March 15, 2017
North Carolina anglers are lucky to have members of the family Centrarchidae — which includes largemouth and smallmouth bass — swimming in the state's waters.
Tar Heel State fishermen have chased those two species for years from the coastal plain to the western mountains.
But bass fisheries do sometimes have problems — hurricanes in the east and introductions of non-native fishes at other areas can negatively impact good bass waters.
The biggest problem for eastern bass has been major storms that flood rivers and tributaries and drive anoxic water (water without any dissolved oxygen in it) downstream from swamp backwaters, ultimately suffocating many fish species.
In the western piedmont, Appalachian foothills and man-made river-valley lakes, a handful of anglers, hoping to upgrade the striped-bass forage base and increase their sizes, caused problems by transplanting non-native species such as spotted bass, alewives and blueback herring into lakes. These introduced fish have outcompeted largemouth and smallmouth bass for food and spawning grounds at some lakes.
However, in 2017 the majority of North Carolina's lakes, rivers, small streams and tributaries are home to healthy numbers of bass.
As of press time, it was not known for certain how hurricane Matthew affected coastal fisheries, especially river fisheries. The following portions of this forecast that discuss areas hit by Matthew are therefore assessments of the fisheries before the hurricane. At least before Matthew, most areas, including northeastern District 1, whose fisheries had been hit by hurricane Irene, had rebounded during a five-year span without a major hurricane.
Fisheries biologist Katie Potoka said she and WRC technicians sample rivers and tributaries that drain into Albemarle Sound and found "great catch rates" for bass in the Little, Pasquotank, Perquimans, Yeopim and Big Flatty Creek flows.
"Most of the fish were in the 14-inch range and we averaged sampling 74 fish in two hours at most of the rivers," she said. "The biggest bass in the Albemarle Sound tributary area was a 24-inch 8-pounder — and we saw several of that size."
Potoka classified the Chowan River and two lower tributaries, Salmon and Rocky Hock Creek, as "really good."
"Both creeks had lots of 7- and 8-pounders," she said.
The Roanoke and Cashie rivers' best bass areas are at Jamesville and below Plymouth, particularly Conaby Creek.
"The lower Roanoke has more bass, especially in creeks such as Devil's Gut near Jamesville," she said.
Buzzbaits, walk-the-dog poppers and other topwater lures work well at the lower Roanoke in spring.
Because it spans from Pitt County's massive New River drainage and extends south to New Hanover County's tip in the state's southeast corner, District 2 has good largemouth bass habitat.
"(Bass) fishing is really good," said Ben Ricks, D2 biologist, "People catch lots of bass up to 6 pounds and more, but it's not a 10-pounder place."
That's probably because few large lakes exist and most bass have to fight river currents.
"February, March and April are best times to fish," Ricks said.
One of the best places is the Trent River, which extends west from New Bern where it joins the Neuse.
"It's become a big bass factory lately with fish up to 8 pounds," he said. "We shocked the biggest bass collected in the coastal region the last 25 years."
The lower Tar River also has decent-sized largemouths.
"Core Creek off the southern Neuse also has bass," Ricks said.
The bass bite also turns on when water levels drop at the upper Neuse and Contentnea Creek.
"But the water has to be clear," he said. "They won't bite well when it's muddy."
River bass typically spawn out of current during spring, behind log jams in main river sections or at feeder creeks.
"The White Oak River is pretty consistent for bass, at least above Stella," Ricks said. "They get up to 6 1/2 pounds."
WRC biologist Kirk Rundle said Shearon Harris Lake remains North Carolina's top lunker lounge, with sample rates of more than 100 bass per hour.
"The normal rate (for other lakes) is 30 to 60 fish per hour," he said. "Eighty percent are greater than 14 inches (long) with 20 percent longer than 20 inches (5 to 6 pounds)."
A 16-to-20-inch slot limit (no keepers) has maintained the 4,000-acre Harris as a trophy bass fishery for years.
"Falls Lake isn't far behind," he said. "We sampled it this past spring and had catch rates close to 90 bass per hour with 65 percent greater than 14 inches and 40 percent greater than 16 inches. We saw several 8-pounders."
Lake Gaston (60 fish per hour, 50 percent longer than 14 inches) rated third in D3 followed by Tar River Reservoir near Rocky Mount.
"Unfortunately for Gaston, we're starting to see a lot of spotted bass, 20 percent of our last survey," Rundle said. "Spots eventually will take over, like they did at (Lake) Norman."
Virginia administers John H. Kerr Reservoir (aka Buggs Island) but about one-third of the 49,500-acre lake extends into Vance and Warren counties. Plastic worms, lizards, jig-and-pigs and Shaky head lures catch spawning and suspended fish. Stump fields in 8 to 10 feet of water are good pre- and post-spawn targets for Carolina-rigged worms or crankbaits. An outbreak of Largemouth Bass Virus (2004-2010) damaged Buggs bass, but the disease has run its course, and the sprawling lake now has thousands of 3- to 5-pound fish. North Carolina and Virginia fishing licenses are valid anywhere on the lake.
Finally, the Neuse River near Kinston and the Tar River have increasing numbers of largemouths.
Largemouth bass at Sutton Lake near Wilmington ride a boom-and-bust cycle, said D4 biologist Michael Fisk, but it's still the region's best bet for lunker hunters.
"The lake's bass population seems to go up and down on four- to six-year cycles," he said. "In 2012-13 we had a ton of big bass, crappie and baitfish. Bass and crappie went crazy, then the baitfish supply crashed and everything (else went with it)."
Small gizzard shad and some menhaden reach the main lake through pipes in the Cape Fear River when Sutton needs more water, but with a changeover to natural gas to create steam power, the pumps often sit idle.
"When they turn on the pumps in spring, fish get active and people catch lots of bass," Fisk said.
Lake Waccamaw is D4's other great bass lake.
"We collect brood stock for our (Watha State Fish) hatchery," he said. "We get lots of 3- and 4-pound bass. The lake is a spring bass hot spot."
Fisk said tiny but famous White Lake is a "sleeper" venue that offers good chances to land a 6-pounder.
Jordan Lake remains the state's second-ranked lake with 44 percent of sampled bass of keeper size (at least 14 inches) or longer.
"The condition value of Jordan's 14- to 20-inch fish is more than 100, too," said WRC biologist Jessica Baumann. "It has a lot of beautiful fish."
Person County's Lake Mayo has a bass population that's 70 percent harvestable.
"Lake Lucas (Asheboro) is a small lake (300 acres) with 72 percent of its bass 14 inches or longer," she said.
Lake Michie north of Durham is 540 acres and has all year classes of bass, but 57 percent are harvestable. The condition score of Michie's bass is higher than 100.
"Oak Hollow Lake (near High Point) has a lot of fat fish and 60 percent are 14 inches or more," Baumann said. "There's also always the chance of hanging a big hybrid bass."
High Rock Lake, the first of the Yadkin River's chain of lakes and in Davidson and Rowan counties, still has good bass, but D6 fisheries biologist Troy Thompson said that "catch rates are down to 58 bass per hour in 2015's last sampling.
"People catch a lot of 3- and 4-pound fish with the occasional 8-pounder."
Of course Lake Norman north of Charlotte is the state's largest impounded body of water. However, its largemouths have been overwhelmed by spotted bass — or what people thought were spotted bass.
"(The WRC) has done genetic studies, and most of what bass people call spotted bass (in Norman) are actually Alabama bass," Thompson said.
The study's been ongoing the last 15 years, he said.
"We sent some (Norman bass) to Auburn University, and they said they were Alabama bass," he said. "They apparently grow a little better than spots, but just looking at them, you couldn't tell them apart."
Tuckertown Lake remains a good D6 bass lake with one caveat.
"The black snot grass is still in there, and (the WRC) is thinking about putting grass carp in there to eat it, but then you have to consider what the carp would do to the hydrilla," Thompson said.
Lake Tillery, another Yadkin River lake, yielded 100 bass per hour during the WRC's last sampling.
Cane Creek Lake near Waxhaw has some bass in the 10-pound range.
W. Kerr Scott produced its best largemouth survey during the spring of 2016 with 494 fish, a mixture of largemouths and spotted bass.
"Most (sample) sites had one or two bass pushing 23 inches, nice big fish," said D7 fisheries biologist Kin Hodges.
He noted 365-acre Salem Lake near Winston-Salem was drained then refilled four years ago and is "absolutely loaded with 2- to 4-pound bass."
The WRC sampled Wylie and Rhodhiss lakes at the lower and upper ends of the Catawba River chain in 2015 and saw good results.
"Wylie's catch rate was 56 bass per hour and Rhodhiss was 46 per hour," said D8 fisheries biologist Chris Wood. "We saw lots of 3- and 4-pounders. Best places to fish in spring at Wylie were docks and coves. At Rhodhiss 40 percent of bass were in the 14- to 15-inch range."
Rankin Lake, a small reservoir in Gastonia, racked up a 70-fish-per-hour sample rate.
"Our biggest was a 6-pounder, but the district's biggest weighed 7 1/2 pounds and came from Lake James," Wood said.
Blue Ridge foothills Lake James is more famous for big smallmouth bass.
"People chase them 30 to 60 feet deep, using live blueback herrings," Wood said. "Guys with pontoon boats used deep-riggers. Bank fishermen throw Senkos."
Smallmouths spawn in spring in Linville Flats, Paddy Creek and Mill Creek on the Linville side.
Moss Lake near Kings Mountain is loaded with spotted bass.
"The French Broad, North Toe and New River are high-quality smallmouth fisheries," Wood said.
Fontana, Lake Chatuge and Hiwassee lakes have mixtures of largemouths and smallmouths, said D9 fisheries biologist Powell Wheeler.
"Most of the largemouths are small," he said, "around 14 inches. And there are lots of small spotted bass."
Hiwassee, Fontana and small lakes such as Glenville in Jackson County have 16- to 17-inch bronzebacks.
RED DRUM IN HYCO PLANNED FOR 2017
Anglers regularly target red drum in salt and brackish water at North Carolina's coast, but few would've imaged this species would thrive at an inland freshwater lake. Apparently, the N.C. Wildlife Resources Commission believes redfish can make this unusual change.
It's begun a plan to place red drum in Person County's Hyco Lake.
"The reason is tilapia," said Jessica Baumann, the district's fisheries biologist. "Tilapia accidentally got introduced into the lake in the 1980s (by anglers trying a new live bait). They've thrived (because of winter hot-water discharges from the Roxboro Steam Electric Plant), but they're competitive at spawning grounds and cleared out most of the lake's vegetation."
The WRC discovered a Texas-based redfish lake-stocking program that's worked for years.
"Hyco has the (water) temperatures and calcium thresholds needed for red drum," she said. "Texas put red drum in two lakes because tilapia hurt native species."
The WRC will stock red drum at Hyco in 2017.
"It'd be three to four years before anyone could catch reds at Hyco," she said. "Texas is raising 20-inch fish in three to five years. The Texas (lake) records are 41-inch reds that weighed 30 pounds."
Baumann said the WRC's main goal isn't to develop a red drum fishery, but to rid Hyco Lake of tilapia.
"If the tilapia go away, the red drum will go away," she said. "Reds will spawn in freshwater but their eggs won't survive."