Floods, droughts and other factors constantly change our bass waters -- but the bass themselves are resilient. Here's a statewide look at some of our best fisheries. (February 2009)
Ned Connelly of Wilmington takes a nice largemouth bass at Sutton Lake. Photo by Mike Marsh.
If you're like most bass anglers, cold weather in midwinter probably has you in the grip of cabin fever. Therefore, this month we'll take a statewide look at the upcoming season's bass-fishing prospects in North Carolina. We take each region in turn, beginning with the coast.
The Coastal Region is subject to the whims of nature, with swings between drought and flood posing distinct problems for bass in rivers and lakes along the coast. Hurricane Isabel damaged fisheries severely, but the bass fishing has recovered, according to District 1 biologist Kevin Dockendorf.
"Our stocking project wrapped up in 2007," Dockendorf said. "The bass were sub-adult fish, about 8 inches long€‚.€‚.€‚. In response to fish kills following Hurricane Isabel on Sept. 18, 2003, we began stocking in February 2004, and 2004 through 2007 were our evaluation years."
Initially, those stocked largemouth bass contributed to the population. But over time, the largemouth bass began naturally reproducing. In waters that were not affected by the storm, bass reproduced normally and have contributed high-quality year-classes ever since. In other words, the stockings were not the major factor allowing for the rebound of the largemouth, but helped jump-start the rebound. Many of those 8-inch fish stocked in the Chowan and Roanoke rivers grew and were weighed in tournaments where they were identified by magnetic cheek tags.
Two-inch bass fingerlings were stocked in the Little River, Pasquotank, Perquimans and Scuppernong rivers and Merchants and Bennetts millponds.
"We had a fish kill in Merchant's Millpond last summer due to a die-off of Parrot Feather that caused a drop in dissolved oxygen, so we will stock that pond next spring," Dockendorf said. "It was a shame because there were quality fish. It will not be a good place for bass this year."
Lake Phelps and Mattamuskeet had low water levels in fall of 2008 that could only be restored by tropical events. The canals are accessible at Mattamuskeet. Boating access was limited to canoes launched from Highway 94 at Mattamuskeet. A new ramp was built at the Central Canal in 2006, but water level may remain too low for using it.
At Lake Phelps, much of vegetation remained above the water level and that could spell a year-class failure from 2008. Water from the lake was used to put the ground fire out at Pocosin Lakes NWR and exacerbated the low water level situation. Best fishing access for the lake, barring an increase in the water level, will be by wading.
"Spring sampling in 2008 showed excellent bass populations in the Perquimans, Yeopim, Little, Northwest, Roanoke, Alligator, North and Chowan rivers," Dockendorf said. "These rivers will all be excellent places to fish. But we need to be cognizant of the current drought. Salt wedges are pushing in and the oxygen is low in the upper reaches near the swamps. There may be reduced habitat for successful spawning unless we get some rainfall. But coastal bass are adapted to that and can be caught in the same places fishermen find blue crabs and flounder."
There are plenty of fish in the 12- to 14-inch range, with a few 15-inch to 18-inch fish in the northern coastal rivers. Larger fish occur in the lakes.
District 2 biologist Bob Barwick said the 2007-08 drought resulted in below-average water levels in the central Coastal Plain -- but that low water has affected mature largemouth bass in a positive way.
"When water levels are low, the big bass capitalize on the concentrated prey," he said. "The fish we are seeing are really exceptional. The downside is that the low water may have caused poor year-classes in the last couple of years."
Barwick points anglers to the Tar and Neuse rivers because they produce a higher quality bass population than the other District 2 rivers. He said there is an opportunity to catch a trophy-sized fish in those rivers.
"I'd also suggest Sutton Lake," he said. "We've seen some excellent recruitment, especially in 2007, and there are lots of fish up to 5 and 6 pounds."
The commission documented in a creel survey that many bass were removed from the lake in late winter, so anglers are now prohibited from keeping fish from January through March. The bass at Sutton Lake experience a relatively high morality compared with the coastal river systems, which results in good or bad year-classes and confirms angler perception of ups and downs in fish availability. This effect is caused to a certain extent by disease, predation by other fish and anglers. But the biggest culprit has turned out to be a heavy metal called selenium, which enters the lake from the adjoining fly ash ponds.
"What we tend to see is a strong relationship between reproductive success and the amount of selenium," Barwick said. "High selenium corresponds to low reproduction and the adult population consists of just a few age-classes, so it's an unstable population. We just now have enough information about selenium and Progress Energy is going through various methods to keep selenium at low levels. If we can prevent it from accumulating in the water, the bass fishing should get even better."
Bluegills spawn all year long in the lake, providing excellent forage for bass. The warm-water conditions and the Florida genes create unique conditions for some of the best bass fishing in the Coastal Region.
New River has started gaining a reputation for producing bass upstream of Jacksonville. But Barwick said that as is typical of coastal rivers, the bass in this river grow fast the first three or four years, then growth stops. The fish max out at 14 inches, but the body condition of the bass is outstanding. Still, it's not the place for catching trophy fish. The beauty of fishing New River is the scenery, where an angler can fish all day and not see another person.
Keith Ashley is the biologist for District 4 in the southern Coastal Region. He said the only river where he conducts a stock assessment is the Cape Fear and it was last sampled in 2005.
"Every three years since 2003, we sample the river from Lillington downstream to Lock and Dam No. 1," Ashley said. "The Cape Fear has largemouth and spotted bass. Spotted bass were stocked in tributaries near Lillington in 1977, and 2008 was the first year in which spotted bass outnumber
largemouth bass in our samples. It was also the year of poorest fish condition."
Ashley said he has seen a few largemouth bass of 9 pounds and shocked up a 4.5-pound spotted bass in 2008. He said the magnificent spot was caught near Elizabethtown, but most spotted bass weigh a pound or so.
"It can be very tough to catch a big bass in the Cape Fear River," he said. "But Lake Waccamaw has one of our best bass populations. If you hit the lake in spring and fish docks and the piers and the extensive maiden cane beds, you will catch nice 5- to 7-pound bass."
Baytree Lake has some excellent bass fishing, which may be due to a mercury warning against any consumption of bass. The best access is through a gated community. But a primitive road provides kayak and canoe access through the state park.
Christian Waters is the commission's biologist supervisor for Piedmont districts 3, 5 and 6. He said drought had some effect on angler access, but no major influence on bass populations.
"We had some lakes that had angler access issues," Waters said. "The drought of 2003 was bad at High Rock Lake. But the bass recovered in one or two years. There hasn't been any impact on bass from the drought of 2007-08."
The Catawba River lake levels were all down, but new management plans helped offset drought conditions. Falls Lake dropped quite a bit, and for a short period angler access was nonexistent. Waters said while it was difficult to sample Falls Lake because of low water, it seems to help the bass over the long term, even with the loss of a single year-class.
"Populations rebound quickly," he said. A drought lasting three or four years might have an impact through the loss of reproduction. But the loss of one year's reproduction probably helps bass in the long term, especially in smaller reservoirs where bass begin to crowd, and don't exhibit the growth they should have. It's a better fishery with an occasional drought, so look for some good fishing in 2009."
Waters said that in this instance, fish harvest is good and necessary to improve the bass population: So drought may do the culling job fishermen aren't doing with bass. Lake Norman is the strongest example of this phenomena: something Waters can't explain is happening to reduce the number of bass, but the average size of the bass is increasing.
A number of city lakes offer good bass fishing, including Burlington's Cammack and Mackintosh, Greensboro Brant, Oak Hollow and Higgins, and Durham's Little River and Michie. Some of these lakes had difficult access during the drought last summer, but based on past history, any effects on the bass fishing will be minimal and short term. High Point City Lake was one with difficult angler access, but access should not be a problem now. Thom-a-Lex has an 18-inch size limit and the trophy bass regulations have created an excellent fishery for largemouth bass.
"Most city lakes have fair bass populations but have potential for crowding," Waters said. "But in terms of numbers and occasional big fish, city lakes are an untapped resource. Except for local people, not many people fish them. They all have boating access points and are excellent places to fish. Most have Web sites where anglers can check for special rules and opening and closing dates and times."
The Yadkin lakes of Tillery, Badin and Blewett Falls suffered low lake levels last summer, but the declines were moderate compared with other recent droughts. The lakes have quality fishing, with Badin and Tiller offering the biggest bass.
Harris Lake's outstanding fishing continues. It is not a water supply lake but a cooling water lake for the nuclear power facility. Therefore, the drought had no effect. The bass population at Harris creates one of the top fisheries in the state.
At Jordan, the fish are a little smaller than at Harris and Falls. But it's still a good fishery with plenty of moderately sized fish in the 12- to 16-inch range. If it were located anywhere else, it might well be considered the best bass-fishing lake in its region.
Lake Wylie is a good largemouth bass lake downstream on the Catawba from Lake Norman. But a growing population of angler-introduced spotted bass is causing uncertainty for largemouths due to competition. The spotted bass are easy to catch, but don't get as big as largemouths, and angler stockings of spotted bass are unethical and illegal. But it's now too late. The genie is out of the bottle.
The Uwharrie River is on the east side of the Yadkin. It has spotted bass, largemouth bass and the farthest eastward population of smallmouth bass in the state.
Mallory Martin is the commission's biologist supervisor for the Mountain Region's districts 7, 8 and 9. He said drought had improved bass fishing in the western rivers.
"Rivers such as the French Broad, the Tuckasegee, New, Watauga and Pigeon have lots more wading areas where people can get easier access from the road shoulders when the water is low," Martin said. "Probably whatever effects from the drought on the fish will be rather short lived."
The French Broad is the best river by far for bronzebacks because of an extensive drainage area, fair productivity and excellent access because of lower water conditions. Nolichucky and Toe rivers are primarily smallmouth fisheries because their headwaters are essentially trout streams. Lower Tuckasegee is a good smallmouth river, but it's a regulated river, so the flow can be up or down depending on hydropower generation. Smallmouth populations are reduced in rivers subjected to frequent changes in water levels.
New River, a perennial favorite of smallmouth fishermen, produces well. Parts are more accessible during low water conditions than during normal or high flows.
Along the rivers, anglers wade and cast along the exposed ledges. The bulk of the fish are between 8 and 12 inches in length. While there may be fewer fish, there will be good numbers of 14-inch and larger smallmouth and largemouth bass.
Most of the reservoirs were more full than during 2007, so spawning and recruitment were within the normal range on most reservoirs. Last year, some ramps were closed at Lake James, but now the lake is nearer to full pool than last year.
Santeetlah is historically a good lake and Fontana has been producing bass reasonably well as it always has. Both of these lakes have largemouth and smallmouth bass. Santeetlah has more largemouth than smallmouth bass, and in Fontana, the bass mix is about half and half.
Santeetlah is an excellent fishing lake due to the shape of the basin and other characteristics that make it resemble a Piedmont reservoir rather than a high mountain lake. It does not suffer low lake levels and therefore the habitat is excellent.
Fontana experiences large drawdowns. Therefore, bass habitat consists
of dropoffs, ledges, cliffs, large boulders and rocky points. Fontana has a population of threadfin shad that has held up well over the last several winters. The year-round forage base results in large bass.
Lake James is a perennial favorite, with both largemouth and smallmouth bass. Like Fontana, James has a population of threadfin shad that wintered well the past couple of years, and that bodes well for this year's bass fishing. The Catawba River arm is more productive than the Linville River arm because of the larger watershed and increased fertility. The Linville side drains straight out of the mountains, so it's less productive.
Lake Rhodhiss is on the Catawba River and has a stable largemouth population that hides among the submerged cover and aquatic vegetation. It's tricky for lake anglers to get the hang of Rhodhiss because it has current flow and plenty of places to hang up. River anglers will do well, but lake anglers will become frustrated fishing in the brush.
The next Catawba River Lake is Hickory, which has a stable largemouth population. Extensive shoreline development provides nutrients but reduces habitat diversity. Unlike Rhodhiss, Hickory has docks to provide for fishing cover.
"On the Catawba lakes, we started a project in 2008 with 'porcupine' PVC fish attractors," Martin said. "The attractors look like balls with PVC spikes coming out of them and are marked with buoys. We will post GPS coordinates of the attractors on the Web site in the future."
On the Tuckasegee River, Wolf Creek, Bear Lake, Tanasee and Cedar Cliff lakes have largemouth and smallmouth bass. Bear Lake is the largest of these lakes and has the best fishing. It supports good growth of largemouth and smallmouth bass.
One small lake that anglers may overlook is Lake Adger in Polk County. It supports a good largemouth population. The lake has plenty of tree cover and submerged vegetation and offers bass good spawning habitat. It is a private hydropower lake but has a public ramp.
For more information on fish attractor locations and boat ramps, visit the N.C. Wildlife Commission's Web site at www.ncwildlife.org.
Lake James: Jesse Buchanan, Blue Ridge Fishing Adventures, (828) 385-1220. Toe, Nolichucky rivers: Scott Cunninghan, On the Fly Guide Service (828) 659-0059.