No matter what part of North Carolina you live in, there's some good bass fishing near you. Here's a look at some of the best public waters in the state.(February 2008).
Photo by Ron Sinfelt.
Largemouth bass are perhaps the most popular species of fish on the planet and their anglers are certainly among the most addicted. Fancy boats, high-tech electronics, scores of rods and reels, and a ton of terminal tackle are their stock in trade.
They'll travel countless miles and endure darn near any hardship to catch a heavy bag of bass. However, the good news is that traveling great distances isn't necessary in North Carolina. Our state is blessed with a wide variety of bass-producing waters.
There are rivers on the coast and excellent manmade impoundments in the mountains. Add to that the major reservoirs of the Piedmont and the many small municipal bodies of water throughout the state and you get the picture. North Carolina has great bassin' for everyone.
Each of the state's three regions offers at least one body of water that'll produce plenty of smaller bass and another that'll produce true trophy-sized lunkers. It's a matter of picking and choosing something that suits your needs.
This forecast will profile some of the best. But before we do, we need to consider Mother Nature and the drought she's laid on us.
With the country in the throes of a record-setting drought, it should come as no surprise that fisheries biologists in North Carolina, and elsewhere around the country, are hesitant when asked to predict the future of bass fishing.
"Drought conditions override all other conditions," said Mallory Martin, North Carolina Wildlife Resources Commission (NCWRC) regional fisheries supervisor for North Carolina's Mountain Region. "We're setting records and it isn't getting any better. The immediate effects of this are difficult to predict. The long-term effects are even more difficult to predict."
Among the immediate effects to which he refers are low water levels in both natural lakes and manmade reservoirs. "We really don't know what effect that will have next year. The fish tend to move toward whatever deep water they can find. That concentrates them. In some cases, there's no long-term impact on survival, but in others it can be devastating. We don't know and won't know for a couple of years."
Along with the drought and its effects was the sweltering heat of 2007. Records have been set in nearly every community. Water temperatures rose to near unbelievable highs.
Therefore, a word of warning is in order: This forecast is being written in the mist of one of the driest droughts, and hottest heat waves, in history. If we get some rain over the 2007-2008 winter, things will likely turn around and life for bass and bassers will return to normal. On the other hand, if this weather pattern continues, all bets are off.
With this in mind, let's take a look at bass fishing in the Tar Heel State for 2008.
THE PIEDMONT REGION
The best public big-bass lake in the Piedmont Region is Shearon Harris in the center of the state. By impoundment standards, it's not very big, only a little over 4,000 acres, but they're some of the best bass-producing acres in the state.
"Our sampling studies show an amazing largemouth fishery," said Brian McRae, Piedmont fisheries research coordinator. "Fifty percent of the fish we sampled were 16 inches or longer and the biggest in our study was over 8 pounds. That's an extraordinary finding. With careful management, we believe Harris could become the premier trophy largemouth bass lake in the state."
The lake is blessed with an abundant forage base, a diversity of habitat and excellent vegetation. All this combines to make it one of the most popular bass-fishing destinations in the state. And therein lies the problem -- pressure. Nearly every bass in the lake will be familiar with your lure.
Therefore, to catch them, you'll need to try something different -- whatever it is -- with your worm, crankbait or spinnerbait.
Topwater baits can be good at times, too. A walking stick, fished at first or last light, can be devastating. Maybe the bass don't see many of them, or maybe they just can't resist. Either way, they'll attack them with abandon.
Shearon Harris may even get better in 2008. "We're not seeing any direct effects from the drought or the heat (so far). It looks as if the forage base will stay strong, and therefore, the bass should stay strong. In fact, we see the fishing continuing to improve on Harris into the foreseeable future," McRae said.
Other hotspots in this region include the scores of metropolitan water supply reservoirs that dot the area. "Any of them might be good depending upon local conditions. They're worth asking about if you want to go bass fishing but don't want to drive very far," McRae said.
He continues on to point out that these smaller lakes are often easier to fish. Their small size allows anglers to cover a higher percentage of the water, giving them a better chance to find the bass. And the effects of the drought may, in fact, enhance fishing opportunities in some of them.
"In some cases, low water helps the bass population. It'll concentrate the fish and that allows the big ones to eat the little ones. As the overall population is reduced, there's less competition for available forage. The big fish just keep getting bigger. In many cases, these smaller bodies of water, after a drawdown, provide the best opportunity for a trophy," McRae explained.
One particular spot that's high on his list of places you
should visit is High Point City Lake in Gilford County. Sampling by the NCWRC shows an amazing 60 percent of the largemouths were over 16 inches long. To be honest, there weren't very many true giants among them -- the biggest weighed 6 pounds -- but still there's plenty of fishing opportunity here.
That said, however, you should be aware that the drought has hit High Point especially hard. As of August 2007, water levels were precipitously low. Severe water use restrictions were being contemplated. If that continues, the trend toward concentrating the bass could turn into a death sentence for most of them.
Another good small lake that falls into the category of municipal hotspot is Graham-Mebane in Alamance County. McRae reports "grea
t largemouth bass-fishing opportunities here" with 56 percent of the bass measuring more than 16 inches and the biggest tipping the scales at just over 8 pounds.
"I really recommend Graham-Mebane for any local anglers wanting to bass fish. It's a nice, well-managed lake. And, at 650 acres, it's big enough to provide a serious fishing experience but still small enough to fish effectively during one season," he said.
Be aware, however, that the drought has hit this one hard, too. Don't assume it'll be fishable without heavy rains over the winter. Call before making a long drive.
And, of course, there's always Falls of the Neuse. McRae reports that recent sampling data was disappointing, with only about 20 percent of the bass sampled measuring 16 inches or better.
There may be, however, an explanation for this that offers hope for its future. McRae believes the study was flawed because an unusually large number of juvenile bass were included in it. As a consequence, the low percentage of 16-inchers is somewhat deceptive.
Besides, the Falls has one of the fastest growing largemouth populations in North Carolina. So, even if the fish are small now, they'll get bigger quick enough -- well, almost quick enough, anyway.
THE MOUNTAIN REGION
Mallory Martin, NCWRC Mountain Region fisheries supervisor, is fairly optimistic about the 2008 bass season in his region.
"The drought has had an effect on us, that's for sure," he said. "But I don't think it'll be all that bad unless it continues into the future for a long period of time. Most of our bigger reservoirs are holding up fine. They are suffering from low water, but it's nothing the fish can't handle."
Fontana Reservoir is a great spot in the Mountain Region for numbers, as well as reasonably sized bass. Both largemouths and smallmouths inhabit this body of water. At just over 10,000 acres, this lake's big enough to offer anglers almost any type of bass fishing they want.
Flooded at the very end of World War II, Fontana's timber was cleared in most locations, and what remained is now mostly rotten or otherwise nonexistent. But that doesn't mean there's a lack of laydowns or stumps along its tributaries and inflows. In the spring and fall, largemouths migrate to them for shelter and food.
Local anglers target these areas with spinnerbaits and small crankbaits. Work them around and into any wood you can find. The fish won't be giants here, but there'll be plenty of fast action, enough to keep you from becoming bored.
During the summer and winter, try throwing jigs and Texas-rigged plastics around the old foundations that were flooded when the reservoir was impounded. It'll take some work to find these places, but it's well worth the effort. Fish live in them all year long.
The drought has hurt Fontana. Water levels are low and the fish are concentrated. It's not likely to get better for months, even assuming above-normal rainfall -- and that's a big assumption -- this winter.
That may, however, ultimately turn out to be a blessing. The forage base is holding up well. As a consequence, with less water to hunt, the bass are finding it unusually easy to feed. That may increase the average size of Fontana's notoriously small largemouths.
Lake Rhodhiss, on the Catawba River chain, is another place that deserves a close look. At 3,000 surface acres, it's considerably smaller than Fontana and doesn't have as dense a population of largemouths, but Martin is optimistic about its future anyway.
"The water quality should stay good here regardless of the weather. The bass population is stable and there's plenty for them to eat," he said. "Unless something drastic happens with the drought, I think it'll be good in 2008."
In fact, the prospects are so bright for Rhodhiss that Martin considers it to be one of the fastest-growing big-bass lakes in his region. "It's got everything it needs to produce big fish. I can see some really big fish coming out of Rhodhiss in the next few years. I'm very optimistic about the future of this fishery."
No discussion of the Mountain Region would be complete without a mention of Chatuge Lake. This North Carolina-Georgia border impoundment has been entertaining anglers for years with respectable, if not spectacular, largemouth bass fishing. That trend shows no signs of slowing down.
"Chatuge is better than a lot of anglers think it is. The spots overshadow the largemouths, but the truth is that the largemouth fishing is pretty good on Chatuge. In fact, it's probably the place to go in the Mountain Region if you're looking for numbers of largemouths. They won't be real big, though. The competition with the spots for food holds their size down," he said.
The best time to fish Chatuge is in the spring and fall. Gently sloping shorelines, plenty of brush, massive laydowns and tons of artificial attractors combine to pull the bass shallow and make them accessible to spinnerbaits, crankbaits and topwater plugs.
THE COASTAL PLAINS REGION
Public-water bass fishing in the Coastal Plains Region is, with one exception, river fishing.
"We're still recovering from the effects of Hurricane Isabelle. It's getting better every year, but the damage was done and we're still feeling it," said Jeremy McCargo, assistant fisheries biologist with the NCWRC. "The good thing is we haven't had any problems since then, though. If the weather holds (the drought has had little effect on the rivers), we should be back to normal in a couple of years."
McCargo specifically recommends the Roanoke and Chowan rivers as the hotspots on the coast. He reports that both rivers have shown excellent recovery from Isabelle and that bass stocks are rebuilding and getting better every year.
"The past couple of years have been especially good. The drought has had very little effect on the rivers. It hasn't dropped water levels here like in the reservoirs and lakes
We expect river conditions to remain stable and adequate. That's really all the bass need to rebound.
"Salt water intrusion can be a problem in these rivers, but so far we don't see any evidence that it's happening. Even if it is, I'd say the effects are negligible and won't have any effect on the bass recovery."
These rivers can be hard to fish, however. Most successful anglers fish the creeks, tributaries and inflows during the spring and fall. Target laydowns, stumps and any forms of cover that offer the bass a suitable place to spawn. Spinnerbaits, crankbaits and jigs all produce their fair share of river largemouths. At times, a Carolina-rigged plastic dragged along the first drop off the ba
nk is effective.
In the summer and winter, concentrate your efforts out in the main river. Look for deeper holes and any cover or structure you can find along the main-river channel. But remember, you're hunting river bass: In most cases, they have little choice but to inhabit shallow water. They don't go deep like their relatives in lakes and reservoirs. They can't.
The exception that was referred to by McCargo is Phelps Lake. It's a natural body of water, covers about 16,000 acres, and offers anglers the highest number of bass per acre of any body of water on the coast.
Phelps Lake defines tough fishing, however. It's shallow with an average depth of 4 feet. The deepest water is only 7 feet. Maybe worse, at least for anglers, is that the water is gin clear. Regardless of these problems, it's well worth a trip.
McCargo's enthusiasm for this lake is obvious. "At one time, Phelps was very popular with local anglers, but then for some reason interest fell off. It's not fished very hard anymore. That can be a real advantage. The numbers are extraordinary. If an angler hits it right, he or she can catch scores of largemouths in a day."
Small baits and a gentle approach are required here. Try light spinning tackle and toss the smallest, lightest lures you can. Go fishing on Phelps during poor weather whenever possible. It helps to conceal your activities from the fish.
Overall, the 2008 largemouth bass fishing forecast looks pretty good for North Carolina. Pick a place within easy traveling distance and wet your line. It's an opportunity you shouldn't let pass you by.
And keep in mind that largemouths -- unlike smallmouths and spotted bass -- do very well in farm ponds, borrow pits and other small waters. Don't neglect the water hole behind your house in search of some faraway, exotic place where you think the bass are plentiful, big and are always biting.