Jan/Feb 2020Slab HappyBy David Lucas
If you think fishing is a lazy way to spend an afternoon, then you haven’t been crappie fishing on Lake Murray.
Text and photos by Joey Frazier
Midlands anglers who know their way around Lake Murray’s many coves and tributary creeks prowl the lake’s shallows in late winter and early spring for crappie, a delectable pan fish with a reputation for a strong bite and a good fight on light tackle.
In South Carolina, two different species populate the state’s fresh waters. Scientists call them Pomoxis nigromaculatus (black crappie) and Pomoxis annularis (white crappie), but locals might suggest those folks can name fish better than they can catch them. Among the anglers who specialize in crappie, monikers such as papermouth, goggle-eye and slab seem to roll off the tongue a little sweeter. Derek Frick is one such angler.
“I think it’s the action that draws me to crappie fishing,” Frick said. “Bass fishing is fun, and a lot of people like to do that, but how often can you go out and catch thirty or forty bass in a day?”
On an early fall afternoon, Frick and fishing companion Todd Bedenbaugh managed to put more than a dozen “keepers” in the boat with very little effort — at least they made it look easy enough.
“I guess I started crappie fishing when I was about fourteen years old,” Frick said. “At some point in time we transitioned from bass fishing to pan fishing. Crappie are bigger than bream, so you can catch the same number of crappie and have more total pounds of fish.”
Frick explains how easily beginners can get started fishing for crappie compared to other freshwater fishes.
“Really, you can get started with a simple ultralite rod and reel,” he said. He started that way fishing from the bank. However, a boat gives the angler the ability to cover more area on the water and test more types of structure. Although bass angling requires fast boats with powerful outboard motors and expensive bait casting reels, crappie anglers can get started much more simply.
“Once I started crappie fishing seriously, I knew I would need a boat,” Frick said. “Today, I have a bass boat, but my first boat was a fourteen-foot johnboat with a 9.9 horsepower motor. I can’t begin to tell you how many crappie I caught with that little rig.”
On this day, Frick and Bedenbaugh both fish with eleven-foot-long jig poles, which Frick likes to call “glorified cane poles.” He explains that a nice jig pole and reel might run as much as $60, much less than a basic bass angling setup.
Although electronics make finding any fish, including crappie, easier, Frick says it is not necessary to have fun on the water when it’s crappie you are after. He explains how fishing visible structure, such as logs, blown-down treetops and even docks can be very productive.
Bedenbaugh, a more casual angler, remembers taking his two daughters crappie fishing when they were younger.
“Those fishing trips gave them something they will carry with them for the rest of their lives,” Bedenbaugh said. “And I will, too. Sometimes we caught fish, other times we didn’t, but we still had the experiences and the memories of time spent outdoors together.”
“It’s a great way to get a child hooked on fishing,” Frick said. “Crappie fishing offers more action than bass fishing, so it is good for young kids with shorter attention spans.”
Frick added that crappie fishing is a growing sport among serious anglers, too. Crappie tournaments are popular among the devoted fishing folks who target this fish, although he believes the sport is not likely to rival the big bass tournaments that come to South Carolina waters annually.
On this day, Frick and Bedenbaugh both choose jig fishing, but that is not the only productive method to catch a limit of goggle-eye. Tight-lining, sometimes called spider rigging, and longline trolling are other options (when jigging action slows down).
Both spider rigging and trolling are multi-rod setups, according to Frick.
“The benefits of having multiple rods is that you can experiment with depth and different baits,” Frick said. “once you figure out a pattern the fish are keying on, you can catch more fish.”
While the two multi-rod setups are similar, spider rigging positions the rods around the bow of the boat, while trolling puts the rods around the back of the boat. Any method can offer lots of action on a given day, but most anglers have personal preferences about the way they catch their crappie.
In the 1980s, crappie fishing became extremely popular, especially on the Santee lakes. As time passed, the bite seemed to be less aggressive, and anglers came home with lighter creels, according to Ross Self, chief of freshwater fisheries for the SCDNR.
“Anglers started to let us know they were interested in learning about better management for their favorite species,” Self said.
Fisheries biologists at the SCDNR began putting together a plan to relieve some of the pressure on this popular fish.
“We settled on reducing the creel limit from thirty to twenty fish per day per angler,” Self said. “And we felt it was necessary to direct a minimum size of eight inches.”
Not all crappie anglers were excited about the reduced limits and size restrictions, according to Frick.
“At the time, I guess I was not forward thinking,” Frick said. “But there was a lot of pressure on crappie at the time. In the long run, I have seen the size of crappie caught in this lake increase. During the past couple of years, I have caught more two- and three-pound fish. I attribute that to the new regulations.”
No doubt about it, crappie are fun to catch. Practicing catch and release means more and bigger fish for you and other anglers to fight on another day. But the resource continues to do well, according to Self, so it is okay to take a few home for the table.
Although most folks fry crappie in a deep cauldron, others may prefer to prepare them by baking, grilling or blackening.
“We fry them,” Frick said. “Occasionally, I will make cakes from the flaky white meat, sort of like crab cakes. But eating a crappie filet hot and right out of the grease is the best.”
When it’s crappie you are after, generally you can count on plenty of action. But even slow days on the water can be fun if it’s time spent with family or friends. For Bedenbaugh, the experience is more important than the catch.
“I like to catch fish,” Bedenbaugh said,” but even if you don’t, you still have a good day just being out on the lake.”
Joey Frazier is editor of South Carolina Wildlife.