Winter Walleye Wonderland
Fontana Lake offers great cold-weather fishing for tasty northern transplants.
Mid-lake points are great spots to target Fontana Lake’s winter walleye.
It gets really cold, maybe snow.
But walleye fishing can be top-notch, and Fontana Reservoir in the Great Smoky Mountains is among the best spots in the southeast to catch a nice mess of tasty fish.
And there’s no one around!
“There’s no one fishing. You can have the lake all to yourself,” said Jim Mathis at Almond Boat Park near Bryson City. “But the walleyes are still there, and it’s a top time of the year to catch ’em. This is just what I do for the fun of it.
“You can always put coveralls on, sweaters. It’s a good time to be on the lake.”
Walleye are a member of the perch family, native to lakes and river systems in the more northerly regions of the country, especially the upper midwest.
But deep, mountain reservoirs in the southeast provide the kind of habitat walleyes need, and at least in North Carolina’s mountain reservoirs, walleye are a hit among fishermen, in part because they are among the tastiest of all freshwater species.
Fontana, Santeetlah, Hiwassee and Glenville are among the bigger reservoirs where walleye fishing is revered, but the green, goggle-eyed fish are found as far east as Lake James — just west of Morganton.
One key to patterning and catching walleye during the winter at Fontana is water temperature.
“I think of winter walleye fishing starting when the surface water temperature drops below 50 degrees,” said Mathis, who looks for fish in relatively deep water. “The walleyes could be 25 feet, 35 feet deep — maybe even more. It depends on the ‘blackness’ of the day. If it’s a sunny winter day, the walleyes will be deeper than if it’s cloudy or overcast.”
Fontana walleyes tend to move to main-lake points in winter, Mathis said.
“The best spots are main-channel points, the big, sloping points,” he said. “Walleyes may be fairly shallow with deep water nearby. The best points are rocky points, not clay.”
Fontana is a long, narrow reservoir whose northern border is largely the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. From Bryson City, where the lake’s three major tributaries — the Nantahala, Little Tennessee and Tuckaseegee rivers — meet up, it’s 29 miles west to Fontana Village near the dam.
As the body of the lake twists and turns, the number of points that meet Mathis’ description abound.
Danny Brower, who guided on Fontana for many years before retiring recently, found winter walleye by searching points with his depthfinder. He idled in big circles, scanning his depthfinder constantly.
“We’re looking for bait,” he said. “The bait will be up off the bottom, maybe several feet. Often, the walleyes will be right on the bottom, and the depth finder cannot pick them up.”
Threadfin shad, in particular, appear as large, circular clouds a few feet off the bottom. Walleyes will be either under the cloud of bait or nearby. Even in cold water, the gamefish follow the bait.
Once found, how are walleyes most easily put in the boat and cooler? Mathis suggested vertical-jigging with a Hopkins or similar spoon. He also likes to back off points and cast blade baits like a Silver Buddy or Heddon Sonar.
“Sometimes, particularly if there are breaking fish on the surface, you can keep two rods busy at the same time,” he said “Hook a fish on one rod, cast the lure on the second rod and while the lure on the second rod is sinking, land the first fish. It’s pretty much fun.”
In addition to the jigging spoons, Fontana anglers also use ice jigs for winter fishing. Developed in Scandinavia, where the water is often frozen over, they became a staple for fishermen who ice fish in more northern climes.
Brower believes the swimming motion of ice jigs is superior to the up-and-down action of spoons. Ice jigs wobble and circle with the least action by the angler. When falling, they drop through the water column without swinging away from the target as spoons are prone to do. Brower believes ice jigs can be kept at a precise level more easily than spoons.
“Fishing jigging spoons is essentially an up-and-down motion,” he said, “but ice jigs can be held in place, twitched and jiggled. They really work.”
While Brower recommended the Normark Jigging Rapala, there are a number of other ice jigs, including the Nils Master Jigging Shad, Nils Master Jigger, and Nils Master Baby Shad.
Jigging spoons are usually fished by dropping the spoon to the bottom or to the level of bait seen on the depthfinder. Then, with an upward sweep of the rod, the spoon is lifted and then dropped toward the bottom. Most strikes come as the spoon falls. Follow the spoon with the rod tip as it falls, keeping just enough tension on the line to sense strikes.
Ice jigs are most productive when moved very gently. They wobble side-to-side with subtle twitches. Sometimes, the most productive approach is to do nothing for 20 or 30 seconds, letting the ice jig quiver.
Strikes from winter walleyes are usually exceptionally gentle, merely ticks. Walleyes take the spoon or ice jig and simply hold on. Dropping the rod tip to set the hook usually results in a missed strike. Simply start reeling and keep tension on the line. Steady pressure works.
As the water cools below 50 into the 40-degree range, the shad seek stable water temperatures, usually in deep water, because temperatures in the shallows fluctuate too rapidly. In the winter, lots of shad die as a result of the cold water. The jigging spoons and ice jigs, perhaps, suggest to walleyes shad in distress.
If the boat drifts away from directly above the walleyes, a diagonal approach with blade baits or plastic grubs with leadhead jigs work well. Sometimes maintaining the boat location over fish is a little tough, as most do not use markers in the deep water.
Crankbaits, especially Nos. 5 or 7 Shad Raps also are productive for winter walleyes at Fontana. Other good walleye crankbaits include Fat Free Fingerling and Wally Diver. Trolling with the crankbaits — a shallow runner toward the bank and a deeper runner away from the bank — may be just the ticket. Side planers are often used to keep the trolled crankbaits from running directly behind the boat.
Mathis and Brower take different approaches when it comes to tackle. Mathis relies on ultralight spinning gear and 6-pound test line. Brower likes baitcasting tackle because he says fishermen get less of the line twist that can be a problem when vertically jigging a spoon or ice jig.
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