Terry Dodson caught the state-record smallmouth bass, but he'll never forget the day he had what he's convinced was the state-record largemouth in his sights as well.

It was an April day five years ago at Lake Jocassee when Dodson encountered a huge female largemouth and her buck finning lazily on a nest in about four feet of water.

Dodson caught the buck, which weighed just over five pounds. He put the bass in his livewell, but the big female swam off and never returned.

"I kept thinking, 'How can I get her to come back?'" Dodson said. "I didn't want to, but I put that buck back in there."

Dodson watched in amazement as the buck bass disappeared into the darkness under a large rock, then returned with his better - and considerably bigger - half. Dodson caught the buck for a second time a while later, and this time the big female remained close by, prompting a 3-hour effort by Dodson in which he threw everything in his tackle box.

"I kept changing lures and finally tied on a big 10-inch lizard," he said. "She opened her gills, I came back with it and she took off swimming."

Pulling drag and heading for deeper water, the big bass picked up momentum, but not enough to completely break the surface.

"She never got her body out of the water - just her head," Dodson said. "I guess she was too big."

The bass shook her head, and Dodson was left to reel in half a lizard and contemplate what might have been.

"My stupidity cost me that fish," Dodson said. "I didn't change my hook, so I still had a 2/0 hook on when I should have had a 5/0 or 6/0 hook. The lizard was bit off right at the end of the hook."

Dodson confesses that it remains the only time in his life he's ever been nauseous while fishing.

"I was physically sick to my stomach," said Dodson, who returned to the site for each of the next four days but never got another glimpse of his bass of a lifetime.

"It was definitely over 16 pounds," Dodson said, citing South Carolina's 16-pound, 2-ounce state record. "I caught a 13-8 largemouth years ago at Lake Toxaway, and this one was way bigger than that."

Dodson can laugh about the incident now, partly because time has a way of putting things in better perspective, and partly because he's managed to catch far more than his share of big bass at Lake Jocassee.

A 49-year-old insulation salesman who lives near Rosman, N.C., Dodson has fished Jocassee for nearly 30 years, memorizing every twist and turn along his 45-minute drive from home. He's been in love with the 7,500-acre reservoir since the first time he fished it, and he seldom wastes the time or effort to go fishing anywhere else.

Although it is a trophy trout fishery that attracts most anglers to the cold, deep, clear waters of this undeveloped mountain reservoir, Dodson comes for only one pursuit - big bass. And Jocassee has obliged.

Dodson's record-keeping hasn't been as meticulous in the past three years, but he knows he's caught more than 300 bass that weighed in excess of six pounds at Jocassee. He's also caught more than 50 smallmouth bass that tipped the scales at five pounds or better, including the existing state record - a chunky 9-pound, 7-ounce fish he landed in 2001.

"When I go, all I think about is catching big ones," Dodson said. "When they're on the beds, I just pass up 4-, 5- and 6-pounders - I don't even fool with them. I won't even fish until I see one eight pounds or better."

Dodson generally takes January off, but during the other 11 months of the year he can be found plying Jocassee's waters several times each week.

In February and March, he uses jigs and targets smallmouths. April is largemouth month, but Dodson returns to the bronzebacks in May and June, when they're known to come off the beds and hang out on points and humps.

But it's the night-time fishing trips of June, July and August that really get Dodson charged up. He absolutely savors the opportunity to throw topwater lures - primarily buzzbaits, Chug Bugs and Hula Poppers - into Jocassee's blackness.

"It's real quiet other than some animals and frogs, and when you're out there, it feels like you're in the middle of the wilderness," Dodson said. "When you throw out there, it's heart-pounding. Every turn of the reel handle you're thinking that you're going to hear a great big splash any second. The bottom line is that you may not be able to see it, but you sure can feel it and hear it. And you have no idea what you've got on the end of the line."

Indeed, it was a mid-summer trip to Jocassee in the middle of the night - on a full moon - that spawned what Dodson and fishing partner Dale Whitmire now simply refer to as "The Phenomenon."

Around midnight, they were working their way along the shoreline when they encountered a distinct fish smell that Dodson described as "overwhelming."

Dodson checked his graph and found fish stacked up on a nearby point. They began fishing, trying several different lures before finally getting bit on a Carolina-rigged worm.

They didn't change lures again, and over the next eight hours they caught and released 32 bass that weighed between six and 10 pounds, including a 10-pound, 2-ounce largemouth and a 6-pound, 12-ounce smallmouth.

"About 3 a.m. Dale looked at me and said, 'This is a phenomenon,'" Dodson said. "And it was. We both just quit at 8 a.m. because we were so tired from catching big fish.

"I don't know how many bass we caught between two and six pounds because we didn't even fool with counting those, but we never moved off that point. I hooked two bass that night that I didn't even turn around. I was using 10-pound test, and they just spooled my line."

Such nights are the exception rather than the rule at Jocassee, which rates as a real enigma among the state's waters because it is by far the most infertile of all the reservoirs, yet it has produced more state-record fish than any other lake.

The explanation includes many factors, including healthier and longer-lived fish due to the clean, relatively parasite-free water; less angling pressure than is normally found on more suburban reservoirs; and the tremendous growth potential once fish reach a size capable of feasting on the lake's bountiful blueback herring.

"Jocassee has low numbers of fish relative to the forage base," said fisheries biologist Dan Rankin of the S.C. Department of Natural Resources. "And Jocassee is such a deep-banked reservoir that you have more restricted spawning habitat, and I think that translates to lower-density largemouth numbers in the lake to begin with.

"The forage base is dominated by blueback herring, and that limits the survival of young fish. But when bass get big enough that they're able to start preying on larger blueback herring, they're really in hog heaven. It gives them a good, steady forage base to grow large on."

And Dodson is convinced that there's plenty of room in Jocassee for even more big fish, which is why he'd like to see new regulations put in place.

"One thing I'd love to see on that lake is a slot limit (for bass)," Dodson said. "If the state were to put one in effect, say 15 to 24 inches, I think it would make it one of the best bass-fishing lakes in the state."

Rankin doesn't anticipate any slot limits at Jocassee, but he is optimistic that regulations at Jocassee soon will be modified to cut the daily limit in half - from 10 fish to five - and establish minimum size limits of 12 inches for smallmouth and 14 inches for largemouth.

In the meantime, Dodson will keep his fingers crossed for bad weather.

"I love to go to Jocassee when the weather's bad," Dodson said. "The water is so clean
and clear that it's hard to do well on bright sunny days."

Which provides further incentive to go at night. Dodson monitors lunar phases carefully, and is particularly partial to the full moons in June, July and August.

"I'm on the lake three days before to three days after (a full moon), every day," Dodson said. "Probably 90 percent of the big fish I've caught have come during that time period."

Dodson laments the fact that fishing pressure on his favorite lake has "tripled" in recent years, but he realizes that the lake may see even more visitation now that it has returned to full pool after years of drought-like conditions and hundreds of acres of exposed shoreline, rocks and grass. And he knows the extra water is good for the fish.

"The lake has been down so bad," Dodson said. "Now that it's full again, there's a lot of structure for the fish to get into right now. I think that's a great thing. It looks like we had a good spawning year because the water had come back up over all that grass. The shad population seems to be coming back, too.

"It's a beautiful lake; I love it. A lot of people don't like it because it's clear and hard to fish. But you just have to learn different ways, different techniques."

And hope, every once in a while, to stumble upon a "phenomenon" - or perhaps even a state-record fish.

 

Scott Keepfer is a Bryson City, N.C., native who graduated from N.C. State University. He lives in Williamston and covers the outdoors – and Clemson University sports – for the Greenville News.