You want to go after the biggest trout in the state? Here's how the experts do it at Lake Jocassee.
It ain't over till the fat lady sings, and that was the case in the final minutes of the big trout tournament being held out of Hoyett's Grocery and Tackle store on Lake Jocassee last March.
Big trout ace Larry Essiks was the last to weigh in. Just about the time the crowd of anglers and onlookers were ready to call it a day, here comes Essiks around the bend in his boat. He casually ties off to the dock, reaches down and picks up one of the prettiest brown trout you have ever seen.
It was clear that he was the winner. Essiks laid the fat trout on the scales and Ken Sloan called out the weight at 7.34 pounds. That tourney was over and Essiks had caught the winning trout at the last minute on a live shiner.
"I don't normally fish live baits for trout," Essiks said. "But today the bite was real slow. It was tough to catch a single fish."
Jocassee is one of those lakes that has a great population of rainbow and brown trout, and it's a popular fishery for anglers in South and North Carolina.
Jocassee angler Larry Essiks with one of the reasons that he moved from fishing smallmouths to focusing on trout. Essiks fishes with lures such as trolled spoons most of the time, but will switch to baitfish if the bite is slow. (Photo by Robert Sloan)
At times, catches of trout on Jocassee are easy to come by. Conversely, they can be tough to figure out on some days. However, there are a few anglers on the lake that have definitely figured out how, when and where to catch big 'bows and browns.
Essiks, a retired builder, is one of the best big trout anglers on Jocassee. He first started fishing the lake in 1978.
"At that time I was into catching smallmouth bass," Essiks said. "But in 1985, I switched from smallmouths to trout. Since that time I've caught brown trout up to 12 pounds."
Essiks said that about 75 percent of the time he'll be fishing lures. As the water begins to warm during the spring, Jocassee's trout become more aggressive feeders. That's when they will tend to hit more lures.
Essiks said that when the water is in the lower 50s, herring are lethargic and easy for trout to feed on. But when the surface temperature hits 55 degrees, the herring become active and more difficult for trout to catch. That's when trolled lures come into play. And that's how some of the best fishermen on the lake catch more and bigger trout.
Essiks doesn't really have one or two favorite lures. However, Sutton spoons are very popular on Jocassee. Essiks said he likes to use the No. 31 and 71 Sutton spoons.
Another expert angler on Jocassee, guide Warren Page, is a noted spoon fisherman.
"I like the Sutton No. 44 and 31 spoons," Page said. "But I have used them on up to a No. 72, the largest. A Doctor spoon is also a good choice. The main thing you want to remember is that the blueback herring is the main forage fish for trout on Jocassee. There are also some threadfin shad, too. You want to use some sort of baitfish imitation. Spoons do a good job of that. You want to use a spoon that is close to the size of the baitfish trout are feeding on."
Guide Sam Jones agrees: Most of the time he'll be using a Sutton or Doctor spoon that's 1 1/2 to 3 1/2 inches long.
"My favorite is a No. 44CS Sutton spoon," Jones said. "It's been a consistent producer of trout over the years."
Sloan, who owns and operates Hoyett's, said the Sutton and Doctor spoons are very popular on Jocassee. But he adds that a No. 3 Bad Creek spoon is also a consistent producer of big brown trout. That particular spoon is about 3 inches long.
Essiks will choose a spoon based on the size of the baitfish. That's why a No. 31 is good for a whole lot of situations. One thing he's noticed over the years is that a No. 44 catches more rainbows than other sizes.
"If I'm trolling lures in April and the water is under 55 degrees, the fish are probably not going to be real aggressive," Essiks said. "That's when I'll go with a lightweight spoon with more wobble."
The most popular colors are silver and copper. Jones said other good colors are firetiger, purple/silver and green/silver. The firetiger is a color combination that greatly resembles a perch, with yellow, orange and green, along with black stripes. Page said he's done well over the past couple of years with rainbow trout colored spoons. He also likes black/silver and silver/gold.
"The main thing is to match the natural color of the baitfish," Page said. "It's kind of like matching the hatch. I believe that if a trout sees a spoon that looks like a baitfish, it's more likely to hit the lure."
Essiks, who targets big browns, believes that 90 percent of catching big fish is paying attention to details. He's very meticulous about his lure selection, as well as colors.
"The silver/copper-colored Sutton spoon is tough to beat," Essiks said. "But it never hurts to add a little color. I think it helps most of the time. I like to add a little blue or red tape to my spoons. What I'll do is cut out a stripe or use a paper punch to pop out a small dot to stick on a spoon. You don't want to use too much color. You want to add just enough to get their attention as the spoon moves through the water."
Another very good lure option is some sort of shallow-diving crankbait that can be trolled near the surface.
Page, whose heaviest Jocassee brown weighed 10 pounds, 4 ounces, almost always uses a crankbait. Most of the time he'll be pulling it about 200 feet behind the boat on a flatline off the center rigger.
"A shallow-running crankbait has put a lot of big brown trout in my boat over the years," Page noted. "Even though you might be trolling four or five other lures, it's always a very good idea to troll at least one crankbait straight back off the center rigger."
Jones is big on crankbaits, too. His favorites are the Rebel and Rapala cranks that will run about a foot deep.
Essiks is also a big advocate of using crankbaits for big browns. His favorites are the Rapala stick baits and broken backs. An Apex lure, much like an old Lazy Ike, is another of his top lures. But instead of fishing them on a center rigger, Essiks trolls with them on his down
riggers. He'll rig them just like spoons on the riggers. And they will be set at various depths and distances. His top colors are blue-white, yellow-chartreuse-white and gold-white.
Trolling lures on downriggers is definitely the way to make consistent catches of browns and 'bows on Jocassee. And most of the time the best anglers on the lake will be trolling from four to five lures at a time.
Page normally uses two downriggers that will be trolling two lures each.
"I'll usually place two lures on each downrigger," Page said. "And they will all be fishing at different depths. I like to use stacker clips. That way I can fish a lure off the downrigger ball, and another about 20 feet up on the stacker clip. With that rig I can troll lures at 30-, 40-, 50- and 60-foot depths."
Aside from the downriggers, Page will often be using two sideplaners, plus a center rigger. That way he can fish seven lures at one time. And he can also fish multiple depths.
Essiks notes that he used to troll so many lures his boat looked like a porcupine on the water. Not anymore.
"I use two downriggers and a flatline when trolling lures," Essiks said. "I'll also use stacker clips to pull two lures on each rigger. That way I've got a lure on the surface, and on down to 60 feet deep."
Some anglers on the lake will pull a mix of lures. For example, they will have a crankbait on top, and a mix of spoons and cranks on the downriggers. Not Essiks.
"I don't ever mix up my lures," he said. "I'll either be pulling crankbaits or spoons. That way I know exactly what the fish prefer at any given time. If I'm trolling all spoons and getting no hits, I'll re-rig with all crankbaits. When I catch a trout then, I know exactly what they want."
Jones, who has caught Jocassee browns up to 8 pounds, 6 1/2 ounces, said he'll normally be fishing five to six rods. One will be on the center rigger, the others will be on downriggers.
"You never know at what depth the trout will be feeding," Jones pointed out. "Most of the time I'll be catching both browns and 'bows from 15 to 50 feet deep. Where you catch one trout doesn't always mean that's the magic depth. If I catch one at 40 feet deep, then another, I'll tighten my lures up to fish closer to the depth that's producing fish. But I'll not fish them all at the same depths. I'll tighten them up from 10 to 15 feet of the depth that's producing trout."
Jocassee depths go down to 300 feet deep, but Jones said the most consistent bite is usually from trout holding in 30 to 50 feet of water.
Trout are normally structure oriented on Jocassee. However, some of the best areas on Jocassee will be at the mouths of rivers and over treetops.
"I especially like to fish the mouths of rivers and treetops in water up to 60 feet deep," Jones said. "Some of heaviest browns and 'bows have been caught at the mouth of Horse Pasture River, the Toxaway River and White Water River. That's all open water. While trolling lures in those areas, I'm always watching my depthfinder. And I'm always looking for baitfish. Where you find baitfish, you'll more than likely find trout. During April, the trout are probably going to be spread out feeding on baitfish. They can be caught at all sorts of depths. During the summer months, you'll need to find the thermocline to locate trout."
For Page, April is one of the best months to be on the lookout for baitfish.
"During April, the water will be warming up and baitfish will be active," Page said. "There is no doubt that trout hang close to big wads of baitfish. I use a Lowrance depthfinder to locate baitfish. They will usually be holding in the same area for a few days at a time. A school of baitfish will show up as a dark ball on the depthfinder."
Some areas of the lake seem to hold baitfish year after year. And since the baitfish are there, so are the trout.
"I don't know what holds the baitfish in certain areas," Page said. "It might be upwelling currents, or some sort of current break."
One very important aspect of consistently catching big trout on Jocassee is to be quick with a GPS. Every angler I've fished with who consistently puts big trout in the boat on Jocassee carries some sort of GPS unit. When a fish strikes, the spot is instantly marked with the push of a button.
"I use my GPS numbers to keep track of where I'm catching fish every day I'm on the water," Page said. "That's extremely important. Once you have collected a batch of numbers, you'll notice that certain areas continually produce trout. The GPS numbers that lead you to those areas are invaluable. During April, when trout are on the move and after baitfish, GPS numbers that pinpoint recently marked pods of baitfish can definitely result in more hookups."
A high percentage of Jocassee anglers depend on live baits to put trout in their boats. Sloan says that many anglers will use both live baits and lures.
"Live shiners are what most fishermen use, but live blueback herring are what most prefer to use when they are available. At one particular tournament last year, I ordered 100 dozen herring. We sold out the day before the tournament began."
Russ Reynolds, a well-known Jocassee guide, said that knowing how to rig and fish live baits is important if you want to consistently catch big browns and 'bows. He prefers a 2- to 3-inch-long shiner. He'll run a No. 4 hook through the bottom and upper lips of the bait. Next, he'll use a small treble hook as a trailer. It's not unusual for trout to "gum" a minnow sideways. With a single hook you'll usually miss that type of strike.
Jones will normally use 2- or 3-inch minnows, and will rig them on a No. 1 circle hook. He'll fish them on the downriggers while free-lining another behind the boat about 150 feet back.
Essiks said he'll use live shiners or herring from 1 1/2 to 4 1/2 inches long. They are rigged on No. 4 short-shank stinger hooks.
"I use 4-pound-test line when fishing with live baits," Essiks said. "Free-lining live baits is one of my favorite tactics. I'll bump troll with the trolling motor. I'll also fish two live baits on the surface, and two on the downriggers. The rigger clips are set so light that I don't get a hookset when the line pops out. That gives the trout time to eat the bait."
Baitcasting rigs are preferred by most trout fishermen on Jocassee. Jones says he uses baitcasting reels that are spooled with 8-pound-test line. The reels are seated on 6- to 8-foot-long Shakespeare Ugly Sticks with a medium to medium/light action. He likes the Ambassadeur 5000 and 5500 reels. Page says he prefers to use Penn 920 baitcasting reels that are seated on Shakespeare Intrepid rods that are 8 1/2 feet long.
"I like a rod with a whippy tip," Page
said. "I spool the reels with 10-pound-test line. But I'll use an 8-pound-test leader since the water is so clear. The line is attached to the leader with a No. 10 barrel swivel to prevent line twist."
For details on fishing at Lake Jocassee, or to get set up with a guide and the latest trout tournament dates, call (864) 944-9016 or go to www.hoyetts.com. The only public boat ramp on the lake is located at Devils Fork State Park, just down the road from Hoyett's Grocery and Tackle in Salem, S.C. For information on boat launching, cabin rentals and camping in the park, call (864) 944-2639 or go to www.southcarolinaparks.com.
You can reach guide Warren Page at (864) 346-1196.
Guide Sam Jones can be reached at (864) 350-9056.
Guide Russ Reynolds can be reached at (864) 638-7880.