Sparkleberry Swamp & Jam
Story and photos by Vic Attardo
Okay, so Whitey says to me, “When a storm starts rolling in, snakes get off the water and climb higher in the trees.”
Well now, snakes don’t bother me much. I even had a timber rattler slither across the surface of a river right between a friend and me while we trout fished. The snake didn’t pester me; I didn’t pester it.
So a storm starts coming on while Whitey Outlaw and I are crappie fishing Sparkleberry Swamp in South Carolina. It was good fishing too, which I’ll tell you about. Well, the skies are getting darker and darker, we’re hearing distant thunder, even the swamp’s Barred owls are kicking up a fuss, and we’re in a dense canopy working very close to cypress and tupelo.
To get my jig as tight to some knees as a horny boy at a high school dance, I lean over, stretch out and put my hand on this solid trunk. My face gets kissing close too.
Well, you might guess it.
Right there staring back at me with the narrowest eyes since Eve tossed the apple to Adam is a curled up, wrapped around snake the size of a super stretched bungee cord.
As I said I don’t mind snakes but I don’t want to French one either so I stepped — no jumped — back in the boat and said, “Whitey, there’s a snake on this tree.” And he says, “Which way is it going?” And I say, “Looks like up.” And he says, “I told you when a storm starts rolling in, snakes climb higher.”
Scan a S.C. map and you’ll see a big patch of blue east of Columbia. A big patch. There are no roads going through the blue, no little villages set down in the center or on the sides, some maps don’t even give the blue a name but the space will have those little bushy printed symbols which look as much like a campfire as a bunch of wet reeds. Still the meaning is sort of clear — this is a swamp. A big swamp. And it’s called Sparkleberry Swamp which might as well be the name for a popular jam or jelly as a dense wet-bottomed semi-liquid land which, by the way, has some terrific crappie fishing. Terrific.
As Outlaw described it, Sparkleberry Swamp is 65 miles of “just blue on the map.”
“I doubt anyone has mapped all of it,” says Whitey who grew up fishing these outback waters.
Certainly few people know its crappie secrets, but Whitey does. Crappie next to the tree roots, crappie under floating mats of grass, crappie in the shade, crappie in the sun, crappie in patches of open and closeted waters, crappie, crappie and big crappie in lots of places.
The basic tenant of good swamp fishing techniques arises from the fact that one simply cannot cast in a swamp.
While I would have loved to catch a few swamp crappie with my fly rods, it was ’tirely out of the question. Indeed, a wise angler doesn’t even attempt to cast a spinning rod a few feet. There’s just no room — and a full swing might hook one of those snakes.
Using long poles from nine to twelve feet and a small reel that is never really “reeled,” only a few inches of line is extended from the rod tip. The offering is a one-sixteenth ounce jig with a soft-plastic trailer, but it’s possible to use a lighter weight jig if conditions permit.
As the rod is long, the technique requires a pole with a strong backbone and I found one in the BnM Double Duty.
Motoring next to potential crappie-holding structure, such as cypress knees or an opening in a pad field, the boat is stopped and the angler stands and positions the rod so that the tip sits directly over the place he hopes will hold fish. Some eight-inches of line are carefully dipped into the structure hole with a tight line maintained throughout the drop.
“I like to move the jig six inches to one side and then six inches to the other,” Whitey said.
This means that after the jig is inserted vertically into the opening, it receives a little horizontal movement as well.
If no strike is forthcoming, he lifts the jig and finds other potential holes all within the radius of the boat. When I fished with Whitey, we probed some dozen or so spots either from the bow and along both sides of the boat before moving on. Each potential opening saw us extending the rod, placing the tip over the slot, slowly but deliberately lowering the jig nearly the entire short length of line. The motion stopped when there was only a smidgeon of line between the water surface and the rod tip, or if fortune smiled, when the tip was jerked down by an attacking crappie.
As Whitey explained swamp fishing is actually fast fishing.
“I’m going quickly from tree to tree,” he said. “If you put the jig down there, they’re going to take it right away or they’re not.”
There’s no need to linger and wait for a strike. Either the fish bites or it doesn’t.
While we stopped and probed a number of spots at each stop, I was surprised at the quickness we cruised the swamp. The boat didn’t collect any barnacles.
“I leave the motor on idle when we fish,” Whitey said. “It doesn’t disturb them and you don’t have to restart the engine time and time again.”
We tooled around Sparkleberry in his 17-foot War Eagle johnboat with its 54-inch beam and a 40 hp tiller. The johnboat’s wide beam was perfect for the location as sometimes an unseen and submerged tree part would lift the hull, knocking us off plumb, but then we settled back with just a small splash and an “Ah!”
I had just asked Outlaw what kind of prop he used, when we ran over a thick log that lifted the boat in force.
“Stainless steel,” he replied as the blades dug back into the dark water, “and I’ve bent some of those.”
The swamp is certainly contentious water.
One day I fished with Whitey, the hot structural spot was a layer of robust, rumpled leaves located next to a flooded tree. The crappie weren’t really in the labyrinth of tree roots and bent cypress knees but under the thick greenery often in less than three feet of water.
However, this greenery wasn’t anchored to the bottom. The plants were of a hyacinth variety which doesn’t have ground-embedded roots. Instead the flora is at the mercy of the winds and are pushed around by the southern tempests. Hyacinths tend to coagulate in dense stands and while a more permanent collection of trees and tree roots ensnares the moving mats at the same place, time and time again, the transience of the plants means they can be a hot spot for crappie one day and be empty of fish the next.
Nevertheless Whitey continually greets various hyacinth locations noting that he had taken a number of crappie from particular sites all season. Frankly I can’t see how he can tell one mat from the other, or even maneuver around the unsigned swamp, but that’s the advantage of being homegrown.
Later, making an unofficial calculation, I averaged out the number of snake-in-the-tree sightings we experience to one every two hours. The count was impressive.
The crappie contingent worked out to more than half-a-dozen brawny crappie per hour. And every fish was a wonder of place and opportunity.
Now if I can only find some of that Sparkle berry Jam. Sure would go good with scrapple and toast.