February 27, 2018
It could be a very good year for North Carolina bass fishing — from coast to mountains.
Fishing for largemouths, smallmouths and spotted bass in North Carolina should be improved during 2018. Even though the state was hit by three Atlantic storms, this time — unlike in the past — damage to fisheries was negligible.
Normally when a flood-producing hurricane hits eastern North Carolina, it creates fish kills. In October 2016, Hurricane Matthew dropped 15.65 inches of rain, causing floods from Brunswick County through Robeson County, breaking Hurricane Hazel's (1954) storm-surge record. But the hurricane's effect on freshwater fish, particularly largemouth bass, was negligible.
Bass numbers have continued to expand in North Carolina lakes and rivers since Hurricane Irene in 2011, according to reports from WRC fisheries biologists.
The following is a report of what Tar Heel bass anglers expect during 2018.
"Matthew caused some low oxygen in a few creeks, but no fish kills," said District 1 fisheries biologist Katie Potoka. "In fact, every river in this (northeastern) area is hot (with bass)."
Lower Albemarle (Sound) tributaries are filled with largemouths, including the lower Roanoke and Chowan rivers and their tributaries such as Big Flatty Creek. Streams between the Chowan and Pasquotank rivers have above-average bass numbers.
"(Sample) catch rates (25 fish per hour shocked to the surface) showed steadily increasing bass greater than 14 inches (length)," she said. "After Irene catch rates often were 0 to 10 per hour, really poor. But we found several 6-, 7- and 8-pounders in the Chowan. A September 13 (2017) tournament had an 8.43-pounder and a 7-4."
Topwater lures (Zara Spooks and Pups) are popular, she said, along with beetlespins and plastic worms.
The story was much the same for the central coastal region.
"Bass are doing pretty well," said Ben Ricks, D2 fisheries biologist. "Right after Matthew people went out and catch rates actually improved. Neuse and Trent river bass are really doing well." He added that electro-shocking rates were "well over 20 bass per hour, which was as good as we've seen since Irene. Only older age fish, 9 to 10 years old, are scarce."
The best non-river area was River Park North — a Tar River oxbow that forms three lakes inside the Greenville city limit.
"It's got a lot of good-size bass in it," Ricks said. "It doesn't get a lot of (fishing) pressure."
Topwater lures are effective at all venues along with soft plastics.
"I do well with (soft-plastic) flukes at the lower Neuse along with spinnerbaits around grass beds," he said.
Because Wake County is in District 3, without doubt it's the state's best black-bass region.
Wake's Shearon Harris Lake is the state's top largemouth hole, with Falls Lake second in the district. At only 4,500 acres, Harris surrendered 72 bass per hour last spring to WRC biologists (in 2015 it was 74 per hour and an incredible 96 in 2014).
"The piedmont (lakes') average was 30.6 per hour," said D3 fisheries biologist Kirk Rundle.
A handful of lakes scored higher in 2016 and 2017, but no venue came close to matching Harris's health-rate tally (length to weight) of 97 (100 is a perfect score).
"Harris bass look like footballs," Rundle said. "I think of Harris as a large, healthy farm pond."
Not only that, but 64 percent of largemouths were longer than 14 inches and 10 percent lengthier than 20 inches.
"Harris has a (no-keeper) slot of 16 to 20 inches that makes anglers target smaller fish," Rundle said.
The CPUE (catch per unit effort) at Falls Lake was 63 bass per hour. They had a relative weight score of 93. Thirty-eight percent of sampled fish were at least 14-inches long and 5 percent were greater than 20 inches.
"The biggest bass we got at Harris was 8 pounds and at Falls was 7 1/4 pounds," he said.
The Tar River Reservoir ranks third with a catch rate of 93 fish per hour but only 25 percent were longer than 14 inches and 3 percent were longer than 20 inches.
"But they're healthy with a relative weight of 91," Rundle said. "You might not catch a 9-pounder, but it's a good place to catch a buncha fish."
Lake Gaston is comparable with a relative-weight index of 92. Forty-one percent were longer than 14 inches with 4 percent eclipsing 20 inches.
"The top bass we saw weighed 6 pounds, but it's got bigger ones," he said. "However, spotted bass are starting to show up in Gaston. In 2016, 10 percent (of sampled bass) were spots."
The region took a direct hit from Hurricane Matthew that caused extensive flooding.
"But we didn't have any bad effects," said assistant fisheries biologist Kyle Rachels. "It was as if there was so much water, it flushed out everything."
After the storm, a sample of Lumber River fish revealed great numbers of largemouths and redbreast sunfish.
WRC surveys pointed to Lake Waccamaw along with White and Bay Tree lakes as other top bass spots.
"White and Bay Tree are the best for a chance to catch a 17- to 20-inch bass," Rachels said.
White Lake is a clear bay lake of only 1.6 square miles, surrounded by sparkling sandy beaches, mobile homes and trailer camps.
"People don't fish a lot there," he said, "but it's got some nice bass. We get brood fish for our (Watha) hatchery there."
Sutton Lake north Wilmington is supplied with water by the Cape Fear River.
"It gets lots of pressure, but the bass aren't much size, 8 to 13 inches (on average)," he said. "The reason (for small bass) is probably a combination of fishing pressure and flathead catfish predation."
Jordan Lake is south of Raleigh-Durham with most of its 14,000 acres in Chatham County. It's also the third point of the Research Triangle's largemouth triumvirate that dominates the state (and trails only Harris).
Kelsey Lincoln, D5 assistant fisheries biologist, said electro-shocking at Jordan in 2016 averaged 53.3 bass per hour, ranging from 25 to 99 fish per day.
"The overall condition of Jordan bass was 99 (of 100) — big fat fish," she said. "We got 21 bass weighing more than 5 pounds (7 percent) with a size distribution from 4 to 23 inches (one weighed almost 9 pounds). Half of Jordan's fish were harvestable size (at least 14 inches)."
Lincoln said Hyco Lake in Person County was D5's second-ranked lake.
"Twenty-four percent of bass were at least 14 inches, but we got only two more than 5 pounds," she said. "The catch rate was 87 per hour."
Lincoln also praised High Point's Oak Hollow Lake, where 3 percent of sampled fish maxed out at 23 inches, slightly more than 7 pounds.
"Fifty percent were at least 14-inches long," she said.
Badin, High Rock and Tuckertown lakes form the Big Three of the Yadkin River chain for bass fishing. Tuckertown tops that list.
"Last spring samples showed 45 percent greater than 14 inches (keeper size), 16 percent over 18 inches and a range of bass sizes from 3 to 23 inches," said D6 assistant biologist Troy Thompson.
Badin probably is the chain's second-rated largemouth lake with 64 percent longer than 14 inches and 9 percent better than 18 inches.
"It has good catch rates, but not a lot of big fish," he said.
High Rock rates third in the Yadkin chain with 50 percent in the WRC's last sampling (2015) greater than 14 inches and 13 percent longer than 18 inches. Lake Tillery revealed 29 percent of bass longer than 14 inches and 3 percent greater than 18 inches.
"But Tillery's (sample) catch rate was 104 fish per hour," he said.
Waxhaw's tiny Cane Creek Lake (350 acres) is the region's trophy destination.
"We stunned four or five fish over 9 pounds in 15 minutes," Thompson said.
Lake Norman had plenty of largemouths, although they were mostly smaller Alabama spotted bass and hybrid largemouths/spots.
"Spots are taking over the lake," Thompson said. "We got 104 spots to 93 largemouths. Only 16 percent of spots were longer than 14 inches and none longer than 18 inches."
Although Lake Hickory bass are relatively small, Hickory remains the district's top bass venue.
"Hickory has the most bass abundance," said D7 fisheries biologist Kin Hodges said. "We caught 90 to 100 bass per hour, putting it in the top handful of the state. But we worry about spotted bass — that they'll water down the size and quality of fish. The good news is spots mostly stay near the dam at the lower end of the lake."
Lookout Shoals sits between Hickory and Lake Norman on the Catawba chain and was D7's No. 2 lake.
"It's had some bad spells, but in 2015 we caught 60 bass per hour that were average to above-average sizes," Hodges said.
Fifty-eight percent of 159 sampled bass were greater than 14 inches with the largest at 23 inches (6.7 pounds).
W. Kerr Scott Lake (1,475 acres near Wilkesboro) has a growing reputation.
"We've seen some obscene stringers come out of that lake," Hodges said. "In 2016 we (sampled) the most fish ever caught, 495 bass."
The lake has largemouths, spots and smallmouth bass.
"Interestingly the spots haven't overwhelmed the largemouths," he said. "The majority flip flops year to year."
Lake James is as one of North Carolina's most diverse lakes with largemouths, trophy smallmouths and spotted bass.
"It's the best in (the mountain) area," said D8 assistant fisheries biologist David Goodfred.
Bronzebacks are the main target at the 6,812-acres Burke County impoundment with water depths of 120 feet.
"People catch 4- and 5-pound smallmouths," he said.
However, Lake Wylie (south of Charlotte and shared with South Carolina) is "one of the best, if not our best, bass fishery," Goodfred said.
Wylie catch rates jumped from 55 fish per hour in 2015 to 93 per hour in 2017. "It has lots of 14- to 15-inch fish," he said.
Lake Rhodhiss (3,080 acres in Burke and Caldwell counties) is downstream from Lake James. A picturesque mountain lake, it has "a good bass fishery," Goodfred said. "We caught 60 to 80 fish per hour with several over 20 inches."
In the far southwestern corner of the state, this region doesn't have any spectacular largemouth lakes because of nutrient-free water.
"Lake Adger (438 acres, Polk County) is probably the best," said D9 assistant fisheries biologist Amanda Bushon. "It's in a valley at a relatively low elevation, so it's the closest to a piedmont lake."
Sampling in 2016 revealed 88 largemouths, the largest 8 pounds, at Adger.
"Smallmouths and spots are the major species of bass," she said. "Fontana has a lot of spots, but they're small (1 to 2 pounds). Lake Glenville and Nantahala also have 1 to 2 pound spots."
Hiwassee Lake has spots, largemouths and smallmouths.
"The French Broad River running through Asheville has good numbers of smallmouths but they're not big," Bushon said.