, relatively close to deep water in the main creek channel, with a good range of depth — not a long flat and not a steep drop-off. The prime locations Billy fishes most are in the major creeks on Little River like Grays, Cliatt, Lloyds, Cherokee, Chigoe, and Germany Creek.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers allows anglers to place trees in Clarks Hill as long as the structure is anchored well so that it won’t become a boating hazard (the rules may differ on other corps lakes, so check with lake managers before placing trees). Billy fills his pontoon boat with trees, anchored at the bottom with a cinder block. Then he lines them up by the railing gates on either side of his pontoon boat. Setting the boat on a slow troll through a prime location, Billy pushes them out two at a time off each side of the boat, so that they fall in pairs with a boat-length between them. This way, when Billy trolls back through, the jigs dragging behind the boat are all passing close to structure. Some of these “trolling courses” are set for the early bite in 20-25 feet of water, most for the prime bite in 12-15 feet of water, and some in eight feet of water or less. Billy will usually cast jigs on corks to these shallow trees, which he lays on their sides, when the spawn is hot and the fish are on the banks. Right now, with the lake 10 feet below full pool, it is Billy’s deep-water spreads that are actually going to be the prime trolling spots in March. Unfortunately, that also means that most of his favorite tree sites are out of the water.

Billy doesn’t guard his tree sites closely — he often shares their locations with other anglers, including outdoor writer Bill Baab, who publishes a weekly fishing report and outdoor column in the Augusta Chronicle.

“Everybody knows about these trees in here,” he told me in one area of Grays Creek. “Sometimes I come in here and I have to take a number.”

Last year, Billy and his son Jim were trolling Hal-Flys through one of Billy’s tree farms when Jim hooked a fish that fought like a big hybrid.

“The fish came up and rolled by the boat and we both saw that it was a crappie,” said Billy, “but it looked like a largemouth. His mouth and body were just that big. Jim couldn’t lift him into the boat, and I was trying to get the net, and by the time I got it the hook popped out. I tried to scoop and get him but he was gone — you know my name was Mud the rest of that day.

“That fish would have gone four pounds, no doubt about it,” said Billy.

Billy’s personal record for crappie stands at just over three pounds.

If you go after a slab of your own this month, the lake level is going to be a big factor in your day. Even the middle of the main lake is not safe — Billy idled over the Little River channel keeping an eye out for standing timber that, normally 12 feet under the surface, is now a hazard. A good plan is to drive to a ramp located in the creek you plan to fish. Wear a life jacket when your big motor is running. Recently, a friend of Billy’s who knows the lake well lost a lower unit, and was thrown from his boat, when he hit a stump.

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