Three Key Ingredients for Clarks Hill Crappie
Dale Turner says docks, brush and shade are the ingredients for a good day of catching crappie on Clarks Hill in October.
I parked Dale Turner’s truck and boat trailer in the little gravel lot at his Lincolnton neighborhood’s private boat ramp and hustled back down the hill expecting to see him idling the boat up to the dock so I could jump on board to begin a day of crappie fishing at Clarks Hill Reservoir. When I got to the walkway leading out to a long, floating dock with several boat slips, I was somewhat surprised to see the boat tied in one berth, and Dale standing a couple of slips away, rod in hand.
“Friday evening and again last night, there were crappie piled around these docks by the thousands,” Dale said. “There’s some brush here, so we’ll try this for awhile and then go hit some other spots.”
I shrugged my shoulders, pulled out my pen, sat between two rods with minnows dangling down in the water, and began taking notes from a guy who knows Clarks Hill like the back of his hand. Dale targets docks, shady areas and brushpiles during October to find large concentrations of fish and some real slabs. All three together is almost a can’t-proposition.
Dale grew up around Clarks Hill and has been fishing the lake since he was in high school. He has chased every species of fish in the 71,000-acre Savannah River impoundment, catching stripers, hybrids, white bass, shellcrackers and largemouths with regularity. He is good at catching those fish. He is great at catching crappie as I would find out over the course of a day on the lake.
Most people think of crappie as a fish to chase in the early part of spring, when spawning fish come to shallower water and will eagerly take a live minnow or a trolled jig. But Dale says crappie are catchable all year long if you know what you are doing.
“This time of year, there aren’t many people fishing for crappie,” Dale said.
He pointed out that with October bringing cooler weather and decreasing water temperatures, you can catch speckled perch using tactics more closely associated with April.
“Whatever you do during the prespawn, you do now,” Dale said. Dale, who along with his son runs Turner Realty, isn’t kidding when he says he knows the lake. Not only does he know the water, he knows all the property around it.
“This lake has over 1,200 miles of shoreline,” Dale said. “I’ve seen every inch of it many times over.”
To say the fishing wasn’t hot early that morning would be an understatement. When fishermen think of crappie, they think of loading a cooler, often in a short period of time. Despite walking around to several slips and dropping minnows, a doll fly and a soft plastic fluke tail on a lead head, we had only put three crappie in the ice chest in about 45 minutes.
“Buddy, I want to show you these fish,” Dale said as he walked back toward his truck.
Dale went to his house, not even a half-mile away, and soon returned with an underwater camera. He dropped the lens down about 15 feet, and I sat watching as a large school of crappie swam around lazily on the screen in front of us.
“They are down there by the quad-trillions,” Dale said. “I can put you on top of hundreds of fish, but I can’t make them bite.”
Truth is, we weren’t at the lake on a day when fishing conditions were ideal. It was the morning after a full moon that had the sky lit up like daytime when I crawled out of bed at 4 o’clock that morning. Not to mention, the weather was hot as nine kinds of Hades and the fish seemed to have lockjaw.
We fished on, undeterred, and Dale explained the first part of a three-pronged approach to catching crappie in October.
“Docks are always key, any time of year,” Dale said. “Crappie like shade, so they will hang around under the docks when the sun is up.”
Dale advised anglers who are going try Clarks Hill for crappie for the first time ever this month should first find a concentration of docks and work from there.
“There are neighborhoods where there are a lot of docks, and some places where there aren’t any,” Dale said. “When you know where the neighborhoods are, you’ll find docks.”
Next, Dale says to narrow down which docks to fish by looking at water depth and checking for brushpiles. Later in October, as the water cools down, crappie could be around docks in eight to 10 feet of water. Until it cools down some, Dale won’t fish a dock unless it sits in water 15- to 20-feet deep. Once he locates those docks, he watches his depthfinder for brushpiles, and those are the docks he concentrates his efforts on.
“You can find fish on docks without brush, but having a brushpile helps a lot,” Dale said.
Dale will use minnows, the most popular crappie bait of choice. He will also throw a 1/32-oz. doll fly, barely working the jig as it swings down and back toward him through the water column. He also uses his other rig, which he makes by using about an inch of the tail section of a soft-plastic fluke on a 1/16-oz. jighead. Though all those baits will work, Dale said the most important indicator of the bite will be on live bait.
“Most of the time if crappie aren’t eating minnows, they won’t touch the artificials,” Dale said. “Occasionally they will.”
Dale said the most effective way to find a pattern on the docks is for one person to throw a minnow on a downline or a slip cork, while the other angler throws a jig or doll fly.
Dale will check every part of a dock before he moves. He knows that sometimes crappie will be be under the front of a dock, sometimes they will be stacked on one particular post, and sometimes they’ll congregate under pontoon boats.
“You try it from every angle, and you’re bound to catch some fish,” Dale said.
A few more minutes of slow dock fishing with only a five-inch bass to show for our efforts, and Dale was ready to switch tactics.
We climbed on his boat, backed out of the slip and motored down the lake to a large cove. Dale switched on his electronics and slowly idled until he located a brushpile located near a ledge in more than 20 feet of water. We dropped a marker buoy, lowered the trolling motor, hooked minnows on four rods, and started fishing.
Dale said when fishing a brushpile, he will make slow, small circles with the boat until the fish start biting. It is critical to note the depth at which fish are holding and keep baits above them in the water column. Dale said that while crappie will hold tight to brush, especially on bright days, they might all congregate on one side or the other.
“You don’t necessarily have to be right on the brush,” Dale said. “A lot of times I’ll catch as many fish around the edges as I will right over brush.”
We were downlining minnows, allowing our baits to hang straight down in the water, and a few fish started biting, but Dale and I kept trying to get our minnows a little deeper.
After breaking off a rig, Dale said getting a hook right in the brush is often an effective way to catch fish, but its not his favorite because you lose fishing time retying your line.
“Deeper is a double-edged sword,” Dale said. “You go deeper to try finding fish, and you start losing rigs.”
We circled the brushpile for an hour, picking up a fish every now and then when Dale suggested we go to lunch and try some other places after that.
It wasn’t long before we were back in the boat looking for fish. Dale went straight to the Little River bridge, a hulking steel and concrete structure that spans the lake, and idled right to one of the columns between the two banks.
Dale likes to fish around bridge pilings, especially during hot weather, and he pointed out that the fish could be ganged up in one spot or scattered around the columns. We decided to try every side until we found some crappie, so Dale maneuvered the boat around every side of each piling trying to entice a bite.
In a few minutes, one of the rods began twitching as a minnow 20 feet below the surface tried to escape a predator. The chase didn’t last long, and soon Dale was lifting a nice crappie into the boat. As we moved down the same section of wall, catching nice crappie every couple of minutes, Dale explained how most fishermen go wrong under the bridges, and how best to attack them.
“Most people will come under here and tie up to one of those ropes,” Dale said, pointing to a rope swinging in the slight breeze. “That keeps their minnow too far out from the wall, and they don’t do very good.
“Another mistake people make is only trying one side of one column and moving on if they don’t get a bite,” Dale said. “We just fished down both sides of two columns and were starting on the third when we started getting bit.”
When he goes to fish bridge pilings, Dale will start at one end of the bridge or the other and work down both sides of every piling until he catches a fish. Typically, the crappie will be congregated in the shade, so where he finds one, he finds others.
Dale also said anglers shouldn’t overlook the corners of the bridge columns, because crappie will often relate to the angles better than they do the flat, vertical surface of the column wall. They use the corners as ambush points, and because crappie sometimes strike baits on the fall, Dale likes to pitch just past a corner so that his minnow will pass very near the concrete as it falls through the water.
I guess they put a rub rail on a boat for a reason, and Dale must guess so too, because he isn’t afraid to get his boat right up to the wall of the bridge columns. He drops his minnows straight down and experiments with the depth until he begins catching fish.
“If you ain’t right up on the columns, you ain’t fishing,” Dale said right before he lifted another crappie over the side, unhooked it, and pitched into the cooler.
Pay close attention to where you are fishing. Things you can see above water can sometimes keep you in tune with what is happening below it. When Dale and I caught two fish quickly, I noticed a chip in the concrete on the bridge piling about a foot above the water’s surface. I pointed it out to Dale, who apparently had just noticed the same mini-trend.
“Drop another minnow right in front of that spot and see what happens,” Dale instructed.
I let the minnow go down about 15 feet, and within a few seconds, we had another fish.
The little chip in the concrete, which you would never notice if you were just idling under the bridge, became a landmark, helping Dale and me put minnows in the right spot time and again and provided us with about a half hour of fish-catching fun before the bite turned off.
Farther down the lake, in the back of another cove, Dale located another of his favorite brushpiles, pointing out the nearby ledge to me on his depthfinder.
We did the same slow, small circles around the orange marker, picking up 10 or 12 more fish before the ridiculously hot weather sent us scrambling for the boat ramp.
Standing in the driveway at Dale’s house, he gave a few more hints for successful October crappie fishing on Clarks Hill.
He said anybody who hasn’t fished Clarks Hill before should pick one area of the lake and stick with it.
“It’s a huge lake, and it’s easier to just learn how to fish one little section of it at a time than trying a bunch of different stuff,” Dale said.
He advised Clarks Hill newcomers to find some docks, cruise along in front of them and look for deep water and brush.
“Find a dock with at least eight feet of water and some brush, and make a few casts,” Dale said. “If you don’t catch something in four or five casts, move on.”
Dale wouldn’t advise cruising creeks to look for brush, but then again, he knows the lake so well, he can put his boat on top of brushpiles with ease. He says somebody who doesn’t have that level of knowledge can find crappie haunts by starting way back in a creek and idling slowly along the channel, watching their electronics for brush or trees.
When you find a good spot, use points on the shore or landmarks to triangulate so you can keep your boat in the right area to catch fish.
Dale likes to fish on sunny days. Most people like to crappie fish on cloudy days, and Dale does too in the spring, but he says a bright day makes crappie fishing easier in the fall.
“On a sunny day, I feel like the fish are easier to catch,” Dale said. “They will be stacked in and around structure in the shade.”
As October goes along, the water will cool and crappie will move to docks and brush in shallower water and anglers can use a variety of lures to entice a strike.
Dale likes doll flies in chartreuse, yellow, red and white, and orange and yellow. He’ll fish pearl fluke tails when it’s cold. Until then, he’ll dip them in orange or chartreuse garlic dye. He also said Hal Flys in a variety of colors, including olive clear will work. His personal favorite is red/pearl/purple.
“It’s deadly,” Dale said. “You can do a lot of experimenting, but that one works great.”
As I drove back to I-20 to make the trip back to my house, I chuckled as I remembered Dale’s best crappie-catching advice of the day.
“Don’t fish with a dead minnow,” he had said.
If you go to Clarks Hill this month, look for Dale on the lake. His method for catching crappie in October requires three key ingredients: docks, brushpiles and shade. He’ll be the big guy in the big boat, catching crappie.
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