Some positive changes are occurring in North Carolina's black bass fisheries. Here's a look at some of the best and most important bass spots in the state. (February 2010)
David Wright holds up two of the reasons bass anglers love to fish Buggs Island.
Photo by Craig Holt.
Spring bass fishing in North Carolina begins each year at the southeastern corner of the state, moves northward, then west.
Here's a look at the magical time for North Carolina lunker hunting via a geographical tour. This preview won't necessarily or sequentially list the best bass waters, but follows the pre-spawn and spawn periods as they progress across North Carolina.
Eastern North Carolina
Anglers across North Carolina (and the nation) have been waiting 20 years for this news: Currituck Sound is recovering as a brackish-water largemouth factory.
Once a nationally known bass venue, hurricanes 20 years ago destroyed its huge grassbeds and caused bass to disappear. It's taken this long to recover.
"Currituck Sound has really rebounded the last year or so," said Pete Kornegay, the N.C. Wildlife Resources eastern fisheries biologist supervisor. "Currituck had a long period of high salinity. But we've gotten some outstanding reports, even from the middle part of sound at The Narrows. Native grasses are rebounding; it's not uncommon to see curlyleaf pondweed and redhead grass that provide duck food and fish habitat. There's still a lot of milfoil at places."
Other re-emerging grasses in Currituck include widgeon grass and wild celery.
Kornegay said the sound has started to return as a bass wonderland, a place where anglers may catch largemouths, flounder and seatrout at the same spots.
Most Tar Heel bass anglers crossed the Chowan River off their maps a few years after bass fishing at Currituck went south. It's time to get out the erasers.
The 50-mile-long stretch of cypress and swamp-lined river leading to Albemarle Sound once was eastern North Carolina's bass mecca. Clubs held tournaments at the Chowan and 20-pound sacks (five fish) were common.
But 1996's Hurricane Bertha wiped out a large percentage of Chowan's largemouths, followed by Hurricane Floyd (1999). After Bertha and Floyd, the WRC restocked bass fingerlings for years. Unluckily, Hurricane Isabel (2003) wreaked more devastation.
"We are just finishing up a three-year bass restoration project," said WRC biologist Chad Thomas during July 2009. Thomas said although tagging studies indicated previous stockings fizzled, native fish rejuvenated a once-great bass fishery.
"These (native) bass found a refuge someplace during those hurricanes and (the Chowan's) population has rebounded," he said.
Most Chowan bass are in the 2- to 4-pound range, but bigger bass are caught.
"There are a fair number of 6- and 7-pound bass," said Pete Kornegay, North Carolina's longtime coastal region fisheries supervisor. "We learned if we give Mother Nature a year or two, things come back. We didn't realize how resilient the bass would be." The Roanoke River has largemouths along its entire 140-mile length from the tailrace of Roanoke Rapids Lake to the river's mouth at Albemarle Sound.
"One of interesting aspects is the creeks and manmade guts that exist when water is high but on the falling stage," Kornegay said. "Baitfish in the creeks are pulled out, and you'll find that's where bass stack up. And spring is when we get high-water conditions. February is one of the high-water months on the Roanoke."
The best eastern lake for early-season trophy largemouths is Sutton Lake (1,100 acres, New Hanover County). The WRC designated Sutton as a trophy-bass lake several years ago, allowing only 18-inch or longer bass to be kept. That move regenerated Sutton's bass population. Today, from Dec. 1 to March 31, no keepers are allowed. From April 1 to Nov. 30, five daily bass of at least 14 inches may be kept.
Lake Waccamaw, a huge body of water (5 by 7 miles) 30 miles west of Sutton Lake off N.C. 214, is a shallow bay lake (with an average depth of 7 1/2 feet). Waccamaw holds bass, raccoon perch, crappie and bream. April and May spawning times can be interesting for largemouth chasers.
In Washington County beside Pungo National Wildlife Refuge lies Lake Phelps. At 16,600 acres, it's another of North Carolina's famed shallow "Carolina Bay" lakes.
For numbers of largemouth bass that'll hungrily attack lures, Phelps can't be beat in the east. April is a good time to use buzzbaits near structure, and wading fly-anglers use popping bugs for great days at Phelps.
The largest natural body of water (40,000 acres) totally inside North Carolina is Lake Mattamuskeet (Hyde County), but its average depth is only 2 feet.
The manmade lake has excellent spring bass fishing, starting in March, at its shoreline and in its many canals. Average bass sizes run 2 to 3 pounds, but 5-pounders aren't rare.
Roanoke Rapids Lake is a top spot for spring largemouths, especially near and inside the "grass" (hydrilla, milfoil) beds in the lake's center.
Next upstream is Lake Gaston, a legendary spring bass haunt.
"Gaston is a stable lake, with quality fish," said WRC fisheries biologist Christian Waters. "It has a good forage base with alewives, blueback herring, gizzard and threadfin shad."
Joel Richardson, a Kernersville guide and bass tournament angler, loves to fish Gaston's grassbed edges during April, May and June.
"(Bass) will hit topwater lures, buzzbaits and shallow-diving crankbaits, along with soft plastics during pre-spawn," he said.
Gaston's Songbird and Pea Hill creeks have docks and edges filled with hydrilla and bass. Little Stonehouse Creek has relatively little grass, but docks near a deep channel can be dynamite areas.
John H. Kerr Reservoir (aka Buggs Island) is the largest of the Roanoke River lakes and may be North Carolina's most-famous bass impoundment. Spring is prime time to cast to shallow points and creeks. Buckbrush and willow bush-lined shores are hotspots for spinnerbaits, buzzbaits, jig-and-pigs, topwater prop baits and other lures (including Texas-rigged plastic worms and Senkos) during the pre-spawn.
If Kerr's water level is high during April, bass will stage at flooded areas (willow trees, buckbrush and floating deadwood in the backs of coves). Action can be explosive for topwater lures or soft plastics. During May, pea gravel shores hold spawning fish.
"Kerr Lake has a healthy number of bass," Waters said. "It's comparable to Gaston or any other river lake in North Carolina, as far as sizes of fish. You may not catch a big bass, but there are plenty in the 4- to 5-pound range."
The Triangle's Big Three
Falls and Jordan today have "good fisheries," Waters said. "But the growth of fish is slow. Although bigger (bass) are caught in spring, the lakes are full of 12- to 16-inch bass, too small to be kept. And we've found out the growth rate is slow. At Falls it takes seven years for a bass to reach 16-inch (keeper) size; at Jordan it's about five years."
Although it won't happen this year, the WRC has proposed reducing the minimum-size limit at both lakes to 14 inches (instead of 16 inches) to remove more fish and add some size to the remaining stock.
"Relatively speaking, 16-inch-and-bigger fish are hard to come by at both lakes," Waters said. "Forage (baitfish) bases are good at both lakes, so it's not a matter of food. Some anglers will like (the 14-inch rule) and some will hate it."
Shearon Harris Lake, a Progress Energy Lake with a nuclear reactor, is a drought-proof body of water.
"Our (fish) sampling shows Harris is a quality fishery, maybe the best (bass) fishery in the state," Waters said. "We sample lakes every two years, and a 5-pound bass is a rarity, in most cases. At Harris we get 6-, 7- and 8-pound bass regularly."
If Progress decides to add another nuclear plant at its shoreline, plans exist to elevate the dam by 8 to 10 feet, which will double the lake's current 4,100-acre size.
"That will change the lake entirely, but the fishing should only get better," Waters said.
The Yadkin chain of lakes -- High Rock, Tuckertown, Badin, Tillery -- captivates bass anglers from Charlotte to Burlington.
Pitching plastic worms at High Rock's docks is a great early spring pattern.
"During early May, the spring spawn shuts down the bass bite, but in the weeks after Mother's Day, fish come off the beds and group up at points," said veteran guide Maynard Edwards.
High Rock is a "very stable lake," Waters said. "We thought the drought of 2002 might have a huge impact (the lake became a river channel), but it's holding its own now."
The queen bee of bass lakes of the Yadkin chain, the Rock can turn churlish in spring after heavy rains -- the main body becomes a mud hole that'll need a few days to clear, so the best bet under those conditions is to head to clearer water at feeder creeks.
Tuckertown is "a little different, smaller system," Waters said. "But it's a good bass lake, as are Badin and Tillery, which aren't much different. Blewett Falls is shallower, harder to navigate and has more structure. Bass have fair to good growth there."
Western Piedmont Lakes
The Catawba River lake chain -- James, Hickory, Lookout Shoals, Norman, Mountain Island, Wylie -- flows parallel to the Yadkin chain but through the Blue Ridge foothill counties in its upper reaches before turning south toward Charlotte. Most Catawba lakes have decent bass fishing during spring.
Wylie, the southernmost of the Catawba lakes (south of Charlotte with most of the lake in South Carolina), had enough clout to attract the 2004 Bassmasters Classic.
"Because we don't have a reciprocal license agreement with South Carolina, we don't do much work at Wylie," Waters said. "But most areas of the lake show it's a typical Upstate South Carolina lake. The bass seem healthy."
Mountain Island, just south of Norman, is probably the second-best Catawba bass lake in spring. Bass in the backs of coves and creeks will hit floating worms and C-rigged lizards.
Waters has concerns for massive Lake Norman. It is believed that several years ago, striped bass clubs introduced alewives and blueback herring into the lake. Spotted bass and white perch also went into the lake.
Alewives, herring and white perch feed on largemouth eggs and fry, so Waters believes that may be a reason for a change in the lake's largemouth population.
"We've seen a decline in smaller largemouth bass and an increase in larger bass, but recruitment (catchable fish) is low," he said. "We did see an increase in 10- to 12-inch bass last year, but we don't know if that's a trend or the result of one good year class."
Spotted bass numbers have jumped at Norman. Waters said largemouths and spots are interbreeding.
"It's now difficult to tell the difference now between a Lake Norman spot and a largemouth," he said.
The bass fishery at Norman is almost certain to change for anglers. Largemouth anglers used to beating the shore will have to change tactics, as hybridized-with-spots bass tend to roam open waters.
"The worst thing about it is (the WRC) don't have any ability to change it now," he said. "Not that Norman has been a great largemouth fishery, but over time, it probably will become more mediocre."
Pre-spawn bass at Lake Hickory will stage off secondary points in March and April and hit topwater lures such as Pop-Rs or Chug Bugs. Fish move shallow in May for the spawning season and will attack lizards or tube jigs.
An abundance of threadfin shad makes Lake Rhodhiss near Morganton not only a great spring striped bass location but also a topnotch largemouth lake. It's a well-kept secret among bass anglers because most people chase the lake's trophy stripers year round.
Lake James near Asheville turns on in April as secondary points from the mid-lake area to the Linville River arm become full of smallmouths and largemouth bass.
Bass fishing is split about 50-50 between largemouth and smallmouth bass at deep, serpentine Fontana Lake, fed by the Little Tennessee River. It has largemouths that can be caught at the backs of debris-filled pockets with buzzbaits during May, but bronzebacks form the backbone of its fishery.
"Probably the best (bass) lakes on that (west) side of the mountain are Fontana, Hiwassee and Lake Glenville," said David Yow, a WRC fisheries biologist from Asheville.
For Fontana largemouths, Yow said anglers would have the best luck if they stick to the upper half of the lake, while smallmouths abound at the
middle and lower ends at rocky points.
"Fontana and Hiwassee also have a growing number of spotted bass because both are deep, rocky reservoirs," Yow said. "Lake Chatuge (on the N.C.-S.C. border) has spots everywhere."
During April and May, Lake Glenville (south of Fontana) has good largemouth fishing. Bass orient at woody structure, including the tops of flooded trees and blowdowns.
"Santeetlah has a good smallie population, but the largemouths have been getting smaller the last couple of years," Yow said.
A growing number of yellow perch the last five years has reduced largemouth numbers because they compete for the same food sources. Largemouths are stockpiled in the 12- to 14-inch range, Yow said.