Lineside Action Heats Up With Cold Weather On Carters

Joe DiPietro | January 1, 2009

Carters guide Eric Crowley shows off a chunky hybrid that hit a downlined live bait.

Fishing on Carters Lake in the wintertime can be summed up into one word — cold. However, those who brave it can reap hot striper and hybrid action as a result of being on the water this month. It may be freezing outside, but “the lake is absolutely on fire,” said Carters Lake striper guide Eric Crowley, owner of Lake and Stream Guide Service in Ellijay.

“During January you want to look for fish in the upper end of the lake,” Eric said, as we eased out of the Woodring Branch area just before dawn. The ice on the bottom of the boat told of a night’s dew turned to frost, and steam was billowing up off the lake, which was holding in the 50s.

As we got near the main body of the lake, a huge striper chasing shad surfaced in the distance. Eric dropped his trolling motor into the water and began setting downlines at 20 feet and two planer boards.

All the rigs were set with 20-lb. line and 6-foot, 20-lb. leaders with size 2/0 to 3/0 kahle and circle hooks. The planer boards were both directly attached to the line with release clips about 8 to 12 feet above the bait. “Now, watch that planer board,” Eric instructed.

The downlines were rigged with 1 1/2-oz. egg weights above a barrel swivel. For bait, Eric uses a variety of lively baitfish, including trout, shad and other baitfish from the area’s  streams and rivers that flow into the lake.

“The old saying ‘big baits catch big fish’ holds true on this lake,” Eric said, dropping a 10-inch trout in the water on one of the planer-board rigs.

Eric is careful to hook the baits through the nose in a manner that does not restrict their movement or breathing. “This way they stay alive even after you’ve used them,” Eric said.

It goes without saying that having a good bait-tank setup is an absolute must-have for this type of fishing.

Here’s a nice striper that hit a big trout on a downline dropped to 20 feet.

We eased around the mouth of Wurley Creek, and Eric started pulling the planer-board lines to keep them from hanging on obstacles on the creek mouth’s main-lake points.

One of the toughest tricks when fishing planer boards is keeping them in the perfect zone along a ledge, drop- off or shoreline without getting them hung up. “I’m a planer board ninja,” Eric joked.

Suddenly, one of the planer boards popped off the line, and Eric jumped off the bow of his skiff to set the hook and hand off the rod. After a blood- warming battle, Eric scooped up a nice 13-lb. striper from alongside the boat.

“This is an average-sized fish for this lake,” Eric said. “I tell people I can take them out, and they can expect to catch fish between 12 and 20 pounds.”

After releasing the nearly 30-inch fish, Eric and I continued along the mouth of Woodring Branch. Seconds later, we were again rejuvenated by one of the downlines doubling over. Even sliding on the ice on the bottom of the boat, neither of us had begun to com- plain. Eric took this fish and gently set the hook.

“It hit really soft,” he said. “I bet it’s a big spot; they sometimes eat my downline baits this time of year.”

After a good tussle, Eric boated a large, “accident,” spotted bass that tipped the scales at 5 pounds. It was a fish that would make any bass angler on the lake that day drool.

“It’s not what we’re after, but I don’t ever turn down a bite,” Eric quipped.

In addition to the downlines and planer boards, Eric also keeps a spinning rig handy with a deep-diving shad-imitation plug tied on in case he happens upon schooling activity.

“You never know when they may come up to eat,” he said. “It always helps to be prepared.”

Along with the fresh, live baits, one of the other critical things to remember on Carters Lake in January is to wear layers and waterproof boots. After trying the other point, Eric pulled up the lines and the trolling motor. We both zipped up coats and pulled down winter facemasks, and we motored from Woodring Branch to the Doll Mountain area.

“The fish should be stacked in the upper end of the lake from Woodring to Doll Mountain in January,” Eric said. “What you want to do is watch the depthfinder for big hooks; those are stripers. Look for structure, bait and stripers.”

Lively bait, like this rainbow trout, is key to catching Carters Lake linesides.

Eric motored down before we got to Doll Mountain, and he dropped his lines and trolling motor back into the lake’s smooth surface.

“Sure is crowded out here,” Eric joked about the lack of a crowd. “I guess you got to be a little bit crazy to fish in these conditions.”

We trolled over a hump, and Eric rocked his boat side-to-side to check his downlines for bottom. As the cold just began to sink in, another strong hit on one of the downlines had us quickly forgetting about the chilly air.

“This is a decent fish,” Eric said, setting the hook.

After a tough fight, a fat hybrid bass flopped on the surface, totally worn out. The hybrid weighed 8.2 pounds, and we released it after a few quick photos.

“They taste just as good as the stripers do,” Eric said. “They’re just as tough in the water, too.”

Coming over the other side of the hump, I snatched up Eric’s lightest rod when it bent over in a fashion that screamed fish, not bottom. This fish shook differently than the striper and left me wondering if I’d encountered one of the lake’s big spotted bass. As I cranked and pulled, I began to see the long outline of a fish coming up through the clear water. However, the fish wasn’t silver. Instead, I’d hooked a very respectable walleye.

The toothy walleye, or “pike” as the mountain folk call them, weighed a little heavier than 5 pounds and, coming from one of the southernmost reservoirs to hold a reproducing population of the species, it was a veritable trophy. It amounted to another “accident” fish on Carters Lake, but Eric and I were both ecstatic about this one.

“You’re not letting that one go,” Eric said. “They taste way too good.”

Jim Hakala, a DNR fisheries biologist, said there is a small reproducing population of walleye on Carters, but the walleye fishery is mainly supported by DNR stockings.

While stripers and hybrids can get downright silly sometimes and eat without regard, Eric always recommends sneaking up on the area you think the fish are holding in. As Eric approaches his fishing grounds, he’s always sure to motor down and quietly slip into position. This way, even if the fish are finicky, you’ve still got a shot at them.

“You’ll want to get out there and look around for fish, but you don’t want to scare them in the process,” Eric said.

When handling stripers, Eric is careful to get the smaller fish unhooked and back into the water as quickly as possible to reduce mortality rates, especially because the lake’s striper population is entirely dependent upon stocking. The hybrid bass are a little more tough, but Eric always makes sure to carefully release the smaller hybrids, too.

“If we’re not going to keep them, we definitely want them to make it,” Eric said.

During our trips together in preparation for this story, Eric and I caught nearly every species of fish in the lake. Thanks to the size of bait we were using, all the fish we could entice to eat were nice fish, regardless of their species.

Timing can sometimes be every- thing when fishing for stripers and hybrids. Anglers want to get on the lake before dawn in order to have the best shot at a good fish and a good bite. The other option is an afternoon outing that ends shortly after the winter’s early darkness. In order to see every hit, even in darkness, Eric uses small glow- sticks attached to the rod tips with a small plastic attachment. As an alternative to planer boards, Eric occasionally uses flatlines and balloon rigs to keep baits free-lined behind the boat anywhere from 50 to 150 feet.

The bottom line is that Carters Lake in January is definitely worth a shot. Regardless of what species you’re after, the lake has it, and it should be eating during the coldest months of the year if you’re in the right location.

While some parts of the lake in January look more like a big desert on the depthfinder, others look like a plethora of life and hold both fish and bait. Anglers want to keep an eye out on the surface for any clues to bait or big fish.

“If you find the bait, you’ll usually find the fish,” Eric said.

Carters Lake is not “ducks in a barrel” by any means; it can take some hunting around the 3,200-acre reservoir to find the fish. To get a jumpstart this winter, Eric suggests putting in on the upper end of the lake and working the main and secondary lake points, creek mouths, humps and fish attractors up toward where the Coosawattee River dumps into the lake.

Anglers want to keep an eye out for water-level fluctuations because the shift in water flow caused by the corps draining water can turn on the fish at times, Eric said. Current lake info can be found by calling (706) 334-2248.

To take an action-packed trip on Carters Lake with Eric, give him a call at (706) 669-4973.

The hot action on Carters Lake in January is sure to keep anglers’ minds off the cold weather. Here, Eric battles one of the lakes big striped bass.

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