Photo by Mike Marsh
John H. Kerr Reservoir, or Bugg’s Island Lake, as it is also known, straddles the North Carolina-Virginia state line. The lake is enormous, encompassing 78 square miles in Halifax and Mecklenburg counties of south-central Virginia and in Vance County of north-central North Carolina. The lake was formed by the John H. Kerr Dam, which was built in 1953 by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers for electric power generation and also for municipal water supply.
A reciprocal license agreement allows anglers who possess a license from either state to fish the entire lake. But no matter on which side of the border an angler chooses to try his luck, the vast expanse of water is a prime spot to catch big winter striped bass.
Marion “Ramrod” Hall is one of the most respected guides who chase the big fish here. Specializing in stripers above all other fish, he catches them at the lake all year ‘round, but he really likes to go after them in winter.
“Kerr stripers typically weigh 7 to 9 pounds, which is down from a few years ago when we were catching fish between 9 and 12 pounds,” he said. “But there are a lot of small, young fish coming from our stockings. At any time you have to be ready to catch one that weighs 18 to 20 pounds. But there are not many fish of that size.”
Most of the fish are spawned naturally in the Dan River and Roanoke River, according to Hall. However, while in the past the lake had received leftovers from other stocking programs, there is now a dedicated stocking program of 350,000 per year.
“In 2006, we only got 280,000,” he said. “It will now have a more routine striper stocking schedule, courtesy of Virginia’s Brookneal Hatchery. Our fishing club, the Bugg’s Island Striper Club, is working with the Virginia Fish and Game Commission, and helps catch the brood stock and provide manpower for stockings. I help them take gill net surveys in the fall by helping to bring in the nets to identify each fish and how long it is and the weight of the fish. Thousands of fish are sampled and the club supplies nine people to help in the fall and help catch the brood stock in the Roanoke River by electrofishing. Then we meet the trucks when they bring the stockings down and put them in all the way around the lake instead of in one spot like they used to do.”
Hall looks for baitfish to find the stripers. When it turns cold, he watches for signs of gizzard shad and blueback herring disturbing the surface. When the baitfish are on top, it means that striped bass are slashing at them from below and birds then attack them from above. For sight-fishing, he uses 1/2-ounce or 3/8-ounce white bucktails. But when the fish are not visible, he uses live bait.
The best time to find them on top is early in the morning or late in the evening when light penetration is low. However, on some days, especially overcast days when it is calm, stripers can come to the surface at any time during the day.
“Where I go to fish pretty much comes with experience,” he said. “I keep records of everything I catch, including the time of day, time of year, where, and what bait I was using. It’s very easy to go back to the information from year to year and it will work as well this year as it did in past years.”
He fishes the upper part of lake in January, as well as the backs of the many creeks. Grassy Creek at Buoy 13 on the west side of the middle of the lake is a good spot to try. He also likes Eastland Creek along the eastern shoreline and Nutbush Creek on the southern side in the lower third of the lake. He launches at Island Creek or Longwood access to get to Grassy Creek, at Ivy Hill to get to Eastland Creek and at Hibernia access to get to Nutbush Creek. Where he fishes depends on how cold it is and how long the ride. He launches at the access area that gives the shortest ride in the least amount of wind exposure.
“The stripers follow the bait back into the creeks in winter,” he said. “I think that’s where the zooplankton goes and the bait goes after food like the stripers go after the bait.”
When he throttles back in the creek, he watches a depthfinder screen. If he sees pods of baitfish, he knows the fish are in that area somewhere. He searches off the main points with his eyes and his depthfinder. Sometimes he only sees one or two striper marks on the screen, but that’s enough to tell him it’s going to be a good day.
“You can get all the bait you want when the lights are on at the Virginia Hwy. 58 bridge at Clarksville,” he said. “They are overhauling the bridge, repaving and chipping out the concrete. HydroGlow and city of Clarksville put lights in each bridge piling. There are four above the water and four below on each column and there are about 20 columns. The one below attracts the fish as much as the one above it in my estimation. It attracts the baitfish so all you have to do is throw a cast net right against the lights to catch all the shad or herring you need.”
Early in the year, baits are larger. In winter, it can take several casts to catch the 5- to 6-inch baitfish Hall prefers. He places them in a 40-gallon closed-system livewell, adding salt and other bait-saving additives such as Sure-Life Bait Saver to keep them lively.
“I want to get to my fishing spots first thing in the morning after catching the bait,” Hall said. “I put out my side-planer boards first. I put out 50 feet of line, then attach the board to let the baits swim out to the side 20 to 40 feet at an angle to the boat. Running the bait shallow early in the morning is the best. As day progresses on, I let more line out or attach a split shot to make the baits go deeper.
“I run four planers, two on each side of the boat, then four ‘wonder lines’ off the transom, two on each side, with one short and one long. I call them wonder lines because they are fished without any weight, so you always wonder where they are. I run them from 8 to 15 feet deep, while the side-planers run all the way down to 20 feet. Then I put out six down rods, for a total of 14 rods. The down rods are placed in holders along the sides of the boat and weighted line with 3 ounces of weight so they go straight down off the side of the boat. There are three down rods on each side.”
Hall hooks a 1/0 live-bait hook through the baitfish’s nose. He uses baitcasting reels spooled with 14- to 17-pound mono lines and a 17-pound fluorocarbon leader. An egg sinker of up to 3 ounces is used to take the bait down to the fish with the down rods.
It can get exciting if a school of stripers attacks several baits at once. The more anglers on board, and the more experienced they are, the more rods Hall can set. He can carry up to four fishermen. New regulations allow keeping only four fish of any length between June 1 and Sept. 30. From Oct. 1 to May 31, only two fish over 26 inches long may be retained.
“In January, you can catch two-dozen fish and the next day you might only catch six or eight fish,” Hall said. “A great day would be a limit of two keeper fish per person and that happens most days. Sometimes you have to hand rods off to someone else to get them out of the way. You’re going to get tangles with multiple hookups, but you can always untangle them after getting your fish in.”
Though he finds fish while motoring through a likely area with the outboard, he uses a trolling motor to stay with a school of fish. Sometimes they remain in one area, especially when oriented to a piece of structure such as the top of a submerged hill. But at other times, they scatter or the school stays together but is on the move. If fish aren’t showing on the depthfinder screen or he isn’t getting any bites, Hall moves to another location or calls other guides and his striper-fishing buddies on the radio. Several boats working together have a better chance of staying on a school of biting stripers than one boat working alone.
Hall said the stripers feed actively until the water temperature dips below 44 degrees. Even then, they can still be caught, but he said that the bait must be presented right in the fish’s faces.
He fishes from a 20.5-foot Maycraft and advises anyone to use at least an 18- to 20-foot center console boat for fishing Kerr and to avoid fishing during high winds. He uses a 24-volt trolling motor to control the boat’s drift when fishing bait schools, but has also had success with a 12-volt motor.
To ward off the chill, Hall said he advises his clients to wear the same clothing as when hunting deer from a tree stand in winter. Coveralls, insulated underwear and rain gear that can fit over coveralls will keep a winter striper fisherman warm and dry.
When fishing a bucktail jig through and below the baitfish schools, stripers aren’t at all finicky. It doesn’t take an expert to recognize the strike of an aggressive winter striper.
“I cast or jig with bucktails when I’ve seen the fish and they are concentrated,” he said. “Watch for birds and baitfish. The birds always tell you where the fish are feeding. But the loons will give you a false reading. They drive the bait up just like a striper will. They will also show up on a depthfinder like a striper.
“Once you see the fish, there’s no question about a striper hitting the bucktail,” Hall said. “When they are on top, they’ll hit it as soon as it hits the water. I just cast and reel it back in when they are on top. They think it’s a minnow swimming by and they eat it and you set the hook. The same goes for jigging. You drop it down to the level of the fish and jig it a couple of times and the fish hits it hard. I like the round-head style with the eyes painted on it. I usually use white, but sometimes I might switch colors to chartreuse.”
Lake Gaston is the next lake downstream of Kerr Lake. The lake is over 20,000 acres and is 34 miles long and approximately 1.5 miles wide at the lower end. It has over 350 miles of shoreline. The Gaston Dam was completed in 1963, and Lake Gaston borders the counties of Mecklenburg and Brunswick in Virginia and Warren, Halifax and Northampton in North Carolina. Normal height of the lake’s surface water is 200 feet above sea level and by regulation the water depth may vary only one foot plus or minus from the normal level except in case of emergency, while Kerr Lake’s elevation varies a great deal for flood control. As at Kerr Lake, a valid license for either Virginia or North Carolina permits fishing from a boat in either state.
“At Gaston, the way I fish is about the same as at Kerr,” Hall said. “But there are not quite as many stripers, although there are some larger fish. I know there have been some 35- to 40-pound fish caught there. I think the reason is that when they pull water from Kerr Lake, the water is always colder because it comes off the bottom of the lake. At Kerr, there is a thermocline and when the fish are trapped in that zone when the water gets hot in summer, the first ones to die are the bigger fish. The difference in the maximum size of the fish is due to the colder water at Gaston.”
Hall launches at the ramp located at the dam and at Poplar Creek access area. He said intimate knowledge of the lake is mandatory before running around the lake with the throttle wide open.
“You have to know what you’re doing,” he said. “I have a GPS with a lake map showing the bottom contours so I don’t hit the shallow places. You are pursuing the fish into the shallows, but all of a sudden there’s a rock under the boat and that can be dangerous, putting dents in your prop or damaging the fiberglass.”
Hall said once he was fishing at Gaston in December and caught 21 stripers by sight-casting. It was snowing and the birds showed him where the fish were feeding. As at Kerr, the seagulls and other water birds can be the eyes in the sky that tell anglers where to fish.
“I was fishing at the middle of the lake that day,” he said. “When I fish Gaston, I use a bucktail like I cast at Kerr, but sometimes I will go to a 1-ounce Rat-L-Trap. The lure looks like a gizzard shad and works well for blind-casting to the points or drop-offs or for sight-casting when the fish are showing.”
Hall catches baitfish upstream of the Gaston Dam or below the Kerr Dam. But near the Kerr Dam outfall, the current flow can ball up the net before it sinks deep enough to catch the baitfish. Therefore, he is sometimes forced to back away from the outfall current to catch bait.
Hall also fishes Gaston creeks the same way he fishes Kerr creeks. A logical angler would believe the best plan would be fishing the creeks if the wind is blowing. But Hall doesn’t find success that way.
“Fish don’t have as many places to go in Gaston,” he said. “But it’s still a big lake. Wind kills the kind of fishing I do. I hate a windy day. I can’t control the boat like I want. If the wind moves the boat around with all the lines out, it’s a mess. Most of the time, when you hide from the wind using the shoreline, there are no fish there. Don’t ask me why. That’s just the way it is. When it’s too windy to fish with the trolling motor, the best thing to do is stay home.”
If you want to give Kerr Lake stripers a try, call Ramrod’s Guide Service at (252) 492-7793.