By David Hart
In 1952, the Army Corps of Engineers closed the gates to the John H. Kerr Dam – giving Virginia and North Carolina a 50,000-acre playground, not to mention the flood control for which this lake was built.
For the most part, everything went as planned. But the dam also had one consequence the engineers had not counted on: It created one of the most unique, and one of the best, striped bass fisheries in the region.
The Corps had helped to create one of the only naturally reproducing land-locked striped bass populations in the country in Kerr Reservoir. Before the Roanoke River was dammed, striped bass used to migrate up the river from the Atlantic Ocean through North Carolina’s Albemarle Sound to spawn. But it’s believed that a good number of fish were still up the river when the floodgates of the John H. Kerr Dam were shut forever. To the surprise of many fisheries biologists, those fish that were trapped behind the Kerr Reservoir dam not only survived, they prospered.
In fact, they do so well that biologists gather stripers out of the Roanoke River (also known as the Staunton River) each spring, usually in mid-April, and take the eggs and sperm of those fish and raise striped bass fry in the Brookneal Fish Cultural Station. It’s the sole purpose of that hatchery.
“We raise anywhere from 20 to 30 million fry a year, and of those we raise about 3 million to fingerling size for use here in Virginia,” said Steve Arthur, superintendent of the Brookneal hatchery. “The surplus fry are traded to other states for the fish species that we don’t raise. We get channel catfish from Kansas, walleyes from Pennsylvania, and we also trade stripers for muskies and northern pike.”
If there are any leftover fry, they go into Kerr Reservoir, not necessarily because the lake needs the extras, but because Arthur would rather put them in the lake than allow them to go to waste. He says the stripers that spawn in the Staunton River are so successful, the fish normally support their own population. However, spawning success can vary with seasonal flows, and some years the fish reproduce better than other years.
Although Lake Gaston has a good population of stripers, they just don’t have the proper spawning habitat to actually produce striped bass fry. Arthur says fertilized striped bass eggs have to remain buoyant for as long as 48 hours in order to survive. If they fall to the bottom, the eggs become buried in a thin layer of silt, and they end up suffocating. The river above Kerr has enough length and current to allow the eggs to survive. Between Kerr and Gaston, the part of the river that the Gaston fish can spawn in, the water turns into lake in a matter of only a dozen miles or so, and much of that distance consists of a wide channel with slow current – not enough to keep the eggs up off the bottom for the required amount of time.
But the fish in both reservoirs, whether stream-bred or hatchery raised, are eager to eat in April. And anglers who know where to look and what to use can catch some impressive stringers of fish.
Paul Lockner and Mike Thacker are both hardcore striper anglers and each has his own technique. Lockner, a Farmville resident, prefers to cast bucktails in Kerr, while Thacker would rather troll for stripers in Gaston, his home lake. Both men admit that either method would work in both lakes, but like every angler, Lockner and Thacker have their favorite ways of catching fish.
“The river the fish run up is determined mostly by which one has the most current, although the Staunton pretty much always gets the bulk of the spawning run. The stripers will go up both rivers, but usually the Staunton has the best current, and that river gets the largest share of the Kerr striper run,” he said. “The Dan always seems to get some stripers, as well, but not nearly as many as the Staunton.”
Earlier in the month, however, the fish will stage in the upper end of the reservoir or even in the mouths of the rivers (where the rivers don’t really look much like rivers). There is current, but it’s much less obvious than it is farther up toward the small town of Brookneal.
When the fish are still down in the lake, Lockner focuses his attention on points near the main river channel. In fact, he says main-lake points adjacent to either river channel are the primary places to find stripers in April.
“I’m not much on trolling, but sometimes I’ll pull a big deep-diving 5-inch Rebel across points until I can figure out where the fish are,” he said. “The lure dives to about 15 feet, so it’s getting down to where the fish tend to hang out. I’ll start in about 17 feet of water, and then I’ll make another pass in anywhere from 18 to 20 feet. If I still haven’t found the fish, I’ll make one more pass in 20 to 25 feet. Once I determine what depth they are holding at or where they are in the lake, I’ll pull in my trolling rods and start casting bucktails to points in the areas where I found them on the Rebels. I’d much rather cast to the fish than troll for them.”
Lockner’s lure of choice – in fact, the only lure he ever casts for Kerr’s stripers – is a 3/8-ounce white bucktail jig tipped with a 6-inch white worm. The plastic trailer not only adds an extra bit of eye appeal for the fish, but it also helps slow down the lure’s fall. That can be important for those times when the fish aren’t in the mood to chase a fast-moving lure.
The key to catching these stripers, or any stripers for that matter, is to simply keep moving. Striped bass rarely stay in a single area for long, preferring to roam with the baitfish. If the fish aren’t after bait, they are beginning to move upriver toward their spawning grounds.
Later in the month – Lockner uses April 15 as his benchmark date – the Farmville resident works his way up the river channel until he finds the fish. Lockner says the fish could be all the way up to
(and more rarely, above) Brookneal, so it’s vital to put the electric motor on high and cover as much water as possible.
“I just cast to the banks on the outside bends of the river and in the deeper holes in the middle of the river. You just never know where the fish will be, but once you find one, you can be pretty sure that there will be others in the same general area,” he said.
Although Kerr Reservoir’s striper fishery is still producing good numbers of fish, Lockner says he’s catching fewer and fewer fish each year. He isn’t sure why that is, but figures the increase in fishing pressure might have something to do with it. When he first started fishing the lake, it wasn’t uncommon to catch dozens of fish in a single day. Now, he considers it a good day if he catches a dozen. That, of course, all centers on whether or not he finds the fish.
On the contrary, Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries biologist Vic DiCenzo says there are actually fewer anglers targeting stripers now. According to data collected by fisheries staff, the total effort put forth by striped bass anglers on Kerr totaled about 250,000 hours per year in the late 1970s and 1980s. Now, it’s only about 75,000 hours. No matter what, there are plenty of fish to be caught, and Lockner still catches them with surprising consistency.
“Although stripers tend to run up the river in large waves, they won’t all be bunched up in one small area. There will be groups of fish still down in the lake, while some stripers are all the way up at the base of Leesville Dam. They can be spread out from the upper end of the lake up to the Leesville Dam in April, and some fish will even be on their way back down while other fish are still moving up. Once a striper lays her eggs, she doesn’t stay in the river for very long,” he said.
Last year’s drought had a pretty significant impact on the Staunton River striper fishery. According to Arthur, plenty of fish came up the Staunton, but thanks to low river levels, few anglers bothered to fish for them. That means there will be lots of fish in the lake and the river this year.
“I belong to the Lake Gaston Striper Club and we all communicate by radio, so you pretty much always know when somebody is on fish and where they are fishing. I always leave my radio on and when I hear another club member is catching fish, I’ll hop in my boat and get out there every chance I get. We’re pretty good about sharing information because we all want to help each other catch fish, so if you are down here and you have a CB in your boat, keep it on channel 68. That’s the channel we use, and there’s probably somebody out on the lake every day,” he said.
Thacker says Gaston is completely different than Kerr due to the fact that the water from Gaston comes from the dam at Kerr. When the stripers are running up the Staunton River above Kerr, the fish in Gaston are already finished with their spawning run and are far back down the lake.
“In April, I do pretty much all of my striper fishing within a mile of the Eaton Ferry Bridge. That may seem like a pretty big area, but when you consider that stripers are always on the move, that does help narrow down the search quite a bit,” he said.
At 20,000 acres, Gaston is less than half the size of Kerr, so it does have fewer fish. In fact, Thacker says the striper population in his home lake has fallen noticeably over the last few years. Wayne Jones, a district fisheries biologist with the North Carolina Wildlife Resources Commission, agrees.
“There are still a good number of stripers in the lake, but there’s no question that the population is less than it was 10 or 12 years ago. We are also getting complaints from anglers in regards to the size of the fish. Our sampling efforts still turn up a good number of fish in the 4- and 5-pound range, but the larger fish over 10 pounds are pretty rare,” he said.
Jones isn’t sure why that is, but he attributes it to a number of possibilities. Fishing pressure has increased dramatically over the last 10 years, and he says it has doubled or even tripled in that time period. More anglers are taking more fish.
“When the season closes in the Roanoke River in the Roanoke Rapids area for those anadromous stripers, a lot of people move up to the lake. Pretty much any legal striper that is caught is kept,” Jones said. “There’s also a substantial amount of fishing pressure in the summer and we’ve learned that stripers caught in the summer have almost a zero chance of survival when they are released. The water temperature is too warm, and the dissolved oxygen level is too low for the fish to recover from the stress of being caught.”
To help alleviate the loss of fish from angling pressure, Jones and his colleagues have doubled the stocking rate of striped bass fingerlings in Gaston. Now, they put in over 400,000 2- and 3-inch striped bass every year, but since they’ve only been doing that for the last year or two, anglers won’t see any effects for at least a few more years. According to Jones, a striped bass that is in Lake Gaston takes anywhere from five to six years to reach the 20-inch minimum size limit. Biologists are also stocking additional forage, primarily threadfin shad.
Thacker says his catch rate and the catch rate of fellow club members was way off last year, but he isn’t sure if that had anything to do with the prolonged drought that gripped the region pretty much all year. He noticed a decline in the abundance of forage fish, as well. But hardcore striped bass anglers still catch plenty of fish. Most aren’t much larger than that 20-inch size limit, but Thacker and fellow club members do catch some impressive stripers. He knows of some fish around 20 pounds, but says they are rare creatures. Thacker prefers to find his by trolling.
“I’m a hardcore troller. I’ll put out six to eight lines at a time, and I’ll just work my way across points and over flats until I find the fish, and then I just keep working through that area. Stripers are always moving, so if I don’t find them where I caught them yesterday, I’m not worried. They’ll be in the same general area, so I just keep moving until I find them,” he said.
Thacker’s trolling rigs consist of a variety of lures that cover a variety of depths. One of his primary baits is a white bucktail tipped with a white plastic trailer. He’ll use a 1-ounce bucktail on one rod and a 1 1/2-ounce bucktail on another rod, a Cordell Red Fin on two other rods (both on planer boards), and a double bucktail rig on another trolling outfit. That rig consists of one larger bucktail tied above a smaller jig. Another rod, sometimes two, will have umbrella rigs with four soft plastic shad-bodied lures on them.
“Those lures cover depths from five to 20 feet. The stripers seem to hold at around 24 feet petty much all the time, but when they are active, they’ll come up toward the surface. No matt
er where they are, they prefer to come up for a bait and they rarely go down to take a bait, so it’s important to keep your lures above the fish when you troll,” he said.
Later in the month, as the back ends of coves and creek arms warm, the baitfish will migrate into those areas, and the stripers follow. Early in the morning, late in the afternoon, and all day when there is thick cloud cover, the stripers can be caught by casting surface lures such as Zara Spooks, Chug bugs and other large topwaters to points and flats. However, as the sun comes up, the fish go deep and trolling tends to be the best way to catch Gaston’s stripers.
No matter which lake you decide to fish, there are plenty of stripers to be caught. Be patient, keep looking until you locate the bass and stay with them. Before you know it, you’ll have a limit in the cooler.
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