Finding Jocassee's Big Black Bass

Finding Jocassee's Big Black Bass

Lake Jocassee can be a tough nut to crack for anglers, but those who figure it out can catch a black-bass grand slam.

By Jeff Samsel

Three out of four state records ain't bad. That's what Lake Jocassee's black bass anglers can boast.

Jocassee covers just over 7,500 acres in the far northwestern corner of the state. The state-record smallmouth bass, spotted bass and redeye bass all came from Jocassee (not to mention a couple species of trout), and the fish that all of those replaced in the record books all came from the same waters.

The redeye bass record, set in 2001 by Randy Dixon of Westminster, also established an all-tackle world record for the species at 5 pounds, 2.5 ounces. The state-record smallmouth likewise made the pages of the Fresh Water Fishing Hall of Fame record book. Terry Dodson's 9-pound, 7-ounce smallmouth, also caught in 2001, established a new line-class world record for 14-pound-test.

The spotted bass record, also established in 2001, weighed 8 pounds, 5 ounces and was caught by David Preston of Tryon. Preston's fish easily bests the 4-pound-test line-class world-record spot of 5 pounds, 8 ounces, but it is not recognized in the current world record book.

While Lake Jocassee has never threatened to shatter the state largemouth record, its deep, clear waters do produce some high-quality largemouths, including a few double-digit-weight fish each year. Largemouths are relatively few in number, but they grow to big sizes, which seems to be the pattern on a lot of Southern Appalachian reservoirs.

Lake Jocassee impounds the Keowee River, which forms deep beneath the lake's surface at the flooded confluence of the Whitewater and Toxaway rivers. Other major tributaries include the Thompson River, which feeds the Whitewater; the Horsepasture River; and Laurel Creek, which feeds the Toxaway.

Lake Jocassee guide James Couch compares two bass caught on the same Jocassee fishing trip. Largemouth, smallmouth, spots and redeye bass are all available at this lake. Photo by Jeff Samsel

All the tributaries are cold, clear, rocky streams that form high in the Blue Ridge Mountains in North Carolina and tumble off the Blue Ridge Escarpment. Several Jocassee tributaries, both large and small, actually enter the lake over waterfalls.

Lake Jocassee is steep-sided, rocky and bounded by mountains. It's not unusual to be a cast's length from the shore and have 75 feet or more of water beneath the boat. The lower lake is wide open and essentially round. The upper end splits into narrower creek and river arms. Shores are largely undeveloped. (There are only a few private homes on the lake.) The water stays clear - as clear as any in South Carolina - almost all the time.

While Lake Jocassee yields trophy bass and offers fabulous variety, it is not known for producing tremendous catch rates. Preston, who caught the state-record spot on a bitter winter day, acknowledged that he doesn't go to Jocassee with expectations of landing a lot of fish.

"I like fishing there because of the big-fish potential," Preston said. "You may not catch much, if anything, during a trip, but what you do catch is usually pretty big."

Fed by Appalachian streams, Lake Jocassee is not very fertile, and its vertical banks and extremely deep water eliminate a lot of the lake's open waters as bass habitat.

Its rocky banks and open-water humps do provide fine living conditions in areas for the three cool-water black bass species, however, and all the lake's bass grow fat on blueback herring, threadfin shad and crawfish.

Many anglers who have sampled Jocassee's deep waters a time or two would contend that the lake has no fish in it. Because the water is so deep and clear and because the most abundant species behave differently than largemouth bass, many fishermen find Jocassee extremely difficult to figure out. Anglers must learn to find and fish structure they cannot see from the surface and often must turn to lighter lines, deeper deliveries and smaller offerings than they are accustomed to throwing.

Jocassee is also somewhat complex because of pumpback operations at both ends of the lake. Water flows both into and out of Lake Jocassee through Jocassee Dam, going to and from Lake Keowee below. In the lake's headwaters, meanwhile, the same thing occurs, with water being pulled into Bad Creek Reservoir and then poured back into the lake through generators. Water is pulled out of the lakes during low-power-demand periods and then poured back through turbines to generate electricity during periods of peak use.

The combined effect, from a fisherman's perspective, is that currents can push either direction, both around the dam and up the Whitewater River arm, where the Bad Creek facility is located. Anglers fishing those parts of the lakes must learn how currents affect fish positioning and feeding behavior.

Complicating things even further, Lake Jocassee has not been up to full pool for a couple of years because of drought conditions, and during that time it has been 20 or more feet low more often than not. Consequently, spots that have produced fish consistently over the years might be high and dry or too shallow to hold fish now. New offshore humps and points, meanwhile, have emerged as productive areas. Fishermen have essentially had to relearn the lake, and many fishermen will have to start again when the lake finally does get back up to its proper level.

The South Carolina Department of Natural Resources does not have much information on the black bass population makeup or size structures in Lake Jocassee because the lake's bass are difficult to survey. Electro-shocking, which is the primary method used for sampling bass populations, is most effective in relatively shallow water. Jocassee has little shallow water, and three of its four bass species don't spend much time in it.

Most anglers' understanding of the fishery, therefore, is based on casual observations through days on the water and conversations with other anglers. Consequently, perceptions vary depending on how, when and where various anglers fish.

Smallmouths and redeyes, which are similar in appearance and in behavior, probably number the highest in the lake. Most fishermen target smallmouths, which are larger, and catch redeyes as a by-catch. While the redeye bass are native to the Keowee River watershed, most fishermen are far more familiar with the non-native smallmouths, and many redeyes probably are not ever identified as such.

Redeyes resemble smallmouth bass, but they have redder fins than other black bass species and have dark spots on the belly area, which smallmo

uths don't have. A redeye's tail also is generally flanked on the top and bottom with a bit of white. Most redeyes weigh a pound or less.

Largemouths probably rank second to smallmouths in the number of fish caught by Jocassee anglers simply because many anglers target largemouths specifically. Most South Carolina fishermen are far more familiar with largemouths than any of their cousins, and they therefore fish in shallower water and with larger lures that the other species will readily take.

Spotted bass, like smallmouths, are not native to the Keowee River, and they have never been stocked. They probably got into Jocassee via fishermen moving them from Georgia lakes. Spots seem to be less abundant than any of their cousins, but they grow to heavyweight proportions in the lake.

Late winter ranks among the best times of the year to fish Lake Jocassee, especially for smallmouths and redeyes, and the good fishing continues through the spring. Both species favor cool waters and are forced to spend much of the year very deep to find temperatures that suit their preferences. Through the cool months, the fish can move to more manageable depths, making them somewhat easier to find and locate.

David Preston had big smallmouths in mind on the cold January day when he hooked into the spotted bass that would break the state record. Preston was fishing a float-and-fly rig, which is very effective for catching cold-water smallmouths, spots and redeyes.

Preston had traveled to Tennessee to learn the technique first-hand from Eddie Nuckels, whose late brother helped popularize the float-and-fly technique just over a decade ago. After seeing how effective this style of fishing was on Dale Hollow and seeing obvious similarities with Jocassee's ultra-clear bluffs and deep water, Preston took the float-and-fly back to his favorite lake.

The float-and-fly involves fishing a small jig underneath a cork, usually 8 to 12 feet beneath the surface, on 4- or 6-pound-test line. Long, wispy rods are used to cast the awkward rigs, which suspend a bait in the strike zone. Anglers alternate jiggles and pauses to move the bait slowly along. Most Appalachian anglers use 1/8- or 1/16-ounce hair jigs. Preston modified the tactic and used a Fin-S Fish on a leadhead beneath his float.

Prime areas for float-and-fly fishing are along bluffs and over steep, rocky points, always around baitfish. Shad and herring ball up in the winter and smallmouths and their cousins suspend among them. Through the heart of winter, most of the baitfish are apt to be in the lower lake. Very early in the spring, however, more baitfish will start moving up the river arms, and a lot of bass will follow them.

Float-and-fly fishing has not gained a lot of popularity on Lake Jocassee, but it is very effective throughout the cool months for anglers who do adopt it.

"The float-and-fly is great at catching suspended, non-moving fish, which fish in Jocassee do a lot," Preston said. "The lure just hangs there in front of their faces and they can't stand it."

Preston had already released a 5-pound, 10-ounce smallmouth, plus a couple of big trout on the day he caught his record smallmouth, and a month earlier he had caught a 7-pound smallmouth. The record spotted bass was actually so dark when he landed it that Preston thought it was a smallmouth until he took it to Hoyett's Grocery and Tackle to have it weighed.

Lake Jocassee fishing guides do the bulk of their fishing with live bait, whether they are targeting trout or bass. James Couch, a long-time Jocassee guide who once held the state record for spotted and redeye bass, primarily relies on live threadfin shad and blueback herring, either fished on free lines or set under corks.

Couch does a lot of his fishing in the area around the dam, and will often drift with live bait from the rock wall, where the rock for the dam was quarried, to the opposite end of the dam. He especially likes waters near the dam when pumpback operations turn around, which often happens right around first light.

Couch also pointed toward waters up the rivers as being good for bass early in the year. The shad run up all of Jocassee's major tributaries during the spring, and the bass follow the shad up the rivers, he said. Riprap related to the Bad Creek Project up the Whitewater River arm is always worth probing for smallmouths, and flats and points up the other arms hold the entire mix of species.

A lot of local bass fishermen spend time up the Toxaway and Horsepasture rivers early in the year. They fish shallow water for Jocassee (under 20 feet), often with soft plastics. Grubs fished on 1/8-ounce leadheads and Texas-rigged worms work well for working rocky banks and for probing underwater structure.

Atop points and flats that stretch toward the river channel and over the tops of humps, fishermen rely heavily on Carolina rigs. Any relatively flat point is a potential gold mine on Jocassee, Couch pointed out, because most points drop so quickly into really deep water that they provide minimal decent structure for black bass. Humps that rise to 15 to 30 feet from much deeper water also provide great habitat, and they get far less pressure than structures that are extensions of visible shoreline features.

Over the past couple of years, some Jocassee fishermen have also begun to learn the effectiveness of fishing drop-shot-rigged worms right into any rockpiles or brushpiles they can find. This ultra-finesse tactic, popularized on deep, clear Western lakes, has spread like wildfire in popularity on tournament circuits and has found its way to smaller waters throughout the country. It's ideal for Jocassee, especially if an angler knows the location of specific cover atop structure that he can wiggle a drop-shot worm over.

Randy Dixon of Westminster was relying on a more traditional approach - Texas rigging a Zoom worm on a bluff bank - when he hooked into the state-record redeye bass. He had already caught a few largemouths that morning, and he was rigged pretty heavy by Lake Jocassee standards with 12-pound-test line. Also armed with a medium-heavy baitcasting outfit, he landed the giant redeye very quickly

Terry Dodson's state-record smallmouth, which came less than a month after Dixon landed his giant redeye, fell to a crankbait. Dodson was night-fishing, which is a popular means for contending with Jocassee's extreme clarity, and was fishing the crankbait around some rocks when the big fish hit.

Unlike Dixon, Dodson was in for a tussle when he hooked his smallmouth, which slammed the bait almost as soon as it hit the water. The fight lasted about eight minutes, Dodson said, and he reported that the fish fought so hard it had just about worn itself dead by the time he got it in the boat.

With four black bass species, all of which grow to big sizes, anglers never know what might strike when they cast out into Lake Jocassee. The possibility exists of scoring a South Carolina bassin' grand slam, and any fish that hits could be a new state record or even a world record!

BEFORE YOU GO
Anglers fishing up Lake Jocassee's river arms need to be aware that the far upper ends of the Horsepasture and Toxaway arms are in North Carolina, and there is no reciprocal license between the two states. South Carolina anglers must stay south of the border unless they possess a North Carolina license.

All black bass fall under the statewide limit of 10 fish (combined), with no minimum size. Anglers who fish with live bait should know that all non-game devices, including cast nets, are prohibited on the lake.

All public boating access to Lake Jocassee is from Devils Fork State Park. The park has a good ramp, plus a campground, cottages and a store that sells limited tackle. For information, log onto www. southcarolinaparks.com, or call 1-888-88-PARKS.

The best place to get bait, tackle and up-to-date fishing information is at Hoyett's Grocery and Tackle, which is located on the road to the Devils Fork. Hoyett's also offers guide service. Call (864) 944-9016 for information. James Couch offers guided trips for bass and trout. For information, call (864) 944-9292.

To get to the store and the state park, go north on Jocassee Lake Road off U.S. Highway 11, just east of Salem. Hoyett's is on the right, about a mile from the highway. The park is at the end of the road.



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