There are several ways to tell whether your mid-winter fishing trip to Lake Jocassee might be a productive one, and each pertains to the weather.
The day holds much promise if:
1. Your fishing line freezes to your rod guides;
2. Snow flakes are the predominant form of precipitation;
3. You don't want to know the wind chill.
The latter certainly was the case for Jim Mayer of Walhalla when he and a friend made a winter foray onto the waters of the remote, picturesque reservoir tucked secretly away in South Carolina's mountains.
"We were listening to the radio, and they announced that the temperature was 18 degrees," Mayer recalled. "Then they said, 'And the wind chill is ...'and my friend leaned over and cut the radio off. He didn't want to hear what the wind chill was."
Mayer and his fishing partner went on to catch several trout that day, which can go a long way toward taking the chill off the biting cold that prevails during February and March trips to the lake. Winter excursions to Jocassee can indeed be special; there are times when your boat may be one of just a few touring the lake's nooks and crannies and several scenic rivers that feed the reservoir from the northern side.
It's during such times that solitude rules the day - or night, as the case may be - offering a soothing reprieve from the workaday world and the pre-dawn lines of boats that are commonplace at more popular and populous reservoirs across the state.
Save for a modest sprinkling of mountainside homes along one small section of the lake, Jocassee remains an undeveloped gem, with untrodden shorelines, secluded coves and eye-catching waterfalls.
Bald eagles are fairly common sights this time of year, particularly along the larger corridors of the Thompson and Toxaway rivers, where they perch in snags and casually cast glances at passers-by before begrudgingly taking wing when visitors draw too close for comfort.
Mayer is a fishing regular here, paying about 30 visits to the lake each year, and has yet to discover a more spectacular place to cast his lines.
"It's just a beautiful place to put rods out the back of the boat and take in all the scenery," Mayer said.
Yet while pristine vistas certainly enhance his outings, it is the lure of big trout that keeps him returning time and again. Mayer has fished the lake since it came to be in 1973 when Duke Power Co. finished construction of the Jocassee Dam and backed up the Keowee River to form the 7,650-acre reservoir. His boat, his gear and his angling tactics have been transformed during the years, but he still gets a thrill out of roaming the waters in the chill of winter.
"I've been up there more than once in the snow - that may be my favorite time to fish," Mayer said.
It certainly was the favorite time for former Jocassee guide Dan McCall, who typically would show up at the lake as others were making a hasty retreat.
"A snowstorm makes the barometric pressure take a real swoop, and it turns the fish on," McCall said. "Right before or during a snowstorm I was always ready to go. I always seemed to catch fish at those times."
Obviously winter weather reduces boat traffic.
"Those are the days when you usually have the lake to yourself, except for a few die-hards," Mayer said. "A lot of us have learned how to stay fairly comfortable, and you won't see too many of us in bass boats anymore. Most of us will be in a pontoon with some kind of windbreak or at least a boat with a center console that you can hide behind."
The progression hasn't gone unnoticed by Dan Rankin, the Upstate's chief fisheries biologist for the South Carolina Department of Natural Resources.
"There's a bit of craziness involved," Rankin said. "Some guys have a floating house out there - complete with all the accommodations I would have at home - with roll-down canvas on the side and heaters inside."
But as Rankin readily admits, few things can sooth the soul and warm the heart like hooking into a trophy-size trout.
Brown and rainbow trout can be caught in the clear and deep waters of Lake Jocassee year-round, but this much is certain - the trout don't seem to mind the cold at all. In fact, the winter chill seems to be an annual wake-up call for the trout, which take advantage of the cooling water temperatures to feed voraciously upon blueback herring closer to the surface.
The lake contains populations of these herring as well as threadfin shad, and they provide ample forage for trout, particularly during the winter months.
"That's when water temperatures are ideal for trout, and that's when trout are aggressive and feeding heavily," Rankin said. "It also is when the forage fish are cold-stressed and more lethargic, which makes them easier to catch. We usually stock trout in the early winter because it's easy for them to quickly get on a shad and herring diet."
This migration to the surface makes them more susceptible to anglers of all types, be they diligent trollers or weekend anglers casting from the banks near the main landing.
"There are people who actually bank fish and often do fairly well," Rankin said. "I've even seen bass fishermen catch trout on topwater this time of year."
Many a trout has been caught at or near the surface by anglers simply casting smaller spoons such as Little Cleos and spinners such as Rooster Tails, but serious Jocassee fishermen typically troll to increase their angling odds.
Pontoon and center-console boats - equipped with down-riggers and a spray of rods fanned out the back - are common sights for hardy anglers willing to deal with the elements in hopes of landing one of Jocassee's big browns.
But times have changed, which effectively has made some anglers re-think what qualifies as a "trophy" trout at Jocassee. The lake enjoyed a heyday in the early to mid-1980s, culminating with the catching of the still-state record 17-pounds, 9 1/2-ounces brown trout in 1987, and experienced another rebirth during the mid-1990s, when trophy fish ranging from 5 to 14 pounds were caught with a fair amount of regularity. The state-record rainbow trout, which weighed 11 pounds, 5 ounces, was pulled from Jocassee's waters during 1993.
Longtime Jocassee regular Steve McDonald of Greenville - who admittedly spent years pursuing only the biggest and the best the lake had to offer - has experienced both ends of the spectrum. In 1995 McDonald caught brown trout weighing 11 1/2 and 10 pounds during consecutive days. By week's end, he had landed 10 fish better than 5 pounds.
"Those days are gone," McDonald said. "There just aren't as many really big fish being caught right now. It's just going through a down stage."
The lake indeed seems to have experienced a lull in trophy trout in recent years.
Based on gill-net and angler creel surveys, the average size of brown trout caught at Jocassee has decreased from about 5 pounds during the 1990s to 3 to 3 1/2 pounds. The numbers of trout being caught - as well as total poundage - remain at all-time high levels, Rankin said, but 10-pound browns now qualify as rare exceptions.
Reasons for the decline in the numbers of exceedingly large trout being caught are varied, ranging from increased fishing pressure (particularly during the spring and summer months), declines in the numbers of baitfish, an extended drought and low-water conditions in recent years, and a normal "down" cycle of nutrients after the boom years within the lake's first decade or so of existence.
At least partly to blame for the decrease is the increase in proficiency by many of Jocassee's anglers.
"Back in the '80s, many folks really hadn't learned how to catch trout at Jocassee year-round; now they know," Rankin said. "Trolling in deep water was not a traditional southern fishing technique, and we would have stockings of fish, multiple-year classes, that were getting lightly exploited because most anglers could only catch them near the surface or while night fishing in winter.
"The habitat and food are still there, the fish are still growing exceptionally well, and the conditions of the fish being caught are still good. We just don't get fish living in the lake that long anymore."
To illlustrate his point, Rankin cited a telemetry study conducted in the late 1990s by Duke Power and the Department of Natural Resources. A good number of 3- to 6-pound trophy-size trout were tagged for the study. Within six months, half of them had been caught.
"That was pretty telling for us," Rankin said. "When half the fish (in the study) are caught in a six-month period, there's some pretty heavy exploitation going on. It's certainly a big factor we're dealing with now."
Rankin isn't convinced that increasing the minimum-size limit from the current 15 inches would be a proper solution.
"If we went to a 20-inch minimum or something like that, we might be making it too restrictive, all in the name of trying to bring back the big fish out there just so a few people can catch big fish," Rankin said. "A lot of people just want to catch a keeper-size trout, too. An 18- to 20-inch brown trout is a trophy to a lot of people. Everyone's expectations are different. If we can't show some return to the creel, is it a valid use of the fish? We have to have a balance."
The true answer to the decline in big trout may be at least partly attributable to the aforementioned reasons or more, Rankin said, yet he remains confident that Jocassee will remain a productive trout-fishing destination.
"It may not be what it once was right now, but it's hard to call it a failure when you continue to have several thousand trout averaging 3 1/2 pounds caught every year," Rankin said.
The Department of Natural Resources continues to stock at least 40,000 brown trout and 20,000 rainbow trout into the reservoir each year, and most of these stockers are bigger than ever - brown trout dispersed in the lake average about 12 inches in length while the rainbows average 11 inches. Rankin believes stocking the larger-sized fish gives the trout a much better head start.
But given the decrease in the size of the trout being caught, some angling tactics have been altered. For some fishermen, the large Doctor and Sutton spoons of yesteryear have been replaced by considerably smaller spoons.
"In the dead of winter, spoons probably outproduce plugs because you can troll them so much slower," Mayer said. "I've been surprised at the number of fish that have been caught on really small spoons the last couple of years. I've caught several 3-to-4 pound fish on spoons not more than 1 1/2-inches long.
"A lot of times, if you don't go small, you don't get a hit. You can still catch fish on the bigger spoons, but if you're going up there and want to see that rod bounce a couple of times in one trip, you're better off going smaller."
Large Doctor and Sutton spoons remain popular - as does the locally produced Bad Creek spoon - particularly for those anglers intent on landing only trophy sized fish, but several other lures have become mainstays as well, including brokenback lures by Rapala and Yozuri, and a variety of other crankbaits.
While summertime anglers may troll with down-riggers 100-feet deep or more, winter fishing opens up a whole new world of possibilities.
"You can pull planer boards or trail spoons or live minnows behind the boat and do just fine," said Ken Sloan, owner of the Jocassee Outdoor Center. "You can also use diving mechanisms to get your lures down to 10, 15, 20 feet, and be in the mix."
Sloan also has seen an increase in the number of anglers using plastic "swimbaits," which essentially are plastic trout imitations, ranging from 3- to 12-inches long, with 8 to 10 inches being the most popular.
"The theory is big trout will feed on smaller trout," Sloan said. "And these swimbaits look just like a small trout. Trout-fishing baits are now all over the map - we're seeing a pretty solid mix in what anglers are using out there. Some other folks come in and want nothing but live bait - large shiners or herring."
Whatever your choice of bait or lure, a slower, deliberate trolling approach is essential.
"The rule, pretty much year-round, is that you should troll at 1 to 1 1/2 miles per hour," Sloan said.
When it comes to trolling locations, Mayer recommends seeking out standing timber near points that extend into the lake or along channel edges.
"This lake can whip your tail any time, but if you can get on the edge of some timber that's on the edge of a channel and find the depth where the fish are holding, you can catch them," Mayer said.
McCall reiterated that trout have a "comfort range" during cold months, and he has seen trout feeding on the surface. Rainbow trout, he said, often will begin feeding on top earlier than the browns, but all trout will join the fray by February.
McCall, who caught a 14-pound, 4-ounce brown at Jocassee during the winter of 1997, said his favorite method was to troll a surface lure - calling the black-and-silver Rapala his "standby" - as slow as possible while still imparting a wobbling action to his plugs or spoons. He would, almost without fail, dress up his silver spoons with blue or red strips of reflective tape.
Then he'd hit the trees.
"The big water can be good in winter as well as some of the open channels," McCall said. "It can be tricky because there are lot of trees you've got to navigate through, but that's where you need to be.
"Trout aren't as dedicated to structure as bass are, but they still hang around trees because that's where you'll find most of the baitfish."
And if it just so happens to be bitter cold and snowing when you arrive at Jocassee, just smile, bundle up and consider yourself fortunate.
"Duck-hunting weather is good trout-fishing weather," Mayer said. "The nastier the weather, the better it is."