February 23, 2012
Every few years a hurricane hits North Carolina, particularly the state's coastal region.
A mammoth storm, Hurricane Irene, slammed the state August 27 but didn't cause much wind damage. However, rain poured in buckets, as storm bands spread 100 miles inland to the west, flooding the low-lying coastal plain with precipitation measured not by inches but in feet.
Total U.S. damages were estimated at $10-$15 billion. But that measurement of destruction didn't include what Irene did to the largemouth bass living in the state's eastern rivers, nor to a huge recreational fishery that's been all but erased.
Normally a person would think, "Rain, it's just water, and that can't harm freshwater fish." But conventional wisdom, as has been shown in the past, is almost never completely right.
Read on to discover what Irene did to eastern N.C. bass, as well as how the Piedmont and Western regions of the state came through the storm unscathed and should host excellent fishing during 2012.
COASTAL PLAIN BASS
Jeremy McCargo, the N.C. Wildlife Resources Commission's fisheries biologist for District 1 (northeastern N.C.) described his region's fishing situation succinctly.
"Things are changing in District 1 because of Hurricane Irene," he said. "Basically, the hurricane had the same effect as Hurricane Isabel in 2003."
Isabel produced a fish kill of epic proportions in the Roanoke and Chowan rivers that took years to overcome.
In some of the smaller rivers, McCargo said Irene's fish kills weren't as lethal to bass, and anglers still should have success.
"If I were fishing for bass this (2012) spring at such places, I'd throw spinnerbaits and the topwater bite should be good," he said.
Two eastern N.C. lakes — Lake Phelps (Washington County) and Lake Mattamuskeet (Hyde County) — escaped Irene's wrath.
"Phelps always has been a good lake in the spring, even though the last three years when we did electro samples they were down," McCargo said. "But that was related to a 3-year drought; they didn't get a good spawn when the lake level was so low. It should be better this year."
RELATED: Tips, Tactics, and More at the Game & Fish Bass Page)
Phelps has "a lot of bass" in the 2- to 4-pound range, he said, and anglers may keep five bass, but none in a 16-to-20-inch slot.
"Spring's the time to fish Mattamuskeet," McCargo said. "Bass are bedding and will be found mostly in the canals. But fishing has been just okay the last couple years."
The standard 14-inch, five-fish limits are in place at N.C.'s largest lake.
But in District 2, biologist Justin Homan said Irene killed bass in the Northeast Cape Fear, Neuse, Tar and White Oak rivers.
"The only river we didn't get a fish kill was the New River (east of Jacksonville)," he said. "From Aug. 31 to Sept. 12 in Washington and New Bern there was no oxygen in the water."
Some anglers also reported dead, floating striped bass near New Bern.
The best largemouth lake in the District likely is Sutton Lake near Wilmington.
"But it's kind of cyclical," Homan said. "It's got a fast-growing population, but there's not a lot of older fish. (The waters) do get extremely hot."
Progress Energy has a nuclear power plant on the lake's shoreline. But weeds periodically choke the lake, making fishing impossible. After Progress sprays to kill aquatic weeds, it takes four to five weeks for the lake to clear, so best fishing occurs during January, February and March.
During normal years, the Neuse and Tar rivers have good spring bass fishing along with Tranter's Creek.
"At the Northeast Cape Fear usually you'll find fewer bass, but they'll be in good conditions, some 3- and 4-pounders but not a lot of 5-pounders," Homan said.
Along the lower Cape Fear River, anglers can be surprised by spotted bass in the section from Riegelwood to Lillington.
In District 3, Shearon Harris remains the top largemouth bass lake in the state.
WRC biologists regularly electro-shock 100 bass per hour at the 4,000-acre Wake County lake.
"Harris is the place to go (for largemouths)," fisheries biologist Kirk Rundle said. "At other lakes the average electro-fishing catch rate is from 30 to 60 fish per hour. Last spring (2010, at Harris) we sampled 95 bass per hour.
"We also saw the greatest number of 'trophy' bass, 20-plus inches, or 4 pounds or larger. And 15 percent of those fish were greater than 20 inches (long). No other N.C. lake touches that."
Falls of the Neuse Lake, spread across Wake, Durham and Granville counties, is No. 2 in bass numbers in the district with 70 to 75 bass shocked per hour, Rundle said.
"It's remained steady for the three years," he said. "And 7 to 8 percent of those fish were greater than 20 inches. If I had to pick a lake, you couldn't go wrong choosing Harris or Falls."
Falls has a five-bass, 14-inch minimum size limit (two may be less than 14 inches). Harris regs allow five bass but none between 16 to 20 inches.
Rundle said he'd rate Lake Gaston as the No. 3 bass lake even though it's downstream from John H. Kerr (Buggs Island) Reservoir, which has Largemouth Bass Virus in 41 percent of its bass.
"In our latest (2011) survey we found only 2 percent of Gaston bass with LMB," he said. Gaston shock rates aren't comparable to Harris or Falls, but "it has plenty of quality bass because (bass) have plenty to eat," Rundle said. "We noted several fish greater than 4 pounds."
Virginia manages Kerr Reservoir, but Rundle said he "definitely put Buggs on my 'go-to' list because the lake is in the recovery stage of LMBV. It's got lots of forage and (bass) habitat."
The next-best District 3 lake is 1,859-acre Tar River Reservoir, the water-supply impoundment for Rocky Mount.
"(Sampling) catch rates are 60 fish per hour," Rundle said. "It has a good representative of young bass and many older fish in the 6- to 7-pound range."
At District 5, Jordan Lake in Chatham County is the top spot.
"The size structure of the bass in Jordan is great, and it's got a lot of 14- to 18-inch bass," said biologist Corey Oakley of Mebane.
Oakley and other WRC workers shocked up 455 bass during 2010 samplings, including "lots of bass in the 6-, 7- and 8-pound ranges," he said. "We didn't see many 10-pounders though, but that may be a factor of those bigger fish being harder to stun."
He said anglers should note the WRC survey showed most of the bass came out of the lake south of U.S. 64.
Randleman Reservoir is his district's No. 2 bass lake, Oakley said.
"Our angler survey indicates guys catch 30 to 40 bass per day even in the heat of July and August," he said. "That was mind blowing to us."
The WRC has placed 15 fish attractors in the lake, some at deeper water and some near shorelines.
Other good bass in the piedmont include Hyco, Mayo, the Greensboro water-supply lakes (Brandt, Higgins, Townsend) and Burlington's two water-supply lakes, MacIntosh and Cammack.
High Rock Lake leads the Yadkin River chain as a largemouth destination.
"Actually, all the Yadkin Lakes are good for bass except Blewett Falls," said WRC District 6 fisheries biologist Lawrence Dorsey. "The issue is water level fluctuations."
Dorsey said High Rock electro-shocking actually out-paced Harris with more than 100 bass per hour observed, and it has good size distributions.
"High Rock has a lot of 16- to 17-inch fish and lots of 6- and 7-pounders," he said. "You don't see many 8-pounders or larger."
Badin Lake is probably the No. 2 Yadkin lake for bass.
BEST OF THE WEST
Farther west along the Catawba River, Lake Wylie is probably the top bass spot, while Lake Norman, north of Charlotte, has undergone a major conversion.
"Norman's now officially a spotted-bass lake," Dorsey said.
Eighty-percent of the sampled fish are spots; only 20 percent are largemouths.
"Spots are gradually taking over the entire lake," he said.
Mountain Island Lake, north of Norman, also has spots and largemouths, while W. Kerr Scott Lake near Wilkesboro has a 50-50 split between spots and largemouths. It has a few smallmouths.
Dorsey said the WRC figures "someone" (not the WRC) put spots in Lake Norman about 2001; they started showing up (on shocking trips) during 2003, made a big jump in 2005 and have taken over more of the fishery each year since 2005.
"Spotted bass are more dominant than largemouth, which are more sedentary. They move all the time, looking for baitfish, and eat all the time."
Dorsey said he didn't believe spots eat largemouth fingerlings, but they aggressively out-compete largemouths for food.
Lake Hickory remains District 7's top bass spot because of a lot of fertile water coming into the Catawba lake from Morganton's Gunpowder Creek.
"It's at the high-end of forage productivity," WRC biologist Kin Hodges said.
Lake James may offer the most diversity among all N.C. lakes. Anglers may catch largemouths and trophy smallmouths.
"It's essentially two reservoirs — the Catawba River arm and the Linville River arm," District 8 biologist Chris Wood said.
The Catawba section is more nutrient-rich and has largemouths, while the Linville arm is deeper and clearer with few nutrients and hosts smallmouth bass.
"It's not a powerhouse largemouth fishery, but it produces fish," Wood said. "Our last survey (2006) showed a shocking rate of 58.9 fish per hour. In 2004 it was 38.9 per hour."
On the Linville side, the rate was 19.3 smallmouths per hour.
"The Linville arm can be difficult to fish because the fish are deep most of the time, but if you come up here in April and May and go to shallow areas during the spawn, you can have fantastic days," Wood said.
Largemouths top out at about 5 pounds, while the average smallie runs 2 to 3 pounds.
Compared to James, Lake Rhodhiss is a "bass factory," Wood said.
The Linville and St. Johns rivers feed it, along with the Catawba coming out of Morganton.
"It's full of baitfish and invertebrates (such as crawfish) that largemouths love," he said. "It doesn't have any smallmouths."
Average size of bass in Rhodhiss is 13 inches with the upper scale reaching 21 inches.
Moss Lake, aka the Kings Mountain Reservoir, is 1800 acres and has lots of spotted bass that have pushed out largemouths during the last few years
"We caught 91 largemouths and 70 spots during our last survey in 2010," Wood said. "But largemouths rates are going down and spots are going up."
In District 9 (the state's southwestern corner), smallmouths are at the top of the food chain at Cherokee County's Lake Hiwassee, but the lake also has spots and largemouth bass.
Fontana Reservoir, fed by the Little Tennessee River, is a 20-miles-long TVA lake with great smallmouth bass habitat. It ranks No. 1 as a smallie lake south of Asheville.
The French Broad River contains three distinct fisheries — mountain trout, muskies, and smallmouth bass. South of Asheville, it's a smallie river with 5-pounders.