Strike Fast To Catch Blue Ridge Smallmouths
He who hesitates doesn't catch fish!
To the smallmouth, the small red jig darting just off the bottom of a rocky Lake Blue Ridge point must have looked like a crayfish or a yellow perch trying to escape. With a flick of its tail it surged forward and hit the jig.
On the other end of the fishing line, sitting in the front seat of his bass boat, was James Roberson of Blue Ridge, who felt the tap.
James gets all his money’s worth on a hook-set. His rod snapped back, both arms over his head and his feet came off the casting deck. He ended up with his rod pointing straight out the other side of the boat and fishing line wrapped around his ear — but no fish on the jig.
“Smallmouths are fast,” he said. “When a smallmouth hits, you can’t think about it or they are gone.”
On a May evening, I was on Lake Blue Ridge with James to try to catch a smallmouth on his specialty bait — a hand-tied hair jig. Most people who target smallmouths on this clear-water mountain lake will have a small crankbait tied on — most likely a Shad Rap — but James will be fishing with a hand-tied hair jig. Few anglers fish the small jigs, which makes it a bait that is less common to the fish.
James ties his jigs — or flies, as he calls them — in a variety of colors and color combinations ranging from white to chartreuse, but for smallmouths he has a favorite color — red.
“For some reason, smallmouths like red,” said James. “The jig looks like a perch or a crayfish.” Both items are favorites on a smallmouth’s dinner menu.
James has been fishing this 3,290-acre lake for more than 35 years, and the diversity of fish is one of the draws. The lake is likely your best bet in the state for walleye and smallmouths, and it contains largemouths, spotted bass and white bass, too. All the above will hit a hair jig — as will bream, crappie and catfish.
For those who come to Blue Ridge to catch smallmouths, a Shad Rap is likely the lure of choice, and it’s a good one. James picks the No. 7 Shad Rap as the preferred size, although many Blue Ridge anglers throw a No. 5. For color, black/silver is the standard, but James likes a crawfish-colored plug. He also produced a black-back, red-bellied Shad Rap from his tackle box, but don’t expect to buy one. James dyed the lure red because he thinks smallmouths go for the color.
Without doubt, the crankbait is a much easier lure to fish than the jig. You maintain constant contact with the plug and the treble hooks usually do the job. But the better bait is the jig, says James.
“It’s a deadly bait on all the mountain lakes,” he said. “But it is a little harder to fish. You fish it a little like fishing a worm — you have to feel the strike and set the hook.”
Not an easy task with a speedy smallmouth. We missed far more than we hit.
James prefers the perch color because it matches a common baitfish in Blue Ridge. But in heavily-stained water he may opt for white or radiant yellow to improve the contrast.
James and I began fishing at about 6:00 p.m. one point to the left of Morganton Point. The point is heavily riprapped and falls quickly into deeper water.
“There is a row of stumps off the end of this point that usually holds fish,” he said.
As we rounded the very end of the point, James missed a strike, nearly throwing himself out of the other side of the boat. A few casts later his jig was hit again. This time the hook held just long enough to bring a bronze-colored bass to the surface for a moment before it threw the jig.
James cast toward the bank again and let the jig settle to the bottom before starting to swim the lure back. The trick is to keep the lure just off the bottom without hanging in the rocks. James sweeps his rod forward, then quickly picks up the slack as the jig falls, before darting the jig ahead again. The strike zone is water six to 12 feet deep.
We moved around the rip-rapped point to a secondary point in the back of the next cove. A brick house with a screened porch sits on the point.
Knowing what is under the surface is especially important at Blue Ridge, which has little shoreline cover. Each year the lake level at Blue Ridge fluctuates 30 to 40 feet. Then once every five years, the TVA drops the lake level down 70 feet to work on the penstocks at the dam. When the lake was drawn down, James memorized an image of the contour below the surface in many areas. Rock structure is the primary fish-holding feature.
“This doesn’t look like much unless you know what’s under the water,” said James. “There is a rock ledge that extends way off the bank,” he said. The lake is full of rock, but if you can find variations in the rock — ledges, boulders, or transition areas between different-sized rocks, these will hold fish over a bank with little variation.
The sun was well below the trees when we pulled up on a point in the mouth of Green Creek.
“Between now and dark we could get eat up,” said James as he made his first cast.
The jig hadn’t moved far when James rocked the boat with a hookset, and then he frantically tried to regain his balance and reel in line to catch up to the fish. Smallmouths usually rocket out of the depths to try to throw the lure at the surface, and the fish did just that, ripping and running on the surface, but the jig and the line held and James swung our first smallmouth into the boat. The fish was typical of what you can expect at Blue Ridge: a solid-looking 1- to 1 1/2-lb. fish with a striking red eye, light-colored fins and a bronze back. There are larger smallmouths in the lake. The current lake record, caught in 1998 by Jim Ezell, weighed 6-lbs., 14-ozs and hit a spring lizard fished in May. James’s best smallmouth from Blue Ridge was in the 4 1/2-lb. range.
Two casts later, James missed another strike.
“Fishing plastic worms is messing me up,” he said. “I’m used to feeling the tap then waiting to set the hook. If you are fishing a jig and do that to a smallmouth, he is already gone.”
Just after dark we moved to a mid-lake point with a boat house on it. On the first cast James caught and landed an acrobatic smallmouth. On the next cast he missed a fish on the hookset.
For fishing in June and throughout the summer, early and late are the prime times at Blue Ridge. In the evening as the sun sets, the bass (and walleye) will move up out of the clear-water depths to feed on the banks. Fishing is also good in the morning before bright sunlight drives the fish deep.
At about 11:00 p.m. I finally caught a smallmouth. We eased up on a white rock sticking above the dark surface of the lake and I made a long cast toward it. The jig sank to the bottom and I raised my rod to pick it up and begin a slow retrieve. I’d like to claim expert fishing finesse in setting the hook when the fish hit, but the truth is that the smallmouth slammed the jig like a locomotive and hooked himself with little help from me. The fish then boiled out of 10 feet of water to thrash on the surface, the splashing barely visible in the moonlight. I would have guessed I had a 3-pounder, but when I finally lifted the fish out I was surprised to see a fish that weighed about 1 1/2 pounds.
“The smallmouths all think they are big,” said James.
Fishing at Blue Ridge with the jig or Shad Rap early and late in the day will hold up all summer, but there is one more lure that you might want to take along when you make a night trip to the lake in June.
“When the big female smallmouths come off the spawn they will hit a black spinnerbait slow-rolled along the bottom,” said James. He said he throws a 3/8-oz. spinnerbait with a single big Colorado blade to give it a strong thump as it churns through the water. He dresses the plug with a bass strip. For some reason, the smallmouths always seem to hit twice — once just to knock the lure and a second time when they come back to eat it. It is nerve-wracking fishing. “You just have to keep reeling after it’s been hit, waiting for the second hit,” said James. “When they come back to get it, there will be no question — they usually slam it.”
For the evening, we caught four smallmouths, all on the hair jig, a largemouth that hit a Bass Assassin in a blowdown, an eager bluegill that hit a Shad Rap, and a white bass that struck a jig. The fishing was slower than James expected and, surprisingly, we caught no walleye. With a handful of 1/4-oz. jigs, a Shad Rap or two, and a black spinnerbait you can expect similar variety and likely a few more fish during an evening of fishing rocky banks at Lake Blue Ridge.
Editor’s Note: James Roberson, a well-known fisherman on Blue Ridge passed away in 2005.
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