Fontana Lake, Lake James and Falls Lake all offer great early-season bass fishing. Whether you prefer largemouths or smallmouths, one of these ought to suit your tastes.
Jiggling a spinning rod and staring at a bobber can just about lull an angler to sleep. Getting complacent during a winter smallmouth trip in North Carolina is ill advised, however, because any time the cork slips under, the fish on the end of the line might be a 3- or 4-pound smallmouth bass.
Matched against 4-pound-test and a very wispy rod, a chunky smallmouth is a mighty mean adversary. When such a fish comes to the top on a January morning, you'll forget about how cold the weather is, even on the most frigid day.
Midwinter brings the best float-and-fly smallmouth action of the year to select mountain lakes, but that's just one piece of the cold-weather bass-fishing puzzle. Fine fishing can be found in all parts of the state this time of year, and anglers who choose to hibernate or turn completely to hunting each winter miss out on loads of great action. Let's look more closely at some of the bass opportunities that no angler would want to miss.
FONTANA LAKE Some winter days are downright miserable in the Smokies - too cold for open-water fishing, even by the standards of die-hard mountain fishermen. On the other hand, the cool months produce the best fishing of the year on Fontana Lake, which many mountain anglers consider North Carolina's premier smallmouth bass lake. And luckily, not all winter days are bitterly cold.
The first thing worth noting about Fontana Lake during the winter is that the lake level generally is down at least 50 feet. Like other tributary reservoirs in the Tennessee Valley Authority system, Fontana gets drawn way down every winter to make room for spring run-off water and help with flood-control efforts. That leaves wood cover high and dry on Fontana, so virtually all patterns revolve around rock and hard structural features, like points and humps.
Of course, rocky structure and cover are everywhere at this lake, and there is no less of it 50 feet down the nearly vertical banks than there is near the surface at full pool. The key for fishermen, on any given day, is figuring out which kinds of rocks the most smallmouths are hanging on and at what depth.
Photo by Ron Sinfelt
Because there is so much great smallmouth habitat, the fish commonly will key in on a very specific type of area, whether that's transition banks between a bluff and chunk-rock bank, long points that run near the main channel, pea-gravel pockets or whatever else.
More often than not, the smallmouths will be less than 20 feet deep this time of year, and often they will be amazingly shallow, holding tight to the bank. Cool-water fish at the extreme southern edge of their range, smallmouths find better habitat at reasonable depths in the winter than they do through the warmer months.
Fishing can be good from the river shoals all the way to Fontana Dam, but most of the best winter opportunities are somewhere along the main Little Tennessee River channel. Once an angler figures out the depth, the type of structure and cover and some type of lure the fish are interested in, he generally can simply move up or down the main lake looking for similar spots. As spring progresses, more fish and fishermen will move up the other creek and river arms.
Fontana is at its very best this time of year when a warm snap or a heavy rain follows a snowfall, creating run-off from the mountains. This adds a bit of color to the normally crystalline water, and turns the smallmouths much more aggressive. Small bright red, orange or chartreuse crankbaits that run to about 10 feet are tough to beat under such conditions. Anglers cast the little plugs over main-lake humps and points and around the edges of islands and crank them as fast as they can turn the reel handle.
Crankbaits remain among the most popular offerings when the water is clear, which is the case more often than not. More subtle crawfish patterns or shad patterns generally work better than really bright patterns, however, and retrieves must be slowed. Other popular offerings include 1/16-ounce hair jigs or grubs. You can swim or bounce these down rocky slopes.
Two tactics that have not gained widespread popularity on Fontana, but are very effective, are float-and-fly fishing and drop-shotting. Both are finesse approaches that were developed in other fisheries, but both also lend themselves perfectly to Fontana's clear, deep water. Until a lot of anglers use these techniques on Fontana, the few anglers who do use them will be presenting baits in a way the fish have never seen baits presented before.
Float-and-fly fishing, which excels as a wintertime smallmouth tactic, basically consists of fishing a hair jig under a bobber, while jiggling and pausing the rod. This suspends the "fly" among the fish, which often suspend among baitfish near bluff banks in the winter. Fish have trouble resisting a meal hanging right in front of their noses.
Drop-shotting, usually done with light spinning tackle, relies on a split shot or similar weight at the end of the line. The weight should be just heavy enough to hold bottom. A hook is tied to the main line, usually a couple feet from the end, with a palomar knot, and a small finesse worm is strung on the hook. The knot is tied with a long tail, which provides the 2 feet of line to which the sinker is attached. Again, jiggling the rod makes the bait subtly dance, but it does not change the location of the offering.
Scott Loftis, who is the District 9 biologist for the North Carolina Wildlife Resources Commission and an avid bass fishermen, used a drop-shot rig to catch some really nice smallmouths from Fontana early last spring. He said that he would just find a rockpile, get right over it, drop the rig down and start jiggling it. It was the first year Loftis had ever fished a drop-shot at Fontana, and he said that it was the best spring he had ever had on the lake.
While Fontana is definitely best known for the smallmouths that dominate the black bass population, the lake also produces some really big largemouths. Large live minnows fished in the backs of the flattest pockets an angler can find offer the highest odds for a heavyweight Fontana largemouth.
Fontana has a few public ramps, but the ramps are not long enough to reach the water when the lake is drawn way down. The boat ramp at Fontana Village Marina provides access no matter how low TVA pulls the lake. They also have bait and tackle and offer guide service and lodging. For information, call (800) 849-2258, ext. 277; or log onto www.fontanavillage.com.
LAKE JAMES For a double dip of largemouth and smallmouth bass, Lake James may be the best spot in the Tar Heel State. Both species abound in the lake, with a good mix of size-classes. Largemouths outnumber smallmouths, according to Region 8 biologist Doug Besler, but smallmouths are a bit more likely to show up in big sizes.
Lake James, which covers a total of 6,400 acres and is the most easterly of North Carolina's mountain lakes, is actually sort of like three lakes in one. Linville, Paddy Creek and Catawba dams impound the Linville River, Paddy Creek and the Catawba River, respectively, with the two rivers each forming a major lake arm. A canal connects impounded bodies of the Catawba and Paddy Creek, and the impounded waters of Paddy Creek and the Linville run together.
Lake James' two major arms vary quite a bit from one another in character. Throughout the Linville River arm and through the lower end of the Catawba River arm, Lake James looks like a mountain lake, with abundant bluffs, rocky points and deep, ultra-clear water. The upper half of the Catawba arm and some of its tributaries are much shallower and more fertile and are bounded by rolling hills.
The smallmouths, as might be expected, are most abundant in the Linville arm and through the lower Catawba arm. Smallmouth specialists look for schools of baitfish near rocky banks throughout those areas and then concentrate on the depths that most baitfish are in.
When the smallmouths are suspended among shad against bluffs, a small gray hair jig fished float-and-fly style is pretty tough for the smallmouths to pass up. Most anglers use either 4- or 6-pound-test and very light action rods, which make casting easier and helps put the best action on the lure.
Crankbaits and jerkbaits are also good picks this time of year, especially when the fish are around broken rock banks or over gravel points. Among the best places to fish is in or around the canal, especially if water is being generated through the Bridgewater Hydro Station at Catawba Dam. Power generation pulls water from one lake body to the other and creates current through the canal. The smallmouths hold tight to the rocks and feed actively in the moving water.
Largemouth fishing, generally speaking, is best up the Catawba River arm. Vast flats may be out of the water during January in the far upper end of the lake, but the edges of those flats and channels right beside them inevitably hold a lot of fish. The upper Catawba arm also has a fair amount of downed timber in it, and fishermen do well slow-rolling spinnerbaits or flipping jigs in the treetops.
For largemouths or smallmouths, baitfish movements largely dictate bass movements on Lake James, and fishermen who locate concentrations of shad usually aren't far from locating some bass.
The baitfish move up on flats during warm, sunny spells and drop back into river channels when hard fronts hit. They also relate heavily to hydrilla in the upper Catawba arm. The grass falls back in the winter, but plenty remains to attract a bunch of shad and bass.
Lake James regulars rely heavily on jigging spoons and blade baits when the bass are relating to shad. Either type of lure can be fished vertically among suspended shad or bass or cast and worked quickly among shallow fish. At times, it really helps to have one lure that will do both jobs effectively, as fish that have been holding amid shad 15 feet down will suddenly run the baitfish to the surface and start busting them.
Duke Power maintains half a dozen access areas around Lake James, one of which is located in Lake James State Park. The park also has a campground. Hankins Road in Marion leads to the Black Bear access on the north side of the lake.
FALLS OF THE NUESE LAKE Falls Lake is everything a bass lake ought to be.
The lake is sufficiently large to give bass and bass fishermen room to roam; however, its narrow configuration and many large creek arms make the process of finding locations and figuring out fish manageable. It's also old enough to be fully mature and hold plenty of heavyweight bass, yet it's also young enough to have good structure and cover.
In fact, high-quality structure and cover both abound, and great stuff can be found from the very backs of creeks to the lake's open main body. Stumpfields, blowdowns, grasslines, timber stands, rocky points, channel bends and hidden humps are among the attractions. High fertility, meanwhile, keeps baitfish and sunfish abundant and bass well fed.
Most importantly (and as a result of those things already stated), Falls supports an outstanding largemouth bass population, with a good mix of all size-classes. While other lakes have risen to prominence and subsequently fallen, Falls has continued to stand as the place where fishermen in the Raleigh area turn when they are serious about wanting to catch a big bass.
As is the case on many largemouth lakes, Falls generally does not yield fast action during midwinter or even in early spring. However, any bass that bites is apt to be a quality fish, and it might just be a giant. Every year, Falls produces several super-sized bass, and the big-bass parade always begins in late winter.
Anglers who are unfamiliar with Falls are wise to basically cut the lake in half, and do all their fishing from Lick Creek down to the dam. Upstream of there - and especially upstream of the Interstate 85 bridge, rocky humps, stump-laden flats and a narrow, winding channel make Falls Lake a dangerous place to run a boat.
Beyond being much easier to navigate, the lower half of the lake tends to produce better winter fishing, most anglers contend, primarily because of the availability of deep water. While bass will move very shallow to feed at times during the winter, they like to have deeper water nearby.
Actual locations and tactics vary a fair amount on Falls during late winter and early spring, with three chief factors each having a major influence. Water temperature, water level and water color all have a dramatic effect on where the bass hold and how they act, and all three factors are affected by recent days' and weeks' weather. High, stained water and strings of sunny days all tend to push the bass shallower and tighter to cover. Opposite conditions cause them to use less obvious cover, off the ends of points and on top of humps.
Even if the fish are shallow, though, they rarely stay far from deeper waters, so main-lake areas and the lower ends of major creeks tend to hold more fish than waters way up the creeks. Those spots will start to fire up once winter begins giving way to spring.
Mainstay baits during late winter, if the water is high and dirty, are jig-and-pig combinations and "thumper" spinnerbaits, usually with a single over-sized Colorado blade. The fish will move up among the flooded bushes and trees and hold tight to the cover. Jigs and spinnerbaits need to be pitched and flipped right into the thickest stuff to do the job. Even shallow fish are winter slowed and won't chase
anything very far.
If the water is fairly clear and isn't way up in the trees, some of the best spots on the lake are the very obvious points that drop directly into the Neuse River channel. Flat points sometimes have stumps stretching well down them. Some sharper drops have tangles of laydowns on them that provide good cover over 10 to 15 feet of water, quite close to the bank and to a bigger drop. The key is to use a topographical map and focus on points that are on the channel side.
Jigs and slow-rolled spinnerbaits remain good bets, although both can be downscaled a bit from what might be used when the water is muddy. Other productive baits include medium- or deep-running crankbaits and jigging spoons. Suspending jerkbaits, fished very slowly over long points, also account for some big bass very early in the year.
Access to Falls Lake is good, with half a dozen public boat ramps along the lower end of the lake alone.
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