The Zara Spook on Johnny’s line zig-zagged back toward the boat in a tight “V” pattern across the barely-rippled surface of Lake Burton. The water swirled behind the bait once, then twice from something unseen shadowing the lure.
Then, when the bait was just 15 feet from the boat, the fish trailing it rushed, this time ripping the surface, but it did not take the bait. Ten feet away, the bass hung just under the surface in the drinking-water-clear lake, looking as big as a submarine, before it slowly submerged. The big Burton spotted bass would have gone 3 1/2 pounds easy — maybe four pounds.
“I saw him following it,” said Johnny. “He just didn’t want it — but that’s the kind of fish we are catching now.”
I was on Lake Burton on the evening of May 21, dodging rain showers and looking for big spotted bass with lake-expert Johnny Brooks. With a well-established population of blueback herring, Burton has seen a boom in its spotted-bass fishing, and Johnny and I were on the lake to preview the summertime fishing.
When the spawn ends and the bass move to their summer pattern, there are two prime patterns for catching big Burton spots, says Johnny: topwater baits until the sun goes down, and then a Texas-rigged worm dragged through deep brushpiles.
Johnny is 42 and he has lived near Lake Burton all his life. He has been bass fishing the lake “seriously” for more than 20 years and has had his share of success. His best largemouth from the lake went 8 1/2 pounds; his best spot weighed 5 1/2. Usually he is among the contenders at bass tournaments on the lake.
I met Johnny at the Murray Cove ramp just before 6 p.m. We crossed the lake and began throwing topwater on the long point at the mouth of Cherokee Cove when the big spot missed its chance to be photographed. We saw only a couple of other boats during the entire evening — most boaters were apparently spooked off by a series of storms moving through. All that will change as soon as school lets out, Johnny assured me.
“Once the kids are out of school you can’t fish this lake during the day. Almost all the fishing moves to the nighttime to avoid all the pleasure-boaters and jet-skis.”
Johnny has tackle boxes full of gear, but for nighttime bassing at Burton he sticks with two tactics that have produced well for him: topwater until the sun sets, then he switches over to a Texas-rigged worm.
The evening we were on the lake, he used a Zara Spook, a Super Spook Jr., and a Sammy — all in shad patterns with a white belly to match the blueback herring that have become the dominant forage in Burton. Chuggers like Pop-Rs or Chug-Bugs will also work, he says.
“There are some guys who throw a buzzbait,” he said. “But I haven’t had much luck with it.”
The extremely clear water at Burton is a confounding factor for many anglers who visit Burton. Johnny makes long casts with his topwater plugs to get the bait far from the boat where the fish are less likely to be spooked. And he works the baits quickly.
“You can’t work a Zara Spook too fast,” he said. “If a spot wants it he will get it — you can’t work it fast enough to keep it away.”
Johnny likes to have a ripple on the water when he is throwing topwater so the fish don’t get too good a look at the bait. Too much wave action, however, ruins the walking-the-dog action of a Spook.
There was a spawn-related herring die-off under way the week Johnny and I were on the lake (see below) and with all the dying herring available, and with many of the bass still spawning or in the post-spawn doldrums, he expected the fishing to be tough. It was, but even so, we caught a couple of fish. And the best topwater action is yet to come.
The first fish of the evening came from a hump on the up-lake side of the mouth of Murray Cove. A fish blew a hole in the water behind the Sammy that Johnny was working, but missed. Johnny kept the bait working and the fish slashed at it again — and missed again. The third attack was successful and Johnny stuck a fat 2 1/4-lb. spotted bass.
“That fish came up in about 15 feet of water,” he said. “They will come and get it from a long way in this clear water.”
Blueback herring were illegally introduced into Burton in the early 1990s and have had a significant impact on the lake.
“Blueback herring have changed the way you fish this lake,” said Johnny. “The topwater bite is a lot better and the spots are bigger.”
The surface activity has improved as schools of bass have learned to chase schools of bluebacks to the surface to feed.
“Since the herring have been in here, you have to watch out for surface activity. If you are lucky enough to be where they are pushing herring up to the surface, you can get well in a hurry,” said Johnny.
“The bass are really fat and healthy, too,” he said. “On some other lakes you can catch a 2 1/2-lb. bass that has a 2-lb. head and a one-half pound body. We don’t have that here.”
Whether he is throwing topwater plugs or working a worm, Johnny is almost always fishing above or through brushpiles. He knows where there are hundreds of them.
“During the summer it won’t do you much good to beat the banks,” he said. “The fish won’t be there. You have to know where the brushpiles are.”
Once the sun went down and the lake slicked out, we switched over to plastic worms and went looking for brush to drag them through.
“Some of the other guys throw a spinnerbait and catch fish,” he said, “but day-in and day-out, it is hard to beat a plastic worm.”
During the evening, Johnny says green pumpkin is a top color choice on Burton, but after dark he chooses junebug, redbug or other dark-colored worms. He uses a Texas rig with a weight no heavier than 3/16 ounce. The light weight makes the worm fall a little slower and it is less likely to get hung. The bottom of the lake is thick with grass that hangs on heavier lead.
Nearly any point on Burton will have a brushpile or two on it. After dark Johnny and I went point-hopping in the mouth of Dicks Creek and in Timpson Creek to hit specific brushpiles. Johnny uses a flashlight to line up markers — docks, rocks, or trees — to locate the brush. Then he casts beyond the brush, pulls the worm up to the brush then slowly works it through. After four or five casts, he is ready to ride.
“I don’t stay in one place very long,” he said. “If there is a spot at home, he will usually hit pretty quick.”
Johnny often uses a black light fastened to the side of his boat when he is fishing at night. The light makes fishing line show up like glowing rope and allows you to see your line in the dark. Any tick in the line where it meets the surface is the signal to set the hook.
The only other bass we boated came out of a brushpile on the end of the skinny point on the north side of the mouth of Murray Cove. Johnny had just missed a pickup in the brush. I cast in behind him and felt the bass inhale the worm. That “tap-tap-tap” is one of the reasons that worm fishing is fun — and it’s even more fun when you set the hook and feel the rod load up with the weight of a bass. The spotted bass I caught weighed a pound and a half or so, but fought like three pounds. That clear, cold water apparently makes them feisty.
As the summer progresses, the bass in Burton will gradually move deeper, farther from the banks and closer to the river channel. By late June, Johnny will be targeting plastic worms on brushpiles in 20 to 30 feet of water.
In late May the bass at Burton were still in transition from the spawn to a post-spawn pattern. Both the spots we caught had bloody tails, an indication that the spawn was under way.
According to WRD Fisheries Biologist Anthony Rabern, spring in the mountains was late this year and so was the spawn. “By June 1, the fish will be on a post-spawn pattern and they should be tearing it up on topwater.”
Johnny Brooks guides for bass on Lake Burton. If you’d like to try out the summertime topwater and Texas-rigged-worms pattern for spotted bass — and see the eye-popping mansions along the bank while you are fishing, Johnny can be reached at (706) 782-7894.