This spring I had one of the best bass fishing trips of my life on Lake Jocassee with Captain Pat Bennett. It seemed that every ledge and piece of wood in main lake coves held good largemouth, smallmouth, spots, redeye bass and crosses of these species, and we caught them all day. When I returned in the early fall I knew the fishing wouldn’t be as easy as in the spring, but in some ways the fishing at this time of year is more rewarding.
Lake Jocassee is a deep, clear lake located in the northwest corner of South Carolina and ringed by mountains. It covers approximately 7500 acres of water and features a main, almost round basin and multiple rivers and creeks coming off of the “bowl” to the north and west. The major tributaries are Whitewater River and the Toxaway River, and water also enters the lake at Bad Creek Station from Bad Creek Reservoir. Most people who have fished or explored Lake Jocassee would agree it is among the most scenic outdoor locations in South Carolina. Fishing on Lake Jocassee is always a treat, and even if the catching is slow the natural beauty of the region makes the trip well worthwhile, especially in fall. Captain Pat appreciates the beauty of Lake Jocassee but he is also captivated by trying to understand its bass population. After years fishing the lake and countless hours on the water he is getting ever closer to unlocking the puzzle of consistently catching bass on it the year around.
There is no doubt that significant numbers of black bass inhabit the deep waters of Jocassee, both in the main basin and up the river arms. With some regularity trout fishermen catch largemouth bass on shiners or spoons when they are trolling in deep water 60 feet down or more, and when I went to my first Jocassee Outdoor Center Trout Tournament weigh-in in February of 2008 I overheard one seasoned guide remark that he had only caught a five pound bass trolling that day.
Fishing the big, open water of Lake Jocassee is not in Captain Pat’s nature, though. He grew up in Charleston fishing lowcountry waters and eventually moved to Florida where he fished the shallow, grassy areas of Lake Okeechobee and the Everglades. Further, from a practical perspective there is so much area both vertically and horizontally where the fish could be that targeting them in the open water is difficult. Suspended bass are notorious for being the hardest to catch, and the suspended deep water fish on Lake Jocassee are no exception. Not only does it require a sophisticated understanding of your electronics, but fishing big open water is frankly not as much fun for most bass fishermen as targeting visible structure. When conditions demand this approach Captain Pat will fish finesse lures vertically and bounce them along the bottom over deepwater structure, and I have seen him catch fish this way, but all things being equal he would prefer not to probe the depths.
Although Captain Pat prefers fishing visible structure he does regularly employ at least one “big water” pattern on Lake Jocassee. Twelve months of the year he has found that fishing topwater lures near the dam early in the morning when Duke Power is running water is productive. In fact, this is his most consistent big fish pattern. However, since he is fishing on the surface for bass that may be showing themselves and are relating to a distinct area (the dam) and visible phenomenon (running water) this pattern is really the exception that proves the rule.
Instead of fishing the big water for suspended bass Captain Pat has discovered that he can catch fish from the summer into early winter, and especially in the fall, by fishing up the rivers and creeks. Following the late spring spawn on Lake Jocassee the bass start to relate to bait schools, especially threadfin shad and herring (which are generally deeper than shad), by summer. In the heat of summer a large percentage of the bait schools and bass will be in deeper water and out in the main lake, but there will still be some bait and bass in the rivers. As the fall progresses larger and larger amounts of bait and numbers of bass will move up the creeks and this pattern will get better and better. At a certain point in the fall when water temperatures are ideal large numbers of the bass will be as shallow as they were at a similar temperature point in the spring, and when the numbers of shallow fish are high enough the bite can be comparable to the spring bite. The bass will stay up the rivers and creeks as long as the bait schools are around and then begin heading out to deeper water.
Captain Pat discovered that he could catch bass up the Lake Jocassee rivers and creeks even in the heat of the summer and early fall almost by accident. After spending time on the main water with clients they would inevitably want to travel up the rivers and see the famed Lake Jocassee waterfalls. Captain Pat saw that even when surface temperatures were very warm the oxygenation and current had attracted large schools of shad, particularly on the shady side of the creeks. (Just as 95 degree water at the Lake Keowee hot hole wouldn’t seem to be ideal for shad yet they are thick all year).
Eventually he decided that it was worth trying to fish in some of these areas where he had seen bait, and he discovered that in the creeks where he had seen schools of shad bass were present and hungry. In the late summer/ early fall this may only include a few creeks, but well into the fall most if not all of the creeks will hold bait. By refining the pattern he realized that the essential elements for catching bass in these areas were current and oxygenation (from waterfall or streams flowing into the river/ creeks arms), bait, and wood. Wood includes trees lying perpendicular to the bank, parallel to the bank, sticking up vertically off the lake floor or all of these. He looks for these same conditions throughout the fall, although current becomes less important.
As in the spring the best fall bites seem to come around wood along the first major drop off out from the bank, in roughly 10-20 feet of water, where the water clearly changes color and the bottom often becomes invisible. Working the lure parallel to shore (and at times almost vertically) lets the bait stay in the strike zone longer. Fishing around isolated wood out in the middle of the creek looks promising but Captain Pat has found it is rarely successful. Another productive pattern is fishing around blowdowns right up against the bank in places where the bank is actually a sheer vertical wall of rock going down into the water. Again, fishing parallel to the rock wall is better than casting perpendicular to it.
Captain Pat also likes fishing in the heavy cover found at the top of many Lake Jocassee creek arms. When Captain Pat told me he was having luck pulling bass out of heavy cover I did not realize just how heavy he meant, but especially on days when skies are clear and the sun is out the fish will often bury very deep up in the cover. He likes to fish the periphery of the cover first and then quietly maneuver the boat tighter and tighter until he can pitch into tiny pockets in the brush where bass might be hiding. Eventually his boat will be almost on top of the brush, but Captain Pat has found that some of the best bass will be hiding very deep in the cover. Getting them out is another story!
Ninety percent of the time that Captain Pat is fishing the clear waters of Lake Jocassee with a sub-surface lure in the late summer and fall he throws a shakey head finesse worm. He usually throws a five to six inch green pumpkinseed or pumpkin colored finesse worm and frequently uses the Zoom brand worms. He rigs the worm behind a Falcon Lures shakey head jig which he likes because the flattened head rests on the bottom and allows the worm to float up when stopped. Depending on the current, depth or heaviness of the cover he is fishing he will use from a 3/16th to a 1/16th ounce jig head (heavier when there is current or he is fishing deeper, and very light around heavy cover to avoid snags). A good rule of thumb is to use the lightest jig head that still allows you to maintain contact with the bottom. Around the very heaviest cover he will also switch to a Texas rig because the bullet shaped weight is less likely to snag than a rounded jig head. He will also use a “red shad” curly tail worm at times.
Since he is finesse fishing around cover and the bites are often light Captain Pat has found that a sensitive 20-30 pound test braided line is most effective. Not only does the braided line allow him to maintain better contact with the lure than monofilament would, but he can usually feel whether the lure is making contact with wood, rock or some other bottom. Because the braided line is visible he uses 18 inches of 12-14 pound fluorocarbon leader in front of the lure.
Captain Pat believes in fishing the worm slowly and finds that fall bites are usually light. The old saying is that hook sets are free, but unfortunately shakey head jigs are not! Fishing around heavy cover for fish that bite lightly it is tempting to set the hook at every bump, but it is almost always on the hook set when the hook will become exposed and the lure will become snagged. Captain Pat instructs Jocassee fishermen to fish with “soft hands” and after a couple of hours I saw what he meant. He says that if you fish the worm slowly and lightly around cover, and maintain good contact with the lure, when it bites the fish will “show itself” and you will know when to set the hook. I lost four or five shakey head jigs the first three hours of fishing and setting the hook at any touch, and none the second two or three hours after I got the feel for “soft hands.” One final trick that Captain Pat has discovered for successful hook-ups is Carolina Lunker Sauce. He receives no money or product from the company but believes that dabbing some of the foul smelling odor on your lure from time to time definitely makes the fish hold on longer.
After spring rains pulled Jocassee water levels back up to healthier levels than they had been for a couple of years, throughout the late summer and early fall the water continued to drop. Fish would have to pull back to deeper spots from day to day and patterning them became difficult. However, with the rain a couple of weeks ago Lake Jocassee rose eight or nine feet and water levels are now back to a good place. The best fishing outside of the spring on Lake Jocassee is in October and November, and luckily the lake has healthy levels of water again.
Fall fishing on Lake Jocassee can be very productive as bait and then bass head up the creeks and the fish fatten up for winter. With changing leaves autumn is also prettiest time of the year on Lake Jocassee, and catching fish is really a side benefit of exploring this beautiful mountain lake. If you want the opportunity to experience Lake Jocassee and more than likely catch some fish while doing it give Captain Pat Bennett a call at 864-384-5922 and schedule a trip today. For more information check out his website http://www.fishkeoweejocassee.com, email him at captnpat@bellsouth or shoot him a private message on here to “cpbcop.”