The smash of a healthy largemouth bass attacking a topwater bait is one of those things that avid anglers don’t soon forget. Nothing is more likely to get a serious bass fisherman’s adrenaline flowing than an explosive topwater strike from a big fish on a quiet summer morning. Bass are predators by nature, and they will attack a well-placed topwater bait viciously under the right conditions.
Danny Hall of Ellijay is a serious bass angler, and he tells us that July is a great month for some heavy topwater action on one of his favorite area lakes; Lake Nottely near Blairsville. Danny is a member of the Triton Boats Pro Fishing Team and a regular on several of the professional bass-fishing circuits. In addition to his prowess as a competitive tournament angler, he is very familiar with Nottely because he has been fishing it for about 20 years.
While Nottely is more often praised for its lineside fishery nowadays, the mountain lake contains some excellent largemouth bass habitat and, under the right conditions, can produce some serious largemouth action.
I met Danny at a ramp on the eastern end of the lake, near Blairsville, on a foggy morning in early June. There was almost no wind, and the fog was so thick you couldn’t see much beyond the bow light while sitting in the driver’s seat of the boat. Needless to say we left the ramp slowly and puttered along on the big motor until we reached our first location.
“Most people don’t realize that the bass relate to shallow grass in Nottely,” said Danny, “especially this time of year.”
Danny said that during the winter draw-down the exposed banks become covered with grassbeds of different types, and when the lake level begins to rise in the late spring, the grass becomes submerged in relatively shallow water. This submerged grass attracts bass that nestle down in it and wait for unsuspecting bait to swim over them. The bass dash out of the grass, get a mouthful and settle back down in the grass to wait for the next victim.
That’s where the topwater action comes in. Danny says he fishes topwater baits in water two- to five-feet deep over submerged grass and around visible structure like willows and other bushes standing in the water.
“After the fish come off the spawn, they will stay in the shallows and feed aggressively on the plentiful bait,” says Danny. “In July the fish will be holding in these shallow areas, particularly early and late in the day, and topwater baits are usually very productive.”
For his choice of baits, Danny generally fishes a simple selection of lures in which he has a great deal of confidence. His arsenal usually consists of a Zara Spook, a buzzbait, and a Pop-R. These three baits, in natural color selections like shad or baby bass for the plugs and white for the buzzbait, are at the top of Danny’s list. Sometimes if the fish are extra finicky and he can’t get them to hit any of those baits, he’ll switch to a Heddon Tiny Torpedo. Often the smaller profile of the bait can turn the fish on and produce strikes.
We pulled up on a shallow flat near the river channel and began making long casts over the grassbeds.
“Location is very important this time of year,” said Danny. “The fish will generally be holding in the shallows in areas where there is deeper water very close by. Bass like to be able to move vertically without having to expend much energy, so fish the flats near the edges of the channel for the best results.”
Danny fishes his topwater baits on braided line. His medium-weight casting reels are spooled with 30- to 60-lb. test Spider Wire when he is fishing topwater at Nottely. He likes the braid for three reasons. First, it has very little stretch, so pressure on the hookset is transferred directly to the bait without any delay; second, it is highly abrasion resistant, an important factor around the cover; and third, braided line is generally soft and supple compared to monofilament, so it allows the bait to have a more natural action.
As we started fishing that morning, Danny was casting a Spook, and I was working a Pop-R. He told me that the wide action of the Spook can often cause missed strikes as the lure darts back and forth, so it is important to keep the Spook moving until you feel the weight of the fish on a strike.
Many fish have been missed because anxious anglers have jerked the bait right out of the strike zone in reaction to a blowup that just misses the bait.
“I’ve seen fish swipe at a Spook two or three times before making contact with the bait,” said Danny. “If you just stay calm and keep moving the bait, the bass will likely come back and connect.”
I must say that staying calm with a big largemouth smashing around your bait is easier said than done, but it is a very important element of topwater fishing that can make the difference between success and frustration.
Presentation of the lure is also very important.
“Bass seem to change their preference on retrieve styles often,” said Danny. “Sometimes the Pop-R works with a single pop every few seconds. Other times several pops in rapid succession is a better method.”
The best bet is to mix the retrieve up until you find the combination that suits the bass on that day.
After about a dozen casts we had our first strike. Danny had a small fish nail the Spook just after it hit the water near a willow tree.
A few casts later I had a fish smack at the Pop-R and miss it. Danny quickly picked up another rod and made a cast right behind my bait where the fish had hit.
“It is very important to keep a follow-up bait tied on and ready when fishing topwater,” said Danny. “Often when a bass misses a topwater bait it will inhale a worm or Senko thrown immediately in the same area. Quick action with a follow up bait will often turn a missed opportunity into a boated fish.”
We caught a few fish on top, and the fog lifted a little so we could move around and explore some more territory. We fished several areas in the upper river that pretty much mirrored the place we started. Each one had shallow submerged grass, standing cover in the water and a channel with deep water nearby. Danny said that in July he sticks to areas like this in the main creeks off the lake basin or on points near the river channel in the main lake itself. The water temperature in Nottely stays cool longer than the more southern reservoirs like West Point and Oconee, so the fish tend to stay shallow longer.
As the day moved on and the sun began to poke through the fog, Danny switched over to a jig and began pitching it deep into the willows and other cover.
“Once the sun gets high the bass will move back into the cover and the topwater action will be pretty much over until just before sunset,” he said.
Danny’s choice of jig is a 7/16- or 9/16-oz. Sloan’s Jig with a Super Chunk Trailer. Color combinations of black/blue and black/brown have proven to be best for Danny over time.
“Fish the jig tight to the cover and fish each piece of cover very thoroughly,” says Danny. “You may have to drop the jig into a very small area a half dozen times or more to get the bass to strike. But be patient and your persistence will pay off.”
Again, Danny fishes the jig on heavy tackle with heavy line. It is extremely important to set the hook quickly when you get a strike, and also to take command of the fish and pull it out of the cover before it has time to go under roots or wrap around limbs. Danny fishes the jig throughout the early summer on Nottely around bushes and under docks where the end of the dock is in five to eight feet of water. Dock fishing produces best when there is brush under the dock. Skip the jig as far as you can under the dock, and let it fall slowly. Watch the line carefully for a slight movement to the side or just a twitch. Strikes will generally be subtle, so set the hook on anything that looks a little out of the norm. Whether fishing a tree, bush, or dock with the jig, remember to be persistent and patient. Fish each area of the cover slowly and thoroughly.
While the largemouth bass population is good on Nottely, it should be noted that the lake is better known as a striper and hybrid fishery. The blueback herring in the lake have done a great deal to improve the lineside fishery, but Nottely is one of the lakes where it is apparent that the bluebacks have had a negative impact on the largemouth population. Blueback herring are known to eat baby bass.
This has been a contributing factor to small yield from some of the most recent largemouth bass hatches. Reggie Weaver is the WRD Fisheries Biologist who is responsible for Nottely. He tells us that in an attempt to improve the largemouth population on the lake, WRD has been stocking largemouth in Nottely for the last couple of years.
“We usually don’t stock largemouth in Georgia reservoirs, but we decided to try a three-year experiment to combat the impact of the bluebacks,” said Reggie. “We put 86,000 one-inch bass in the lake in the spring of 2003, followed with 42,000 two-inch fish in spring of 2004, and added 104,000 this year with a one- and two-inch mix.”
Reggie says that the fish are marked on the top of the head with OTC (Oxytetracyclene) which will produce a small yellow mark on a scale-like bone. The 2003 stocked bass should be approaching harvest size later this year, and the DNR will be requesting anglers to report fish they catch with the yellow mark.
“Nottely is an excellent largemouth lake because it provides the shallow cover, and turbid water that make for good largemouth territory,” Reggie said.
Most of its neighboring mountain lakes are deep and gin-clear and are therefore more suited to Kentucky spotted bass, according to Reggie. So with a little luck the stocking program might really improve this largemouth fishery.
Even though there is a need to improve the largemouth population on Nottely and the DNR is already doing something about that, there are still plenty of good largemouth to be caught on this beautiful mountain lake. So get up early one morning this month, tie on a topwater plug or two, and head to the shallow grass flats of Nottely. The mountain air is cool, the scenery is beautiful, and the fish are likely to be biting.