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Lake James is the epitome of scenic beauty, located at the edge of the Blue Ridge Mountains. Beneath the surface of its deep, clear waters lies a good population of smallmouth and largemouth bass that provides arguably the best chance to sample both species in North Carolina.
Yet there are very few homes or other development on its 150 miles of shoreline, and that separates it from most mountain lakes in the Tar Heel State. It is almost as if the Duke Power reservoir has yet to be fully discovered.
Stanley Correll Jr. found it. "I feel like I've been fishing it a couple hundred years now," said the Bassmaster Southern Open competitor who guides on Lake James. "I actually grew up around the lake. My parents had a summer home here, and I've been fishing this lake since I was a youngster. So, I've basically been fishing this water for 31 years."
The most easterly of North Carolina's mountain lakes, it was created in 1916 with the construction of three dams (on the Linville River, Paddy Creek and Catawba River).
The two rivers make up the main arms of the lake, but both are distinctly different in terms of terrain and appearance. The Linville arm and the lower end of the Catawba River resemble a mountain lake with bluffs, rocky points and an abundance of deep, clear water. The upper half of the Catawba arm features shallower water with more color and is surrounded by rolling hills. Smallmouth are most abundant in the Linville arm and lower Catawba; largemouth are most likely to be found in the timbered flats of the upper Catawba.
Correll's largest Lake James smallmouth weighed 6 pounds, 5 ounces (caught on a Bass Craft jig), but his clients have boated fish in the 7 1/2- to 8-pound range. His biggest Lake James largemouth tipped the scales at 9 pounds, 14 ounces (caught sight fishing in the springtime).
Trip check report
Sprawling across McDowell and Burke counties, Lake James is the first of the seven Catawba chain lakes (followed by lakes Rhodhiss, Hickory, Lookout, Norman, Mountain Island and Wylie). Lake James State Park is located in Burke and McDowell counties, 5 miles northeast of Marion on State Route 126.
Many lodging opportunities are available in Marion, N.C., 5 miles southwest of the lake. Or, if you like to rough it, try camping at Lake James State Park, http://ils.unc.edu/parkproject/visit/laja/home.
North Carolina Wildlife Resources Commission, 512 N. Salisbury St., Raleigh, NC 27611; telephone 919-733-3391; Guide Stanley Correll, Jr., telephone 828-205-1429; Mountain Harbour Marina, telephone 828-584-6263, www.mountainharbourmarina.com.
For lures to pack, best times to go and techniques for fishing Lake James, visit bassmaster.com/magazine
6,500 — Surface acres of Lake James
150 — Miles of shoreline on Lake James
$5 — The cost to rent a canoe from Lake James State Park
1923 — The year the lake was impounded
Lake James has certainly undergone some major changes in Correll's lifetime.
According to state fisheries biologists, the lake's smallmouth population has overtaken its largemouth as the star bass attraction with a good stock of 5- to 7-pound bronzebacks. The increase in smallmouth and subsequent decline in the largemouth population might be associated with the overall clearing of the lake's water.
Hydrilla appeared in the mid-1990s, but has since been largely extinguished by the state's introduction of sterile grass carp. "We had grass for about five years. It really wasn't a problem as far as taking over the lake, but it was non-native vegetation," Correll says. "It was the best thing that ever happened to this lake as far as the fishery. The North Carolina Wildlife Resource Commission sought to get rid of it and since then, in my opinion and the opinion of my fellow (BASS) Federation members, the largemouth in particular have been on a downward trend because of the absence of the vegetation."
Not that there isn't plenty of cover for Lake James' finny inhabitants. Correll credits Hurricane Hugo with supplying plenty of shoreline cover in the form of laydowns and treetops. There are also quite a few boat docks that seem to come into play especially in the summer.
Correll's favorite areas are the middle section of the lake and Mill Creek, which is its largest tributary (other than the rivers). He regularly targets the numerous points, coves and feeder creeks in that area.
"The best season at Lake James is from late February through April and into May," he adds. "There's three months, March, April and May, where you'll usually have a shot at catching 15 to upwards of 50 smallmouth in a day.
"My favorite month is April. Usually around Easter. You've got fish moving in still in prespawn stage. You've got fish spawning. You've got fish coming off the beds in postspawn. I start locating fish in late February. I'll start on the main lake points, and I'll start progressing back in the creeks and the fish will pull up to stage on the secondary points. That's where I usually stop. A lot of the bass will move on back in the coves and creeks to spawn, but a lot of them spawn on the points. You've got a constant influx of new fish coming in and staging on the points — prespawn, spawn, postspawn — and you usually don't have to go any farther back than the secondary points to find fish on this lake."
Prime Time to go
Late February through early April is the absolute best time to experience James at its best. And May is usually a good month for catching postspawn smallmouth.
Lures to pack
Plastic worms, soft jerkbaits, spinnerbaits, crankbaits and jigs will work throughout most of the year. Topwaters are a must for the shallow fall bite. Drop shots and Carolina rigs will also pay off for fishing points, humps and other offshore spots when the smallmouth are deep.
Nearby Grandfather Mountain is the entrance to the tallest mountain in the Blue Ridge chain and the only privately owned International Biosphere Reserve designated by the United Nations. Lake James State Park is a 565-acre park offering picnicking, swimming, canoe rentals and hiking. Also, Linville Gorge Wilderness Area, billed as the "Grand Canyon of the East," features steep walls as high as 3,400 feet.