Fish With the Wind To Catch Blue Ridge Smallmouths
Tournament pro Heath Pack shows how to catch smallmouth bass in May.
The winds of change are blowing at Blue Ridge Lake, and all it takes to put together a mixed-bag string of hefty smallmouth bass, spots and large- mouths is to let the wind take you to the fish. On an April morning, that’s exactly what north-Georgia angler Heath Pack, of Morganton, and I did, let the wind blow us to a great stringer of smallmouths with a few bonus spotted bass and largemouths thrown in.
Heath is a very successful tournament fisherman who travels the Southeast fishing several different trails. Last season he cashed a check in five out of six events on the B.A.S.S. Southern Tour including a second-place finish at Lake Okeechobee. This year, he will be dedicated to fishing some regional trails and then next season Heath has the FLW trail in his sights. Being successful on so many different waters takes understanding fish and fishing. It takes a special angler to be able to transition from Lake Okeechobee’s shallow waters and weed beds to Blue Ridge’s 100-foot rocky depths to a large river system like the Tennessee River. Heath fishes all of these types of lakes and has been successful wherever he goes.
The key is Heath’s style of fishing, and anglers who want to experience the best reservoir smallmouth fishing Georgia has to offer should keep this in mind when visiting Blue Ridge.
As we hit the lake shortly after sunrise, the air temperature was about 40 degrees and the water was at 53 degrees. Several days before, a vicious cold front had brought snow to the north-Georgia mountains, almost unheard of in April. The only green on the mountains were the pines. Mountainsides that had been green with new growth just a few weeks before were now brown after a killer, hard freeze. The cold morning had the feel of winter instead of spring. Heath’s Bullet boat and Mercury 200 Pro XS made mercifully short work of the run across the lake to our first fishing hole, a flat near Blue Ridge Marina.
“I concentrate on high-percentage areas,” Heath said. “I want to find aggressive, feeding fish, and I will keep moving until I find them. You can catch some fish by just casting a worm on a deep point or something if you stick with it long enough, but to really have a good day you stay on the most aggressive fish as much as possible. On Blue Ridge, that means wind-blown points and flats. If they aren’t on the flats and points, they aren’t feeding.”
After a few minutes of fishing, three quick but missed strikes on a jerkbait suggested to Heath the marina-flat fish weren’t really all that interested in feeding. Since the jerkbait wasn’t producing, Heath picked up his go-to bait for smallmouth.
“A tube is my No. 1 smallmouth bait,” Heath explained. “I fish it with the lightest head I can get away with. It’s important to have a rattle too. I try to fish something a little different than everyone else does, and most people don’t use rattles with tubes. There are two ways to fish a tube here. One is to use a shad-colored tube and try to keep it kind of floating above the fish, four or five feet off bottom. If you think the fish are feeding on crayfish on the bot- tom, then I use a green-pumpkin tube and try to keep it just above the bottom. Blue Ridge doesn’t really have any weeds, but there is some slimy algae on bottom, so you want to keep it out of that.”
When a few casts with the tube didn’t produce any takers, it was off on a quick run to another nearby flat that had more wind blowing across it.
“Smallmouth are roamers,” Heath continued as he picked up the jerkbait again. “They will slide up and back off a flat or point as bait moves through. I believe the really big trophy fish stick a little bit closer to home and don’t move as much, but there aren’t that many of them, so spending a lot of time trying to wait one out really isn’t putting the percentages in your favor.
“For a stringer of the quality 2- to 4-lb. keeper fish you look for in a tournament, those fish are always moving and you have to move with them.”
As he explained his approach to fishing the lake, a sweeping hookset brought the first smallmouth of the day to the boat, a fish of about 13 inches that was quickly released.
“We’ll do a lot better than that today,” Heath said as he released the fish, “the wind is starting to pick up a little, and I think they are going to bite pretty good now.”
Heath’s prediction was right on, and throughout the morning we had steady action on smallmouth up to 4 pounds, spotted bass, and even a few largemouths. As we had a great morning of catching fish, Heath continued to explain his approach to fishing the lake.
“On Blue Ridge, I especially like flats during the postspawn period for smallmouths. Flats are consistent producers on this lake if you can find the right ones,” Heath said. “Good flats have a sharp break off into the deeper water, especially if they break off into the main river channel.”
Deep is a relative term, but anglers coming to Blue Ridge need to understand deep means deep on this old mountain lake close to where the borders of Georgia, Tennessee and North Carolina meet. One flat we fished dropped off from 20 feet to more than 90 feet in just a few boat lengths. Blue Ridge is small as major reservoirs go with only 3,290 acres at full pool, but it has plenty of good rocky points and flats. The lake stretches about 12 miles from the dam to the headwaters, with just more than 100 miles of shoreline. The normal pool elevation of 1,687 feet above sea level makes Blue Ridge the highest northwest Georgia reservoir, too.
The gates on Blue Ridge were closed in 1930, so the lake was constructed during an era when lake builders followed a barren-earth philosophy. The lake has very little in the way of woody cover. Instead, the bot- tom is composed of rock, shale, and sand. For the uninitiated, the lack of cover can make Blue Ridge a difficult lake to fish. Heath provided some pointers on how to overcome this.
“In the main lake, there really isn’t much wood to fish, there aren’t good weedbeds, and smallmouths are the most common species. So, you have to fish a little differently. If you run way up the river, you start to find a little more wood like trash piles and blow- downs, and largemouths are more common up there. Fishing those areas with a floating worm or buzzbait is good in the postspawn if you want to target largemouths. But, smallmouths are key on this lake, and to catch them you have to fish structure. The best flats have one or more ditches that drain off the flat to the main river channel. The good ones also have chunk rock and an irregular bottom. There are a lot of deep flats on this lake, but many of them are dead flats, just a smooth bottom that gradually leads out into deep water. What few fish they hold are so scattered you could spend all day looking for them with not much to show for your efforts. If conditions are right though, a good flat should produce some action almost immediately when you pull up on it.
“Flats and tapering points are good because they provide choices,” Heath continued. “Smallmouth are always moving, looking for whatever it is they are wanting right then, and points and flats provide a lot of depth choices in a relatively small area. Finding good areas takes some work. I always keep an eye on my Lowrance depthfinder. It will show you so much if you just pay attention to it. If you see a fish swimming along under the boat suspended off the bottom, drop a shaky-head worm or drop-shot down. Sometimes you can catch one of those “TV fish” and it’s really fun to see your bait and the fish come together on the depth- finder.”
Throughout our trip, Heath consistently reinforced what he considers the absolute No. 1 factor for catching Blue Ridge bass — the wind.
“The wind has to be blowing for the fishing to be good,” Heath said. “Not only does the wind blow the plankton which means the bait and predators are going to follow, but the wind breaking up the water cuts down the light penetration. Blue Ridge is a clear lake. Not crystal clear like in the old days before there was hardly any development in the area, because the water does have a slight greenish tint now, but it’s still clear. My ideal day would be cloudy and windy. But, sunny is ok, too, as long as you have the wind. The worst time to fish this lake would be a calm day with sunny skies. It is going to be tough then.”
Being successful on Blue Ridge means paying attention to the details. Know which way the wind has been blowing the last several days so you know which points and flats should be holding the fish. Keep an eye on the Lowrance for signs of baitfish and active fish under the boat. Even pay attention to the color of the rock you see on the shoreline. While not a Blue Ridge expert by any stretch of the imagination, I had heard a few things about the lake and one of them was to look for white rock. Curious what special attraction dirty white rock would have over light brown rock led me to ask Heath if the white rock rumors were true. Heath just grinned in response.
“I don’t know what it is exactly,” Heath said, “but white rock is the deal on this lake. Anytime you see a patch of dirty white rock on the bank, you want to give that area a hard look. Many of the best holes have white rock. Fish like to spawn on that white rock too, so it is especially good during the spawn.”
For anglers in a hurry to catch some fish, Heath suggested the fish attractors DNR has been constructing and placing in the lake.
“I avoid the places everyone else fishes,” Heath said, “but I like the fish attractors. In this case, it is kind of reverse psychology. All the local anglers think the fish attractors get pounded since they are marked and avoid fishing them, but the result is hardly anybody fishes them. The small- mouth tend to kind of loosely associate to the attractors, so you want to fish up high and around the attractor. Largemouths will bury down in them, so for them you have to drop a worm or something right into the middle of the attractor.”
Throughout a great morning of fishing, Heath showed what Blue Ridge Lake is about. One after another, hefty smallmouth, aggressive spotted bass and a few bonus largemouths came over the side of the boat. As we wrapped up our trip with about 25 bass, Heath reflected on his home lake.
“Most people don’t know how good this lake has become,” Heath said. “It has gone through a lot of changes in the last few years and in the long run, I’m not sure all of them are good. When spotted bass showed up, it changed the lake, and so did blueback herring. Right now is the best small- mouth fishing we have ever had, but in the long run, I don’t know. The spots are just so aggressive that I am afraid the same thing will happen here that happened on Nottely and Chatuge. On those lakes, the spots eventually just took over the lake and when what few smallmouths are left try to spawn, the bluebacks are just going to eat up all the fry.”
DNR biologists share the same concern and encourage anglers to do their part by harvesting their limit of spotted bass whenever possible. Blue Ridge Lake is a mountain jewel, and Georgia’s only remaining viable reservoir smallmouth fishery. Hopefully, it will stay that way.
The verdict is still out on where exactly the winds of change will take Blue Ridge Lake. For now, Blue Ridge remains a great smallmouth fishery, with good numbers of solid fish. Watch the weather, pick a cloudy, windy day, and head to Blue Ridge with Heath Pack’s hints in mind and jerkbait rod in hand for some exciting action on Georgia mountain smallmouth.
Blue Ridge Lake is just a few miles east of the town of Blue Ridge in Fannin County. To get an update on what the fish are doing or to pick up some last minute supplies, visit Tri-State Bait and Tackle (706) 374-2030 on Lakewood Highway in nearby Mineral Bluff. For a map and underwater video of the DNR fish attractors in Blue Ridge, visit www.gofishgeorgia.com.
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