North Carolina's favorite freshwater fish is the largemouth bass. Here's a look at how 2007 should shape up on some of the best bass fisheries in the state. (February 2007)
North Carolina's bass fisheries are a varied lot, from the gin-clear waters of high-mountain reservoirs to the black tannin-stained waters of slow-moving coastal rivers.
No one is likely to mistake the Tar Heel State for Texas or Florida when it comes to being among the best states in the country for largemouth bass, but then again, it has a lot going for it; foremost is the number of different fisheries you can sample in a year's time.
A half-dozen mountain reservoirs offer largemouths in addition to the more prevalent smallmouth bass; some of the coastal rivers are pretty good fisheries, and in the central or "Piedmont" area of the state, reservoirs pop up about every 20 or 30 miles along three major river drainages, plus other good lakes on smaller watersheds.
You might say that if you fish a couple of times on one lake and it doesn't ring your bell, just go 30 miles in a different direction and you'll probably find another one more to your liking.
Over the past 10 years, five major reservoirs in North Carolina have been host sites for national bass-fishing tournament circuits: Lake Wylie, Lake Norman, High Rock Lake, Buggs Island (Kerr) Lake and Lake Gaston.
And in all likelihood, the best bass fishery in the state is not among that group.
The real heart of North Carolina's bass-fishing country is the Piedmont region, which stretches approximately 200 miles from the "fall line" around Rocky Mount to the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains around Hickory and Morganton.
That section of the state holds roughly 20 major reservoirs and dozens of smaller watershed or municipal lakes that are managed for fishing.
The major river drainages are the Catawba, Yadkin/Pee Dee and the Roanoke, and they account for a majority of North Carolina's bigger lakes and better bass fisheries.
Along the Catawba River, Lake James and Lake Rhodhiss are typically considered to be "mountain" lakes, while Lake Hickory, Lookout Shoals Lake, Lake Norman, Mountain Island Lake and Lake Wylie are Piedmont reservoirs.
Wylie has long been considered among the state's best bass fisheries. Its waters are much more productive and nutrient-rich than other Catawba fisheries, owing in part to its location downstream from Charlotte and surrounding cities, such as Gastonia, Belmont and Bessemer City.
Along with Buggs Island (Kerr) and High Rock, Wylie is considered a great all-around lake for bass fishermen, with excellent numbers of fish and a good percentage of quality largemouths waiting to be caught. Like Buggs Island and High Rock, it doesn't spit out many 10-pound fish; it's not a great trophy lake. But it is still a fantastic fishery, and it's especially good during the colder months of the year. From December through April or May, it is hard to beat.
Fishermen who live close to and fish regularly on Lake Hickory and Lookout Shoals Lake bemoan the efforts of some groups to rid those lakes of their aquatic grass: parrot feather at Lake Hickory and elodea at Lookout Shoals Lake. Catches have been off over the past several years at both lakes, according to veteran fishermen.
The Catawba River reservoir that has raised more eyebrows than any other in recent years has been Lake Norman -- and not all the eyebrows have been raised positively.
Biologist Brian McRae of Hillsborough is in charge of Piedmont reservoir fisheries for the N.C. Wildlife Resources Commission, and he said that there's little doubt that the fishing at 32,500-acre Lake Norman is as good as it's been in years, but he's a little concerned about what might be in store for bass fishermen down the road a few years.
Angler introduction of both spotted bass and blueback herring (alewives) has changed the nature of the fishery at Lake Norman. Fishermen point to much better catches of largemouths and spotted bass, and more quality largemouths than in recent years, and they credit the introduction of the bluebacks with providing more food for the lake's game fish.
And McRae agrees that the fishery is at a high point.
"There's a good number of harvestable fish, and we've seen an increase in size of those fish from recent years," he said. However, he went on to add, "But on the flip side, we've seen a decline in the number of fish between 8 and 12 inches long. It could be a supply-and-demand kind of thing, where you've got competition for the available nutrition, and the larger-sized fish will get most of it.
"There are concerns about the decline in 8- to 12-inch fish. We need to have more smaller fish to have bigger fish down the road. We've seen fewer small fish in Lake Norman since about 2000, and that could come back and rear its ugly head and pose a problem in coming years. Will we have enough small fish to restock the fishery?"
McRae hopes to have answers to many of those questions as soon as possible. The commission started a creel survey on Norman last September, and the commission is starting in 2007, in conjunction with N.C. State University, a "food-web project" to determine how the lake's forage base is being utilized.
"We want to look at all the interactions. What are the spotted bass eating? What are the largemouth bass eating? Is there any overlap? What are the white perch eating? How is that affecting the stripers?" McRae said. "We hope in a couple of years to put our finger on it and get a good management plan together for the lake."
On the Yadkin/Pee Dee system, High Rock is the crown jewel. Electro-shocking last spring showed an extremely healthy bass population, with approximately half the fish sampled being 14 inches or longer -- "We're content with anything above 30 percent," McRae said -- and near the top of the scale as far as relative weights and health.
Badin Lake, two dams downstream from High Rock, had something of a renewal this year, with local fishermen reporting excellent catches all year. Better known for its excellent striper fishery, Badin is a deep, clear lake, and its bass fishery is especially good during the colder months. It lacks High Rock's numbers but has always been considered a better "trophy" fishery.
Likewise, Tuckertown Lake, which is upstream from Badin and downstream from High Rock, has been an excellent fishery for years, especially for quality fish, even if it has been somewhat lower in overall numbers by comparison.
Downstream from Badin, Lake Tillery also has a large percentage of its total bass fishery at 14 inches or better, but its fish are not quite as healt
hy. McRae said, however, that the lake has an extremely strong class of fish from the 2004 spawn that were 8 to 10 inches long last spring when sampled.
"If they continue to grow as expected, you may see a large class of fish become available in the next year or two," he said.
The Piedmont is full of small, municipal and watershed lakes that attract a decent number of fishermen with excellent fisheries. Although Salem Lake in Winston-Salem and Lake Brandt, Lake Townsend and Lake Higgins in Greensboro have long been good fisheries, the best may be Asheboro's Lake Lucas, which covers 230 acres.
"It's a great fishery for largemouth bass," McRae said. "We were shocked when we were out there at the number of bass and the size of fish we were seeing. Better than 50 percent were 14 inches or longer, and the relative weights were very good. The biggest fish we shocked up was 9 pounds, and there wasn't just one; there were a number of 8- and 9-pound fish we sampled. There are really good conditions there, and the fishery there is almost ideal."
Four larger reservoirs that are long-standing favorites among bass fishermen -- Buggs Island (Kerr), Lake Gaston, Falls of Neuse and Jordan Lake -- should keep right on spitting out good fish.
Falls and Jordan may not produce as many of the double-digit bass they did in the late 1990s, when both lakes were only 15 or so years old and at the peak of their productivity, but both are still great in terms of numbers and quality. Both are managed with 16-inch size minimums to try and produce a better-quality fishery.
On the Roanoke River, Buggs Island (Kerr) Lake and Lake Gaston keep rolling along, with very few highs or lows. Growth rates and relative sizes at both lakes are good. Very few lakes can compare with Buggs Island in terms of the astounding number of fish that the 49,500-acre reservoir produces.
What have we missed? Only the lake that most biologists consider the best in North Carolina: Shearon Harris Lake off Route 1 between Raleigh and Sanford.
McRae said that electro-shocking surveys at Shearon Harris in recent years have been tremendous. Last spring, biologists found that approximately 60 percent of all bass in the lake were 14 inches or better, and 11 percent were 20 inches or longer -- a tremendous concentration of trophy-sized fish.
The commission manages the lake with a 16- to 20-inch slot limit, which effectively prohibits the harvest of fish between 2 1/2 and 5 pounds,
"We still need to evaluate (the slot) for a few more years before we jump to any conclusions, but we just aren't finding fish at any other lakes like we're finding at Harris," McRae said. "The forage base is pretty good, and all the fish are short, stocky footballs."
Largemouth fisheries in the western third of North Carolina generally take a back seat to smallmouths, which make up a large part of reservoir fisheries in the mountains.
Not surprisingly, the best fisheries, according to biologist David Yow of Asheville, are in lakes at a lower elevation than the extremely high, western mountains.
Yow points to Lake Adger and Lake Rhodhiss as probably western North Carolina's top fisheries for largemouth bass.
"As far as I know, we haven't had any major changes in any of our reservoirs," Yow said. "Lake Rhodhiss continues to produce a lot of fish; it's the largemouth-producing machine it always has been. It's probably the best quality bass fishery on the Catawba River. The threadfin shad have bounced back there, and the lake is just full of good bass.
"Lake Adger (on the Green River in Columbus County) is also a good largemouth lake, especially for larger fish, and it hasn't really been discovered by a lot of people yet; you don't get the big numbers of fishermen coming in there.
"It's a relatively small lake, and we only have one ramp there, but it's got an excellent forage base for the bass and the muskies there -- bream, shad and perch."
Of other major reservoirs in the western third of the state, bass fisheries are fairly good at Fontana Lake, Santeetlah Lake, Lake Chatuge, Glenville Lake and Lake James, despite smallmouths being the top draw in most areas.
One fishery related to largemouth bass that appears to be on the upswing is at Hiwassee Lake near Murphy. For a handful of years, spotted bass have been making inroads in the lake, introduced in most cases by fishermen who are believed to have brought them back from lakes in Georgia, South Carolina and Alabama where they are plentiful or native -- or both.
"Spotted bass (numbers) are probably growing a little at Hiwassee, but they're not taking over like they did at Chatuge, displacing the smallmouths, because the habitat is a little different," said Yow, who believes that angler introduction of blueback herring as a forage fish has changed the fishery forever.
"Spotted bass and smallmouth bass both utilize bluebacks better than largemouths," Yow said. "At Hiwassee, the smallmouth bass seem to be the beneficiaries of the change in the forage base -- at least in the short term. But if you look, anywhere you have spotted bass and blueback herring together, well, the spots are probably in the right place at the right time for that. You can see that at Lake Norman, Chatuge, and to a lesser extent, W. Kerr Scott."
For bass fishermen who frequent coastal rivers, the news from biologists has been good.
Chad Thomas of the N.C. Wildlife Resources Commission has been in charge of a program that aimed to replenish the largemouth bass fishery that was crippled by Hurricane Isabel in September 2003 and the resulting fish kill in the Roanoke and Chowan watersheds.
He ran a three-year program of stocking hatchery-raised bass of various sizes in coastal rivers and streams in the northeastern corner of the state that had their bass populations wiped out by Isabel.
It turns out, according to Thomas, that the restocking program was both unsuccessful and unnecessary.
"We sampled last May, and what we discovered was that we've had two good year-classes, in 2004 and 2005," Thomas said. "In the spring, we sample for 1-year-old fish and older, so we don't know about the 2006 spawn yet, but what we know from our study is that we didn't need to stock, because we had some wild fish left over somewhere.
"The '04 year-class appears to be very, very impressive, especially since we'd just had a fish kill the previous fall," he said. "But there must have been a remnant of the wild population that made it through to the spring, and nothing is as valuable as a natural spawn."
Thomas said that biologists believe that enough bass escaped the oxygen-depleted waters that poured down
both rivers after Isabel dropped 10 inches or more of rain over much of eastern North Carolina to repopulate enough feeder creeks or different areas of the two main rivers that they will sustain the population indefinitely.
"We had much better spawns in 2004 on the Roanoke and the Chowan than we could have ever expected -- because we expected nothing," Thomas said. "There may have been certain creeks or other areas where some bass made it through, and with very low numbers of adult fish for competition and almost no predation, those two spawns produced a lot of young fish."
Thomas expects fish from the 2004 year-class to be at the 14-inch statewide size minimum this spring. "We anticipate that a good number of those fish will be harvest-sized fish in the spring. The Roanoke and Chowan both look good, but the Roanoke seems like it's a little better," he said. "There were very few fish around to eat the fish that were spawned in '04 and '05, and hopefully, we'll find the 2006 year-class to be good when we sample them again this May."
Thomas said there was little evidence that the fingerling bass the commission has stocked since 2004 have made much of a difference.
"I think the study, which we'll finish this year, will show that we didn't need to stock those fish, because we had wild fish," he said. "For the most part, the study results will show that stocking those 2-inch fish doesn't work in coastal rivers. Our first step next time should be to monitor the population and see what natural reproduction we get in year one and year two after a cyclonic event. If we see after two years that we still don't have any fish, then maybe we need to come in and stock some larger fish, maybe at 8 inches."
To the south, the Neuse, Trent and Cape Fear rivers are mainstays for fishermen in the eastern third of the state, and they probably rank in just about that order.
The Neuse drains much of east-central North Carolina, and the bass-fishing heart of the area is its confluence with the Trent at New Bern. The bass population in the Neuse is largely driven by weather-related events, such as big storms or dry spells that can change the salinity of the brackish water to either fill it with bass or flush them out of specific areas.
The Neuse is generally considered to be fishable and good from Kinston downstream to New Bern and in feeder creeks along its way to the Pamlico Sound. There is plenty of structure to fish, in terms of tupelo and cypress trees up the river, but from New Bern down, the river banks are a maze of boat docks and piers that might give up a largemouth bass on one cast and a flounder on the next.
The Trent is much smaller but is filled with hydrilla, which changes the face of the fishery a great deal. Keying on grassbeds is the ticket.
The Cape Fear and Northeast Cape Fear are fishable for bass from Wilmington upstream, although fishermen's passage is blocked by a handful of old dams along the way.