Topwater Mark

Good topwater bass lures for Lake Wylie include buzzbaits, prop baits, Zara Spooks or frog imitations. But frogs are best when tossed underneath docks or piers, not in open water.

Lake Wylie has undergone changes to clear its water that have altered the eating habits of its largemouth bass.

To say Lake Wylie has undergone a tremendous transformation during the past half-dozen years isn’t to take away from the transformation it underwent about 80 years ago.

After the Catawba River lake first was impounded in 1904, Wylie was expanded greatly and re-impounded in 1924 to form the 13,443-acre reservoir that now supplies a great deal of the water requirements and provides an equal amount of water recreation to the city of Charlotte.

However, in fishing terms the change that’s taken place since the turn of the century is unmatched. Shallow, stained, nutrient-rich, a great lake for offshore structure fishing, a great lake for numbers and quality in terms of largemouth bass, the “old” Lake Wylie is gone but not forgotten.

There’s little doubt that there are plenty of fishermen out there who long for the pre-2000 fishery.

But there are those who have welcomed the “new” Lake Wylie, a much cleaner lake with much clearer water, a lake where the bass look about the same but don’t live in the same places they once frequented. Count Eric Weir of Belmont, N.C., and Todd Auten of Lake Wylie, S.C., in the latter group.

The two veteran bass fishermen — Weir guides and fishes dozens of local and regional tournaments every year, while Auten fishes the national FLW Tournament Trail and FLW Series — figured out the change while it was taking place and adjusted their tactics, and now they appear ahead of the game.

And the game, at least during the summer, is spelled T-O-P-W-A-T-E-R.

“I think the majority of the reason the lake has changed is because it’s cleared up so much,” said Weir, who operates Big E’s Guide Service. “We don’t have as much agriculture around the lake anymore. We’ve had a lot more silt control. People are putting big rocks on all the red-mud banks. They’re treating the (sewage) better.

“The lake is really clear now — it used to have that nice green tint to it — and the shad have gotten a lot smaller. It used to be that most of the shad were between 4- and 6-inches long; now, there’s a lot of bait that’s 2-inches long.

“The white perch have gotten in here, and they’re eating machines. So the bass have turned to eating more bream.

“Now you’re fishing shallow a lot, and you’re almost sight fishing. It’s like fishing Lake Norman to me.”

Except, of course, the quality of the bass continues to be pretty good.

Instead of being ganged up at offshore structure for most of the summer, largemouths are scattered out at the lake’s 325 miles of shoreline, so they’re being split up between more fishermen — shallow-water fishing being more popular and practiced by a greater number of fishermen.

And topwater fishing, the purest of all shallow-water tactics, will carry the day at Wylie for the next three months.

“A lot of bream spawn at this time of the year, and now, you’re catching bass around bream beds pretty good,” said Auten, who has qualified for two Bassmasters Classics and one FLW Tour Championship. “That’s how a lot of the fish were caught when the Classic was here (in 2004), and I guess it’s no secret anymore.

“They used to be out on the humps pretty good (during the summer). You used to be able to get out on the humps and catch 30 or 40 before they would quit biting. Now, you go out and catch two or three and it shuts down. There aren’t as many good fish out there. Now, with the water clear, they stay shallow and seem to eat bream more.”

Auten said fishermen still can do reasonably well fishing a Carolina rig, a deep-diving crankbait, a jigging spoon or a big, lipless crankbait on those main-lake humps, but the fish won’t be nearly as big.

“You can catch some 2- or 2 1/2-pound fish, but not the quality fish you can catch shallow,” he said. “I haven’t caught any quality fish out in a long time.

“Ted Mobley (a veteran Lake Wylie fisherman from Gastonia) said he can’t catch ’em out there like he used to. With the clear water, it’s more of a shallow pattern.”

Weir said the topwater bite really takes off during June after the spawn and postspawn finishes. That happens to coincide with the first bream spawn of the summer.

“May is a transitional month; the fish are healing from the spawn,” said Weir (704-825-2827). “I’ll start fishing the topwater real, real hard in June because they’ll stay on it for about three months.”

The bite isn’t strictly an early-morning or cloudy-day deal, even though Weir admits those times tend to be just “a little bit better” than sunny, bluebird days.

“If you throw it all day, you’ll get bites,” he said. “But you’ve got to have confidence in it; you’ve got to know they’ll bite it.

“I fish a Pop-R at the end of May because I think they like a little smaller bait then. The rest of the summer, it’s all about weather conditions. When it’s calm, I’ll fish something like a Pop-R or G-Splash or a Spook. If you get a little chop, I’ll go to a Brian’s Bees prop bait, and if it’s really windy, they’ll eat a big Cordell Pencil Popper.”

Auten spends most of his time fishing a buzzbait, a prop bait, a Spook or a frog imitation.

Again, it’s a matter of conditions; he doesn’t throw the frog at windy points — it’s a bait better suited to short, accurate casts under docks or against the bank, under overhanging tree limbs. He goes to prop baits when the water gets choppy.

“You take what you get; you throw the bait that works best under those conditions,” he said. “You just play the conditions you’re dealt.”

One thing that keeps Weir coming back time and again to topwater baits is the biggest fish caught at Lake Wylie these days are coming out of shallow water — even during the summer.

“The lake is clear from one end to the other, and I think the big fish are staying more shallow,” he said. “You’ll see big packs of them — I’ve seen anywhere from three to 10 in a pack — and the better fish are now cruising the banks, those 3- and 4-pound fish. I think they’re feeding on bream and crawfish more than anything else.”

Weir said he fishes topwater lures almost everywhere. Some of his favorite patterns are at docks, laydown trees, shallow stumps and bream beds. A key, he said, is anglers have to be fishing at a hard bottom — sand, clay or rock.

“I like to fish it on flat points, in the backs of pockets, around docks,” he said. “A good fish will come and get it. They think it’s an easy meal, and they won’t pass it up. I’ll even fish it over humps during the summer. When those bass are suspended over the humps, they’ll come up from 15-feet deep to get it.”

Auten said topwater lures are productive at the standard kinds of visible cover most fishermen pound, but he said it can be even better at little pieces of subtle, underwater cover.

“If you can find something under the water that’s not so obvious, say, a little rock pile out on a point, you can do really well on something like that — especially if you can make your own little spots,” he said.

Weir will fish topwaters almost exclusively and almost everywhere.

“When I go fishing during the summer, I’ll have a buzzbait, a prop bait, a Pop-R, a Spook and a Pencil Popper all tied on — and maybe a frog,” he said. “I’ll fish a frog everywhere, but it’s best when it’s slick calm, and the hotter the better.

“It also seems to make a difference if (Duke Power) is moving water. If the water’s moving, they’ll hit it even better.

“The only thing you’ve got to figure out on a daily basis is which topwater bait they want. Color really doesn’t seem to matter as much, as long as it’s got white on the belly — or chrome. Natural colors like bream and shad really work.

“I’ve got a lot of confidence in it. I know if I get five bites on a topwater bait during a tournament, I’m going to the pay window because the majority of fish you catch will be good fish. And a good day fishing topwater is eight or nine bites.”

Some of the best days come during the full moon, when bream are spawning in the shallows. Those monthly events draw bass to the shallows, and Weir and Auten like to fish topwater lures at the deep edges of the bream beds.

“The bream will spawn like clockwork — the full moon in June, full moon in July and full moon in August,” he said. “They slack off after the full moon in August. In September, the packs they roam in break up and they scatter; they go everywhere. The fall bite is as tough as anything.”

Weir and Auten have fallen in love with the little prop baits built by Brian Huskins of Mount Holly: Brian’s Bees.

The Prop B-1 is shaped like a torpedo with props at both ends. The Prop B-2 is shaped like a diving bait but without the lip and with props.

Weir said the baits’ design virtually guarantees good hooksets — normally a bit of a bugaboo for topwater fishermen.

“I like the little torpedo-shaped bait,” Auten said. “I fish it on a 7-foot, medium-action All-Star rod, a Pfleuger bait-casting reel and 20-pound Shakespeare monofilament.

“I like the bream colors and natural colors, but I still like black and dark colors, especially on cloudy days.

“I won’t get that far off the bank to cast, not unless I get out on a point. I’ll stay back as far as I can, but I’m mostly just casting along the bank.”

There are still a few places at Lake Wylie where a fisherman can still find some stained water and fish “traditional” patterns, Auten said.

“You can still go way up the South Fork (Catawba River); there’s some color up there — it stays dirty,” he said. “The fish will be different; you can catch ’em on a spinnerbait.

“Before the lake changed and cleared up, before the fish changed, we were used to it staying muddy for weeks after a storm. You could throw a spinnerbait or a Chatterbait and catch ’em around rocks or rip-rap all the time. Then, when it would clear up, they’d be gone. Now, they’re shallow all the time with the water clear.”

Auten said summer thunderstorms occasionally knock out the topwater bite momentarily.

“When it’s lightning and thundering, that kills the bite the next day,” he said. “The day of the storm is okay, but the day after will be dead.

“I don’t know if the lightning changes the ph of the water or what, but it knocks them out.”

Before the “shock” of lightning wears off, Auten will stay in shallow water but change tactics. He’ll go to a jig and Zoom chunk and fish mostly at docks.

About Dan Kibler 887 Articles
Dan Kibler is the former managing editor of Carolina Sportsman Magazine. If every fish were a redfish and every big-game animal a wild turkey, he wouldn’t ever complain. His writing and photography skills have earned him numerous awards throughout his career.

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