Take the road less traveled to find unpressured water to find some great North Carolina bass fishing.
By Craig Holt
Tar Heel state anglers have a couple of choices to make during June — aim for numbers or bigger bass.
So what should bass fishermen consider if they don’t want to sit in a queue of trucks and boat trailers at a premier Triangle-area bass factory? Consider two keys — a lake’s fishable acres and its numbers of decent-size bass.
Here’s a look at one of the greatest smallmouth rivers in the state and two North Carolina lakes that offer plenty of room, marginal pressure and great spring fishing — with the added attraction of the possibility of landing a lunker.
More popularly known as Buggs Island, only about one third lies within North Carolina’s border, while the rest is in Virginia. However, a reciprocal fishing license agreement allows either state’s anglers to fish anywhere on its 49,500 acres.
Because its two major arms extend approximately 50 miles in length and include 80 shoreline miles, Buggs actually has four parts. It’s created by two main rivers — the Dan flows from the west, weaving in and out of both states, while the Staunton begins at Smith Mountain Lake in Virginia’s Appalachian foothills.
At their confluence near Staunton River State Park in Virginia, the lake courses east toward Clarksville, Va. June’s two top bass fishing tributaries along this stretch (west of Clarksville) are Buffalo and Bluestone creeks.
East of Clarksville lies the lake’s central and largest section. Tributaries such as Grassy, Butchers, Eastland, Island and Mill creeks feed the main lake. Their irregular shorelines offer shallow spawning areas of sand and pea gravel, numerous flats, nearby deep channels, protruding points covered with sweet gum trees, stump flats and blowdowns.
The other major arm — and North Carolina’s largest section — is north-to-south Nutbush Creek.
Several tributaries, including Little Nutbush, Quarry Branch, Burroughs Mill and Flat creeks, create Nutbush Creek. Each has “bassy” shoreline structure marked by buck brush, flooded willows and sweet gum trees, long rocky points and islands where largemouths regain pounds and energy lost during the spawn.
They ambush baitfish — and lures — throughout June.
“In June, bass get on the long flat points at the lower end of the lake,” said Jeff Coble, who has three Bassmaster Classic appearances, two BFL titles (worth $100,000 each) and an ESPN Bassmaster Series Championship to his credit.
“During June I mostly fish points from Kerr Lake Dam to Grassy Creek (to the west) or toward Satterwhite Point (in Nutbush Creek) to the south,” said the 54-year-old native of Snow Camp, N.C.
“You’ll see slick sand bars and red clay points (that hold bass) and can also pick up (a bass) now and then at solitary stumps.”
Most Buggs bass weigh 2 1/2 to 4 pounds, but 5- and 6-pound fish aren’t rare.
Coble likes to fish during June with a medium-action, 7-foot custom graphite stick by rod-master Bill Poe (from an 843 G. Loomis blank), mated to an Ardent 1000 reel spooled with 14-pound-test Vicious co-polymer line.
He prefers Poe rods because “they really throw Lucky Craft Sandys and Zara Spooks good. White’s the main color.”
During June he’s usually looking at his depth-finder for signs of blueback herring or alewife schools.
“I’ll use darker (lure) colors if the water gets muddy, but it’s hard to get muddy at Buggs in June,” he said.
He’ll often throw a Zoom Super Fluke after 9 a.m. when alewives and bluebacks school off main-lake points.
David Wright, a retired Davidson County high-school teacher and Coble’s long-time fishing partner, said the lake’s water level dictates the spring bass bite.
“People who fish the lake in early June still can find shallow bass,” he said, “especially in the morning. You can catch ’em with topwater lures then — and later if it’s a cloudy day.
“If water is high in the bushes, you’ll have a somewhat normal bite (Carolina-rigged plastics or jig-and-pig lures). Years ago it was a great topwater bite, and you threw buzzbaits. There’d be a lot of shad (threadfins and gizzards) in the bushes.”
Wright uses 7-foot-long American Rodsmith rods mated to Lew’s BB1N reels. He also uses 10-pound-test clear Stren monofilament line with a Lew’s reel or a Quantum E600 PT bait-caster (4.4-to-1 gear ratios).
“Jeff and I both use Zoom crankbaits — and Zoom plastics,” he said.
During the last five or six years, the two have changed their approach. Largemouths still may be caught shallow, but expanding numbers of bluebacks and alewives have altered bass post-spawn locations.
“Bluebacks and alewives have changed the way people bass fish,” Wright said. “Buggs bass don’t relate to cover like they used to. They just swim around (the open lake), following baitfish.”
Bass pro and guide Joel Richardson of Kernersville (336-803-2195) lives 114 miles from Buggs Island Lake and likes the place so much he built a vacation home there.
But when he wants quality fishing closer to home, he heads south down US 220 to Randleman Reservoir.
“It’s the best bass lake in the piedmont,” he said. “This spring it should be near its peak (as a largemouth lake).”
Most of the lake’s shallow brushy structure and small stickups have dissolved. But N.C. Wildife Resources Commission’s fisheries biologists, with help from Piedmont Triad Regional Water Authority workers, have replenished Randleman’s woody shoreline cover with the help of chainsaws. They cut large trees and let them fall into the water, often near channels that curve near the banks.
Baitfish have discovered protected pockets at the ends of these trees, and bass have followed the baitfish.
The workers secured the trees to the shoreline with cables. Now they provide cover for shad, minnows, crappie and bream while at the same time setting the dinner table for bass.
During June the tree tops are at exactly the right place for famished post-spawn largemouths that have left shoreline beds and begun to move toward cooler, deeper water.
“In June I like to get there early enough (at daylight) to work the shorelines (for a topwater bite),” Richardson said. “They’ll hit Chug Bugs, Pop-Rs or Zara Spooks and Spook Jrs. along with white or chartreuse buzzbaits until the sun gets up.
“The good thing about Randleman Lake is channels near shorelines, and a lot of laydown trees with the tops submerged in 1 to 6 feet of water over those channels.”
Richardson, who created a lake map by using a four-wheeler to explore its bottom before Randleman Reservoir filled with water, knows the location of submerged structure.
“Submerged road beds in moderately-deep water, say 8 to 10 feet, that have rocks nearby, usually hold bass,” he said.
Several underwater humps, deep points and steep shorelines beg to have a variety of 8-inch soft-plastic worms with pegged Texas bullet weights thrown at them.
One of the best spots is the first point to the left of the Adams Farm Access Road lake office and boat ramp. Buzzbaits, topwater poppers or pencil baits work well early, along with shallow-diving crankbaits.
One of the favorite bass haunts is a rock-covered point approximately 125 yards southeast of that spot. Bass will hit topwater lures, including Zara Spooks and buzzbaits, the first two hours of daylight in June near those rocks.
Continuing down the southeastern shoreline, anglers will see a house with white siding and a gray cinderblock foundation. A round concrete pad at water level sits near the shore with stickups in front of it.
“The water drops off really quick down to 18 feet deep in front of it,” Richardson said. “It’s a good place to throw a Carolina-rigged plastic worm.”
The lake has several submerged roadbeds that hold bass. St. Peter’s Church Road may be the best. Baitfish schools often favor roadside ditches as places to hide. When bass — and anglers — find them, the action can be serious.
Richardson likes to throw a Zoom Magnum 12-inch-long Ol’ Monster Worm after trying topwater lures at those ditches.
To the northeast the Deep River channel cuts between the main shore and an island with a fish attractor buoy. That slough is a baitfish funnel. A Texas- or Carolina-rigged plastic worm is a good choice for 4- and 5-pounders, with larger fish always possible.
A similar island sits a few hundred yards north in the middle of the Deep River. It also features a rocky shoreline where bass respond to white or bone-colored Chug Bugs, Pop-Rs and Zara Spooks.
Farther north (1/3 mile) off the river channel is a tributary Richardson calls Shad Creek. It originates near Hockett Dairy Road.
“I like to have three rods — with a Carolina-rigged plastic worm, a top-water bait and a shallow-running crankbait — tied on to use in that creek,” Richardson said.
If bass are crashing baitfish in the creek, he throws a shallow-running crankbait or jerkbait.
The lake’s most visible shoreline marker is a radio tower on the eastern shoreline south of Shad Creek.
“It’s got a wide brushy shoreline point that sticks out into the river directly in line with the tower,” Richardson said. “It’s a good place to work a buzzbait in and around those stickups in the morning or Carolina rigs or shallow-diving crankbaits in the mid-morning.”
Anglers might find bigger smallmouth bass in certain stretches of the upper Yadkin River (below W. Kerr Scott Reservoir) or at Lake James, but for consistent action and beautiful scenery matched with possibilities of landing a 5-pound or larger bronzeback, no location can match the New River during June.
The river’s level usually drops by June and the water temperature usually will be 50 degrees or higher. Smallies spawn at 50 degrees, which usually occurs from mid-May through the first few weeks of June.
By then spring rains usually will have passed through the south-to-north flow of the New River in Ashe and Alleghany counties as the river makes its way into Virginia.
That also means meager currents, pools and runs that hold hungry bronzebacks that will eat anything to recover from the spawn’s rigors.
Marty Shaffner (Tri-State Angler Service, 336-957-4630 or 336-902-0044, www.tristateangler.com) has been a fishing guide for nearly 20 years. He knows the New River and its smallmouth strongholds like his own face.
“We’ve had some good spawns in recent years,” he said. “Now smallmouths are averaging 11 inches, with plenty of 13- and 14-inchers, and we catch 15- to 17-inch fish each year.
“The most surprising thing that largemouth guys discover is a 2-pound smallmouth fights like a 4-pound largemouth. And a 4-pounder fights like an 8- or 9-pound bass.
“I think growing up and living in (river) current all the time that makes ’em strong.”
June is the month when Shaffner and most New River guides begin half- or full-day float trips with pontoon boats carrying two anglers.
“You can cast ultra-light spinning rods with 6-pound-test line or use a flyrod,” Shaffner said.
Anglers can choose to float continually and work virgin water — meeting other anglers is rare — or Shaffner can drop anchor to allow his clients to work good-looking water.
During June the water’s cool and refreshing. The river rarely gets much wind (except when thunderstorms roll over the ridges), and anglers who forget sunscreen easily can get blistered.
“The nice thing about fishing the New River is you can drop anchor, step into the river and cast to good-looking water,” Shaffner said. “Good places to cast are toward banks, as close as you can get. It’s a good tactic to cast up-current and let a fly float beneath overhanging limbs into shade.”
Stopping, getting out and fishing are easier from a canoe or kayak than a floating raft, but it can be done. Shaffner owns two inflatables (a 14-foot Moravia and a 16-foot Cataraft).
Anglers should take advantage of his knowledge to fish particular logs and rocks. Shaffner knows which ones are likely to hold trophy bronzebacks.
“I know where a few big fish, from 4- to 6-pounds, hide, so we usually stop and give ‘em a try,” he said.
During March and April he mostly hosts pontoon trips, and clients use spinning tackle and lures.
“From early June through August we have the best topwater action,” he said. “Fly-rod anglers cast popping bugs and streamers.”
One of his secret weapons is an earthworm-color Senko worms, dabbed with a little ProCure scent, and fished with a small split shot (or nothing at all) about 1 1/2 feet above the hook.