Nightstalking for Crappie
By Terry Madewell
As the sun starts sinking into the western sky near Lake Wylie on the North and South Carolina border, nightstalkers begin to prowl. They gather gear, sharpen hooks and prepare for the expected nocturnal onslaught. Rigged and ready at carefully calculated ambush sites, they wait for their victims.
At twilight first victim falls prey. Energized by that first fish slime on their hands, the massacre begins.
We’re not talking Jack the Ripper here; we’re talking about night fishing under the lights by crappie fishermen who enjoy nocturnal fishing. This corps of crappie catchers coined the name ‘nightstalkers’, a most appropriate moniker. The fishing process is neither random nor haphazard and they do strategize, seek and slay their quarry.
One of the top teams of nightstalkers on Lake Wylie (and surely any lake) is Robert “Rango” Plemmons and O.T. Phonephet. Their home base for night stalking is Lake Wylie near Rock Hill, South Carolina, but they’ve proven their nightstalking technique works great on many lakes. The 70-year old Plemmons said the technique will work about anywhere crappies are found.
“I nightstalk all over the state, and beyond,” Plemmons said. “Nightstalking is the name we’ve taken because we enjoy fishing after dark and it implies an art to the technique. To be consistently successful at night an angler must be no less diligent in planning and execution than anglers fishing by day. It’s very enjoyable to set up and fish under the lights at night. In our area, regardless of the time of the year, night fishing is productive.”
Plemmons has refined his technique for 45 years. When he first began crappie fishing at night, it was a simple process but the process has evolved.
“I started crappie fishing in 1968,” he said. “By 1970 I had discovered fishing night under the lights and it was enormously productive. Our lighting system was simple, using Coleman lanterns or sealed beam lights shining down into the water. We used a couple of rods each and I didn’t even have them in rod holders, just leaned on the side of the boat. It was simplistic, but fun.
“Through the years I started to experiment and began refining the process,” Plemmons said. “Now we use specialized lights to attract baitfish and fish and we use several to generate a lot of light. We’ve proven that if you set up right, the more rods you fish the more crappie you’re going to catch, if you can keep up with the fish-biting action. My fishing partner, O.T. Phonephet, is amazing at effectively fishing multiple rods.”
It’s an effective system and achieves a level of productivity that most crappie fishermen would envy. According to catfish guide Roger Taylor on Lake Wylie, Plemmons became a cult icon for local anglers.
“I’d be launching before dawn and there would be people waiting at the landing for Rango to return,” Taylor said. “Waiting for hours just to see what they caught.”
The keys are simple, but crucial, according to Plemmons. He said that anchoring on the right spot is of course a good start, but you can draw fish from the surrounding area. But it helps to be in an area where there is plenty of crappie.
Plemmons said when first starting nightstalking it may take a trip or two to home in on just the right places.
“But it can work out that the first trip is very productive,” he said. “O.T. and I key on underwater structure at night, just as we would during the daytime. We anchor on drops into channels, deep hole or off point and humps. The depth varies depending on the lake. On Lake Wylie we like the 20-to-30-foot depth range during most of the year. During the summer on lakes that stratify, you may have to adjust that depth according to the thermocline.”
Plemmons said that anchoring on a drop is always a good place to begin because the drop serves as a movement route for the fish. By setting up along the route fish are using you’ve taken a big step toward success.
“We fine-tune our fishing and we’ll pinpoint crappie hotspots,” Phonephet said. “Often the intersection of a secondary creek or ditch along the primary ledge will funnel more fish into our area.”
The next factor is anchoring the boat properly.
“Getting the boat anchored solidly, where it won’t shift the anchors is essential,” Phonephet said. “We’ll take plenty of time to set up to ensure that the anchors are holding tight.
“The bite of a crappie is sometimes very subtle and a boat bouncing in the wind can make it difficult to see,” he said. “I try to stack as many odds in my favor as possible. If I have two potentially good places and one place is calm, that’s the one I’ll pick.”
Phonephet describes their fishing setup as a feast for the fish.
“It’s really a buffet of food, all laid out for the crappie,” he said. “We present the bait in such as way that the fish have depth choices and find it easy to take the bait.”
Plemmons said they try to set up late in the evening before dark, so all is set by the time we put out the lights.
“Once securely anchored we get a couple of Coleman lanterns lit to provide ‘working’ light,” he said. “When it gets dark, we drop the battery powered lights into the water and begin the fish-attracting process. The lights attract baitfish which in turn attracts gamefish. Simple in theory and actually it’s a simple concept that really works.”
The specific type of light to use will generate varied discussion among night stalkers but Rango and OT have their favorite that they recommend.
“We use the Starfire II underwater light as our only source of fishing light,” Plemmons said. “The reason is simple; it just works really, really well for us.”
Their principal target at night is the crappie, but a lot of hefty perch and plenty of catfish are caught. On some lakes, Rango said they’ll catch stripers and largemouth as well.
Plemmons paints the tips for all his night stalking rods with flat, white paint.
“The flat white paint really helps in seeing the rod tip in the dark, even with the lights we have,” he said. “Big crappie may bite really light and those are the ones you don’t want to miss.”
The depth fished is also crucial according to Plemmons. Just dropping all the lines down near the bottom is not the best tactic.
“When fishing under the lights, crappies often are off the bottom,” he said. “We’ll have a lot of rods down in the twelve-foot depth range and even less. We’ll experiment each night, but the crappie bite shallower than many anglers think. Fishing deeper usually results in more perch and catfish hookups.”
Nightstalking as a concept may be nothing new, but their method is certainly an enhanced, high-production version of a time-honored technique.
If you’re ready to load the boat with slab crappie, you would do well to join the ranks of anglers like Plemmons and Phonephet; aka the ‘nightstalkers’.