Chances are the fish felt much larger than it turned out to be and fought much tougher than expected. Inch for inch and pound for pound, smallmouth bass are known as one of the hardest-fighting freshwater species.
A slender, streamlined-shaped battler, smallies hit hard, jump high and never give up the fight until an angler gets one into his net.
Lake Jocassee, a 7500-acre pristine mountain lake in the northwestern part of South Carolina, is one of a few places in this state where anglers can catch smallmouth bass. It's also becoming known as one of the best smallmouth locales in the Southeast. Despite this fact, however, local anglers spend little attention on this spectacular gamefish.
"Lake Jocassee's attraction for fishermen has always been the trophy trout and largemouth bass," said Ken Sloan, owner of Jocassee Outdoor Center. "Smallmouth bass, for most people, are an afterthought."
Since smallmouths often share much of the same habitat as largemouths and trouts at different times of the year at Jocassee, anglers will be surprised by a feisty bronzeback at the end of their line while casting worms to a rocky point or trolling near suspended baitfish over open water.
"Most of the big smallmouth bass that are brought by our store were caught by accident," Sloan said.
These fish have been thrilling anglers at other regions of the country with their aggressiveness and strength for more than a century. In a 1909 magazine article, pioneer outdoors writer Zane Grey wrote of his tenacious but unsuccessful efforts as a young man to land a "wolf-jawed, red-eyed bronze-back."
But they finally may be getting their due as a dedicated group of local anglers have discovered what an exciting gamefish they are.
"Smallmouth bass have quickly become my favorite gamefish," said Rob McComas, a Lake Jocassee fishing guide. "Smallmouths are a real challenge to catch, aggressive, and really good fighters. What else could you ask for?"
Dubbed "bronzebacks" for their distinctive greenish-bronze coloration, smallmouth bass prefer large lakes with cold, clear water and areas of gravel and rocky bottoms with little aquatic plant life.
That pretty much sums up Lake Jocassee, which was formed when the Keowee River was impounded by Duke Power in 1973. The lake is deep and steep-sided with little shallow water along the largely undeveloped shoreline. The mountain scenery is nothing short of spectacular with several waterfalls cascading into the lake.
Jocassee's major tributaries - the Whitewater, Thompson, Horsepasture, and Toxaway rivers - supply the lake with clean-water conditions that allow smallmouth to flourish.
"Lake Jocassee fish are bigger than average," McComas said. "I guide for smallmouths at some North Carolina mountain lakes, but when I put the boat in at Jocassee, I know there's always that big-fish potential and the chance of catching a state record."
In fact, the South Carolina state record smallmouth currently hails from Lake Jocassee, a 9-pound 7-ounce lunker landed by Terry Dodson in 2001. State records of its cousins, the spotted bass and redeye bass, also have been landed by anglers from Jocassee in addition to S.C.'s brown and rainbow trout record fish as well.
But while Jocassee has rightly earned a reputation as a trophy lake, fish numbers are considerably less than other southern lakes and reservoirs. This is the result of the clear, cold, relatively non-fertile water. Those conditions make finding locations where fish are present in good number extremely important.
"I look for smallmouths near shallow, rocky points that run into deeper water," McComas said.
These are prime areas for smallmouth to ambush shad and herring and pick up the occasional crayfish that they love.
However, shallow water is a rare commodity along Jocassee's steep banks. Finding these areas requires some experience with Jocassee's topography or hiring a good guide.
Rocky points and the shoreline near the dam and spillway are usually the first places McComas looks for fish. Rip rap at the banks near the Bad Creek generating station at the Whitewater River arm of the lake is another hot spot for smallmouths.
A "drop-shot" rig is the hottest current technique for smallmouths at Jocassee. A green-, watermelon- or pumpkin-colored Zoom Meathead worm hooked about 18 inches above a 3/16-ounce sinker or split shots will take fish with regularity.
"The drop-shot rig is my go-to technique," McComas said. "Cast to about 6 feet from the bank and let it sink to the bottom before twitching and retrieving."
The take usually occurs after the twitch as the bait is falling to the bottom.
Lightweight spinning gear with light line is essential for Jocassee's gin-clear water. McComas recommended line no heavier than 8-pound test - with 4- and 6-pound test being the norm.
The "float-and-fly" is another popular technique for taking Jocassee bronzebacks. It involves using a 1/16- or 1/8-ounce hair or crappie jig suspended 10 to 12 feet beneath a float with a long noodle or fly rod. Waves from a choppy water surface or twitches and jerks imparted by the angler give the jigs the necessary action.
Sometimes live bait will take fish when nothing else will. During these times, McComas drifts with shiners above sunken islands and rocky points, with one or two split shots attached to the line about 2 feet from the hook.
Deep-running, shad-pattern crankbaits retrieved slowly near rocky points and bluffs are yet another successful technique.
However, Terry Dodson used a crankbait to catch his record-breaking smallmouth May 3, 2001. While retrieving the bait across some submerged rocks right about dusk, the fish hit and battled for eight minutes before succumbing to Dodson. His smallie eclipsed the previous record - which also came from Lake Jocassee's waters -by 1 1/2 pounds.
Early and late winter provide some of the best smallmouth fishing days at Jocassee. Rainy, cloudy days are often best.
"The worse the weather, the better the fishing," McComas said. "That's true in any season. During bright, blue days, the fish go deeper and are more hesitant to hit any bait."
Smallmouth fishing continues to be productive into spring until the spawn.
Spawning season begins during spring when the water temperature nears 60 degrees. Nest sites are usually found in 1 to 3 feet of water with a gravel or rocky bottom. The male creates a nest about 6-inches deep and 2 feet in diameter with his tail. When a female approaches the nest, he attempts to lead her to the nest site and gently bumps and bites at her side in a courtship ritual. They settle into the nest and discharge their eggs and milt simultaneously.
The male guards the nest until the eggs hatch, then herds the fry to protect his offspring from predatory fish. The male also doesn't eat during this period, which may last more than a month - and is the reason smallie fishing obviously slows during this time.
During the summer months, McComas advised fishing as early and late as possible.
"Summer fishing can be slow and frustrating for some anglers," he said. "But getting on the water an hour before sunrise can give you two or three hours of good fishing, especially with topwater baits or lures."
A small buzzbait or Zara Spook can provide some of the most exciting summer smallmouth fishing during the early morning hours when the water temperature is at its coolest. Smallmouths will feed most actively in water temperatures between 45 and 65 degrees.
Low-light conditions of early morning, late evening, and during bad weather are also considered an important keys to the best smallmouth conditions at Jocassee.
"The water is so clear and the visibility is so great at this lake that most bass will spook easily," McComas said. "Low-light conditions cause fish to drop some of their inhibitions and give your boat less of a chance of being seen by the fish."
Night fishing also is a popular and effective way to catch smallmouth during warm weather for some anglers. It's not for everyone, but anglers who choose to avoid the mid-day heat and fish at night can be rewarded with a trophy smallmouth, largemouth or even a brown trout. Drifting live shad or herring is the preferred tactic for fishing after the sun goes down.
Redeye bass are numerous in Jocassee and closely resemble smallmouths. They have similar coloration and vertical markings, but feature reddish fins and tails.
Redeye bass are also smaller, on average. They share the same habitat and habits as the smallmouths, so anglers will catch plenty while targeting bronzebacks.
The state-record redeye bass was caught in 2001 by Randy Dickson while fishing Jocassee with a Texas-rigged worm. His record catch weighed 5 pounds, 2 1/2 ounces.
Spotted bass aren't native to Lake Jocassee or the Keowee River system but were introduced illegally at some point - probably by anglers. Also known as Kentucky bass, spotted bass are less numerous than redeyes or smallmouths.
David Preston, fishing Jocassee with a float-and-fly rig during 2001, landed the state -record spotted bass. His catch, an 8-pound 5-ounce lunker, bested the previous S.C. record by 3 ounces. That fish also was caught at Lake Jocassee. So plenty of reasons exist for Palmetto State anglers to consider this place the premier trophy-fishing lake in the state.
The Horsepasture and Toxaway River arms of the lake extend into North Carolina, so anglers should be aware that a valid N.C. fishing license is required when fishing these areas. South Carolina and North Carolina don't share a reciprocal license agreement.
There is a combined 10-fish limit for all black bass species at Jocassee with no size limit. Cast nets for capturing live bait are illegal.
If there is one downside to bronzeback fishing at Lake Jocassee, it would have to be the spectacular mountain scenery that can distract anglers.
But if one can keep his focus, catching hard-fighting, acrobatic smallmouth bass at a crystal-clear mountain lake might be an exciting change-of-pace.