Cool weather agrees with them, and March weather can be somewhat iffy in the mountains. Freezing temperatures and snow are common, but so are those days when warm fronts push temperatures up to the mid-50s or low 60s, especially if the front hasn't been preceded by snow or ice. When water temperatures rise, shad and other forage fish begin schooling, and bass and walleye follow.
Anglers who fish year-round say the secret to cool-weather fishing is to use a slow hand. When the water is cold, fish hunker down and don't move around much. To catch them, you have to ease into them, work your lures and baits slowly, and get them down to where the fish are hanging. You may have to put your lure or bait right in the fish's face to entice a strike. If a fish doesn't have to expend too much of its precious energy reserves, it'll suck it in.
Small crankbaits, jigs and spoons are the staples of cool-weather fishing, with the key word being "small." With other food sources such as crayfish and lizards limited, smallmouth and walleye depend primarily on threadfin shad or gizzard shad minnows to survive. For best results, lures should simulate the colors of these forage fish.
David Yow, a fisheries biologist for the N.C. Wildlife Resources Commission, said smallmouth and walleye usually can be found in deeper areas of lakes where temperatures are fairly consistent year-round and the water is well-oxygenated. Feeding activity usually picks up as the water warms.
Smallmouth bass and walleye inhabit most lakes in western North Carolina. Smallmouth have been here since the lakes were created, because they inhabited many of the large rivers that were dammed to create the lakes. Walleye, a northern import, were stocked in mountain lakes between 1954 and 1957.
Biologists and avid anglers agree that the best smallmouth and walleye lakes are Fontana Reservoir in Macon and Graham counties, Santeetlah Lake in Graham County, Glenville (also called Thorpe) Lake in Jackson County, Lake James in Burke and McDowell counties, and Hiwassee Lake in Cherokee County.
Jim Mathis, owner of Almond Boat and RV Park on Fontana, said the most-effective method of fishing for walleye in Fontana is vertical jigging. "How deep they go depends on the water temperature," he said. "Finding fish at depths of 125 feet is not uncommon. They may be deep, or they may stay in the 70-foot range. There's no guarantee where they'll be."
The key to catching walleye is finding bait fish. "You have to watch your fish finder and locate baitfish. In cold weather, shad minnows will go down as deep as 75 to 80 feet trying to find a comfortable temperature range," Mathis said. Prime places to look for baitfish and walleye are off big points around river channels.
Mathis said a popular method of fishing for walleye is jigging with a 3/8ths-ounce Hopkins 75 Shorty Spoon, a 1-ounce MannOlure or a Rapala Ice Jig.
For smallmouth, Mathis said topwater baits are very popular with local fishers, particularly a quarter-ounce Pop R in black and silver or blue and bone. "They work well when smallmouth are breaking and feeding on shad minnows," he said.
For walleye, spoons and jigs are preferred. For deep-water jigging, 3/8ths- and ¾-ounce Cordell spoons work well, also Rapala Ice Jigs - a No. 7 for depths up to 50 feet. For deeper water, a No. 9 Ice Jig gets the lure down more quickly. The lure should match the size of the baitfish.
As for finding walleye, most veteran anglers believe in following the bait. If you see baitfish on your finder, walleye will be there; they are fairly consistent in their habits. If you find them at a certain place and at a certain depth one time, chances are good they will be in the same place the next time. Fish don't move around much when they find a comfortable place with plenty of food. The secret is to not give up on a spot. Stick it out and the fish will eventually start feeding again.
Smallmouth don't go as deep as walleye when the water is cold. Usually, they're at depths of 30 to 35 feet, mainly around creek mouths and on the sides of channels where water is warmer. Early morning and early afternoon are usually the best times to fish these areas.
Randall Veal, owner of Santeetlah Marina on Santeetlah Lake, said fishers often overlook Santeetlah because of its remoteness. "We have some excellent walleye and smallmouth fishing here," he said, estimating the average walleye at about 15 inches, "but we see plenty of big ones in the 28- to 30-inch range."
A big smallmouth for Santeetlah, Veal said, would run six pounds. "The average is more like two pounds," he said.
The smallmouth population, Veal said, has improved tremendously in the past three years. "Santeetlah used to be known for its largemouth bass, but smallmouth are taking over," he said.
Some of the lake's biggest fish, especially walleye, are caught in the late winter, Veal said. The preferred method of catching winter walleye is jigging with Ice Jigs and Sutton or Hopkins spoons.
Lake Glenville in western Jackson County often is overlooked as a fishing destination, but Marty Jones of Glenville believes the lake has the potential for producing a state record walleye.
Walleye in the 6- to 7-pound range are fairly common, Jones said, plus anglers occasionally pull in a few that reach nine pounds. The biggest walleye to come from Glenville weighed 12 pounds. Smallmouth bass up to eight pounds also have been caught.
"It's not the kind of lake to limit out on every day," Jones said, "but you can catch some good, quality fish."
Jones' preferred method of fishing for both walleye and smallmouth is trolling with his own Marty Jones Special spoon or a No. 7 or No. 5 Rapala. For breaking smallmouth, he uses a Pop R.
Hiwassee Lake in Cherokee County holds the record for the state's biggest smallmouth, a 10-pound, 2-ounce monster caught in 1951 and not likely to be topped since smallmouth rarely grow that large this far south.
Yow said the lake has a fairly strong population of smallmouth and a lesser population of walleye. Yow said locals have fair to good success in the winter, working feeder streams with minnows and spinnerbaits. Crankbaits and grubs also produce fair catches.
Smallmouth are more dispersed in the winter when the lake is pulled down. Without their preferred shoreline cover, the fish seek out rocky areas, usually in deep water.
Fishing in the mountains isn't always about trout. Walleye and smallmouth bass can provide a satisfying break from your fishing routine.