Weather has played havoc with smallmouth bass fishing in the North Carolina mountains, but guide Tim Laws of Old Fort is biding his time because he knows things will heat up once cold weather descends upon Lake James.

“The last time I was at Lake James, the water was still pretty warm in the mid 60s, and that’s very unusual for October,” Laws said. “The water hasn’t cooled off like it should. We had our first frost a week ago, but we usually have a frost by early September.”

Consecutive cold nights trigger the smallmouth bite because cooler water makes the lake’s baitfish congregate in the warmer shallows, which draws smallmouths from James’ depths.

“It’s just the opposite of spring,” said Laws (828-803-0463,) “Then you want warm weather to get the shad to come shallow, but now we need cold weather to make them go shallow.”

Lake James covers 6,812 acres, so some agent must trigger smallmouth to school or they’d be too difficult to find. Shallow water for Laws means the surface down to 10 feet, because the lake’s bottom reaches almost 100 feet.

“But smallmouths will school on top, especially when the sun’s out and warms up the upper layer of water, because that’s where baitfish will go,” Laws said.

Such times are reserved for topwater lures. Schooling gizzard shad, the lake’s main baitfish, will be 3½ to four inches in length by winter, and smallmouth love them.

“I like to throw a Spook Junior in a shad pattern when they come up,” Laws said. “If they miss the lure, I’ll throw a Fluke-type bait behind the Spook and let it sink.”

Laws believes Lake James holds the state’s heftiest largemouths, although it may be tough to catch a 5-fish limit. In 2012 the lake’s regulations changed to a 14-inch size limit with two less than 14 inches.

“The size limit used to be 12 inches,” Laws said, “but my biggest smallmouth weighed five pounds, and I’ve seen a 7-pounder that came out of this lake.”

When shad haven’t come to the surface, he uses a green pumpkin No. 2 tube bait with a 1/8-ounce jig or smaller to fish structure.

“If I think (smallmouths) are on rocks 15 to 20 feet deep, I make a couple of casts with the tube bait, and that’ll tell me if they’re there,” he said. “If they’re not on rocks, I’ll fish laydowns. Lake James has a lot of laydowns.”

Laws said with the warm weather, baitfish are scattered, and so are smallmouths.

“I hope the weather changes soon, and we’ll have some consecutive 45-degree nights,” he said. “That’s what it takes to get the water temperature down to 55 degrees or less.”