Three expert bass fishermen here in North Carolina reveal their favorite cold-weather hotspots. (January 2007)
Photo by Chris Ginn
There are those bass fishermen around who can't accept that the weather gets cold, even as far below the Mason-Dixon line as North Carolina. That can't accept that in front of the fireplace is where you're supposed to spend Saturday afternoons in January. That never winterize their boats because they never put them up for the winter. That buy snowmobile suits and full-face motorcycle helmets and gloves that would keep Nanook of the North warm on the polar ice cap.
All for the few fleeting moments it takes to feel a bass on the other end of your line, to set the hook, to reel it in, then to release it back into water that's so cold it's freezing in the line guides on your rod.
Ah, yes, for those wonderful souls that have their priorities in order, this guide to winter bass fishing in North Carolina is for you.
Phil Cable understands your pain. So do Stanley Correll and Kevin Chandler. The three veteran North Carolina fishermen all work as guides, so they are paid to be on the water when conditions are less than wonderful. But they'd probably be there anyway.
And being in that position, there's no doubt that they've learned that figuring out how to catch bass when the mercury is closer to the bottom of the thermometer than the top is somewhat akin to making lemonade. After all, the lemons are there; you might as well do something with them.
"I mean, just because it's cold, that doesn't mean you can't catch fish," said Correll, who operates Catawba Lakes Guide Service out of his home in Granite Falls. "It can be hit or miss, but you can have some good days."
Correll's "good days" are spent on Lake James, a 6,510-acre reservoir near the headwaters of the Catawba and Linville rivers west of Morganton. He targets the lake's impressive population of smallmouth bass, and he said they're often catchable in the winter, even if you have to look as deep as 70 or 80 feet.
Cable operates Phil Cable's Big Bass Guide Service on reservoirs around his home in Holly Springs, south of the Raleigh-Durham-Chapel Hill area. In the winter, he concentrates on 4,100-acre Shearon Harris Lake, the smallest of the major lakes around the Research Triangle area and probably the easiest one to fish in the winter.
And Chandler has near his home in New London one of North Carolina's better cold-weather bass fisheries: 5,355-acre Badin Lake on the Yadkin River chain near the Davidson County town of Denton.
"Badin can be a great lake in cold weather, and January and February are our two coldest months," Chandler said (704/463-7265). "I've absolutely killed them in January, and if you can hit a little bit of a warming trend, the fishing can be fantastic."
Indian summer days aren't necessary; Badin has had the reputation of being a great winter bass lake. It's deep and clear -- the deepest and clearest reservoir on the Yadkin River system -- and like most of the reservoirs on the Yadkin and Pee Dee, it's tremendously fertile and absolutely full of forage fish. Badin has never had the reputation for producing great numbers of bass like High Rock Lake about 15 miles upstream, but it has always been regarded as the best big-bass lake on the chain.
"You've got a lot better chance for a big fish at Badin -- a fish 6 pounds or better," Chandler said.
And that big fish is liable to come on one of three basic lures: a jerkbait, medium-running crankbait and a jig.
"The jerkbait has taken over cold-water fishing; it's not a secret anymore," Chandler said. "It's not the only thing you can catch 'em on, but it's a good bait. If the water temperature moves up 2 to 5 degrees in a week's time, they'll move up into 5 or 6 feet of water. You can catch 'em on a Speed Trap or a Shad Rap -- a crankbait that you can fish real slow. And the other bait is a big jig, either a 1/2-ounce or 3/4-ounce. I throw a 1/2-ounce most of the time; sometimes you can go to a 1/4-ounce jig because the lighter jig doesn't fall as fast; it's a slower presentation."
A blueprint for one of Chandler's January bass holes would be a rocky bank that has a channel swing nearby -- either the main Yadkin River or a major creek channel.
"I don't really have any favorite places, but I tend to catch most of my fish from the Alcoa area to Palmer Mountain -- that's always good in the winter -- but also in the upper end of the lake, around Circle Drive and the Lake Forest area," he said. "I'm looking for rocky banks that will be near a channel, or deep banks with rocky corners. Most of the places I catch fish are close to a channel, where you can sit in 25 feet of water and cast up into 2 feet. And there are a lot of banks at Badin where you can be sitting 10 feet off the bank and be in 20 feet of water. And you look for clear water -- the clearer, the better."
Chandler said that boat position is one of the single most-important factors in catching winter bass. Instead of sitting over 25 feet of water, casting into 2 feet, he puts the nose of his bass boat very close to the bank and casts ahead, parallel to the bank.
"The key is fishing parallel to a steep bank," he said. "A lot of people will sit out and cast to the bank, but their baits are out of the strike zone for all but about 2 or 3 feet of their casts."
Chandler typically starts with a Rattlin' Rogue jerkbait in gold/black. He cranks it down to about 4 or 5 feet deep and starts twitching and jerking it back to the boat, a slow retrieve that will get the attention of bass that are close to shallow water.
"You can get it down 5 feet, and the bass will be looking up anyway, looking up for something to eat," he said. "I think they're feeding primarily on shad."
Chandler fishes Shad Raps or Speed Traps the same way he fishes a jerkbait -- s-l-o-w-l-y. Ditto the Rattleback jig he prefers, trimmed with a Zoom Super Chunk trailer. His favorite color combinations: brown/copper, green pumpkin and black/blue.
"A lot of your bigger fish are caught on a jig," he said. "You won't catch many, but if you do catch one, he'll be a good one; you'll be able to put him in the livewell."
Correll has two main strategies for catching Lake James' smallmouth bass in January, and both of them have something
to do with spending a plenty of time on the water without lifting a rod -- that is, idling or cruising around the lake, his eyes glued to the depthfinder in his boat, looking for the big black blobs that are the telltale signs of baitfish ganged up together.
"Anytime you're fishing for smallmouths on Lake James in the winter or the summer, it's helpful to find areas with schools of shad, because the bass will be close to 'em," Correll said (828/205-1429). "I always do a little scouting before I really start fishing. I ride around and look for baitfish. You've got to go out and find them. If you can find a big wad of baitfish at 20 feet, then you start looking for smallmouths around them."
Correll said that smallmouths relate very little to bottom structure in the winter. More often, they're tracking the movement of big balls of shad. Fishing can be tremendous if Correll can find baitfish that are relating to structure, sitting on top of a point or the edge of a deep drop because they aren't likely to be moving very much, and bass can more easily set up shop to feed.
However, most of the time, baitfish are suspended over extremely deep water. Quite often, Correll said, he'll mark big schools of shad on his depthfinder. The shad will be 40 feet deep, suspended over 60, 70 or 80 feet of water. Even if he can't see big, individual "hooks" on his depthfinder that scream out "smallmouth bass," he knows they're around, normally pretty close to their prey, and he can set up and work on them.
"You can catch fish on a float 'n' fly, or vertical jigging with a blade bait like a Silver Buddy or even fishing live shiners," Correll said. "I prefer the spring and fall, but I've had some good days in January, and you can -- especially if you get a warm spell for a couple of days and the fish move up.
"The majority of bass will be relating to the same kinds of cover that they do during the summer: main-lake points, channel bends, humps, underwater islands -- because that's where most of the baitfish are. The smallmouths can either be relating to structure or suspended out over deep water, relating to the baitfish."
Correll would be thrilled if all he fished during the winter was a blade bait like a Silver Buddy, because that would mean he's mostly jigging for fish that are relating both to baitfish and to structure -- fish that are on the bottom, in good position to feed. They may be extremely deep, and Correll has caught them as deep as 75 feet, but they'll be feeding.
"I'll fish anywhere from a 1/2-ounce to a 1-ounce Silver Buddy," Correll said. "You don't have to vertical jig it; you can cast it out over a point and just kind of bump it back along the bottom. Or you can jig it right beside the boat. It works really well when fish are deep and relating to the bottom or the structure."
And fishing live shiners on the bottom will also be very effective when fish are on the bottom.
But most of the time, they aren't, and that's when the float 'n' fly -- popularized by fishermen in East Tennessee -- really steps up to the plate.
"It works; it really works," Correll said. "It's popular in East Tennessee, but quite a few fishermen in western North Carolina are catching smallmouths with it."
The rig starts with a 12-foot, medium-light-action spinning rod, and a spinning reel spooled with 4-pound-test fluorocarbon line. About 8 to 12 feet above the end of the line, Correll takes a simple bobber -- the plain, round plastic float that has contributed to the death of millions of bream -- pushes down the tiny metal clasp on the bottom of the float, twists his line around it three or four times, then inserts it back in the bottom of the float.
"That keeps the float from sliding up and down the line," Correll explained.
Next, he ties on a tiny hair jig, or a "fly" in East Tennessee fishing lingo. The leadhead is anywhere from 1/16 of an ounce to 1/32 to 1/64. Correll's favorite is a "Punisher" jig, which is a tiny leadhead with a big puff of "craft hair" tied in instead of bucktail. The originator of the jig, Correll said, stumbled onto the idea of using craft hair -- best known for providing the Don King-like hairdos on "troll" dolls popular in the 1960s and 1970s. It was a great idea, Correll said.
"The craft hair is great. It's translucent, so it gives off different colors under the water when the sun hits it, although marabou will do real well, too, because it will shake and shimmy a lot," he said. "The jig is tiny, but the hair is probably an inch to 2 1/2 inches long.
"You need the long rod so you can make a decent cast, because you're casting with 8 or 10 feet of line hanging down below the float, and that's hard to cast."
Once Correll's semi-shot put cast comes to rest a good distance from the boat, it's just a matter of letting it sit and very slowly retrieving it.
"You bring it back very, very slowly," he said. "In fact, you let the action of the waves on the water do it all for you. We usually have a little wind during the winter; the wind will put a little chop on the water, and the wave action will wiggle the float around and make that jig dance down there."
And smallmouth bass are apparently attracted to the boogie fever that the jig creates. "I've caught fish 8 to 12 feet deep over 70 and 80 feet of water," he said. "The shad might be suspended 20 or 30 feet deep, but the smallmouths will move 20 or 30 feet to hit that jig; they'll go a great distance to eat it."
Correll prefers shad or crawfish colors on the jig, with brown/orange and brown/chartreuse combinations being his favorites.
Phil Cable fishes two basic lures for much of the winter at Shearon Harris Lake: a jerkbait and a jigging spoon.
"There are some shallow fish on a jerkbait, but we've caught the most fish around balls of shad," Cable said (919/962-9697). "If you can find a ball of shad relating to some kind of structure, being still and not going anywhere, you'll catch 'em. There are a lot of times when you find a ball of shad suspended somewhere, and by the time you drop your marker buoy and drop down your spoon, they'll be gone -- they're just swimming through.
"If you pull up on a point and see shad, the bass will be with 'em. I've caught 20 or more in a day, with most of them being anywhere from 20 to 35 feet deep."
Like Correll, Cable puts in plenty of time idling around Shearon Harris, his eyes affixed to his depthfinder, looking for bait. "I will spend hours idling before I get into 'em," Cable said. "I learn where they are and start at those places, but you'll spend a lot of time idling around to try and find bait. It seems like you find a lot of bass along the edge of creek channels or pulled up on an edge. Buckhorn Prong is good -- a lot of shad g
roup up in there.
"Sometimes you'll see 'em black out the screen; sometimes the shad ball is so big that I know if I stop, I'll catch 'em -- and it can be crappie, white perch or largemouths."
For jigging purposes, Cable uses a 6 1/2-foot graphite baitcasting combo spooled with 17-pound Trilene XL, with a Hopkins 75 Shorty jigging spoon on the business end of the line.
"The bite usually starts around the end of December, and we caught 'em up through February last year," he said. "Sometimes you can find 'em with the shad up around 15 or 20 feet deep. And you can drift down 100 feet off the balls of shad and still catch fish. If they know there's something to eat, they'll pull up on a place where they can move just a little ways and crash 'em."
Cable said that typically, he catches plenty of fish when he finally finds a good showing of bait. "I like to sit in one place when I find 'em," he said. "And when you get into them, most of them will be the same size. If you catch a 2- or 2 1/2-pounder, all of them will be that size. If you catch one over 3 pounds, all of them will be. And we catch some big fish jigging; we caught three last year that were in the 7- and 8-pound class."
Harris is one of North Carolina's more-renowned trophy bass lakes, and the N.C. Wildlife Resources Commission protects it with a 16- to 20-inch slot limit. That has protected plenty of 4- to 5-pound bass from harvest, giving the reservoir an awful lot of big fish.
Jerkbaits -- Cable likes a Daiwa TD Minnow or Lucky Craft Pointer -- are pulled out when he fishes shallow, especially for big fish.
"Mostly you're fishing shallow banks on the main lake, places where fish can be deep and move up shallow real quick," he said. "Sometimes the bite will be slow, but if you can get a bite on a jerkbait, it's usually a big bite. You can do almost the same thing with a Shad Rap or any other medium-running crankbait that you can fish slowly."
Cable pays no attention to the banks where primrose or hydrilla beds grow during hot weather. "You don't target the grass; you're mostly fishing rocky, clay banks where you can sit in 30 feet of water and cast up in 5 feet," he said.
Find more about North Carolina fishing and hunting at: NCgameandfish.com