Quality winter fishing isn't limited by region in North Carolina, but the character of the waterways and the techniques that work best change dramatically as anglers move across the state.
Photo by Ron Sinfelt
By Jeff Samsel
Seeing snow on the mountains makes a January day seem even colder than it is, but a feisty smallmouth on the line can quickly break the chill. Catching a few makes even a bitter day seem downright toasty - at least for a while.
Winter undeniably brings challenges to anglers. However, this time of year also has its own appeal. Mountain lakes are starkly beautiful, and large fish throughout the state tend to be active enough so at least they are catchable. Plus, anglers who are willing to brave the cold often have waterways virtually to themselves.
Quality winter-fishing opportunities aren't limited by geography in North Carolina. Good fishing begins at the coast, where shallow tidal rivers begin warming quite early in the year, and extends to the high mountains of western North Carolina, where smallmouths sometimes feed aggressively in the winter. Let's take a look east and west and at points in between and explore some of the best waters for January bass fishing.
Beginning in the far eastern part of the state, anglers can get a head start on spring bass fishing by visiting coastal rivers, as the backwaters of these shallow systems begin warming with the first sunny days of the year. These river systems get only modest pressure from serious bass fishermen at anytime, and during winter anglers can have these bass-filled waters to themselves.
The Neuse River, which rises in the central Piedmont and flows unimpeded from the base of a small hydro-electric dam just east of Raleigh all the way to Pamlico Sound, supports a solid largemouth population and offers a classic tidal fishing experience. Based on electrofishing surveys, bass in the Neuse are in excellent condition overall, with good growth rates, according to Kirk Rundle, District 2 fisheries biologist for the North Carolina Wildlife Resources Commission.
Shocking samples are collected at 20 different locations in the lower Neuse River system. Of the sampling sites, those that yielded the best returns in last year's sampling were all in the lower reaches of tributaries, including Turkey Quarter Creek, the Trent River and Swift Creek.
One real advantage of winter fishing on tidal waters is that the fish tend to pile up. They concentrate in backwater areas, drainage ditches and coves off the main river because of slightly warmer temperatures found off the main river. By keying on these types of waters, considering specific areas where the sun would warm fastest and fishing the tides effectively, anglers often can pinpoint where the bass will be and find very good action.
Fishing the tides smartly is more critical on the Neuse River than are many other aspects of bass fishing - even more than selecting the "perfect" bait. Bass position themselves based on water levels and the direction the water is moving to take advantage of the best feeding opportunities. Generally speaking, the fish move farther up onto grassy flats when high tides are flooding and drop back into cuts near low tide. They also lie in ambush points, such as eddies beside small cuts, to nab snacks washed their way whenever the tide is moving quickly.
While no largemouth stomach content surveys have been conducted on the Neuse in recent years, Rundle suspects that the most important forage for the bass include various shad and herring species, sunfish and minnows. During low-water years, when salt water intrudes farther up into the system, marine species like shrimp and crabs also may play an important part in the largemouth's diet.
The largemouth bass limit on the Neuse River is five fish. The minimum size is 14 inches, with no exceptions, for all waters east of Interstate 95, which includes the entire tidal portion. A NCWRC boat ramp at Bridgeton, just east of New Bern, provides access to the Neuse River. Several tributaries also have ramps on them. Directions are available from the boating section of the NCWRC Web site at www.ncwildlife.org.
"Falls Lake has a tremendous amount of cover, which makes it really fun to fish," said Mike Goodman, a tournament pro from Nebo who has fished extensively throughout North Carolina. "Plus, there are some great big bass down there."
Falls of the Neuse Lake impounds the Neuse River more than 150 miles upriver from the Neuse's tidal fishery, directly north of Raleigh. It has big numbers of bass in it, with some excellent weights, according to Wayne Jones, District 3 fisheries biologist for the NCWRC. "There are a lot of 3- to 6-pound fish and quite a few larger ones," he said.
A relatively young lake, Falls is quite fertile, and its dense population of small gizzard shad keeps the bass well fed. Annual shocking surveys reveal that the population is very stable and in great shape. The NCWRC has done extensive habitat work on the lake - cutting and cabling trees along the edges, sinking brush and sinking PVC fish attractors. In addition, several stands of timber were left intact when the lake was flooded.
"Most of those trees have fallen now, but they are still down there, and they provide great habitat," Jones said. "There are some big bass in those trees. Of course, they are pretty tough to get out when someone hooks one!"
The upper end of Falls Lake is shallow and laden with stumps, so anglers who don't know the lake extremely well are wise to stay within the lower half of the lake. Goodman does the bulk of his winter fishing in the lake's midsection and lower end, favoring the clearer water that is more common in the lower end that time of year. He fishes mostly on the lake's main body, focusing heavily on points, of which there are dozens.
"The bass will stay close to the main-river channel or the lower creek channel when it's really cold and move up the points on sunny days," Goodman said. "Whether deep or shallow, they will be somewhere around those points this time of year."
Goodman likes to fish points with a 3/4- or 1-ounce Booyah Blade spinnerbait. He'll begin by fishing the shallow part of the point, slow-rolling the spinnerbait along the bottom. If he has marked bait near the point, especially off its edges or toward the deep end, he'll also work the deeper waters thoroughly, letting the big spinnerbait go all the way to the bottom and then slow-rolling it up the slope. "You'll find some big bass down in that deeper water," he said.
If unseasonably warm weather or muddy water suggest that bass are apt to be shallow,
Goodman will turn to a more targeted-oriented approach. Usually fishing in the vicinity of creek mouths, he will focus on brushpiles, stumpfields and timber stands, often at the tops of points or along adjacent banks.
For working the cover, Goodman likes either a spinnerbait or a crankbait, and he is not shy about working either bait right through the thick stuff.
Because of its convenience to Raleigh, Falls Lake gets heavy recreational use through the warm months. Since most pleasure boaters (and a lot of fishermen) stay home during the cool months, January is a great month to fish this lake.
The NCWRC maintains four boating access areas on Falls Lake. Directions are available on the boating section of the commission's Web site. General statewide bass regulations apply on Falls Lake. The largemouth limit is five fish, with a 14-inch minimum size. Two fish in a limit may be less than 14 inches long.
Lake Norman grabbed the attention of anglers all across North Carolina last winter when Eric Weir of Belmont pulled a new state-record spotted bass from the lake. The record spot, which hit a Zoom Finesse Worm, tipped the scales to 6 pounds, 8 ounces, breaking the previous record by more than a pound.
Lake Norman traditionally has been known as a great place to go for fast bass action, but a poor place to go for quality fish. The latter part of that equation has changed over the past few years, according to Goodman, largely because of the establishment of the spotted bass population.
"Spots have become abundant in the lake, and many have grown to large sizes," he said. "It'll take 17 or 18 pounds to win most local tournaments, and the bulk of the biggest fish in anglers' catches will be 3- or 4-pound spots."
Goodman especially likes Lake Norman as a winter destination because the discharges of the Marshall Steam Station and the McGuire Nuclear Station create spring-like fishing on the coldest days of January. The warmest waters are in the immediate vicinities of the plants; however, together the discharges have some warming influence on a fair portion of the lake, according to Goodman.
Goodman especially likes fishing around the Marshall Steam Station, which is on the west side of the lake, just north of the U.S. Highway 150 bridge, because the discharge canal offers both warm water and current. "Those big spots really like that current. Of course, you'll also catch plenty of largemouths, and sometimes you'll get stripers as well."
For fishing in the discharge area, Goodman either likes to swim a Cordell Spot just off the bottom or cast a Yum 4 3/4-inch Houdini Worm upstream and let the current carry the offering close to the bottom.
"Just watch for your line to jerk as the bait drifts along in the current," he said.
Not far from the discharge, Goodman catches a lot of winter bass from the riprap along the Highway 150 bridge. In fact, he likes fishing riprap all over the lake during the winter. Typically, Goodman throws either a spinnerbait or a shallow-diving crankbait around riprap.
When Goodman has large bass specifically in mind, one of his favorite approaches on Lake Norman is to drop a jig down rock ledges in the lower end of the lake. Goodman uses a large jig, a 1 1/4-ounce Booyah Boo Jig, and dresses it with a Yum Chunk. "I'll cast up on top of a ledge, which might only be 5 or 6 feet deep, drag it off and let it drop on a free fall, feeding line as needed, Goodman said. "They'll absolutely kill it."
Because of its proximity to Charlotte and its openness, Lake Norman gets very heavy use by recreational boaters and fishermen alike from midspring thorough the end of summer. Winter pressure is much lighter, making the lake a more pleasant place to be. Of those anglers who do fish Lake Norman during the winter, many fish for stripers instead of bass.
The combined black bass limit for Lake Norman is five fish. The minimum size is 14 inches for largemouths and 12 inches for spots. Two fish in a day's limit may be shorter than the minimum size. A dozen or so public boat ramps and a handful of marinas provide access to all parts of Lake Norman.
For winter bass fishing, Fontana Lake can be fabulous or frustrating. Fontana's smallmouth bass population is the best in western North Carolina, according to Scott Loftis, District 9 fisheries biologist. However, weather patterns swing severely in the Smokies region, and Fontana can be fickle.
Fontana, which impounds the Little Tennessee River and runs along the southern border of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, is a classic Appalachian lake. It is steep, deep, narrow and very clear. Smallmouths dominate the black bass population, but anglers will encounter some largemouths, including occasional lunkers.
"Fontana is a great smallmouth lake," Goodman said. "I especially like to fish it during the winter, when it is down, because the drawdown tends to concentrate the fish."
Goodman concentrates on humps and points that are beside creek channels, preferably in narrow sections of creeks. He'll position the boat atop the structure, usually in 15 or 20 feet of water, make a long cast into deeper water with a 1-ounce Heddon Sonar, and let the bait fall all the way to the bottom. He'll work the Sonar up the slope by lifting it sharply off the bottom and letting it fall.
"It vibrates sharply on the way up and flutters on the way down," Goodman said. "The fish can't stand it, and you can find them all along the slope that way. You'll catch smallmouths, walleyes, occasional largemouths and possibly even some trout with that tactic."
Goodman also likes pulling a jig off rock ledges for Fontana smallmouths, like he does on Lake Norman. He'll downsize his jig to a 5/8-ounce Booyah Boo Bug, but use the same technique. "Just pull it off that ledge and let it drop," he said. "Sometimes they'll about take the rod out of your hands."
Scott Loftis, who along with being a fisheries biologist, is an avid bass fisherman, and often fishes structure that is 30 or 40 feet deep during January and February. He spends a lot of time fishing drop-shot rigs, jiggling tiny hand-poured plastic worms or small tubes over humps, saddles and flat spots on extended points. This style of fishing calls for patience and a lot of slow, careful searching. Often a hump will have a sweet spot, which might be nothing more than a small rockpile, where virtually all the smallmouths will hold.
The best thing about fishing in late winter and early spring, from Loftis' observation, is the increased opportunity to catch hefty smallmouths. He has found that bigger smallmouths are more susceptible to being caught at this time than during any other season.
Loftis fishes the entire lake, sometimes traveling well up the Tuckasegee or Little Tennessee River arm and sometimes fishing the main
body or creeks that feed it in the middle or lower end of the lake. The upper end warms a little faster and has a higher nutrient level, but it also gets more fishing pressure because it is more convenient to the most fishermen. Goodman concentrates most of his efforts on the middle part of the lake.
While most winter fishing involves slow, careful fishing around deep structural features, the combination of stained water, a stiff breeze and sunshine can change things dramatically. When the water clouds up along the edges, which can be the result of heavy rains or sustained winds against clay banks, and the sun warms the stained water even slightly, smallmouths will seemingly come out of nowhere. They will feed aggressively on spinnerbaits and small bright-colored crankbaits, fished quickly and close to the banks.
The combined limit for all black bass on Fontana Lake is five fish, with a 12-inch minimum size. Two fish in a daily limit may be less than 12 inches long. A handful of public boat ramps off state Highway 28 provide access to the south side of Fontana Lake. Fontana Village Resort offers the best access to the lower end of the lake, along with lodging and a full-service marina. For information, visit www.fontanavillage.com on the Web or call (828) 498-2211.
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