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December’s The Month For a Mixed Bag on Burton

This mountain gem yields big bass and trophy brown trout during the winter.

Joe DiPietro | December 2, 2010

After the leaves have hit the ground across northeast Georgia, things on Lake Burton start to get hot. Add in the fact that most of the pleasure boats and jet skis are long gone until next summer, and you can find yourself in a great spot for an excellent day of fishing.

Lake Burton is perhaps the only lake in the state that boasts consistent catches of brown trout. While some other reservoirs in north Georgia might produce a few trout each year, certainly none other but Burton are managed by the state to specifically produce trout. Winter is also a great time to go fishing for the abundance of other great gamefish species in the lake, according to Capt. Wes Carlton, of Gainesville, who guides more than 100 trips per year on Burton.

“I really like this lake because of the abundance of fish,” Wes said. “There’s over 35 species of fish you can catch here. There are just such amounts of fish. You can catch perch, crappie or bream, or you can decide to pack it up and go fishing for big brown trout. How many lakes in this state can you say that about?”

Wes certainly knows how to fool the lake’s brown trout, as he catches hundreds of them each year, with the average big fish running between 4 and 8 pounds, and smaller fish typically pulling the scales at least in the 1- to 1 3⁄4-lb. range. The biggest brown to come to the side of Wes’ boat this year went 10.79 pounds.

While targeting brown trout, Wes also usually catches walleye, spotted bass, largemouth bass, hybrid bass and chain pickerel, among other species.

Wes employs several methods of chasing fish around Lake Burton including using downlined and freelined live blueback herring and small trout, and tossing various spoons, spinners and plugs to structure and rising fish. Slow trolling with freelined live bait and different lures also works well for wintertime fish on Burton.

“Shallow-water trolling will really pick up in December,” Wes said. “We’ll fish in 12 to 28 feet of water for bigger fish and 4 to 6 feet deep for smaller ones.”

Wes said it’s important to keep your lines between 60 and 80 feet behind the boat while trolling between 2.8 and 3.1 mph. Wes suggested using light to medium spinning gear spooled with 6- to 8-lb. fluorocarbon line.

If you’re dropping a downline, try using 12-lb. main line with 8- to 10-lb. leaders held down with 1⁄2- to 3⁄4-oz. weights.

If fishing a freeline, Wes said it’s good to use a 1/0 octopus hook on straight 12-lb. line.

“You’ve really got to be willing to be diverse here if you’re going to catch fish,” Wes said. “What works one day won’t always work the next day.”

By mid-December, water temperatures should be in the lower 40s, which should really turn on the lake’s population of brown trout.

“Once we get a couple of those first few bitter cold days, the browns will really start to get on the move and start coming up,” Wes said.

Anglers must be sure to keep an eye out for these fish, as they can be boat-side one second and yards away the next.

“You’ve got to keep an eye on the trout when they’re busting bait on the surface of the main lake,” Wes said. “Try to cast past them and reel your lure back through the area they’re in.”

On the day Wes and I fished Lake Burton, we were joined by Tim Taylor and Keith Watkins, of Douglasville. We all met at the boat ramp around daybreak and hit the water in balmy 38-degree mountain air. We ran just a short distance out from the ramp and cut back around into an adjacent creek mouth.

We all started tossing light lures in hopes of getting the day kicked off with a few nice trout. After a few minutes of casting lures that proved fruitless, we switched gears and started slowly trolling the same lures. It only took a couple minutes for the action to start, and Keith grabbed one of the light rods out a rod holder and started cranking. A minute later a chain pickerel came to the boat, and Wes quickly unhooked it, and got the lure back in the water.

The next thing I knew, Wes handed me a rod, and I fought another pickerel to the boat. While these fish we were catching were the typical 1 to 3 pounds, Wes said he’s caught pickerel in Burton this year that have broken the 40-inch mark.

“Those fish are voracious predators that eat anything they can get their mouths around,” Wes said.

After a little while toying around with the toothy pickerel, Wes moved the boat out of the small bay we started the morning in, and we went on to working secondary lake points and rocky banks. We were now fishing between 15 and 30 feet of water, and Wes switched up a few of the lines to freeline setups, and we started tossing out live herring.

“I catch a lot of bass around the brushpiles lying along some of the points and rocky banks,” Wes said. “I also see a lot of walleye come from the north side of these same points.”

After tossing a live herring at a downed tree, Wes spotted a silver flash under the surface. He waited for the line to tighten and set the hook with intention. Wes handed the rod to me, and I brought a nice 4 1/2-lb. largemouth into the boat after a good tussle with the fish. A short while later, Keith experienced nearly the same chain of events. However, his fight resulted in a bigger largemouth of about 5 pounds.

As the sun crept up a little higher, action in the shallower water seemed to slow a bit, and Wes made the call for us to make a move. We motored out onto the main body of the lake and started dropping downlined and freelined baits over balls of bait that were stacked up over one of the lake’s largest humps.

“This lake really doesn’t have a whole lot of structure in it,” Wes said. “So, you’ve got to pay attention to where the bait is and kind of follow that.”

We had a few small taps, but no good hits after about 30 minutes, and we moved on to another location up the lake toward where the Tallulah River feeds into it.

“Did you see that?” Wes exclaimed, pointing out rings on the surface. “Those were definitely trout.”

We motored down, and all of us started tossing shallow-running spinners, spoons and crankbaits at rising trout.

“You can tell they are trout because they come up like big humpback whales and break the surface instead of slapping at the surface real hard like bass or hybrids do,” Wes said.

We continued to follow the trout around as best we could with the trolling motor and eventually set out a few downlines and freelines, too.

“Trout will hit the bait lightly sometimes, so you really have to let them have it before you start reeling,” Wes said.

While trolling for trout, Wes said it was also very important to change course every so often to give trout the chance to grab a hold of the bait or lure.

“They’re very goal-oriented fish,” Wes said. “Sometimes if you just slow down or pull out of a straight-line troll, it will be enough to get the fish to come up and hit it. It’s amazing how long trout will follow you when you’re trolling before they hit.”

A few minutes later, we had our first good open-water hit. However, after battling a good trout to just behind the boat, he rolled, and the hook from a downlined rig pulled free from his soft mouth. Disappointed, but not beaten, we moved on to another open-water location closer to the mouth of the Tallulah.

Almost instantly a downline doubled over, and Keith starting cranking on what was obviously a big fish. In just a few minutes, Wes netted a large spotted bass of about 5 1/2 pounds.

“That’s the largest spot of my life,” said Keith. “And I had to come the whole way to the mountains to get it. Who would have ever thought it?”

We caught a couple more spots, but none as large as the first one before moving on to another good cold-weather spot. Pulling into a creek mouth, Wes dropped the trolling motor, pulled up the outboard and began us on the way toward the mouth of a small creek.

“There should be fish held around the mouths of the creeks all winter long,” Wes said. “Especially after they get finished spawning, they’ll stage up around the mouths of creeks as they’re making the move back into the lake.”

Trout typically spawn in early to mid November on Burton, but Wes said they were running a couple weeks late this year. He predicts they’ll be back out in the creek mouths by the first of December.

Because we were in only a few feet of water, we all began tossing lures into the skinny water. As we got back into the mouth of the creek, we all started to spot trout beneath the boat. It wasn’t long before we were hooked up with lots of smaller trout that ran just over a pound. While they weren’t the big boys we were looking for that day, the smaller trout were plenty of fun on the light tackle and offered lots of quick action.

“These are last year’s stocked trout,” Wes said. “They should stay in the lake all year and try to spawn next year. They’re usually related to the creek mouths and are very willing to bite once you find them.”

Fly fishing around the creek mouths can be very productive, too. The best flies to offer are usually medium-sized streamer patterns like Woolly Buggers and Clousers that mimic the lake’s abundant baitfish. We saw a few good fish mixed in amongst the smaller ones, but none of us were lucky enough to fool them.

Another dynamite winter location for browns is in the vicinity of the lake’s dam, Wes said.

“We’ll get a big bait-kill after the first really cold weather system that moves through,” Wes said. “At that point, the trout will set up around the dam and just gorge themselves on all that easy food.”

Anglers want to be careful around the dam, however, and be sure to know the generation schedule before heading out there. Wes said his main tactics around the dam include slow trolling, downlines and freelines.

“I think fish eat better in the cool weather because they’re kind of lethargic and they haven’t eaten in a while,” Wes said. “If you put something down there in front of them then, they’re going to eat it.”

Despite the fact that we didn’t hook up with a big trout on our outing, we all had a great day and caught several good-sized fish of other species.

“That’s what’s so great about this lake,” Wes said. “You can just about always catch something, whether it’s what you’re looking for or not. And, let’s face it, most folks just want to get out there and catch fish.”

To book a trip on Lake Burton with Wes, give him a call at (770) 318-9777 or e-mail him at <[email protected]>.

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