This border lake is a largemouth bass hotspot in the coldest of weather.
The author admires a really nice largemouth bass taken from Lake Wylie on a January trip. Warm-water discharges make fish more active than they are under normal winter conditions.
If you’re within driving distance of Lake Wylie, television should be out of the question.
Wylie, impounded in 1904 and covering 12,455 surface acres along the North Carolina-South Carolina border southwest of Charlotte, Wylie has long been considered one of the best winter-time bass fisheries in the state.
Why? For one thing, the quality of the bass. If you fish Wylie consistently and don’t see a 5-pound fish or two, you’re doing something wrong. Second, a variety of approaches work for Wylie largemouth in the coldest months of the year.
Lake Wylie has two warm-water discharges from power plants that help maintain the threadfin shad population and keep bass more active compared to the cooler parts of the lake — and other lakes, for that matter.
The discharge from the Catawba Nuclear Plant is on Big Allison Creek on the lower end of the lake on the South Carolina side. The impact is felt more in the main channel than in the creek, but the overall impact is less than the Allen Steam Plant on the South Fork River in North Carolina.
That discharge enters the river a couple of miles above the NC 279 bridge, also called the Lower Armstrong Bridge. During the winter, surface temperatures in the area hover in the mid-50s. Because the bridge is across a narrow opening and joins two causeways, warm water from the discharge backs up beyond the actual entry point. Water several degrees warmer than below the bridge can be found at least a half-mile above the discharge canal. Coves and pockets both above and below the discharge canal are impacted.
Several winters ago, Clyde Osborne, a veteran Lake Wylie fishermen, set out to fish some of those coves with a fishing buddy. Fog, a by-product of water that’s warmer than the air, hung over the water, so thick that. Other anglers 50 yards away were scarcely visible.
Largemouth from two to four pounds were congregated a half-dozen feet off the bank. They lost count of the number of fish that hit white floating worms as they sunk out of sight.
“They were in the brush piles,” explained Osborne, who explained, “and the best fish were very close to the thickest part of the brush piles.
“It was the second or third day of a warming trend —still cold, but pleasant. The warming trend brought the fish shallow.”
Floating worms aren’t the only productive baits. Texas-rigged worms and lizards, plus small crankbaits, will also produce strikes. Bill Matthews, another Wylie veteran, has done well with Senko-style worms.
The second major technique for catching Wylie’s winter bass involves threadfin shad, which make their way to the backs of creeks in the fall in search of water that’s warmer than in along the main Catawba River channel. Especially in mild weather, they may stay in the creeks until well into January. And the shad, in turn, attract bass.
Matthews had a big day a couple of winters ago in Wither’s Cove, finding bass slashing into schools of threadfins at the surface. Shad were going every-which-way trying to escape, and jerkbaits like Suspending Rogues and Swim’n Images produced plenty of fish.
Bass chasing shad often show themselves a long cast away. A heavy lure may make it possible to reach fish that a favorite, but lighter lure, cannot reach. One solution is to take a big topwater bait like a Zara Spook and tie a small spoon on a dropper loop a foot or so behind the Spook. In the absence of a suitable spoon, a curlytail grub will work.
Heavy lures such as blade baits — Sonars or Little Georges — can be cast a long ways and mimic fleeing shad. Lipless crankbaits also work well when largemouth are chasing shad.
In the last few years, a favorite approach to catching bass has been to thread a 2- to 2½-inch white or smoke tube bait on a quarter-ounce leadhead. The tube matches the size of the shad and can be cast a country mile on a spinning outfit spooled with 6- to 8-pound test line.
Topwaters also work by themselves. For bass in the backs of creeks during winter, a Pop’n Image Junior has become a favorite; it’s about the same size as threadfin shad and can be cast a long way to breaking fish.
The other major pattern that works on Lake Wylie during the winter is fishing deep humps. A good depthfinder is a must for this approach. Examples of productive humps are at the mouth of Catawba Creek, the mouth of Mill Creek and just upstream from the power lines at the mouth of the South Fork River on the main channel.
Banks Miller has fished Lake Wylie for many years. In the winter, fishing the deep-water humps has been a principal means for Miller when it comes to catching bass.
“I like to fish like that,” Miller said. “Basically, I go to places I’ve caught fish before. Sometimes, it takes four or five stops before I catch any. Sometimes, I go back to places where I didn’t catch any earlier and catch fish.”
Bass that are relating to the bottom but are close to clouds of bait offer the best chance for action. Fish more than a couple of feet off the bottom are hard to catch. Clouds of bait may be suspended in mid-depths, but the fish you’re trying to catch need to be near the bottom.
“I keep an eye on the depthfinder while I’m fishing along the bank,” Miller said. “If I see fish in deep water, I throw out a marker. At Lake Norman, I’ve caught largemouth as deep as 55 feet, but at Wylie they are usually 20- to 35-feet deep at the most.”
Miller advises dropping a jigging spoon straight down next to the boat. Lift it a couple of feet, let it drop on fairly taut line, lift it again. Strikes will come on the drop and may be so subtle you do not notice them until you try to lift again.
“I use a Hopkins Shorty. If I’m fishing by myself, I keep one tied on all the time in case I see fish on the depth finder,” Miller said. “You know, most guys don’t like to fish this way, so I usually am alone when I fish the humps.”
Miller both jigs his spoon under the boat and casts and lets it drop to the bottom and retrieves the spoon in a series of lift-and-drop maneuvers.
Spoons aren’t the only way to catch bass schooling over humps. A drop-shot rig or a curlytail grub on a small leadhead jig will also work, as will a blade bait — which you can cast, let fall to the bottom and then retrieve. Also, a heavy spinnerbait, from a half- to one ounce, can work.
“As the winter gets colder, the largemouth keep going deeper and deeper. Then when it starts to warm up, they start moving shallower.”
And the colder the water, the more concentrated the largemouth into small areas. They will be in the “spot on a spot.”
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