CHARLOTTE, N.C. – When it comes to Lake Norman, there are two preeminent locals in the field – Andy Montgomery and Bryan Thrift. However, they’re not the only Carolinians in REDCREST Presented by Shore Lunch, and South Carlina pro Casey Ashley has a lot of the skills necessary to do well on Norman in his toolbox. So, even though he hasn’t skipped a jig under every dock in the lake, he’s definitely in the pool of favorites, and will probably feature on a lot of Phoenix Fantasy Fishing teams this week.
With that in mind, I hopped in the boat for the final morning of practice to take the pulse of the lake and watch Ashley in action.
Staying at a house on the lake with Kevin VanDam (who had already left) and Jonathan VanDam, Ashley was not in a super hurry to get out the door this morning. With an overnight low in the 40s, it was a crisp start to the day. But, that doesn’t mean he wasn’t efficient – a private ramp about 100 yards from the front door is a pretty slick perk.
After dumping the boat, Ashley pauses to find his gloves, put away his lunch and pull out some rods. In addition to the staples of a shaky head and a jig, Ashley adds a few jerkbaits to the mix, an underspin, a spinnerbait and even pulls out a buzzbait that could get the call later in the day. Notably, Ashely never dug back into the rod box as the day went on – his choices out of the gate were apparently good enough for most everything he encountered.
After a brisk run across the lake, Ashley starts casting. Readers: from this point on, you should assume that he catches a fish every 10 minutes or so. Lake Norman is known for being loaded with bass, especially spotted bass, and Ashley proved it cast after cast.
Starting with a swimbait, he caught a fish on maybe his second cast to a dock. Then, when a spotted bass broke on bait in the center of the cove, he caught another. Starting in the front of the pocket and working toward the back, Ashley caught a lot of bass.
Along the way, I got some answers to my burning questions. Out the gate, I wanted to know what went so wrong at Clarks Hill – it’s not often Ashley doesn’t produce in the Carolinas.
“I spent a lot of time at Clarks Hill because I hadn’t fished it in a long time,” he said. “I had to re-learn it. Lotta damn good that did me. They rushed the bank, and you have no advantage when they do that. No advantage whatsoever.
“I smashed them fishing shallow on the first day of practice, in short pockets, near the main lake. Like you should. I never went back in the creeks like Ron Nelson or Travis Harriman did.”
Though local advantage was blunted at Clarks Hill, Ashley doesn’t think that will be the case for REDCREST.
“There’s only certain spots that big ones get,” said Ashley of Norman. “Certain creeks, three docks in one creek, or there may be a channel turn that holds big ones. I think Thrift is about like me, he don’t even fish here anymore. But, I know Andy knows them.”
An expert on the Savanah River lakes, where blueback herring are the predominant baitfish, Ashley says the bass at Norman aren’t behaving like the blueback chasers do on his home turf.
“Most of the time you don’t see bluebacks on your graph,” he explained. “They move too much. When they get really deep in the winter you’ll see them, in 40 or 50 feet. They say there are bluebacks in here, but the fish don’t act like it. You should see a lot more fish breaking back in the pockets, like we did out at the mouth.”
Of course, that’s not stopping him from catching them in the back of the creek. Plying a shaky head around docks, Ashley is giving his Zoom Trick Worms a workout. At first, Ashley started mostly in the middle of the creek, making an occasional cast to the front of the docks. Now, farther back, with the sun higher up, he’s almost exclusively fishing near Norman’s ever-present docks.
Working back out, Ashley keeps catching fish.
“I don’t normally fish this slow in practice,” he said. “I just got out here and wanted to see if I could catch some good ones, because there’s so many fish and bait around.”
Depending on your definition of “good ones” he’s succeeding admirably, but based on his weight predictions, he needs to pick up the pace.
“I think 12 pounds a day will make the cut,” he said. “But, when you get to the Knockout and Championship Round, you’ll have to bust them good one day and then back it up with 13 or 14. Not unless this cold pushes them back a bit and makes them actually bite.
“I fished all day yesterday and I didn’t have 12 pounds, and I probably caught 40,” he added. “I think you need a largemouth if you want to have a big bag. But there are some big ol’ spots in this lake too. But, I’ve fished here enough to know, there are areas where big ones live. You can catch fish just about anywhere.”
Eventually, Ashely moves on, to another similar-looking pocket. It doesn’t take him long to get into the groove of catching fish again, this time mixing a jig on docks and brush into the mix.
It sounds bad to say it, but Ashley is making the fishing look easy. He’s also proving just how challenging it can be to get a big bite.
With the sun finally up pretty well, Ashely starts to cruise a little shallower, keeping his eyes peeled for fish and spotting plenty. There’s no doubt that the bass starting to think about bedding, or at least sunning up shallow. Still, there are a few problems with that scenario, for one, the water level is lower than usual, which isn’t conducive to bass rushing the bank. For another, there is a lot of pollen in some places, which makes visibility difficult, although, it does not seem to be impeding forward-facing sonar as it did at Clarks Hill. Finally, the actual tournament forecast looks to be quite a bit colder than the balmy afternoons that the Carolinas have been experiencing.
Ashley, for his part, isn’t thrilled with his practice and wishes the warm weather had never come to the party.
“I don’t think it’s going worth a huff,” he said. “This is what I like to do, so it’s what I’m going to do. I just hope I get in an area with some decent fish. Whether it’s finding them fishing, or looking when the sun gets up. They want to come shallow, with this water temperature, they’ve got spawning on their mind. Yesterday I could get random bites just throwing out in front. That tells you there’s a lot of fish up.”
As the day draws on, Ashley starts moving a little faster. Keeping a jig in hand more, he’s looking at docks, particularly noting the ones that are dredged out, and trying to cover water in-between with his eyes.
“I was hoping I could pick the jig up and weed through those a little bit,” said Ashley after catching another small spotted bass. “I honestly think you’ve got a better chance catching a big one on the shaky head than this thing.”
Making another move, Ashley heads to a short pocket right near the main drag. It’s an example of his Carolina prowess coming into play.
“On Hartwell these are the kinds of places you find big ones,” he explained. “They don’t want to go far from the herring to spawn.”
Skimming around with the Lowrance Ghost on high and flipping at a dock or two along the way, he sticks a few more bass and doesn’t see anything of note on the bank. Though he scopes out some excellent looking stumps, it appears the big bass are not reading his playbook at the moment.
As Ashley is staying mid-lake, it’s not a long run for him to drop me back off. He knows he’s got some work to do to find winning fish, but he’s pretty sure that things will change.
“It’s so hard to practice for a tournament like this,” he said. “The weather is changing so much, and we’re practicing almost a week early. The fish bite every day here, so I wish it was already cold, like it’s going to be in the tournament.”
After a quick visit at the dock with his dog Branch, Ashley cranks the Mercury and heads back out. Definitely for some more catching, and hopefully to put together the puzzle pieces for big ones.