Last spring with Scott Swanson, I fished Nantahala Reservoir, nestled among the mountains of the Nantahala National Forest, a dozen miles east of Andrews.
Swanson owns and operates Quest Angling Adventures, a travel agency that arranges trips to many of the world's exotic fishing hot spots. He's fished one dream destination after another, north, south, east and west, places most anglers only visit during REM sleep.
Swanson has a sweet spot for smallmouth bass that goes back many years. We've fished some of the same remote smallmouth bass spots in Canada.
"Tim, how does this compare to some of the smallmouth places you fish in Canada?" he said as we worked our way along the banks of the lake.
There were many similarities - the water at Nantahala is really clear, and lots of the lakes in Canada are deep and clear; the steep and heavily-forested shoreline resembled lakes at the Canadian Shield; and, of course, another telling similarities between Nantahala and Shield lakes was we hadn't seen another angler all day.
"And we're catching some pretty nice smallies," I said. "That's the same, too."
Lee Howard, a smallmouth guide from Hiwassee, Ga., also plies his craft at Nantahala.
Howard recommended fishing for smallmouth with silicon tail jigs and a plastic trailer.
"I like the Strike King Bitsy jig," he said. "It has a fine wire hook, which I like because the jig doesn't sink as fast as a heavier jig.
"I never use a jig over ¼ ounce and the 1/8-ounce jig is best."
Howard rigs his jigs with a plastic Salty Swimming Chunk trailer. His favorite colors are pumpkin, sweet potato and root beer with a green flake trailer.
With Swanson, the best jig presentation was a ¼-ounce lead head and a 3-inch tube grub. Most tube-grub jig heads don't have a long enough shank to suit me. So, after inserting the jig head into the tube, I cut a slot to relief the pressure on the tube to allow the tube to straighten. Though a round-head jig will work stuffed into a tube grub, I have had much better luck with the elongated head jigs. They slide into the tube without tearing it to pieces.
Much more than curly-tail grubs, which also work well for smallmouth bass, the tube grubs swing side-to-side as they fall. That side-to-side action is a smallmouth bass "sure bet."
As is the case in other smallmouth spots, the most productive color for the tube was white with the upper side blue or black. Green pumpkin also works.
Probably other colors would have worked as well, but I rarely throw every color in my box until I find one that won't elicit strikes.
Because of the clear water, Howard used light line.
"Given the water clarity, light line is a requirement at Nantahala," he said. "And long casts keep the smallmouths from seeing you."
While the boat moved forward, smallmouths often could be seen swimming ahead, drifting off toward deeper water. In effect, they saw us before we saw them.
Fishing ultra-clear water is different than fishing stained or muddy water and requires an entirely different mindset. Long casts and light line are absolutely required.
Brooks Speer lives at the banks of Nantahala Reservoir and has fished for local smallmouths since 1971. He uses a variety of lures.
"I fish with lots of different lures," he said, "tubes, jigs, small crankbaits, whatever seems to work on a given day.
"For tubes and jigs, I like white or green pumpkin. I use the small ones."
Crankbaits, said Speer, need to track close to the bottom.
"The Bill Norman Little N has been effective here for a long time," he said. "And if the smallmouth are shallow, a Shad Rap is hard to beat. And I really like the Poe's cedar crankbait. I really don't like a rattle at this lake."
Swanson also caught smallmouth with crankbaits. A Fat Free Fingerling was about the right size and ran at the depth containing lots of smallmouth in pre-spawn staging areas.
"There isn't enough algae in Nantahala to support lots of shad," he said. "The water's real clear."
Every lake, however, has some sort of small forage fish, usually with bodies colored light on the bottom and dark on the top. A lure matching those colors - a black-pearl Fat Free Fingerlings - did the trick at Nantahala. From that, figure your favorite small crankbait that runs about 8-feet deep and has a light bottom and dark top will work as well.
I fished crankbaits using my bait-casting gear, the same outfit I use for smallmouth in Canada when fishing with crankbaits. Speer fishes with somewhat heavier gear for crankbaits than some of the other local anglers.
"I run a little heavier than some," he said. "I fish the bottom and get hung up a lot. I don't like to lose baits."
At $5 a pop for quality crankbaits, it's easy to understand Speer's reluctance to lose them.
Howard relies on spinning gear.
"Six-pound test doesn't work very well on bait-casting equipment," he said. "I like a rod with lots of sensitivity. And most of the time, I use a 7-foot rod. Probably a 6 ½- or 6-foot rod would work as well. Of course, I use a shorter rod if I'm trying to skip a jig under piers."
Speer's spinning equipment choices are much like Howard's.
"I use a 6 ½-foot spinning rod," he said. "And I don't go quite as low in line test as some - I use 6- or 8-pound test."
Ronnie Young, when told he'd been described as "the best smallmouth bass fisherman at Nantahala," said, "Well, you know, he's a liar."
"I'm an old-time fisherman," the veteran Nantahala smallmouth angler said. "I use live bait for smallmouths. Mostly I fish large bass minnows, but sometimes I fish spring lizards. I fish a 2/0 hook with 1 BB split shot. That way the minnow can't keep coming to the surface, but the weight is not so great that the minnow can't swim around. They eat 'em up."
Only well-seasoned anglers will remember using minnows for bass. But anglers, years ago, often relied upon minnows as bass baits and caught lots of fish that way. Minnows, if Young said so, obviously are baits Nantahala smallmouth anglers shouldn't ignore.
Young fishes with spinning gear.
"I use medium-light spinning gear and 8-pound-test line," he said.
Topwater presentations also worked for Swanson. A small popper, something along the lines of a Pop-N Image Jr., caught several smallmouths, with the largest fish nearly 3 pounds.
As angling buddies do, Swanson and I ragged one another about who was really the best angler. I boasted I could catch one off a laydown in the back of a cove. I cast half a dozen feet beyond the outer tip of the fallen tree. About the second pop, a bronzeback attacked.
In shallow water, anglers always should try some sort of surface presentation. Smallmouth bass on the surface - it doesn't get any better than that.
Soft-plastic minnows, a Fluke or equivalent, probably also will work for shallow water smallmouths at Nantahala. This presentation has worked at other spots for springtime smallmouth, so there's no reason it wouldn't intrigue N.C. mountain smallies.
Compared to many N.C. reservoirs, Nantahala is fairly small with only 1,600 surface acres. Yet, classic mountain reservoir smallmouth habitat abounds.
"I look for straight banks where there's deep water and I throw right to the bank," Young said. "And rocky points trailing off to deep water are good.
"The smallmouths in spring go right close to the bank, but then they run to deep water as soon as they finish feeding."
Good specific spring smallmouth spots that Young pointed out included where Clear Creek comes into the main lake.
"I look for stumps and rocks where they're together," he said.
Speer recommended fishing near clay banks, rocks and coves.
"The north bank warms a little earlier and brings smallmouth shallow before they come shallow up the river," he said.
Swanson and I fished the coves on the north side of the lake - and smallmouths were there. If a small creek enters the lake, so much the better. Later, fishing alone, I caught Nantahala smallmouth at sloping banks of clay and gravel.
The best days for Nantahala smallmouth in spring, according to Speer, are "dark, dreary days with 10- to 15-mile an hour winds."
The overcast skies and wind-broken surface help overcome the effects of the clear water so spooking smallmouths is not as easy to do.
Howard suggested searching for flats with stumps.
"There are lots of coves where small creeks come in," he said. "In spring, those creeks are often a source of warm water. And slightly warmer water pulls smallmouth shallow."
Fishing for prespawn smallmouth is a little different,
"(Fish) roam about as they get ready to spawn," he said. "As far as I can tell, there's no rhyme or reason. But they tend to follow the creek channels or cover back and forth as they move.
"Every year is a little different, depending on how fast the lake fills up after the winter draw down. Looks like this year (2006), the lake will fill up pretty fast."
For anglers traveling to Nantahala this spring, smallmouth will be in the backs of coves early.
Swanson and I caught a pretty nice bunch of smallmouths. While I didn't measure or weigh fish, we caught several pushing 3 pounds.
"I've caught several at Nantahala over 5 pounds and I've broke off a number bigger than that," Swanson said. "I use real light line, and sometimes I just can't hold a big fish."
Speer agreed Nantahala smallmouth bass sizes are moderate for the most part, with anglers latching onto some really nice specimens more than enough to keep interest high during each cast and retrieve.
"The typical Nantahala pre-spawn smallmouth runs between 10 inches and 17 inches (total length)," he said. "Of course, the 17-inchers are 3-pound fish. There are some 4-, 5- and 6-pounders caught every year in the spring. It's been a long time since I heard of a 7-pound smallmouth at Nantahala. I caught one in the 1970s."
Here's a guy complaining he hasn't caught a 7-pound smallmouth in a long time. There are some pretty good smallmouth anglers in the world who never caught a 7-pounder, including people who fish at Canada and elsewhere.
While Nantahala isn't nearly as far from Tar Heel anglers as Canada, the smallmouth fishing is quite comparable.
The scenery is magnificent as mountains tower along the banks; the water is clear and deep; and, while there are some shoreline private developments, compared to many lakes, Nantahala is deserted.
To fish Nantahala in the spring, you aren't forced to get in line and move along the bank in a column with other anglers.
During last spring's visit with Swanson and when I fished alone, I picked out where I wanted to fish and did so without worrying whether I cut off someone or was cut off in return.
And one other thing - the smallmouth fishing was fantastic.