April in Carolina: Striper and Bass Fishing
March 22, 2018
Spawning runs in North Carolina mean striper and bass fishing — white bass, too — heats up for state anglers.
My first acquaintance with spring fishing "runs" happened when I was 9-years old one April night at Cane Creek, a small Alamance County stream that empties into the Haw River.
My father took me with him and a friend, and I was given the task of toting a grain sack along the creek bank. We were on a mission for suckers during the spring "run."
Dad and his buddy carried trident gigs and strong flashlights to shine in the water to see the spawning fish.
My job was to find fish they gigged, grabbed, threw onto my side of the creek and stuff them into the sack then drag it downstream (no one bothered to tell a small boy it was too early for snakes to be carousing at night).
Some of the "suckers" were 3-feet long and probably buffalo fish instead of white suckers. In any case, that's when I discovered the meaning of fish runs.
Many North Carolina game-fish species make spawning runs during late March and early April. Saltwater fish such as red drum and spotted seatrout move toward inlets. In fresh water, largemouth bass and crappies leave deep water and head to shallow coves to make bedding areas where they deposit eggs.
But bass and crappies aren't the only sport fish that crank up spring spawning runs.
A few lakes with feeder streams offer a combination of excellent largemouth and decent white bass fishing (although white bass have declined statewide). Several coastal streams offer top-notch topwater action for striped bass.
FALLS IN BLACK
Falls of the Neuse is considered North Carolina's No. 2 or No. 3 black bass lake, trailing leader Shearon Harris. Falls and Jordan lakes run neck and neck for second place.
Tournament angler Todd Massey of Chapel Hill, whose home is near Jordan, believes Falls may be a better lunker lake.
"My career bass weighed 9 pounds, 15 ounces," the 51-year old said. "I caught it in March 2014. I got three fish that weighed more than 9 pounds, each of 'em at Falls."
Massey and partner Tim Parker of New Hill have been one of the most successful teams in the Piedmont Bass Classic and Cashion Rods bass trails, winning $30,000 in 2016.
Massey, the 51-year-old owner of Chapel Hill's Advance Electric, said he begins March largemouth fishing at the upper end of Falls Lake.
"By upper end, I don't mean above the I-85 Bridge, although I've fished up there at times," he said.
For Massey the upper section includes the area west and north of the narrow channel between Ledge Creek's southern point and Rollingview Access to the I-85 Bridge.
He doesn't fish north of I-85 during March because bass are just beginning to transition from deep water. Flats above the bridge are shallow-water expanses that cover several hundred acres, lying in wait to ground a boat or impact a lower unit with a stump. A safe but narrow channel winds to the Eno River's mouth. These flats become active for bass once the spawn kicks in during May and June (Falls' bass spawn oddly creeps up the lake from the deeper section at the dam).
"In March I like to fish the middle section and kind of follow where the (lake's main) channel swings near the banks and out of the creeks," Massey said.
In the middle section, he targets the outside edges of "grass" (willow weeds).
"Fifty degrees is the magic mark," he said. "When the water temperature rises from 50 to 58 degrees, bass start to stage (for the upcoming spawn) outside wood in relatively shallow water on either side of creek channels. They'll sit in front of spawning flats, on inside corners of shoreline pockets and the outside edges of willow weed."
In early March when the water temperature is less than 50 degrees, Massey casts black-and-blue jigs at woody structure. He targets structure (brush, stick-ups, lay downs) at water depths from 2 to 4 feet.
"What I throw always depends on water temperature and clarity," he said. "Once the water temperature gets higher than 52 degrees, I'll mix in a spinnerbait and target the same areas. When the temperature gets above 55 or 56 degrees, I'll start fishing with a bladed jig and a little shallow-running crankbait."
Bladed jigs include lures such as Strike King's Tour Grade Rage Blade swim jig, a V&M Pacemaker Ledge Blade jig and a Buckeye Lures single-blade jig.
FALLS IN WHITE
By coincidence, the state's top white bass lake is the major feeder stream for Falls of the Neuse reservoir.
North of Durham, the Eno, Flat and Little rivers are main tributaries for its 12,410-acres. They merge 1 1/2miles from Falls' northwestern corner, giving the Eno enough depth, length and flow for a significant white bass run. At the Eno/Flat confluence they form the beginning of what later becomes the mighty Neuse River.
The Eno is protected for much of its length, including a 9-mile stretch that meanders through Eno River State Park and West Point On The Eno Park near Hillsborough, while the Flat drains cool, clear and deep Lake Michie. So the water is pristine — although often turgid in spring because of rain run-off — and attracts white bass.
"That area of the Eno gets a lot of spring anglers when white bass are running," said Kelsey Lincoln, a District 5 fisheries biologist whose graduate thesis at N.C. State University was about N.C. white bass.
Most anglers use shallow-draft, flat-bottom aluminum boats to navigate the extra-curvy upper sections of the Eno during the migration. Many anglers cast from the shoreline.
"It's crazy," Lincoln said. "You can have shoulder-to-shoulder people. In fact, they've caught so many in the past (the WRC) made a new statewide rule (for 2018-19) for white bass minimum size and creel."
Favorite lures include 2-inch-long Rat-L-Traps, small white grubs with 1/8-ounce jig heads and a popular freshwater trout spinner, a Roostertail. Small swim baits or tiny beetle spins also work.
Five-foot ultra-light (TFOs or Ugly Stiks) rods mated to 1000 Series spinning reels spooled with 4- to 6-pound-test monofilament are the best fit for these fish, which rarely grow larger than 2 pounds.
Whites resemble fat, miniature striped bass, so an angler who hooks a 2-pounder with light tackle in the river current will think he's latched onto a 5-pound largemouth.
Boat anglers must move to find whites as they tend to congregate at eddys near steep clay banks. They also prefer bottoms with sandy or rocky bottoms instead of mud bottoms (they're called "sand bass" in some parts of the country).
"(The Wildlife Commission) added a new regulation (for 2017-18 and white bass) that includes a minimum keeper size of 14 inches and 10 fish per angler per day," Lincoln said. "Before now there was no size or creel limit."
Previously, the limit was a crazy 25 fish of any size. Because of Lincoln's research, now a 14-inch, 10-bass rule applies across North Carolina.
Sometimes whites come to the Eno's surface at dusk to chase baitfish. Small topwater lures (Tiny Torpedoes and spitting plugs) will elicit strikes.
"You can smell fish when they school to spawn," Lincoln said.
But North Carolina white bass rarely weigh more than 2 1/2 pounds, although the state-record bass weighed 5-pounds, 14-ounces. Jim King landed it March 15, 1986, at John H. Kerr (Buggs Island) Reservoir.
BREAKING NEUSE: STRIPERS
Simultaneous striper "runs" occur at various coastal rivers, but the top two are in the Roanoke and Neuse, starting in March and extending into April. Both trigger major striped-bass bites.
The Roanoke rockfish spawn is more famous because the state decided more than 40 years ago to protect its wild stock. Individual fish may grow to 35 inches or longer.
But the Neuse's striper migration may offer more action, particularly for topwater anglers.
The reason Neuse stripers are more aggressive is the same reason stocked mountain trout are more eager to hit lures than wild trout — they've been raised in hatcheries and are used to feeding when trout chow is tossed in the water. They trustingly smash lures or baits put in front of them.
"We get a big shad (hickory and white shad) run in those months," said Cove City guide Scott Wood, 52, a Moen safety engineer who's worked for the company since he graduated from East Carolina University. "The stripers follow the shad, so I use soft-plastic lures that look like them. You can have 80- to 100-fish days."
However, anglers may keep just two stripers per day in the river north of New Bern, but none between 22-27 inches.
"Stripers start up river in March when the water temperature hits 68 degrees," said Wood(252-671-7836)."If the water is rising, they'll hit topwater lures, such as walk-the-dog surface plugs (Zara Spooks, Top Pups and Skitterwalks). Almost all the fish will be tight to the shore.
"You look for fish crashing baits, then cast to them. They're so aggressive they'll knock lures out of the water. When they get off topwaters, I use a 3/8-ounce jig head with a 5-inch Z-Man StreakZ jerk shad or a LIVE TARGET buzz shad swim bait.
"The neat thing is you can catch 5- and 6-pound largemouth bass in the same places as stripers."
WHITE BASS BLUES
White bass once were plentiful in many North Carolina Lakes (Norman, James, Hickory, High Rock, Badin, the upper Yadkin River, Jordan, Rhodhiss, Mountain Island) with feeder streams. Now they're rare.
Veteran anglers and the WRC's white-bass specialist, assistant fisheries biologist Kelsey Lincoln of District 5, blame the introduction of non-native species, particularly white perch, alewives, blueback herring, spotted bass and over fishing.
"In the 2000s white bass used to be everywhere at High Rock," said guide Maynard Edwards of Lexington (336-247-1287). "But after 2005, guys might catch one while trolling (live minnows) for crappies. They've started coming back a little. At Badin guys would catch big ones while trolling for stripers. Today you can go behind the Tuckertown Dam and catch some in the spring."
Kin Hodges, District 7 biologist, said whites can be found each spring near Idol's Dam at a difficult-to-reach stretch of the Yadkin above High Rock Lake.
"The only public ramp is at Concord Church in Davie County off N.C. 801, then you have to go 10 or 12 miles north to reach the dam, and it's not a navigable river," he said.
Lake James once was so thick "you could walk across the lake on white bass," said District 8 biologist Chris Wood. "Then alewives, spots and bluebacks got introduced and (white bass) crashed. Pre-invasion (of other species) we caught 228 (whites) per net night) but by 2014 we caught one.
"We've been trying to bring them back, stocking for the last few years, trying to get hatchery recruits. A few weeks ago we stocked 30,000 4- to 6-inch Phase II fingerlings."
"We think there's a correlation (between non-native species and white bass numbers)," Lincoln said. "Females don't mature until 2 years, but we don't see older fish at Jordan. We came to the conclusion all signs pointed to heavy (angler) exploitation.