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Spooning Up Spots (Carefully) Out Of Lake Russell’s Timber

Mike Echols says that when the water temperature hits 60 the spotted bass will bunch up on deep structure, and a jigging spoon is the perfect bait to catch them.

Brad Bailey | December 1, 2006

I gave my line slack, and somewhere down in the tangle of tree trunks and branches 40 feet below the boat, my jigging spoon fluttered down like a dying shad sinking toward the bottom. When I pulled upward the jig felt like it bumped something. I pulled up gently, maintaining pressure, watching the rod tip. When it vibrated downward, I set the hook. No tree limb this time as a fat spotted bass ripped and ran with the spoon. When I had boated the fish and was unhooking the spoon from the bass’s mouth, I saw a wad of five or six small shad in the back of its throat. We had the combination of the two main factors Mike Echols likes to see for wintertime spooning: plenty of structure under the boat, and plenty of shad. Lake Russell, with its abundant population of spotted bass, offers excellent wintertime spooning — if you can deal with the forest of submerged timber.

This time of year, bass angler Mike Echols of Athens is a spoon-fishing fanatic.

“You don’t hear about a lot of tournament fishermen using a jigging spoon,” said Mike. “But I use them a lot, especially this time of year.”

On November 4, Mike and his tournament-fishing partner “Big Mike” Smith of Athens won the Tackle Box Classic tournament on Lake Keowee in South Carolina with 11.56 pounds, and it was bass caught on a spoon that were the difference.

“We already had a limit when we pulled up on a place,” said Mike. “There must have been a couple of hundred bass on that spot. They were hitting a spoon before it ever got to the bottom. I caught one that weighed four pounds, and we won the tournament.”

A spoon isn’t a small-fish bait, either, 3- or 4-pounders are common, and Mike’s best bass on a jigging spoon weighed seven pounds. He caught that fish at Lake Russell last January on an exceptional day of spooning.

“We lost count at about 80 fish,” he said. “That included some yellow perch up to about two pounds and the 7-lb. largemouth.”

Mike, 49, is a member of the Classic City Bassmasters, based out of Athens and on most Saturdays, Mike will be fishing a tournament somewhere. On the three weekends before our mid-November trip, Mike and Mike had picked up checks at bass tournaments at Keowee, Logan Martin and Lake Greenwood. Mike spent eight years fishing the Bassmaster circuit fishing bass tournaments all over the eastern United States. His best finish was 15th on the St. John’s River.

At Lake Russell Mike looks for the combination of bait and structure as the two keys to catching bass on a spoon.

“I like to see shad close to the bottom with bigger fish either above or below them,” he said. “And I like to see some structure — I’m not afraid to fish in structure.”

Structure at Russell means trees that were topped out when the lake was filled. The standing timber was left above the surface in many of the coves. What you can’t see beneath the surface is the forest of trees nearly everywhere.

Mike and I put in at the Hwy 72 ramp and hit one drop about 150 yards from the ramp briefly. We picked up one small largemouth before cranking the Honda 225 on Mike’s Ranger and heading south under the Hwy 72 bridge. The water temperature was 65, and would rise to 67 on a warm day.

“That’s a little warm,” said Mike. “A jigging spoon works better when the water temperature is 60 degrees or cooler.”

Mike has found that bass hit the metal baits better on bright sunny days and during the middle of the day between about 11 a.m. and 2 p.m.

“The bright sun bunches them up better, and the high sun makes the spoon flash a little more,” he said.
Mike prefers a Cordell C.C. Spoon, hammered silver in either 1/2- or 3/4-oz.

Mike also fishes a Flex-it spoon, also in either 1/2- or 3/4-oz. size. A Flex-it in white with a black pattern on the back has been productive for Mike recently. The day we fished a solid white Flex-it and white with silver reflective tape caught fish, too.

Mike uses a clip on the end of his line to attach the spoon. He does not use a swivel.

“I don’t mind a little twist on the line,” he said. “When the spoon hangs, it will spin a little and that gives it some movement.”

Mike fishes with a 6-foot, 6-inch Shakespeare Team All Star medium-heavy rod and a Pflueger Presidential reel.

“It is important to be able to feel the spoon,” he said. “The All-Star rod is so sensitive I can feel everything the spoon hits.”

For spooning he fishes with 12-lb. Silver Thread fluorocarbon line.

“The fluorocarbon is a little heavier line, and it tends not to hang up in the hooks,” he said.

He drops a spoon all the way to the bottom, reels up a foot or two and then begins jigging.

“I usually come up four or five feet off the bottom before I let it fall,” he said. “Since they usually hit it on the fall, that gives them time to see it.”

Mike varies his jigging style, sometimes pulling the spoon up on one pull, other times double-pumping to give it more action and more flash before dropping it on slack line.

Our second stop was the back of a cove on the South Carolina side just south of the Hwy 73 bridge. The water was 46 feet deep, the bottom was cluttered with structure, and there were clouds of bait — all the right factors.

With all that standing timber, you might think you’d be losing spoons as fast as you could tie them on and drop them into the trees. That wasn’t the case. We did hang in the timber over and over, but most of the time were successful pulling free. The first step in getting loose is to immediately drop slack in the line to cause the spoon to drop. Many times the heavy spoon falls free. Plan B, according to Mike, is to shake the spoon quickly with your rod, applying pressure, then removing it to pop the spoon back and forth to work it loose. Mike is patient while trying to free a spoon. He positions the boat directly over the spoon then shakes it loose. More stubborn hang-ups can sometimes be freed by applying strong pressure — just short of breaking the line — to partially straighten the hooks, then go back to shaking to get the hooks to pull loose. During six hours of spooning we lost only five spoons, and most of those were lost from the back of the boat.

Fishing in all that timber and repeated hang-ups will affect your spooning style. You want to avoid that both-hands-over-the-head hook set into what might well be an oak tree branch.

“You try not to drive it into a tree,” said Mike. “You have to feel the spoon, and when it pulls back, then you know what’s going on.”

December through February are the prime months for spooning at Russell, says Mike. The colder water temperature bunches the bait and the bass on deeper structure making the spoon more effective.

“You can usually catch a few fish year-round on a spoon,” he said. “But in the winter they will stack up on deeper structure.”

According to Mike, the best wintertime spooning structure is located south of the Hwy 72 bridge. Birds are often an indicator of where the bait is located. Our third stop was on the Georgia side, behind river marker No. 11. There were a few gulls hitting the water and a dozen or more loons fishing the area. Clouds of shad were everywhere, with the loons sometimes surging just under the surface like big bass chasing bait. We moved in with the loons and caught three or four small spots and a couple of yellow perch. You can tell you have a yellow perch hitting because they seem to shake the spoon. When a spot hits a spoon, it usually thumps it good.

We also fished the point at river marker 14 where the river channel swings in right up to the bank.
“It’s a good drop with lots of structure,” said Mike. “There are usually some fish on it.“

A good graph is a key piece of equipment for a spoon fisherman. Mike has a Raymarine DS 400X color-display graph mounted on the front deck.

“I can see my spoon going up and down at 50 feet,” he said. “If I can detect my spoon, I am pretty sure I can see the bass, too.”

We didn’t see any surface activity, but you are ready for it with a spoon tied on. The heavy bait will cast a mile, and pumped through a feeding school of fish it will usually hook up.

For the day, we caught nine spots, a largemouth, six yellow perch and a couple of white bass. A slow day that Mike attributed to the high 70s air temperature and 65-plus degree water.

“The spoon fishing is about to get going,” he said. “A couple of nights in a row of freezing weather will stack them up.”

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