Ask any biologist to name the best bass fishing waters in his district and one water body will rise to the top faster than a bass busting a Hula Popper. Any angler who thinks he knows which nearby lake has the best bass fishing may just be in for a shock when he hears the answer.
Biologists depend upon data obtained by electroshock surveys in forming their opinions. The most important numbers they obtain are relative weight values, which are the ratio of length to weight. These condition ratings indicate the “plumpness” of fish, with a relative weight of 100 ideal. Other important bytes of information include catch rates per hour and average sizes.
Combined with anecdotal angler information and gut feelings, scientific samplings give biologists a leg up, which can also elevate the efforts of any weekend warrior or tournament pro. So, fire up the outboard and hold onto your favorite logo-embossed bass cap because some of these hotspots are going to surprise you.
Here’s what to expect for bass fishing in North Carolina.
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District 1 Fisheries Biologist Jeremy McCargo said Lake Phelps continues host the best bass fishing in District 1.
“This year’s survey resulted in a catch rate of 45 bass per hour of electrofishing effort, which is average for the lake,” McCargo said. “The largest fish was 22 inches and weighed 5.5 pounds. Anglers can expect mostly 3- to 4-pounders within the protective slot limit of 16 to 20 inches, but numbers of fish above the 20-inch slot appear to be improving. Fishing is best along the lily pad beds and other vegetation on the south and east sides.”
However, most angler effort in District 1 occurs in the tributaries to Albemarle Sound. Sampling showed the lower Chowan is recovering following fish kills caused by Hurricane Irene in 2011. Bass populations from Holiday Island downstream are recovering well and catch rates were relatively high in Bennett’s Creek, Catherine’s Creek, Wiccacon River and Rockyhock Creek with good numbers of 4- to 5-pound bass. The upper Chowan at Tunis and in the Meherrin River had poor catch rates in comparison.
“Some of the best bass fishing reports this year came from the Perquimans, Yeopim and Little River,” he said. “We didn’t sample them this year, but results from 2012 showed the bass populations remained strong after Hurricane Irene in smaller rivers east of the Chowan.”
District Biologist Ben Ricks said one of the best places to fish in the central coastal plain is the 324-acre lake at Greenville’s River Park North.
“It’s a city park lake,” he said. “But it has good numbers of 5- and 6-pound largemouth.”
The lake’s importance increased when Hurricane Irene adversely impacted bass fishing in the Tar and Neuse two years ago.
“The rivers are still recovering,” Ricks said. “They have decent bass numbers and the relative weights of the fish are getting better because, as the fish population recovers, the fish have access to more resources so their growth rates are faster. Accelerated growth rates are accompanied by increased spawning activity.”
For fishing the Tar and Neuse, Ricks suggest checking for baitfish. However, early in the year or on windy days, that can be challenging.
“When you can’t find baitfish, fish the structure with a soft plastic,” he said. “If you see baitfish, go with lures that resemble them. Crankbaits and spinnerbaits are the best lures when bass are reacting to baitfish.”
Christopher Everette, Parks Assistant at River Park North, said anglers catch big bass, but are tight-lipped.
“The biggest bass I’ve seen weighed 5 to 7 pounds,” Everette said. “But bass fishermen don’t always keep what they catch or show them to me.”
The park is open different times depending upon season. Fishing is allowed year round except holidays.
Anglers are charged daily fees, or may pay $20 for an annual permit. The park offers johnboat and kayak rentals and has two ADA-accessible fishing piers. Fuel-powered engines are prohibited.
For River North Park information, call 252-329-4560.
Biologist Kirk Rundle called 4,100-acre Shearon Harris District 3’s best bass lake. Sampling in 2013 confirmed its stellar reputation would continue.
“The average of relative weights was 98,” he said. “We caught 96 bass per hour, which is well above the 30-to 60-fish average for a piedmont lake. Falls Lake was second, with a catch rate of 75 to 89 fish per hour. Condition of fish at Falls was in the upper 90s.”
Rundle said key to Harris’s productivity is that it acts like a big farm pond. Bluegills are the main forage. Therefore, lures such as crankbaits and swimbaits that resemble sunfish are especially effective. However, in the grass beds soft plastics and topwater lures are better bets.
“Even if I didn’t work this area, I would still fish at Harris,” Rundle said. The lilies, primrose and Hydrilla create excellent habitat. The area above the bridge in the White Oak Creek arm has a lot of water lilies and the closest ramp is Hollemans Crossroads.”
Expanding on the 2013 sampling data, Harris is a top contender for the best bass fishing in the state, with 80 percent of fish greater than 14 inches, 55 percent greater than 16 and 15 percent greater than 20. The two biggest bass sampled weighed more than 9 pounds and five weighed more than 7 pounds. Special regulations aim to keep the fishing superb.
“The lake has a 14-inch minimum size limit (except two largemouth can be less than 14 inches, which thins out the smaller fish) and no fish between 16 and 20 inches may be kept,” Rundle said. Tournaments exert a lot of pressure on largemouth bass because there is some mortality associated with catch-and-release fishing. The slot limit protects those fish.”
Biologist Michael Fisk said Sutton Lake is his favorite hot spot. Sutton Lake is technically in District 2, right on the edge of District 4.
In 2013, bass regulations changed at Sutton, allowing anglers to keep five fish greater than 14 inches except that two fish may be less than 14 inches. Most waters in the coastal plain have a prohibition on retaining bass shorter than 14 inches.
“We wanted an increased harvest of small bass at Sutton,” Fisk said. “In most rivers and reservoirs throughout the country, harvesting bass is good for the system. Most bass anglers practice catch and release. But, when there are too many bass, they become stunted.”
Another regulation that maintains Sutton’s phenomenal fishing is a prohibition on keeping bass December 1 through March 1.
“At 1,100 acres, Sutton is much smaller than other cooling lakes,” he said. “In colder months, bass congregate in the warm water discharge and people can really hammer them. Later in the year, bass move throughout the lake so they are not as vulnerable.”
District 5 Biologist Jessica Baumann said that while Randleman is a great bass lake, 365-acre Farmer Lake is better. Farmer supplies water for Yanceyville.
“Farmer is a beautiful,” Baumann said. “It has lots of fish over 14 inches.”
Baumann said Farmer Lake largemouth exhibit relative weights between 90 and 100 and Commission catch rates are astounding.
“In a piedmont lake, the catch rate is usually 30 and 60 per hour,” she said. “At Farmer, we caught 103. The biggest was 24 inches and weighed 8 pounds. Randleman’s catch rate was 91 fish per hour, with relative weights of 94 to 110.”
Farmer Lake closes Mondays and Tuesdays, except to those who buy annual passes, according the Lake Warden Charlie King. It is closed in January and February.
“When the lake opens in March, I will put the bass fishing up against any lake in North or South Carolina for 9- and 10-pound bass,” King said. “The lake is narrow with a creek channel and four feeder creeks.”
Management includes felling trees into the water. In spring, crankbaits and spinnerbaits cast around the woody cover work well. In summer and fall, anglers switch to Carolina rigs.
For Farmer Lake information, call 336-694-5522.
District 6 Biologist Lawrence Dorsey said anglers should skip Lake Norman because spotted bass have ruined the largemouth fishing.
“Our best bass lake is High Rock,” he said. “In 2012 survey, the catch rate was 82 and the average condition rating was 96. One 23-inch bass weighed 7 pounds. We didn’t catch many fish over 20 inches, but lots of fish over 14.”
Dorsey said 1,100-acre Thom-A-Lex and 540-acre Cane Creek, had even better fishing. Both lakes exhibited high relative weights and catch rates.
“The catch rate at Thom-A-Lex was 96 fish per hour,” he said. “Thirty percent were over 16 inches, 15 percent over 18 inches and relative weights averaged 100.”
Special regulations help largemouth in the smaller lakes grow large. Thom-A-Lex’s limit is 18 inches and Cane Creek’s is 16.
District 7 Fisheries Biologist Kin Hodges said 4,223-acre Lake Hickory was his district’s best bass lake. However, he gave honorable mention to W. Kerr Scott.
“Lake Hickory has lots of nutrients from municipal wastewater plants,” he said. “As a result, it has one of the state’s densest bass populations. We catch 90 to 100 bass per hour with lots of 2- to 4-pound fish. Their body condition is very good.”
Hodges said fishing pressure was high at Hickory, with the Commission receiving more tournament requests at Whittenburg Boating Access Area than any other ramp.
“People complain about not being able to catch bass and it’s rare for us to catch a fish that doesn’t have at least one hook scar,” he said. “There are no signs of excessive mortality, but those fish have seen lots of lures. The trick is figuring how to get them to bite.”
The Gunpowder Creek arm is the most fertile. The lake is full of gizzard shad. It also has alewife and threadfin. Anglers should use lures that mimic the baitfish.
W.Kerr Scott doesn’t rival Hickory for bass numbers. However, Hodges said it has plump largemouth and spotted bass.
“W. Kerr Scott may not have as many fish,” he said. “But more than 10 percent of the bass we catch are 20 inches or larger.”
Most anglers think Lake James has District 8’s best bass fishing. But biologist Chris Wood said they should try 3,515-acre Lake Rhodhiss.
“Rhodhiss is narrow without many big creek arms,” he said. “It has higher nutrient levels that are more like a piedmont lake than a mountain lake.”
Rhodhiss has threadfin shad, blueback herring and alewife. The lake doesn’t experience baitfish die-offs like Lake James.
“In our last sampling, the catch rate was 70 fish per hour, the mean size of bass was 14 inches and relative weight was 92,” he said. “Fifty-five percent of the fish were 15 inches long. The largest fish was 21.5 inches and weighed 5.5 pounds, but I know anglers catch 8- and 9-pound fish.”
Biologist Powell Wheeler named 11,700-acre Lake Fontana as District 9’s best bass fishing. He said it holds largemouth and smallmouth.
“Fontana doesn’t produce huge fish, but it has really good numbers,” Wheeler said. “The Little Tennessee River arm has the best largemouth bass fishing and the main river channel has the smallmouth bass fishing.”
Wheeler said a 2.5 pounder is a good Fontana bass. The lake fluctuates substantially, decreasing its potential.
“While Fontana is fertile for this area, anywhere else it would be called infertile,” he said. “A couple of years ago, the TVA decreased fluctuations from 50 feet to 40 feet and is bringing the water up faster in spring.”
These measures should increase bass reproduction and growth rates. Fluctuating water levels prevents vegetative growth, so the Commission cuts trees along the bank to create shoreline habitat. With few shoreline targets, anglers may have difficulty at catching bass.
“People who fish it often do well,” Wheeler said. “They fish deep channels with drop-shot rigs.”
Editor’s Note: Mike Marsh’s book, “Fishing North Carolina”, has detailed information on fishing these lakes among 100 of the state’s best lakes, rivers and coastal areas. To order an autographed copy, send a check or MO for $26.60 to Mike Marsh, 1502 Ebb Dr., Wilmington, NC 28409. For credit card orders, to contact Mike and to order his other books, visit www.mikemarshoutdoors.com.
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