Walleye conjure up images of an angler in a snowsuit with a heavy northern accent trolling rough, open water with crankbaits and nightcrawler harnesses from a big, closed-bow, deep- V boat.
Now, picture an easy going, laid-back, slow-talking angler casting a whole nightcrawler threaded on a light jighead from a flat-decked bass boat on a warm spring afternoon, and you?ve got western North Carolina?s version of walleye fishing.
Ronnie Parris of Smoky Mountain Outdoors Unlimited lives in Bryson City and grew up fishing the rivers and lakes of western North Carolina. He specializes in catching trout in mountain streams and big smallmouth bass in several lakes, but he admits to having a special place in his heart for walleye.
Fontana Lake, just west of Bryson City in Swain County, is where Parris goes to get his walleye fix.
"Fontana is fed by three major rivers," said Parris, "so youve got good, fresh water coming in all the time, and thats why Fontana is the best of all our lakes for walleye fishing. The fish settled into the lake when (it) was built, coming in from the rivers, and weve had some great spawns over the years that keep the lake full of walleye without the need for stocking."
Parris looks forward to late April and all of May, when walleye migrate out of Fontanas tributaries and back into the lake, hungry from their annual spawn. Walleye are light-sensitive fish and bite best early and late in the day, and they may be holding under overhangs in water that is so shallow; its surprising their fins arent sticking out.
"Prior to May, walleyes start coming back out of the rivers," Parris said, "and they start staging first on clay banks and rocky points. I use light tackle and have a couple of different methods of catching them. Primarily, these are casting to the bank with a whole nightcrawler on a painted jig head and vertical jigging with an ice jig."
Crawling crawlers on clay points is a popular post-spawn tactic at Fontana. Using a 1/16- to 1/8-ounce painted jighead, typically pink or yellow, Parris impales a whole, live nightcrawler on the hook in shaky head fashion, with the tail waving out behind the jig. He casts to the bank and gently hops it back to the boat.
"Some days, a walleye will pick it up right when its almost touching the bank itself," he said. "Other times, I like to jig that nightcrawler a little bit and let it walk down the bank. Try to keep contact with the bottom; the closer to the bottom, the better off you are."
In most scenarios, finding fish is half the battle. The same goes for walleyes, only finding the fish and getting bites is still no guarantee of success.
"The bite will come as a little tick-tick bite like a bream, or sometimes youll pull up and youll get a real spongy feeling on the end of your rod," he said. "You dont want to set the hook right off the bat. When you first feel these fish, its them picking up the crawler by the far end of the tail. Theyre chewing their way to the hook. I like to drop the end of my pole down and wait for them to finish chewing and run the slack out. If you jerk when you first feel the fish, hes only got the tail of that bait and youll come back with half a worm and no fish."
Another of Parris favorite walleye tactics is not so bite-sensitive. Although walleye show a preference for hugging the bank, fish will school up off the points in 20 to 40 feet of water. By Fontana standards, both scenarios can be fished from the same boat; casting to the bank and fishing vertically in deep water.
"I like to fish where I can barely throw to the bank with my nightcrawler rig," Parris said. "Thats putting the boat in about 35 to 40 feet of water. When we get on them moving up on rocky banks, the guy in the back of the boat can fish an ice jig vertically on the point, while the guy in the front casts to the bank and both of us can catch fish."
Unlike the jig-and-crawler, theres no waiting to set the hook with an ice jig. Its the perfect match up for the angler with little patience or one who doesnt care for the finesse of the worm.
"The ice jigs a Rapala lure that has hooks on both ends and a treble in the middle," said Parris. "I like to be around 10 feet above where the fish are holding and fish it straight down. Walleye pretty much slam that ice jig, and theyre going to hook themselves. When you jerk up, youll have the fish on, and you just dont want to give them any slack. If you give them any slack at all, theyll come loose on the way to the boat."
Another Fontana walleye fanatic is Jim Mathis, owner of Almond Boat and RV Park in Bryson City. Like his friend Parris, Mathis looks forward to the post-spawn period to catch walleye, but his experience has indicated that not all of the walleye in Fontana leave the lake to spawn.
"Youll find two kinds of walleye in this lake," Mathis said. "One group are the river spawners that move out of the lake during the spawn; the other group are bank spawners. About the time those bank spawners start moving up on the banks, the river fish are coming back out of the rivers, and both kinds will gang up on these red-clay banks in the upper half of the lake. Now sometimes, the bank spawners will be on the rocky banks, too, so you find them one place one day and on the clay the next."
Both Mathis and Parris point to prevailing water temperatures as primary indicators of when walleye spawn around Fontana and also when the fish enter their post-spawn phase and move up on clay points and rocky banks to feed. The eastern portion of the lake tends to hold more spawning fish, owing in part to the water coming in from the lakes two main tributaries.
"Walleye are pretty well scattered over the upper end of the lake by the beginning of May," Mathis said. "The lower end of the lake stays much colder, so you wont find a lot of fish past the forks of the river. Thats down at Point 9. One prong goes up the Tuckasegee side and the other ones the Little Tennessee and the Nantahala prong. From the forks, the walleye fishing is better during this particular time frame."
HOW TO GET THERE Fontana Lake is west of Bryson City off US 74 and NC 28. The lake is 17 miles long from the "forks" where the Nantahala, Little Tennessee and Tuckasegee rivers meet to Fontana Dam to the west. Fontana is owned and operated by the Tennessee Valley Authority, and its shoreline is dotted with boat ramps, public and private. The following is a partial listing:
• Alarka Dock (828-488-3841);
• Almond Boat and RV Park (828-488-6423);
• Bryson City Park (828-736-1171);
• Cable Cove Recreation Area (828-479-6431);
• Crisp Boat Dock (828-479-3214);
• Greasy Branch Boat Dock (828-488-8574);
• Hwy 288 Recreation Park (828-488-4122);
• Lemmons Branch Ramp (828-479-6431);
• Peppertree Fontana Village (828-498-2211);
• Prince Boat Dock (828-479-3704);
• Tsali Recreation Area (828-479-6431) and Wilderness Boat Ramp
TACTICS/TECHNIQUES Walleye fishing during late April and the month of May involves post-spawn fish returning from the tributaries of Fontana to feed up before heading deep. Experts prefer to work the shoreline of clay banks and rocks points using a 1/8-ounce painted jighead and a whole nightcrawler. The jig is lightly hopped across the bottom, allowing the fish plenty of time to work his way from the tail of the worm to the hook after the bite. Other tactics include vertically jigging a Rapala ice jig over fish suspended off long points and, after the shoreline bite is over, working the depths of the lake with downriggers to troll spoons and Alabama rigs.
MAPS Kingfisher Maps, 800-326-0257 or www.kfmaps.com; Tennessee Valley Authority, Fontana Dam Visitor center, 800-882-5263 or www.tva.com/sites/fontana.htm; Delorme North Carolina Atlas & Gazetteer, 800-561-5105 or www.delorme.com.