Truth be told, February and March are the best two months (if you can stand the cold) for catching a trophy largemouth bass in North Carolina.
But if an angler prefers milder weather, plus the opportunity to hear wild turkeys gobbling and quail whistling — and the chance to fish shallow for largemouth bass — then mid-April through May is the time to be on the water.
Spring is to Tar Heel bass chasers as October and November are to deer hunters. Neither group of sportsmen has to travel far to find plenty of action. During late fall white-tailed bucks are on the move, looking for love in all the wrong places. For largemouth bass, it's the same in spring because the water temperature is prime everywhere, hovering near the magical 68- to 72-degree marks, depending on where your favorite bass hole is situated, and that pulls largemouths toward shorelines to spawn.
There's little doubt after all these years of daily Internet fishing reports and tournaments that Bass Central in the old North State is inside the Research Triangle (Raleigh, Durham, Chapel Hill, with apologies to Portfolio.com/bizjournals' claim that Durham and Chapel Hill were suburbs of Raleigh).
The three premier bass lake of North Carolina — Falls of the Neuse, Jordan and Shearon Harris — are within an eighth of a tank of gasoline of one another inside the Triangle. Or so says a bass pro who lives just south of the Capitol City.
So who better to rate the state's best bassin' lakes than Jeff Thomas?
The Broadway bass fanatic has an expert's credentials, having learned at the knee of now semi-retired Holly Springs lunker thumper Phil Cable.
Now 46 with a wife, Wanda, and two daughters, Thomas is host and producer of the Carolina Outdoors show (www.carolinaoutdoors.com), has fished the FLW Tour Pro trail, the BASS Elite Trail, has qualified four times for the Stren Series championship, won five tournaments, had 19 top-10 finishes and qualified for the BFL All-American three times.
"I don't even deer hunt any more," he said. "If I can get on the water, I'm bass fishing somewhere."
If he didn't live near the state's best lunker factories, Thomas probably would move. But as it is, his location is perfect.
"I like being able to fish Jordan, Falls or Harris (lakes)," he said. "But if you're talking about fishing during mid April through May, I think I know where I'd like to go and it may surprise some people."
While Harris has the reputation of having the most bass of any lake in North Carolina (electro-shocking rates of 100 fish per hour), Thomas said he'd choose another lake during April and May.
"You're gonna use the same technique this time of year, April and May, at all three lakes — chunking a buzzbait — but for my money, I'd rather be at Falls of the Neuse," he said, "especially if the water (level) is up."
Spring is when Triangle lakes are likely to have medium to high levels because of rain.
So why does Thomas prefer Falls of the Neuse, a 12,500-acre impoundment, over Harris or Jordan?
"The shoreline," he said. "It's got so much more cover than Harris (mostly ringed by elodea and primrose aquatic plants) and Jordan, which doesn't have much woody cover now.
"Falls has got plenty of wood, especially willows along the shoreline and in the backs of pockets and coves, and that's where bass will be."
Thomas said bass in the post-spawn look to rebuilt body mass, but some still will be spawning, in particular females laying eggs. And buck (male) bass will be near beds, ready to fertilize those eggs.
"You'll also have bass guarding fry, and the early spawners will be coming back (to the shore) to feed (on minnows that stick close to woody structure for protection)," he said.
Willows are plentiful at shallow spawning flats in the upper reaches west of the I-85 Bridge toward Butner, in the back of Ledge Creek and across the lake at Lick and Little Lick creeks' spawning flats.
"I'm basically going to be throwing a spinnerbait or buzzbait in order to cover a lot of water this time of year," Thomas said. "But if conditions are right, I'll pick up and jig-and-pig and flip on a calm day with a bright sky."
His favorite blade is a 1/2-ounce double-willowleaf Hawg Caller model in white and chartreuse. His buzzbait will be a 3/8-ounce model "but the color doesn't matter much."
They'll be either white or black in hopes of eliciting an aggressive reaction strike.
"I throw both where I think bass may be bedding, in little pockets in the backs of creeks, (and) where (bass) are relating to some (structure), such as a twig or a big willow," Thomas said.
He also flips and pitches jig-and-pig lures into willows and log laydowns.
"I like a black and blue 1/2-ounce Lunker Lure (jig) with a triple rattle back," Thomas said. "That's why I like Falls because it's got so much more cover where you can use a jig-and-pig."
His best Falls bass, 8 pounds, hit a buzzbait and sparked Thomas to a National Bass Circuit win.
"You won't catch many 10-pounders at Falls, but it's loaded with 6-, 7- and 8-pounders," he said.
From mid April to mid May, largemouths at this Progress Energy lake of 4,100 acres in Wake County will be in the late spawning stage or guarding fry.
"I'll throw a buzzbait or black frog across the grass," Thomas said, "and I'll throw it all day. I basically work the grass (rimming the lake) with the frog because it's weedless, and you can cover a lot of water with it."
Harris, he said, is a better topwater lake during this time than any lake he's fished.
"There are so many bass at Harris they spawn in waves, like having to take a number to wait their turn," Thomas said.
When bass are on beds, Thomas flips a jig or plastic worm into holes in the primrose where bass may be unseen.
"I caught my best Harris bass, 11 pounds, in April doing this, and I've caught several 10-pounders while flippin' beds," he said.
He landed what he believes was a bigger fish than the 11-pounder this past spring, but he didn't weigh it, returning it to the water after an outdoors writer took photos.
"Jordan's my No. 3 choice," Thomas said.
The main difference is the lack of woody cover around the shoreline, so his fishing techniques are different.
"They'll be in the backs of creeks, but also on points near deep water and on the rip rap (at the bridges crossing the lake, such as U.S. 64, Farrington Road at Ebenezer Church ramp, at Farrington Point and at Crosswinds.) I'm basically looking for a big fish on the rip rap because that's where most of the females that have spawned will go to find something to eat. The shad get on rip rap at Jordan in late April."
Again, he'll cast a Hawg Caller spinnerbait or a swim bait.
"I also throw a buzzbait and spinnerbait at the pockets and points in Beaver and Little Beaver creeks down the lake," he said.
Thomas' best lunker at Jordan was caught during April with a spinnerbait, and it weighed 11-pounds, 6-ounces.
"I was doing a (TV) show two Aprils ago with a guy from California who was trying to show what swim baits would do, and a bass blew up on one at some rip rap but missed (the hooks). I threw right back behind him with the double-willow-leaf spinnerbait," he said. "I don't know if it was the same fish, but it weighed 11-6."
JOHN H. KERR RESERVOIR
Perhaps the best news in this analysis of best bass lakes is that Kerr Lake, the 49,500-acre impoundment split by the N.C.-Virginia border, has started to bounce back from Largemouth Bass Virus.
Or at least Thomas thinks that's the case.
"I'm seeing bigger fish now than I used to a couple years ago," he said. "People are catching 6-pounders. Before, about the best you could expect was a 4-pounder."
LMBV devastates larger bass, but smaller fish generally seem to survive better. No one knows why.
The spawn occurs much later at Kerr than other N.C. lakes, so most bass will be just starting to move shallow during April.
"I'm throwing floating worms at blowdowns and pockets," Thomas said.
His locations vary at Buggs, depending on cloud cover.
"If it's cloudy I'll stay in Nutbush (Creek, the large south-to-north arm on the lake's east side) because the water's usually got some color to it in late April and May," he said. "If it's sunny, I'll go toward Clarksville where the water is slightly stained. (The east-west arm from the dam to Clarksville) still will have fish bedding strong in late April and early May."
His favorite lures during May include floating worms at blowdowns, shallow pockets and stump flats.
"I still like the Danny Joe Humphrey Original Floater in sherbet (pink and yellow)," he said. "It's a killer."
He doesn't use ultra-heavy monofilament as many people do (probably because modern line is better), instead choosing 14-pound-test Vicious line or lighter.
"Sometimes I drop down to 12-pound," he said.
He likes TroKar laser EWG (extra-wide-gap) 4-0 hooks on a floating worm to give it a little weight to aid in casting and a slow fall.
"If (the bass) want a quick side-to-side movement, I'll use a 4-0 (hook), and if they want a slower presentation, I'll use a 3-0," Thomas said.
His largest Buggs bass weighed 8 pounds, 2 ounces and hit a jig-and-pig during a Jerry Rhyne tournament.
"I was fishing with Dennis (Reedy) and we caught four bass in four straight pockets (shoreline depressions), and I said we needed to slow down and fish the laydowns because that's where the big females were laying," Thomas said. "I threw a black-and-blue jig on top of a log back in there, and the fish jumped the log to the front side, and I got that big momma out. If she'd jumped to the back side (of the log), I doubt I'd have landed her. Today, when Dennis is fishing with somebody who throws a jig in a bunch of trash, he'll say, 'That looks like something Jeff Thomas would do'."
During May, bass usually are at different spawning stages at this impoundment downstream on the Roanoke River chain from Kerr Lake.
"I'll probably be fishing docks at Gaston, depending on what stage the spawn is at there, and where I'm fishing," Thomas said. "It's kind of a strange lake."
By that he meant largemouths at 20,500-acre lake spawn first near the dam where the water's deepest and clearest, then action moves west toward the Buggs Island dam.
"If you have normal water levels after a normal winter, Gaston will be way behind all the other lakes regarding the spawn," he said. "They'll spawn in late May, so I'll go to the lower end and fish docks with a jig and Sweet Beaver creature bait, probably in black. (Gaston bass) like black even in clear water."
Thomas suggested the cold water flowing from the bottom of Kerr Lake's dam created a later spawn, keeping water temps below the 68-degree level, the prime spawning mark.
"I think it warms up quicker down by the dam, and that's why (bass) spawn earlier there," he said.
Keying on rocks put along the shoreline by homeowners is also a good idea.
The newly-opened Randleman Dam Reservoir in northern Randolph County (and parts of Guilford) is one of Thomas' favorite spots for bass, not only during spring but almost any time.
"I really like Randleman Dam," he said. "It can get a bit crowded in May, but it has so many fish. It's a phenomenal place to fish the banks anytime, even in the dead of summer or winter."
Lure selection isn't critical because this 4,000-acre lake's largemouths are hungry nearly all the time.
"You can throw any lure you like," Thomas said. "I like to cover a lot of water with a Rat-L-Trap in spring."
Thousands of 12- to 14-inch bass are waiting Randleman Dam, he said, but it also has tons of 2- and 3-pound largemouths because of an excellent forage (threadfin shad) base.
"It's tough to catch a five-fish limit of 14 pounds, but you might do it," he said.
During an early spring morning, Thomas said he starts out targeting topwater fish by casting a popping bait or buzzbait at nearshore woody stickups.
The Piedmont Triad Regional Water Authority manages the lake and tried to impose its own slot limits for bass because some members were concerned heavy fishing pressure might decimate the lake, but the N.C. Wildlife Resources Commission responded and has proposed a modification of the statewide five-bass, 14-inch minimum-size bass regulation at Randleman. Starting July 1, 2012, anglers may keep two bass less than 14 inches and one longer than 20 inches.
HIGH ROCK LAKE
Surprisingly, Thomas said this heavily-pressured lake south of Lexington off N.C. Highway 8 is one of his favorite bass venues.
The opinion is shared by a lot of Tar Heel anglers. Notably, the pro tour thought so much of the lake "The Rock" has hosted three Bassmasters Classics (1993, 1994, 1998).
"The water's usually high in April and May because of the flow coming down the (Yadkin) river," Thomas said. "And I love fishing docks."
High Rock has many private shoreline homes and many of the owners have built boat docks, fishing piers or just piers to go sit on and relax in the evening. And they are fish magnets during spring.
"The best deal at High Rock is to go back into a creek and find a little color (stained water) back there and fish the docks back there," Thomas said.
He likes a Wright and McGill Skeet Reese-designed 8-foot flippin' stick to skid jig-and-pig lures and creature baits under High Rock's docks and the same signature model rod (only 6 feet 10 inches in length) to cast spinnerbaits and buzzbaits at stickups, looking for an early-morning topwater bite.
"I don't get to fish High Rock a lot, but I try to fish three or four wildcat tournaments each year over there," Thomas said. "My best High Rock bass weighed 6 pounds."