Daffodils on the hills and fresh leaves on the trees aren't the only signs of spring. Giant smallmouth bass at Lake James are also harbingers.
Nestled in the Blue Ridge foothills straddling the McDowell/Burke County line near Marion, Lake James is the uppermost of the 11 reservoirs of the Catawba River that wends its way 225 miles through North and South Carolina.
With 6,510 surface acres, Lake James is second to Lake Norman as the largest reservoir of the Catawba River's impoundments. Completed in 1923, Lake James captured water from two rivers, the Catawba and Linville Rivers. And, as you will see, it makes a difference. The two arms of the reservoir are joined by a canal that flows underneath N.C. 126.
Unlike most impoundments, Lake James is created by three dams. At the west, less than a mile southwest of N.C. 126, a dam backs up the Catawba River. Along Powerhouse Road is Paddy Creek Dam, which spans a small stream. Further east is a dam across the Linville River. Below the Linville Dam water flows through the Duke Power powerhouse, and the Catawba River resumes its trip to the ocean.
Graham Morgan, who lives at Lake James and fishes there and elsewhere, usually launches his boat before daylight.
"That's the time for the surface bite," he said.
Morgan said he relies on surface lures predominately toward the end of April.
"The first week in May is best for Lake James smallmouth on the surface," he said.
Morgan recommended poppers or some sort of walk-the-dog lure. Examples he offered were Pop-Rs and Zara Spooks.
Favorite smallmouth surface lures during the last couple of years have been the Pop-N Image Jr. or Super Spook Jr. Try redear sunfish or threadfin shad with the Pop-N Image Jr. and red head/white body, black shiner and blue shore shad with the Super Spook Jr.
If anglers haven't had a dandy smallmouth strike a surface lure, they're missing a bet. On the clear water of Lake James, anglers may see a brown torpedo coming several feet to whack these lures.
Morgan suggested surface lures near rocky points or laydowns in the Linville River portion of Lake James.
"There are lots of rocky points and ledges on the Linville River side of Lake James," he said.
While Morgan said smallmouth bass reside in every nook and cranny of Lake James, "In spring I pretty much stay on the Linville River side of the lake," he said.
Historically, largemouth bass dominated the Catawba River arm of Lake James and smallmouth at the Linville River arm. But in the last few years the two species seem to have become more evenly distributed.
"Usually we get more largemouth on the Catawba River side, but last spring I caught largemouth way up past my house on the Linville River side," he said.
"There are some rocky shoals out in the middle of the lake, away from the bank. And they attract plenty of pre-spawn smallmouth.
"The smallmouth don't care whether they're close to the bank. They just need water the right depth and some of the mid-lake shoals have the right depth. For someone just coming to Lake James, the mid-lake shoals are hard to find."
Of course, as the mid-lake shoals aren't community fishing holes, they may be the best spots to fish for an undisturbed trophy.
As the sun hits the water, Morgan advised switching to a Fluke or Senko, fished weightless.
"The best color for the Fluke or Senko is green pumpkin," he said. "I throw those lures around laydowns on the main lake or back in coves."
These are so-called finesse approaches. With a light wire hook, the small chunk of plastic sinks slowly. Easy twitches or jerks makes the lure dance seductively near cover. Smallmouth, largemouth too for that matter, find this approach hard to resist.
Morgan said some smallmouth anglers at Lake James throw small crankbaits during spring. He suggested a Norman Baby N. Morgan also fishes Bandit crankbaits.
Since I fished it while at north Alabama a number of years ago, my favorite smallmouth crankbait has been the Fat Free Fingerling. This tiny crankbait has worked for smallmouth bass for me from Alabama to Ontario, Tennessee to North Carolina, including Lake James.
Any color works, but my most productive shades have been citrus shad or Tennessee shad. Bouncing the crankbait off the cobble rocks in 8- or 9-feet of water should attract some dandy Lake James smallmouth.
As daylight waned, Morgan suggested returning to surface lures.
"Towards dark, I throw a Jitterbug across points and laydowns," he said.
The jitterbug is one of the lures of most middle-age to older youths. And it still works great.
It requires no special twitching, no particular way to curl one's lip. Cast it out and crank it back. Plop, plop, plop, side-to-side. Dynamite.
I wish I knew how many smallmouth I've caught with Jitterbugs - Ontario, Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Lake James.
My favorite colors are white/red head and yellow coach dog. Morgan said color doesn't seem to make much difference with surface lures, and while people often have their favorites, that's probably true.
Lake James is quite clear, Morgan said, compared to most southern reservoirs and that water clarity affected how an angler needs to fish.
"I lived in Texas and fished there," Morgan said. "When I first came to Lake James, folks told me I needed to 'lighten up' on my line. I now use 6- or 8-pound test on spinning gear for most of my Lake James fishing. And I use some sort of low visibility green or clear line.
"I make long casts, stay back away from the bank. In the clear water, the smallmouth can see you from a long way.
"With topwaters, I use bait-casting gear."
A 6 ½- or 7-foot bait-casting rod with a flexible tip permits long casts and the manipulation of the surface lure Morgan seeks.
Mike Goodman lives at Nebo, and when he's not fishing the national bass tournament circuits, he's at Lake James. He thinks of Lake James as his "home lake" and Goodman's family has lived at or near the lake for decades.
Goodman launched his boat at the Canal Bridge N.C. Wildlife Resources Access Area. While we fished some at the Catawba River arm of Lake James, most of the day we were at the Linville River arm, rarely more than a mile from the landing. We caught some very nice smallmouth bass, averaging 2 pounds each.
During the course of the day, the most effective lure was a Yum Wooly Beavertail.
"Better try one of my plastics," Goodman said. "This has been my go-to for Lake James smallmouth this spring."
After Goodman got several smallmouth ahead, the best idea was to accept his offer. The Beavertail is a plastic grub-like ring worm variant with a flat, split tail. It comes in several sizes, and we used the 3- and 4-inch Beavertails. The most productive colors were green pumpkin or dark watermelon.
Goodman recommended we start with lead heads and grubs. He used the Beavertail and I had my favorite tube. Not just at Lake James, but in a variety of smallmouth waters, tubes have been a most productive lure for me.
Slide a ¼-ounce lead-head into the tube, with the dark side up, if the tube is two-toned. With a 4-inch tube, the hook shank on a ¼-ounce leadhead jig may not be long enough to extend all the way to the tail. Take a small scissors or knife and cut a slit to let the tube release the hook and allow the tube to straighten.
Push the eye of the leadhead through the plastic and tie the line directly to the eye. Rigged as described, a tube grub swings from side-to-side as it falls, rather than dropping nearly straight as happens when the lead head is outside the tube.
Lots of folks make tubes, and anglers use many varieties with success. The best smallmouth colors for me have been smoke, green pumpkin, watermelon, blue-and-white, black-and-white - or whatever seemed to be on the top of the plastics sack when I reached inside for a tube.
Goodman and I started with different plastics and fished the lures in comparable manners.
The technique was to cast, let the leadhead and grub sink almost to the bottom, then lift gently, let it drop, lift - all the way back to the boat.
"I like to keep the jig and plastic moving along, sort of slow usually, but if the smallmouth don't grab it pretty soon, I speed it up or let it drop all the way to the bottom before lifting," Goodman said. "Whatever the smallmouth want, that's what I try to give them."
If the smallmouth want the lures slower than can be effectively fished with a ¼-ounce weight, go to a smaller jig and a smaller matching tube.
During the pre-spawn period, many smallmouth strikes will be subtle. You lose contact with the lure as a fish gently picks it up. When that happens, set the hook and hang on.
Most of the smallmouth Goodman and I caught came from 5-feet of water or less.
If anglers see male smallmouth guarding nests, chances are the larger females are in slightly deeper water. Back off and try for a trophy.
Generally speaking, smallmouth bass conduct spawning activities in deeper water than largemouth. Considering the clarity of Lake James, pre-spawn smallmouth may be deeper than one expects.
We fished the same sort of spots Morgan suggested. Rocky points surrendered several Lake James smallmouth. We fished a couple of clay banks with laydowns and a long, rip-rap bank. Those areas also had smallmouth we caught.
Along the rip rap, I caught a couple of smallmouth by casting a Fat Free Fingerling.
Although neither Morgan nor Goodman mentioned spinnerbaits, they're excellent smallmouth lures. Generally speaking, ¼-ounce spinnerbaits are the largest used to good advantage for smallmouth. Even smaller ones may work.
My favorite smallmouth spinnerbait is the Classic Twin Spin from Mann's. In clear water, nickel blades work well while brass blades seem to produce better in stained water.
In addition to the smallmouth bass in Lake James, it also contains a healthy population of largemouth bass. And in the regular cycle of boom-and-bust, the white bass population at Lake James is experiencing a boom. Some anglers also target the walleyes at Lake James.
During the last few years, controversy has erupted concerning land uses adjacent to Lake James. Particularly at the Linville River arm of the lake, major portions of the shoreline have been undeveloped.
Viewed from the water, Pisgah National Forest looms along the north shore of the Catawba and Linville rivers. The heavy forest absorbs rainwater and helps maintain a high level of water clarity and cool temperatures in the reservoir - ideal for smallmouth bass.
"Dad, this looks like some of the lakes we fished in Canada," my son said during a trip to Lake James
Whether to develop the substantial private holdings around Lake James, and if so, how, remains under vigorous debate.
On a good day, expect to catch 15 or 20 Lake James smallmouth. A 2-pounder should be run of the mill. Every year, tales of 6- and 7-pound Lake James smallmouth are reported but not that common. However, 4- and 5-pound smallmouths are good prospects.
If you think you'd like to catch some pre-spawn smallmouth this spring, Lake James would be a great place to give them a try.
More than 100 years ago, Dr. James Henshall claimed the smallmouth bass "inch for inch and pound for pound, the gamest fish that swims."
Testing that hypothesis has been among the principal activities of many angling lives. Most people with a similar bronzeback bent are never satisfied with their collected data - which is a plausible excuse to continue to seek better information at places such as Lake James.