Good, consistent smallmouth bass action is one of Lake Blue Ridge’s claims to fame, and, despite the introduction of spotted bass to the lake in the early 1990s, the smallies have held on well. Luckily for bass fishermen, this month should provide some of the hottest topwater action of the year during the dawn and dusk hours for smallmouth, spotted and largemouth bass.
Mark Keaton, of Epworth, has fished Lake Blue Ridge for more than two decades, in addition to regularly participating in the North Georgia Bass Club and other local tournament groups. In his time on Blue Ridge, Mark said the brute strength of a smallie keeps it among his favorite species of fish to catch, and the numbers of good smallmouths in the lake make it his favorite body of water to fish.
“The smallmouths just fight differently,” Mark said. “They’re a heck of a lot tougher than a largemouth or spot in my book. We’ve pretty much got the monopoly for smallmouths in Georgia on Lake Blue Ridge.”
That’s not to say Mark is entirely disappointed when a spotted bass gobbles up his lure instead.
“Those spots, they’re a hard-fighting fish,” Mark said. “They fight differently, though. They just dig and dig.”
On our outing, the weather was a little less than picturesque, with plenty of clouds and periodic showers from first light until the time we got off the water. Not to mention the fog rolling out from between the peaks of the mountains surrounding the reservoir. However, because we were fishing topwater, the cloudy skies paid off by allowing us more time to fish the surface than on an average, sunny day.
Typically, the topwater action on Blue Ridge in July is best during low-light conditions when the surface is smooth. Basically, the first hour or two of daylight and the last few hours before the sun sets, Mark said.
“But if it’s cloudy and overcast, I’ll fish topwater all day long,” Mark said.
Mark stopped the motor at one of the first major points in the lake, just a short jaunt from the Lakewood Landing Boat Ramp. On his second cast, a good smallie burst through the surface and nailed the topwater plug Mark was walking the dog with. Once the fish realized it was hooked, it broke the surface again and jumped many times before Mark got it to the boat.
“I love the way the smallies come out of the water and jump,” Mark said. “I think they pull harder than a spot does, too.”
After a quick photo of Mark’s first smallmouth of the day, which weighed about 3 pounds, we released the fish back into the lake.
Mark uses medium-action spinning and baitcasting rods when fishing for Blue Ridge bass. He spools the spinning rigs with 8-lb.-test fluorocarbon line and the baitcasters with 12-lb.-test monofilament. The variation in line is to help with the hookset depending on the type of rig, Mark said.
“I like the medium-action rods with mono for the baitcasters because it gives a little and keeps you from ripping it right away from the fish,” he said. “It gives you a little cushion.”
After catching another smaller bronzeback, Mark made the call to motor up toward the upper end, closer to where the Toccoa River flows into the lake.
“In July, I’d start at point 5, which is the first big point coming into the river,” Mark said. “Then, I’d work my way around other points from there.”
Throughout Lake Blue Ridge, there are large numbered signs on certain points for navigational purposes. Most of the areas near any of the creek mouths on the lake will hold fish looking for the cooler water flowing into the lake this month, too, Mark said. Another hotspot with regular Blue Ridge bass fishermen is a point on the upper end of the lake simply known as “The Flagpole.” As its name suggests, finding it is not too hard as you head up toward the river.
Mark dropped the trolling motor into the water at the flagpole point and again, almost immediately, a decent smallmouth of about 2 pounds exploded on his topwater plug. After fighting and releasing the fish, we were beginning to feel pretty confident about the day. It was then I switched to an unweighted, white fluke rigged with a 3/0 offset worm hook. Within a few casts I’d gotten the hang of working the unweighted lure just below the surface, when a fish hit the fluke hard. Unfortunately, the excitement of seeing the hit got the best of me, and I made a knee-jerk hookset and missed the fish.
After missing a handful of fish, I finally managed to connect with one and brought my own smallmouth to the boat.
“You’re one-for-six, now,” Mark jokingly reminded me.
While the smallies and the spots will be in the same general locations this month in the upper end of the lake around main points and structure, the spotted bass are more apt to go after deep-water lures as the day warms up. Good rigs for spots include drop-shot rigged plastic worms and 3/16-oz. tube jigs, Mark said.
Mark’s preferred tube jig body is a 3-inch, watermelon-seed Strike King tube.
“By mid July the shad spawn will be done, and the spots will begin to relate more to deeper water,” Mark said of the brighter hours of the day. “What you do is fish for spots and hope for a smallie.”
At the same time, “it’s nothing for a smallie to come up from 20 feet to grab a topwater plug,” he added.
The main objective when selecting lures for all varieties of bass on Lake Blue Ridge is to mimic the types of baitfish the lake holds, namely gizzard and threadfin shad and blueback herring, Mark said.
“When you get into fishing the worms and the tube jigs in deeper water, you’re imitating crayfish,” he said.
Therefore, almost all the topwater and shallow-running plugs and flukes Mark recommends are in light colors from various shades of white and pearl to more silver shades. Mark recommends Lucky Craft’s Gunfish, Sammys and Planer plugs along with Rapala’s X-Rap suspending plug.
As Mark and I eased around the coves and points in the vicinity The Flagpole, we caught and missed several more fish. I was able to connect with a couple largemouth bass on the fluke, and then I lost a good fish just beneath the boat. Meanwhile, Mark continued catching average-sized smallies between 1 and 2 pounds.
On our way back toward the flagpole point, a very healthy smallmouth hammered the surface plug Mark was retrieving.
“There we go. This is a good fish,” he said.
After a nail-biting fight, Mark carefully lifted a nearly 4-lb. smallmouth into the boat for a few quick photos before releasing it. After a day’s worth of fishing, Mark and I had brought plenty of fish to the boat, but somehow, not a single spotted bass was caught. However, that’s not to say there are not plenty of spots in the lake. About a week later, during a kids’ fishing tournament on the lake that Mark was helping with, several spots were caught by youngsters. Most importantly for Mark, his son, Rusty, caught and released his first smallmouth during the tournament. It was a healthy bronzeback of more than 3 pounds.
While they are a hard-fighting and good-tasting fish, the problem with the non-native spotted bass is they compete with smallies for food sources and spawning grounds, Mark said. Spots have the potential to out compete smallmouth bass entirely.
“We’ve seen that happen on Lake Chatuge,” Mark said. “It was once a premier smallmouth lake, but once the spots got introduced you very seldom caught smallmouth there anymore.”
However, Mark said he thinks the illegal introduction of blueback herring to Lake Blue Ridge has helped the smallmouth population to hang on.
“You used to go out and catch 30 to 40 smallmouths, and they were all around a pound.
“A lot of things happened at the same time,” Mark said of the introduction of spots and bluebacks to the lake. “Now, you don’t catch the same quantity of smallmouths, but the quality has definitely improved with the bluebacks.”
When asked what keeps him fishing Blue Ridge, Mark quickly had two answers: “The smallies are what keep me here,” he said. “I feel very confident that I can come to Blue Ridge at any time and catch smallmouths. I don’t think I can go anywhere else close by and do that. Also, except for Memorial Day and the Fourth of July, it’s not a very busy lake.”
Because of the competition between the spots and the smallies, Mark and DNR officials recommend anglers harvest their total allowed daily limit of spots (eight fish per day). Spots can be differentiated from smallmouth and largemouth bass by the presence of a tooth patch on their tongue, according to the DNR.
“Harvesting spotted bass will help protect the future of the smallmouth bass fishery,” read several signs posted by the DNR at boat ramps around the lake.
Even though Mark said he doesn’t care for eating fish, he still keeps and fillets most of the spots he catches for large fish fries throughout the year.
“I don’t eat fish, but I like to have fish fries for my family and friends,” he said.
Most importantly, Mark advocates that any and all smallmouth bass caught on the lake be returned to the water unharmed. After getting a quick photo and weight of Rusty’s first smallie, Mark reminded his son:
“You’ve got to put that one back so we can come back and catch him again.”
Whether fishing the summertime surface action on Blue Ridge for fun or for the freezer, anglers should be able to accomplish both. The smallmouths will take care of the fun, and the spots will fill the freezer.