Lake Russell’s December Crappie And Perch

December fishing at Russell usually means December catching!

Don Baldwin | April 7, 2006

Lake Russell can produce some slab crappie, like this pair held by William Jabour’s son, Will. These fish and many more like them were caught in November, and Williams says you can stay on good fish by following the baitfish as they move into the creeks in December.

During the early winter months as water temperatures drop into the low 50s on Georgia reservoirs, large schools of baitfish, like threadfin shad, move off the main lake and into the coves and creeks. This massive migration of bait is followed closely by concentrations of larger fish that move along under the schools and feed voraciously on the plentiful forage.

Lake Russell, on the Georgia/South Carolina border, is no exception. Crappie, bass, perch, and other species follow the bait, and if you get yourself into the right position, there is no telling what you might bring up from the depths.

We had the opportunity to fish Richard B. Russell Reservoir with William Jabour of Elberton in mid-November. William, 44, is an aquatic biologist for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and is responsible for keeping track of water quality on Russell, Hartwell, and Thurmond reservoirs. William has been fishing Russell since it was impounded and spends a lot of time on the water as a result of his job and his pleasure fishing. He also runs a guide service “Fisher-O-Men” that is focused on family fishing outings.

The day we went out, the surface temperatures were still in the low 60s, and the fish were in a period of transition. The lake had completed its turnover and the temperatures were beginning to drop significantly, but they were still higher than they should ideally be for the pattern we wanted to fish. After stopping at the Quick Stop for a good supply of minnows, we launched the boat at the ramp on Pearl Mill Road about 1 p.m. It had been raining for the two previous days, and the tail end of a cold front was coming through, complete with a blustery wind, so we weren’t quite sure what kind of activity to expect. William said that we would be focusing our efforts on the Beaver Dam Creek section of the lake.

“We’ll head upstream and try our luck at some of the channel markers first,” said William. “We’ve been catching some good slabs over the brush in around 15 feet of water during the last couple of weeks, but it may be tough to stay in position with this wind.”

William said the big crappie had been biting well recently, and fish in the 1-lb. category weren’t unusual. He shut down the big outboard and put the trolling motor over the side near marker number BDC 47. William and his son Will had caught several large slabs at this marker the previous week. William began maneuvering the boat around the marker keeping his eye on the electronics looking for brushpiles. When he located them, we set out live minnows on downlines, so that they would be positioned just over the tops of the brush.

The rigs consisted of open-faced spinning reels mounted on short, flimsy crappie rods. The reels were spooled with 6-lb. test line and the terminal tackle consisted of No. 2 to No. 4 Tru-Turn hooks (depending on the size of the bait) and a 1/8-oz. bullet weight suspended about a foot above the hook with a small crimp-on spilt shot.

“If the fish are here they’ll bite quickly,” said William. “If you haven’t had a hit in 10 minutes or so, it is best to move on to the next spot.”

We circled the marker a couple of times and had one light hit, but the fish didn’t take the bait. After one additional pass with no luck, we headed downstream to the next marker. This one produced similar results.

“Sometimes on bright days the fish will move up into cover along the shoreline,” said William. “Since they don’t seem to be on the channel markers, we’ll try a couple of spots before moving on downstream.”

We fished the shoreline treetops with long rods of about nine feet equipped with corks with slip rigs that allowed us to adjust for the depth we wanted to suspend the minnows. At the second treetop, one of the floats went out of sight, and, after a brief struggle, we landed a largemouth of about a pound.

“Doesn’t look like the crappie are holding here either,” said William. “We’ll head downstream and try some of the creeks that I typically find fish in during December.”

We passed under the Pearl Mill Bridge and went farther downstream to Gray Branch on the left side of the channel.

“This creek and the one upstream on the same side of the lake are excellent winter locations for crappie,” said William. “For some reason large schools of shad stack up in the channels of these creeks and draw big crappie in with them. And don’t be surprised if you catch a nice yellow or white perch as well.”

William said you should look for concentrations of bait in water from 25- to 35-feet deep. It isn’t necessary to see fish on the graph. The fish hold tightly to the bottom and are often not visible on the graph. But if you find bait, the crappie are likely there.

“The key to this pattern is your electronics,” said William. “If you don’t see bait on the graph, don’t even bother, you are wasting your time.”

There is virtually no impact on the pattern due to bottom structure or cover. The presence of bait is the most important factor in finding the fish. And the depth range in which you are likely to find them is around the 30-foot mark.

We cruised around the creek on the trolling motor about mid-way back from the mouth in a sort of grid pattern, keeping the boat in about 30 feet of water. There was clearly a lot of bait in the area. Each time we spotted a sizable ball of shad, William threw a marker buoy over the side. When we had three buoys floating on the surface, we set our rigs out and moved slowly back toward one of the buoys.

“Since the bait is holding in about 25 feet of water the 1/8-oz. sinkers should be enough to keep the minnows down,” said William. “For depths of more than 25 feet, I’ll usually switch to 1/4-oz.”

William was also concerned about the amount of wind that we had. He said it is very important to keep the minnows suspended vertically and move very slowly around the bait schools. The wind was blowing at about 15 miles per hour and was pushing the boat around pretty good, making it difficult for us to stay over the bait school. It is very important to keep the minnows suspended just above the bottom, so if you are moving around in the wind a lot, watch your line. If you see the line go slack, crank up a turn or two to keep from getting hung up on the bottom. Also, let the line out a bit when you move over deeper water. Try to keep the bait a foot or two off the bottom for best results.

Bridge pilings hold crappie all year. Drop minnows next to the pilings that are closest to the channel. Vary the depth to see where the fish are suspended.

In addition to the minnows, William rigged a couple of rods with jigging spoons. We were using 1/4-oz. Berry Spoons, but any spoon, such as a Hopkins, will do in sizes up to about 1/2-oz. With the boat almost stationary, we dropped the spoons to the bottom and began the typical vertical jigging method, ripping the spoon off the bottom and letting it flutter down while staying in contact with the lure as it went back to the bottom.

“The spoons work best on sunny days and can provide a lot of action while waiting on the live-bait bite,” said William. “The only problem is that when the action heats up, you might end up with multiple hook ups that can result in a tangled mess.”

Another tip is that William keeps a tight-mesh castnet on board, and if he spots a school of shad near the surface, he’ll net some to use as bait.
“Minnows work fine,” says William, “but the fresh shad can often produce more strikes.”

In the cooler weather William says that the shad will do fine in a bait bucket or livewell.

Even though we were having trouble staying in position because of the wind, we soon began getting strikes under the bait schools. We boated yellow perch, white perch, bream, catfish, and a few small crappie in a short period of time. Adding the bass we caught in the treetop earlier, that was six species of fish using the same method in an afternoon of fishing. Most of the fish were small, but several of the perch were big enough to provide some excellent table fare.

William says that this pattern will last throughout December and into January. Fish will continue to be concentrated under the bait in the coves through the winter. As the surface temperatures drop, the action will likely slow somewhat until the spring warm up begins, but you should be able to catch a few fish under the bait schools right through the winter.

If there are a few warm days in a row, William said to try dropping a minnow in some of the deeper blowdowns along the bank. A little warm weather can drive the fish shallow, and you can catch crappie in 10 feet or less of water during warm spells.

Another excellent location to try is along bridge pilings.

“There are fish hanging around the pilings all year long,” William said. “Usually they’ll be on the deeper pilings closer to the channel during the winter, but you may find them suspended at different depths.”

William approaches a piling by placing the rods along one rail of the boat and maneuvering the boat as close to the piling as possible. Again, it is easiest to stay in position when the wind isn’t blowing, and the subtle strikes are much easier to see in calm conditions.

One piece of advice that William gives to all of his beginning clients; you don’t need to set the hook when the fish strikes. Simply lift the rod out of the holder and begin reeling. The limber rod will typically set the thin-wire hook for you. Jerking the rod is likely to cause you to lose more fish than you catch. Crappie have tender mouths and a sharp hook-set will more often than not tear the fish’s mouth and cause it to pull free.

This method of fishing is easy for the beginner and can provide you and your family a great way to catch fish and enjoy the day together. There is no need to fight the morning cold. Wait until the afternoon and let it warm up a little. Get a bucket of minnows — you’ll need plenty because you’ll go through them in a hurry if the fish are biting — and head out to Lake Russell. The fishing is easy, there is a variety of fish to catch, and you might just land a few slab crappie.

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