Want to improve your odds of finding some great bass fishing this year? Here are some of our top choices for the best waters to fish throughout the year. (February 2006)
Photo by Ron Sinfelt
Joel Richardson of Kernersville has fished for largemouth bass just about everywhere possible over the past 15 years as a guide and professional fisherman.
He has guided on a handful of lakes, spent countless hours on Buggs Island and Lake Gaston, and has developed a love for a number of different reservoirs in North Carolina.
But he really fell in love this year with a lake that is, by all accounts, turning into the Tar Heel State's top bass factory: Shearon Harris Lake.
"I have fished Shearon Harris in the last year more than I've ever fished it in my whole life," said Richardson, who has had plenty of success fishing the FLW Tournament Trail when he's not guiding somewhere in North Carolina. "It is, without a doubt, the best public water for bass we have; it's a lot better than anywhere else for big fish and numbers.
"When you can go to a lake in August and catch a 7-4 and a 9-11 bass on the same trip, that's awesome," Richardson said (336-643-7214).
Shearon Harris, a 4,100-acre CP&L reservoir between Raleigh and Sanford, wasn't much when it was first impounded in the early 1980s. It wasn't much until the North Carolina Wildlife Resources Commission jump-started the baitfish population with a stocking of shad in the late 1980s, around the time that an exotic aquatic weed called hydrilla showed up and at about the same time that CP&L changed the way it was cleaning its nuclear power plant and started pouring a lot of liquid phosphates into the water -- fertilizing it, as it were.
In the 1990s, perhaps no reservoir was as consistently good for largemouth bass as Shearon Harris, and nothing has changed since the turn of the century -- except for a change in management by the commission that may have given the lake a shot in the arm.
Fearing that its popularity might be a problem in terms of fishing pressure, the commission changed the daily creel and size limits on the lake, going to a 16- to 20-inch slot limit that virtually ensures that any bass that reaches 2 1/2 pounds is going to eventually become a 5-pounder before anybody can take it home.
Guide Phil Cable, a veteran of lakes in the Raleigh-Durham area, believes that the slot limit has helped Shearon Harris get a leg up on Jordan Lake and Falls of the Neuse, the other two reservoirs that attract many fishermen.
"I don't think Falls or Jordan are going downhill at all; they're just real lakes now," Cable said. "But I think the slot has helped Shearon Harris as far as the bass fishing is concerned. That's kept the fishing pressure from affecting it as much as it could have. And I'm glad the hydrilla is there because that helps a lot. It keeps the food in front of them, and it keeps fishermen from being able to catch too many of them."
Cable expects to spend the majority of his time on Shearon Harris and Jordan this year, in part because of their proximity to his home in Holly Springs, and because he believes both lakes are going to be very productive.
"Last spring at Jordan, we started to see the bigger fish again, and we hadn't seen them in a while," Cable said (919-815-1185). "I had some 8-pound fish in my boat this year, and I heard of some club tournaments where 9- and 10-pound fish were caught. I guess it just goes in cycles. It's probably the same way with Falls."
Well, maybe not. Biologist Bill Collart of Rocky Mount surveys all three lakes on an annual basis, and he said that none of them has really fallen off any.
"You know, for a few years, it just exploded on Falls, Harris and Jordan," he said. "Harris hasn't let up any. For five of six years, fishermen were going there and complaining that the locals were the only ones catching fish, but now it looks like they've found out how to catch them.
"I haven't seen any changes at Harris. It certainly hasn't dropped off. It's a quality fishery. Falls and Jordan get a lot of pressure, and I hope I don't see the day when they start dropping off."
Fishermen at Falls of the Neuse, in particular, have plenty to look forward to this year. Last spring, Collart said that electroshocking surveys were fantastic, with almost twice as many fish sampled for the length of time the biologists spent on the water. And there appears to be a tremendous class of 3- and 4-year-old bass that's about to explode on the lake.
"This past spring, our shocking was phenomenal. We sampled twice as many fish as usual in half the amount of time, and I'd say they were mostly 3- and 4-year-old fish. Fish in those year-classes were piled in the lake like cordwood -- and we still had the usual really big fish in there, too."
Collart also looks after the fisheries at Buggs Island Lake and Lake Gaston, and he said the bass populations have been so strong on those lakes along the Virginia border that biologists from the two states are only sampling every other year.
"They're holding their own at Buggs Island and Gaston; we're only going up there every other year because they're so consistent," he said. "And even though Gaston has cleared up -- the hydrilla has sucked all the nutrients out of the lake -- our sampling still shows the same things it always did. There are fish all over that lake, especially around docks, riprap and points."
The lakes of the Yadkin River system are bass producers year in and year out. According to biologist Tony Mullis of Denton, it's just a matter of the fertility of the entire system. The waters in High Rock, Tuckertown, Badin, Tillery and Blewett Falls are tremendously productive in terms of a variety of game fish species -- bass in particular, despite their relatively old age. Most lakes were impounded in the 1920s.
"Productivity is a lot of it," said Mullis, who supervises management of all Piedmont reservoirs. "Those lakes are very productive. They get a lot of effluent from the bigger population centers in the area, and that's going right into raising fish."
High Rock is the biggest of the major Yadkin system reservoirs at around 15,000 acres. With the exception of W. Kerr Scott Reservoir in the mountains of Wilkes County near the headwaters of the river, High Rock is farther upstream than the rest of the Yadkin reservoirs. As such, it gets the most use of the nutrients pouring into the river.
"I think High Rock is probably a litt
le better; it's more productive than the rest, probably because it's farther up the river," Mullis said. "It's just a big, shallow mud hole (a local description), but it's really good. It's certainly more productive than some of the reservoirs farther downstream, like the CP&L reservoirs, Tillery and Blewett Falls."
The bass fishing is reasonably similar in most of the Yadkin reservoirs, except W. Kerr Scott, which is an excellent fall and winter reservoir, owing to a great population of spotted bass and its deeper, clearer nature.
High Rock has the deserved reputation of being an excellent hot-weather reservoir, in part because it is full of excellent offshore structure, and it is a great boat-dock lake for shallow-water fishermen.
High Rock's bass fishery has totally recovered from the tremendous drought and 23-foot drawdown of 2002.
"There aren't any problems from the drought," Mullis said. "I'm not sure that anybody could tell the difference between High Rock this spring and the way it was before the drought. It's been in the process of coming around the past few years."
The lakes on the Yadkin fish a little differently because of differences in their physical characteristics and habitat. Badin is the deeper, most clear lake on the chain, and as such, it fishes best during the cooler months. Tuckertown is as shallow and stained as High Rock, but it has a decided advantage because its water level is more stable.
"Lakes that have the more stable water levels usually have a little better spawning success," Mullis said. "Badin and Tuckertown, they hardly ever go up and down more than a foot or so, while High Rock fluctuates a lot, and so does Lake Tillery."
Of the lakes on the lower section of the Catawba River system, Lake Wylie is a great match for High Rock: relatively shallow, very fertile and full of bass. It has long been considered the most consistent fishery on the chain, and largemouths take advantage of a great forage base and a great deal of effluent pouring into the lake from towns and cities slightly upstream.
Biologists are being very cautious about the bass fishery at Lake Norman. Spotted bass made an appearance several years ago, ostensibly moved to the lake in the livewells of bass boats.
Spots have taken hold, in part because of the angler introduction of alewives or river herring; as more of an open-water fish, spots take more advantage of that species of forage fish than largemouths.
Biologists are hoping that the fishery continues to develop, but they're worried that, with Norman being a relatively infertile reservoir, spots are going to put a great deal of pressure on the forage base. Some models from other reservoirs in the same situation have shown an initial explosion in the fishery, then a slacking off and, eventually, a decrease in numbers of largemouth bass.
Biologist David Yow of the North Carolina Wildlife Resources Commission expects good things out of reservoirs in the foothills and mountains over the next handful of years.
Yow said that the commission is finishing up a three-year survey on the upper Catawba River, and that largemouth populations in Lake Hickory and Lake Rhodhiss are both in good shape -- especially Rhodhiss, which doesn't get nearly the pressure of its neighbors in the Catawba chain.
"At Rhodhiss, especially, our electrofishing surveys continue to show a good population of quality-sized fish," he said. "And there should be plenty of food, as there's a good population of threadfin shad in that lake."
It is up in the high country where Yow is waiting to see how several things play out.
Yow believes that a new operational plan put into effect last year by the Tennessee Valley Authority may really help out bass fisheries in TVA lakes by doing away with the drastic winter drawdowns of lake levels -- especially at Fontana, Santeetlah and Hiwassee lakes.
"In mountain lakes, it looks as if, a lot of the time, the amount of winter habitat has more to do with driving the strength of a year-class of fish than the spring habitat," Yow said. "The (lack of) winter habitat may limit what fish can do. We've looked at Santeetlah, and it may stabilize it.
"We don't know how much it will help bass and sunfish populations, but it shouldn't hurt them. In some places where there are steep shorelines, it may not make much of a difference, but if there are coves or backwater areas at the right elevation, it may add a significant amount of habitat for the young-of-the-year bass. It will be a couple of years, anyway, before we can tell whether or not it has had any benefit."
Yow said that Hiwassee Lake is a place getting special attention from the commission, in part because the influx of blueback herring has apparently caused a great deal of damage to the walleye fishery, while helping out smallmouth bass by providing a different kind of forage they can easily use.
Also, spotted bass have apparently taken hold in Hiwassee in good numbers, but Yow doesn't see any adverse effect on the largemouth or smallmouth populations.
"We ought to go into the winter with a pretty good crop of young-of-the-year bass there," he said.
Biologist Chad Thomas said there's a pretty good batch of 2-year-old fish in the coastal rivers in the northeastern corner of the state where the fishery is still recovering from massive kills during Hurricane Isabel in the fall of 2003.
The commission made three experimental stockings of largemouths between October 2004 and the spring of 2005, with three different size fish, and only the biggest ones -- 8 inches long when stocked in the spring of 2004 -- have survived and prospered.
"The 8-inch fish we put in, we've found a good percentage of them, and we feel like they made a contribution to the fishery," Thomas said. "We think the fish we stocked probably make up 25 to 30 percent of all the fish we sampled last spring that were in the 10- to 11-inch class. Those fish should have been 12 to 13 inches long by the fall, and they should be 14-inch fish this spring.
"They would have contributed to the spawn in the spring of 2005, and we know some of them are being caught -- which is what we put them out there for."
Thomas said that bass populations in a handful of rivers -- the Roanoke, Chowan, Cashie, Pasquotank and Scuppernong -- that had severe fish kills as a result of Isabel are recovering pretty much on schedule. Fishermen shouldn't expect them to be at full strength by this spring, but by 2007, well, Thomas is hopeful.
"Although we have found a lot of the fish we stocked, what's more encouraging is that fish in these rivers are following the same pattern they were after the kills we had from Hurricane Floyd in '99," he said. "What we've found is, if we are patient and give them
four or five years, the fishery will rebuild itself.
"I think there were more bass that survived Isabel than we gave them credit for. We don't know where they went, but they're moving back into areas of the rivers," Thomas said. "We were just about recovered from Floyd when Isabel showed up, and we're just going to have to limp ourselves back to where we were before. We've learned that stocking isn't the answer; we need to hope and pray that we don't have a hurricane every year."
Thomas thinks the Roanoke is recovering from the devastation of Isabel faster than some of its neighbors. For one thing, there were areas on the river -- upstream from Williamston, plus the Devil's Gate and Three Sisters areas -- where bass didn't take that big a hit. After the hurricane, the 2004 spawn was apparently an excellent one, he said, and fish have started to spread out, moving back into areas that were left barren by Isabel.
Once the immediate effects of the hurricane are over, these river systems return to being good habitat but with lower densities of fish. For the fish that remain, life is good. For fish in other reaches of the river, that uncrowded habitat is attractive as well.
"The habitat in these systems, especially in the Roanoke, is fantastic; it's as good as you'll get on the coast," Thomas said. "Every year, it will get better on the Roanoke because the fish will migrate up and down the system. They'll move and fill in the vacuum."