Finesse Cranking For Blue Ridge Smallmouth

In March, Shad Raps and jerkbaits fished slow will entice the pound-for-pound champ of gamefish fighters.

What is faster than a speeding bullet, more powerful than a locomotive, and is able to leap several feet out of the water with a single bound? If you guessed Superman, thanks for playing. Enjoy your parting gifts.

What I’m talking about is a Georgia fishing treasure: the smallmouth bass. A largemouth is a sneak thief. It picks up your bait and moves lazily while you watch your line load up before proceeding to do a little jaw surgery. The bronzeback on the other hand is a smash-and-grab robber, taking bold swipes at baits, hitting treble-hooked plugs with all the subtlety of the proverbial bull-in-a-china shop. Smallmouths are also finicky predators, seemingly able to differentiate between a threadfin shad and a crankbait without so much as a second look.

Nathan Lewis of Blue Ridge guides anglers on every lake in north Georgia, and he is an expert smallmouth fisherman. He’ll chase largemouths, spotted bass, yellow perch, walleye. You name it, Nathan likes to fish for it.

“I don’t think you’ll find anybody that loves to fish as much as I do,” he said.

Nathan set a new lake record for a Blue Ridge largemouth last February with a bass that tipped the scales at 11-lbs., 10.7-ozs. He fishes an average of 15 days a month, and he has caught smallmouths out of Lake Blue Ridge since he was five years old. To him, the smallmouth is the ultimate member of the black bass family.

“These are the smartest, wariest, hardest-fighting, most acrobatic fish you’re bound to catch,” Nathan smiled as we started fishing one morning a few weeks back. “I believe the smallmouth is the smartest fish that swims.”

To fool these warriors of the deep, Nathan finesse fishes with a twist. He’ll throw crankbaits and jerkbaits all month long to catch bronzebacks.

Before you load the boat with your broomstick-action rods spooled with 20-lb. test anchor rope, remember that Georgia’s mountain lakes are different fisheries that require a great amount of finesse. As we fished a gradually sloping point near the Lakewood Landing boat ramp, Nathan outlined his choice in gear.

“You need small lures and light line to fish for smallmouths in this lake,” Nathan allowed. “The water is very clear, and the fish can see lures from a long way, so it takes some finesse to do really well out here.”

That means tube jigs and curly-tail grubs for smallies, right? Try small-profile, tight-wobbling crankbaits and jerkbaits. And if you fish Blue Ridge, there is one lure that is probably better than any other.

“If I could only fish this lake with one lure all the time, I would pick a No. 5 Shad Rap,” Nathan said. “Some people are comfortable fishing jigs or tubes, but I have an incredible amount of confidence in this lure after years of fishing it, and confidence makes the difference between catching fish and not.”

How do you finesse a crankbait you may ask. Simple. Nathan works a Shad Rap like a jerkbait. When he makes a cast, he reels the bait down fast, pauses it, slow rolls it, twitches it, whatever he has to do to draw a strike from a bass. When the fish are less aggressive, like the day we fished, Nathan will go with a traditional jerkbait such as a Lucky Craft Pointer, a Rapala X-Rap or a Rapala No. 8 Husky Jerk.

“The key thing to remember is that until the water warms up into the upper 50s, these fish are going to be a little more sluggish,” Nathan cautioned. “You have to really slow down. If you think you are fishing slow enough, slow down even more just to be sure.”

Color isn’t as important to Nathan as presentation and his confidence in the action of a bait.

“I like something shiny and flashy for a sunny day, and firetiger on cloudy days,” Nathan said. “Some people are big believers in a certain color. To me it just doesn’t matter as much.”

Nathan said another key to catching fish is staying a long way off the bank.
“It seems to work better to make longer casts and keep the boat away from the fish,” Nathan said. “The water is so clear maybe it spooks them.”

Nathan and I had fished one rocky bank with no success as the sun rose, so Nathan elected to go try a hole adjacent to Blue Ridge Marina. As we worked our way around a point, Nathan told me what he looks for when smallmouth fishing in the early spring.

“I fish deep points, especially the ones close to channel bends, early in the day,” Nathan said. “When it warms up I look for big flats and try to catch fish that have moved up to feed.”

Nathan said the ideal water temperature is between 55 and 58 degrees. That is the point when fish start feeding more aggressively in the spring. The day we went, water temperatures would have probably reached into the low 50s, but the almost constant cloud cover kept surface temperatures at 48 to 49 degrees.

Nathan will hit sunny banks first in the winter and early spring because the water there will warm up first, drawing bait and bigger fish.

Another thing Nathan said helps greatly when you are smallmouth fishing on Blue Ridge is something of which there will be no shortage this month: wind. Nathan likes to fish areas where the wind is blowing into the bank.

“The windier it gets, the better our fishing is going to be,” Nathan told me. “Some people like fishing with the wind or across current, but I like it right at my back.”

A quick front was coming in from the west while an east wind put the slightest chop on the water at our second fishing hole. We worked our way around a rocky point throwing jerkbaits before coming to a relatively straight stretch of bank with a big rock outcropping right at the water’s edge.

Nathan’s cast arced over the water, his lure splashing to rest a few feet short of the rocks. He cranked the reel three or four times to get the suspending jerkbait into the strike zone, paused it for a second, twitched the rod tip a couple of times and paused again. I was in the back of the boat reeling my jerkbait slowly, stopping it, popping it three or four times with the rod tip and stopping again when a sudden movement snapped me out of my trance.

“There he is,” Nathan grunted as he buried the hooks of the Pointer Minnow through the lip of our first bronzeback of the day, a fat 2-lb. smallmouth.

“That’s a pretty representative fish for Blue Ridge,” Nathan explained. “That’s about the average size. There are some 4- and 5-lb. smallmouths in here, and there’s some little ones, but that one is a pretty good fish.”

Nathan said rocks and stumps are key structure to smallmouth bass, and Blue Ridge has plenty of both. A stump-covered flat after several days of warm weather could be just the ticket for getting into a bunch of smallies, but Nathan said the fish he’s found this year are relating better to rock than wood.

Once the sun got high on the lake, Nathan and I switched from steep points to gently sloping, clay banks  scattered with rock. Normally these places would be under a few feet of water, but the water being down wasn’t Nathan’s biggest concern. Instead, he is looking for similar places to fish because he knows the relief of the bottom there makes a large flat, perfect for bass coming out of deep water to feed.

“A lot of people want to look for spots like that steep bluff wall across the lake,” Nathan pointed out. “That will be great later in the year, but I like these flats in March because when the water warms up in the afternoon, the smallmouths will come up to eat, and they can drop right back off this ledge. This is just a nothing-looking bank, but there should be fish here.”

There were fish on the flat, and just as Nathan had hoped, the wind started blowing a little more.

“That wind ought to get these fish fired up now,” Nathan said. “The bass can’t see a bait as good when the wind is moving the water, and that’s critical in this super-clear water.”

Sure enough, I got a quick bite but missed a hook set. Nathan’s jerkbait got slapped at, and he missed. Then a few casts later, Nathan boated another fish. Shortly, he pulled another one over the side.

“It can happen just that fast,” Nathan said. “We haven’t had a bite in over an hour and then bang, bang. Two fish.”

By the time we had reached our next spot, another flat that runs between two points up the Toccoa River, Nathan had me fishing with the Shad Rap. I had been throwing a jerkbait and missed two fish on it.

I was casting the Shad Rap into shallow water, digging it down fast and then slow-rolling it back to the boat. A few casts into the routine, a smallmouth yanked one way, I yanked the other, and in short order I was holding a beautiful bronze fish with vertical black bars and stripes around its eyes. It wasn’t a trophy-class fish, but I was tickled to catch one after a couple of misses earlier in the day.

Soon, a thunderstorm that had been threatening all day blew over the nearest ridge, bringing lightning, wind and rain. We hightailed it back to the ramp to get out of harm’s way. Nathan had his boat on the trailer, and we sat in the truck and talked about smallmouth fishing while the raindrops splattered on the roof.

“One thing people need to keep in mind is that confidence in what you are doing has as much to do with catching a lot of fish as anything else,” Nathan said.

“Pick baits you are confident in, whether it is a crankbait, a tube jig or a fluke. If you think something will catch fish, it probably will.”

Nathan said time on the water is the most important thing when it comes to catching fish consistently, no matter what species you are after. To Nathan, that doesn’t just mean a number of years spent on a body of water, though that kind of time is certainly important. Instead, he meant stretching your fishing hours as long as you can.

“When the fish decide to bite, they might turn on, bite really good for an hour and shut down again,” Nathan said. “You have to stay at it because you never can tell when that bite is going to start.”

He related a story about he and a friend spending a few days on the water calling each other by cellphone once an hour to update their catch numbers.

“I would be at one end of the lake, and he would be at the other end, and we would see that if he caught most of his fish in one time frame, it was the same time I was catching a bunch of them,” Nathan recalled. “If you can spend more hours fishing, you are more likely to hit that time period.”

The weather can have a tremendous effect on smallmouth fishing, so this month, head to Blue Ridge with an eye on the sky.

“Smallmouth bass are probably the most particular fish about fronts, and fronts really affect these mountain lakes more than usual at other places,” Nathan said.

After close to an hour the rain had moved out, and Nathan and I decided to fish until dark. He wasn’t sure how the rainstorm was going to affect the fishing, but within 10 minutes, we got an answer as Nathan hooked another chunky smallie on the jerkbait.

The next hole we stopped at, a place we had fished right before the rain came in earlier, produced another fish for Nathan while I watched a smallmouth follow my Shad Rap all the way to the boat before turning, flicking its tail and disappearing into the depths. Each of us had subtle bites from fish that apparently didn’t want to hammer a bait.

A few minutes before dark, the skies turned threatening again and Nathan and I returned to the boat ramp for the final time. All total, Nathan boated about a dozen smallmouths throughout the course of the day, and I was able to catch my first bronzeback.

“It was tough fishing today, so I think we did pretty good,” Nathan said. “When the water warms up to 58 degrees it will be primetime and they are likely to rip the rod out of your hands.”

A 2- or 3-lb. bass that hits like a 9-lb. hammer? You bet. And Lake Blue Ridge is the place to get after smallies in Georgia.

“This is far and away the best smallmouth lake in the state,” Nathan said. “You could go to some of the other mountain lakes and catch one once in a while, but you can do it every day here.”

If you aren’t a hyperspeed hooksetter, you better practice before heading to Lake Blue Ridge this month. If the smallmouths aren’t quite biting right, they’re tricky. If they are ready to eat, they will smash your favorite lure.Whatever you do, go to Blue Ridge and get in on some of Georgia’s most fun and unique fishing.You can take a couple of spinning rods spooled with 6-lb. test and a box full of Shad Raps.

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