Lookout Shoals, Hickory and Norman offer three great spots for some winter striper fishing on the Catawba River.
By Dan Kibler
This month, at a number of locations in North Carolina, you will see guys pulling up to gas stations, and despite the cold weather, they'll have a boat in tow. They're the ones wearing insulated coveralls and heavy gloves and toboggans pulled down over their faces, packing thermoses of coffee and hot chocolate.
And they're not going to the lake to water ski.
What kind of fish could be worth that kind of trouble, not to mention the hours in cold, often nasty, weather?
Ask 'em and they'll tell you: striped bass. The line-burning runs, the dogged power and the sheer size of these fish all make catching them the best insulator against cold an angler can find anywhere.
That's one of the things that keep guides like Jeff Tomlin and Gus Gustafson on the water throughout the year - even into the coldest of months. The winter can be prime time for some of the year's biggest stripers to become active on three reservoirs on the Catawba River system - Lake Norman, Lookout Shoals Lake and Lake Hickory - and the thought of hanging on to one of those freight trains will keep the blood flowing in these anglers for weeks.
Tomlin, a Statesville resident, operates Down & Out Guide Service (704-902-7246) and visits all three reservoirs. Gustafson runs Lake Norman Ventures (704-896-1704) and concentrates his efforts on Lake Norman, the biggest of the three lakes.
This huge Lake Hickory striper - the fish weighed 26 pounds, 2 ounces - got to meet guide Jeff Tomlin one cloudy day last season. Photo by Dan Kibler
Lake Hickory is impounded by Oxford Dam, one of the oldest on the Catawba system, built in 1925. The lake covers 4,223 acres, has 104 miles of shoreline and stretches from Oxford Dam near Route 16 west to Rhodhiss Dam north of Hickory.
During the winter, however, the first three or four miles from Oxford Dam upstream make up most of the best striper waters, according to Tomlin.
"Prime spots are the mouth of Rink Dam, Reitzel Creek and the Taylorsville Beach area (on the Alexander County side near Oxford Dam)," said Tomlin. "Fish will be concentrated in big schools, so if you can find a few, there's probably 100 around. Look for long points with deep-water access - about 20 to 25 feet on the point with deeper water available.
"Rink Dam has three points nearby; Reitzel Creek has a long point just inside the mouth of the creek, and the marina at Taylorsville Beach has a long point marked with shallow-water buoys. It offers the deepest water and the longest point on the lower end of the lake."
Tomlin uses one manufactured and one natural method for finding fish. The manufactured is obviously the depthfinder on his 19-foot skiff; the natural is a sea gull. "Electronics are always useful, but it's hard to beat a flock of diving gulls for finding fish," he said.
He works the ends of points and dropoffs around them, searching for concentrations of baitfish and the stripers that will generally be nearby. Points are a key because stripers can use them to move out of the Catawba River channel up into relatively shallow water when feeding time arrives. On sunny bluebird days, most of the feeding will take place close to the bottom; on overcast, cloudy or stormy days, fish tend to move up into shallow water or they key on baitfish - away from any bottom structure.
"Bluebird days are great for using down rods around points," Tomlin said. "I use 14- to 17-pound fluorocarbon line with a 1 1/2-ounce sinker, a 2-foot leader tied to a barrel swivel and a circle hook. I use the circle hook because fish hitting a bait on a down rod often have nowhere to go since the bait is so close to the bottom. They'll take the bait and as they run, the circle hook will pull to the corner of their mouth and catch them there. It works great.
"Rainy, overcast days offer topwater and shallow feeding, so I use planer boards and free-lined shad hooked with No. 8 treble hooks," he said. "Trebles work better in this situation because the bait is much faster and fish are usually coming up to strike and swallow the bait, but the treble will hook up somewhere in their mouth before they can swallow it."
Tomlin works many of the same points that he does on bluebird days, but he'll keep his boat much closer to the bank, often fishing only 5 or 10 feet deep. That close to the surface, he'll put out a live gizzard shad or an alewife (locally known as herring) without any weight or with a small split shot about a foot or two above the hook.
"A good rule of thumb is one No. 7 split shot for every 10 feet of water depth," he said.
Water temperatures in the mid to high 40s are common, and that's what keeps stripers in relatively deep water. They're liable to cruise in more shallow water on changing weather fronts or when the water temperature is around 50.
When the water temperature is moderate, Tomlin doesn't have a lot of trouble getting bait. His preference is live gizzard shad, usually 4 to 6 inches long, but he'll use shiner minnows or if they can be caught using hook-and-line, live bream or crappie.
"Bait on Hickory is generally easier to find then on most lakes because there are fewer creeks," Tomlin said. "Gunpowder Creek is the primary place to find shad, but when the water temperature drops into the low 40s, the bait will move down the lake. Gizzard shad is the most abundant bait, but bream and crappie are durable baits and will handle the cold water as well as anything."
Late in January, or when the water temperature really dives due to a cold snap, Tomlin puts aside his live bait and goes with a jigging spoon and in his case, one made locally, a Tackle Town Spoon. He likes the 1- and 1 1/2-ounce varieties, depending on the wind and depth, and he jigs it from the bottom to about 5 feet above the lake floor.
"That's a technique that a lot of veteran striper fishermen use when the bait dies off because of extremely cold temperatures," Tomlin said.
The daily creel limit at Lake Hickory (and Lookout Shoals) is eight fish, with a 16-inch size minimum. Tomlin said that the minimum size limit rarely plays a role in a striper fisherman's success, because the fish are, on the average, the biggest of any in the three reservoirs. "They probably weigh, on the average, a pound per fish more than on either Lake Norman or Lookout Shoals," he said, "and it's not uncommon to catch a fish that weighs in the teens."
Below Oxford Dam, the Catawba River rolls through Lookout Shoals Dam, the smallest reservoir on the system at 1,200 acres. The lake is barely nine miles long and has very few feeder creeks. The upper four miles is a navigation disaster waiting to happen to the unwary: It is extremely shallow, and the bottom is made up largely of outboard-eating boulders. The tailrace below Oxford Dam is a bank-fishing paradise during the stripers' spring spawning run - behemoths exceeding 25, 30 or even 35 pounds are common, and a Lookout Shoals fish once held the state record.
"This lake is known for producing some absolute bruisers, with some fish caught through the winter and spring going over 30 pounds," he said.
But again, Tomlin concentrates on the lower end of the lake, from Lookout Shoals Dam about four miles upstream to the "mouth" of the river.
"January on Lookout can make you either famous or make you wonder if you need to give up fishing," Tomlin said. "It is a very small body of water, and the dams on either end dictate where fish will be. When Duke Power is not running water and generating power through Oxford Dam, the water cools off and pushes the fish to the lower end of the lake. When they're pulling water through Lookout Dam, it does the same thing. When they pull water through Oxford Dam, the current positions the fish along the dropoffs and points."
Big changes in the bottom contour are prime areas for stripers to hold, and Tomlin concentrates on a handful of places in January. The first is a long, buoyed sandbar near the J.C. Penney's campground on the Alexander County (northern) bank near the mouth of the river. Tomlin said that the sandbar runs about 500 yards out in the lake on the side of the old river channel. The second is an underwater hump in front of the dam, also marked by buoys, that is actually an old roadbed that runs from the Catawba County side of the lake to the Iredell County (east) side.
Tomlin uses many of the same techniques at Lookout that he does in Hickory, the biggest difference being that Lookout is not quite as deep, with only 60 feet of water in the river channel at the dam at full pool. Another difference is that you might have to take care of finding bait before you arrive at Lookout. "Don't expect to catch bait at Lookout, because Duke Power dropped the lake level 20 feet in the winter of 2002-2003 to kill aquatic vegetation, and there was a major shad kill," Tomlin said. "The water temperature is often in the low 40s and even in the high 30s, so fishing with shad is a no-win situation. That's why using trout is an excellent idea at Lookout."
Hatchery-raised rainbow trout are a favorite wintertime bait of fishermen in the Statesville area - Lookout Shoals is about 10 miles west of Statesville, and Lake Norman is about five miles southwest of town - and Tomlin uses them quite a bit during the winter.
So does Gustafson, who fishes during January almost from Cowan's Ford Dam at the bottom of Lake Norman to the Route 150 bridge at midlake.
"Half the people who fish in the winter use trout, and they can cost anywhere from a dollar apiece to $10 a dozen," said Gustafson. "They're a good, all-around bait, especially for anybody who wants to fish for a couple of hours and not worry about catching bait or keeping it alive. I can't think of a bait that's easier to keep alive during the winter than a trout - you can put them in a minnow bucket and keep them for a few days on the dock. A lot of guys put them in plastic trashcans, cut holes in the side and keep them in the water next to their docks. A 30-gallon trashcan is big enough to keep 100 trout alive all winter, especially if you feed them a little trout chow. They'll actually grow some."
January, Gustafson said, is a big-fish month for a handful of a dozen or so ardent striper fishermen who target bigger fish on Norman, which covers 32,500 acres. "One of the most popular baits for stripers is a live crappie, but (the N.C. Wildlife Resources Commission) has put an 8-inch minimum size on them, so they'll really have to pull some big crappie now. Some of them are already pulling 8- or 10- or 12-inch gizzard shad," he said. "There are about 15 or 20 guys who pull big baits and cover a lot of water looking for big fish.
"For guys who are using shad, herring or trout, how they fish depends on how cold it gets," he said. "The fish tend to be spread out all over the lake, but the cold water concentrates them. They'll gravitate to the two hot holes when the water gets down to 46 or 47 degrees; they have to go to the hot holes or stop feeding altogether."
The "hot holes" are the warm-water discharges from Duke Power's Marshall Steam Station on the Lincoln County (west) side of the lake near the Route 150 bridge and the McGuire Nuclear Station on the west side of the lake near the dam, across from the mouth of Ramsey Creek. The actual hot holes are long sloughs off the main body of the lake where water that is pulled from the lake and super-heated as part of power producing is flushed back into the lake. The hot water can raise the overall water temperature in the immediate vicinity by 10 or 15 degrees, and it can have an effect several miles on either side of the mouth of the hot holes.
"When water conditions are normal, the stripers get back in the creeks; you'll find them anywhere from on the banks, in the backs of the creeks or out to 30 feet deep," Gustafson said. "If you can fish on weekdays, you can catch fish any day until the weekend. You can be in, say, McCrary Creek, and catch fish from Tuesday through Friday. Then, on Saturday and Sunday, the creek will be loaded with boats, and you'll see the stripers on your depthfinder, but they just kind of shut down because of the boat traffic. When you get in that kind of situation, there are plenty of other creeks you can go to that have less of a traffic problem."
Gustafson will pull live baits at a variety of depths, using a variety of sinkers. He usually starts with rods on either side of the boat close to the bow, rigging them with 1 1/2-ounce egg sinkers, a barrel swivel, leader and hook. Those baits are usually fished around 30 feet deep. Next, as he moves toward the back of the boat, he'll put out down lines with 1-ounce sinkers. At the bow, he may put out baits with split shot on planer boards, or he'll simply free-line baits behind the boat. That way, with six to eight rods, he can cover a variety of depths until he finds the right spot for stripers.
"If the weather is moderate, fish will get all the way in the backs of creeks, the same places they go in the spring - particularly at daylight. But if the water chills down, they're going to come out of there and go to the hot holes When it gets so cold that baitfish die, the stripers start to shut down."
With the water in the mid to low 40s, Gustafson checks wind direction to decide where he'll fish. If the wind is blowing out of the north, then warmer water flushing out of the hot hole will be downstream as far as marker 13 or the mouth of Mountain Creek. "That's where the effects of the hot hole will diminish," he said.
On south winds, the hot-hole water will be pushed up from McCrary Creek to the Route 150 bridge - but usually no farther. "The bridge acts as a da
m and stops a lot of water from going above it," he said.
On a prevailing west wind, Gustafson will head downlake and fish in Ramsey Creek on the eastern side of the lake - directly across from the McGuire hot hole. "One thing about it, there can be an awful lot of fish in there, and you'll have them all to yourself," he said. "There are a lot of secondary points in the creek that come way out, almost to the channel, and you can fish any of them. But the key to fishing any of that warmer water is that a wind must be sustained. You need a couple of days of the same wind because the wind will move the bait and the fish.
"A lot of fish will roam the river flats and channels, and people will catch 'em on planer boards pulling in 70 or 80 feet of water. That's why you see people in the dead of winter fishing in open water. In that super-cold kind of situation, the best thing you can do is get out at daylight and keep an eye out for the birds that will crash the fish that are feeding.
"If you're close enough, you can probably cast to 'em with topwaters. What I like to do is troll Road Runners. I can use my trolling motor to move two 1/4-ounce Road Runners for four hours. You can get about a half day out of two batteries that way."
If Gustafson isn't using store-bought trout or shiners, he'll look for baitfish with a cast net in the hot hole areas, especially in nearby coves. "Sometimes, if you can get out in front of the hot hole, the baitfish will darken your whole (depthfinder) screen," he said. "In the afternoons, when the sun's bright, you can go back in real quiet sloughs in some of the creeks and catch herring (alewives), but they're much harder to catch. Gizzard shad are much more accessible."
Lake Norman striper fishermen don't have the luxury of catching eight-fish limits. Regulations for the big lake include a four-fish daily creel limit, with a 20-inch size minimum.
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