The signs are out that fishing is about to pick up on Fontana Lake in North Carolina’s extreme southwestern corner.

“Some early tree buds are starting to swell, days are longer and milder, and fish are getting real antsy to do their thing,” said guide James McManus of 153 Charters.

Smallmouth bass will start relating to the banks this month, looking for suitable spawning areas, so there’s no need to bounce jigs or spoons in 80 feet of water.

McManus (828-421-8125) said smallies will be cruising gravel and chunk-rock banks with a little clay mixed in.

“We found the biggest smallmouth of the year starting early in the month on warming, gravel banks on the northern shorelines,” said McManus, who throws small Rapala suspending jerkbaits right at the bank, giving the baits an erratic twitch. If the fish don’t respond, he switches to small Zoom Flukes with 1/8-ounce jigheads to fish slightly deeper.

According to McManus, areas on the Tuckasegee River arm between Noland and Forney creeks hold plenty of smallies.

The biggest problem for fishermen targeting smallmouths may be keeping spotted bass off their hooks.

“There are tons of spotted bass in the lake, and there is no way to target smallmouth exclusively, because the two species use the same habitat,” McManus said. “However, the lower end of the lake still holds a higher percentage of smallies. Areas around Hazel Creek and main-lake, rocky banks give fishermen a better chance of hooking a smallmouth.”

As a bonus, fishermen might catch walleye, which live this month in the same places as smallies and hit the same baits.

“If you want to sweeten the pot a little and target walleye, change over to a jig and night crawler and concentrate more on clay banks than rock banks,” he said. “Throw your crawler right to the bank and walk it down the face perpendicular to the shoreline. Work your bait slowly, and when a slight tug is felt, let the fish run with the bait before setting the hook.”

Artificial lure options for walleye include a small Shad Rap or Flicker Shad. McManus said generate more strikes than jerkbaits.