October 04, 2010
By Tony Garrita
The largemouth bass in the Yadkin chain of lakes appear to be bouncing back from low-water years. Here's what biologists and anglers have to say about the fishing.
By Tony Garrita
The future of High Rock Lake kept wiggling at my feet.
I had just made a cast to a gravel point in Flat Swamp when the pulsations of my tiny crankbait came to a halt. I set the hook, then turned to my fishing buddy and said, “Something’s weird. This fish is going in two directions at once.”
The cause of the erratic movement became apparent once my bait came into view. Two tiny bass were grappling with the trebles of the lure. Stretched out from end to end, the fish together wouldn’t have measured 12 inches.
That “double” wasn’t unusual. Last fall, High Rock fishermen reported catching hundreds of bass from 4 to 10 inches and sometimes two at once.
“Little fish were everywhere,” said Yadkin River guide Maynard Edwards of Lexington. “I’ve never seen so many small bass in High Rock before.”
The small fish have been an encouraging sight to local fishermen. Only three years ago, anglers feared there might not be any bass left in High Rock following a four-year drought, the worst since 1927.
The “exceptional drought” of 2002 reduced the major creeks to trickles and compelled the Yadkin Division of Alcoa Power Generating Inc. to close all boat-launch areas in July when the lake plummeted more than 21 feet below full pool.
Several fish kills occurred, involving mostly baitfish and carp.
Biologists, fishermen and APGI officials braced themselves for the impending disaster as dropping water, soaring water temperatures and decreasing oxygen levels threatened to destroy the bass fishery.
Just when all seemed lost, Mother Nature, the cause of the calamity, came to the rescue. A low-pressure weather system stalled over central and eastern North Carolina during the Labor Day weekend, causing a deluge of much-needed rainfall. Record rains continued through the Labor Day weekend of 2003.
Though pleased to see the drought broken, fishermen wondered if these extremes in weather would have any long-range effects upon the bass fisheries in High Rock and its neighboring lakes. Would the traumatized fisheries be resilient? Now, three years later, the little fish I had just caught and released may have provided the answer.
Many High Rock fishermen believe the recent outbreak of small bass is a result of the heavy rains that caused high water levels during the 2003 spring spawn and again last spring.
Research supports their contention.
“There has been a good deal of work on the impacts of flooding or higher water levels on largemouth bass in the Southeast by fisheries researchers,” said District 6 fisheries biologist Lawrence Dorsey. “Most studies conclude that higher water levels prior to and during spawning can be beneficial to fish.”
Edwards foresees a bass bonanza because of the spawns.
“I think we’ve had two great spawning years at High Rock,” he said. “Bass eggs were not left high and dry as they have been in the past. The high water also gave the bass fry plenty of places to hide from predators.
“Following the 2003 spawn, every small pocket in the lake harbored waves of bass fry.
“In a few years, the bass fishing should be awesome at High Rock.”
Other fishermen agree, including tournament anglers, who view the little bass as a welcomed nuisance.
“We caught about 50 bass and hardly had a 14-inch keeper,” said Lexington’s Wayne Littleton following a High Rock Lake tournament. “But just wait until all those little fish grow up.”
While the future looks bright for High Rock, the years following the drought haven’t been too shabby, either.
Electrofishing samplings conducted in 1999, 2001 and 2003 by N.C. Wildlife Resources Commission biologists reveal a healthy fishery before and after the drought.
The April 2003 sampling indicates the lake’s bass fishery has recovered from the dry spell.
“The catch rate for bass is a little down from what it was in 2001, but it’s consistent with what we saw in 1999,” Dorsey said. “The catch rate at High Rock is still one of the highest in the state for bass.”
In addition, the relative weight values — the measure of the condition of an individual fish based on its length and weight — show the largemouth bass are in as good condition following the drought as before it.
“There is some statistical difference between these numbers (2003 is higher than 2001 but not 1999),” Dorsey said. “However, the important fact is that for all years these values are high and at or above what we find in most of our North Carolina reservoirs for largemouth bass.”
The average size of fish from the three samplings has shown improvement, too.
“Our mean length has actually increased over time, but I doubt it will continue to climb much higher given the other values,” Dorsey said.
“Overall, I think the bass population in High Rock is doing quite well in spite of the drought of 2002.”
Ironically, the drought itself may have helped the bass population.
“The lake was virtually inaccessible for a month because of low water and the closing of boat ramps, so there wasn’t any fishing pressure to speak of,” Edwards said.
“The mortality rate on bass had to be very low. Hardly any dead largemouths were observed during the fish kills we had.
“Bass tournaments were switched from High Rock to Tuckertown or elsewhere. What little loss of bass those tournaments might have caused at High Rock didn’t take place. And there were fewer bank-fishermen.
“The grass that grew, though short-lived, provided extra cover for smaller fish. High Rock’s never had any grass.”
High Rock also escaped harm from the extended downpours succeeding the drought.
“Most of the nutrients that came into the (Yadkin) lakes probably passed right through if they came in during some of the more sustained rainfall events,” Dorsey said. “The flow most likely prevented them from being taken up by microscopic plants.
“However, during the shorter duration rainfall events, I would think nutrients were washed into the lakes and taken in by phytoplankton and passed up the food chain as normal.
“Overall, we may have seen a decrease in nutrients available to the food chain given the timing and duration of some of the flood events.
“However, it’s safe to say we did not see a reduction in nutrients that was large enough to hurt the fish population.”
Bass tournament results from the past two springs have been comparable to spring tournaments held prior to the drought.
From March 29 through May 4, 2003, anglers needed five-fish tournament limits of 20 pounds or more to win weekend events at High Rock.
In the March 29 National Bass Circuit event, Bill Noah of Thomasville and Mike Miller of Sophia had a five-fish haul totaling 28.37 pounds, an average of better than 5 pounds per fish.
The outstanding catch prompted Noah, a veteran High Rock angler, to proclaim: “The fishing’s as good at High Rock as it ever was.”
Three other teams caught five-fish tournament limits weighing over 20 pounds in the same event.
At the April 19 Anglers Advantage tournament (the trail is now defunct), 35 teams weighed in 473.78 pounds of bass with 23 teams catching their five-fish tournament limits.
All told, 140 bass were caught, averaging 3.38 pounds each. Five bass over 6 pounds were weighed in, and one bass tipped the scales at 7.12 pounds.
Last spring, a similar scenario held true, with 20-pound stringers winning weekend tournaments from March 20 through May 29 except for the weekends of April 25 and May 1, when poor fishing conditions dropped the top weights below 20 pounds.
At a March 21 tournament, Winston-Salem’s Ladd Whicker and Steve Sink brought in a catch of 27.58 pounds anchored by an 8.56-pound bass.
Their biggest bass wasn’t big enough to take big-fish honors. Dale Lewis and Dusty Taylor, both of Thomasville, captured the award with a 9.33-pound bass, a trophy fish for High Rock.
Edwards said High Rock has also come back economically.
“When the drought shut the lake down, I lost all of my guide business,” he said. “But my business has been steadily growing the past two years. Fishermen are coming back to High Rock.”
In April at High Rock, anglers must determine whether the fish are in the pre-spawn or spawning mode.
During the first part of the month, the fish prepare to migrate into the shallows to spawn; from mid-April and into May, the fish are spawning.
Since weather conditions can hasten or delay the spawn, the most reliable determinant is water temperature. Once it reaches the lower 60s, the fish will start to bed.
Prior to that, pre-spawn bass will stage in 2 to 6 feet of water on gravel points near creek mouths and on rocky corners within the creeks. The fish prefer hard bottoms to mucky ones.
“One way of knowing if you’re fishing a hard bottom is to look for pine trees along the bank,” said Lexington’s Charlie Kingen, who guides for Edwards. “Pine trees grow on hard bottoms.”
For pre-spawn bass in clear water, Kingen fishes jigs, Texas-rigged crawdad plastics and what he calls “ink pen plastics” (straight, thick-bodied soft baits). In dingy water, he opts for spinnerbaits and lipless crankbaits.
Edwards adds small crankbaits to his arsenal under clear-water conditions.
A slow bite indicates the fish have moved into the creeks to spawn.
Once the fish begin spawning, they can be found in the backs and pockets of creeks. Noted spawning areas are Bucks Branch in Flat Swamp and the backwaters in Second Creek.
Under high-water conditions, spawning fish linger beneath buttonwood bushes and at the base of trees where they’re taken by pitching jigs and plastic lizards or by swimming floating worms through the shrubbery. Jigs in black/blue combinations and plastics in green pumpkin, red shad or plum are productive colors.
Chartreuse-skirted spinnerbaits prevail in muddy water.
Under low-water conditions, the fish hold in the front of piers or near stumps where they’re susceptible to small crankbaits, jigs and Texas-rigged plastics. Piers abound in Abbotts, Second and Swearing creeks.
“Some of my best catches during the spawning season have come around piers once the water dropped,” Edwards said.
High Rock is often stained, so sight-fishing is limited, yet Lexington’s Chris Baldwin has had success with this technique.
Baldwin fishes for bass not as yet locked onto their nests, a situation that occurs when the water temperature ranges from 58 to 60 degrees.
He starts with a floating worm. He fishes the floating worms as if a fish that doesn’t strike the bait on the initial cast isn’t going to hit it at all. Thereafter, however, he uses a jig or tube bait, and when he switches to these he will repeatedly sweep the bait under the fish. Eventually, the fish may strike.
Edwards employs the same sweeping technique to aggravate bedding bass into striking, favoring a black jig, but he’d rather catch fish another way.
“I hate sight-fishing at High Rock because the water color can change overnight,” he said.
Baldwin also recognizes the shortcomings of sight-fishing.
“Few tournaments are won by sight-fishing at High Rock,” he s
“There’s not enough clear water, and what clear water there is, gets worked over by too many fishermen.”
Only scattered stubble remains of the vegetation that grew during the drought.
The stubble snarls crankbaits, so more bass than usual have been taken on spinnerbaits, jigs and plastics the past two springs.
April showers frequently mean muddy water at High Rock. Given this situation, fishable water can be found between the bridges in Abbotts and Flat Swamp creeks and the backwaters in Second Creek.
Dorsey hasn’t sampled the fisheries at Tuckertown or Badin lakes since the dry spell, so there’s no electronic sampling data on these lakes to evaluate their post-drought status. There is, however, feedback of anglers.
Federal Energy Regulatory Commission operating licenses for the two lakes dictated much of what happened to their bass fisheries during the drought.
The operating license of the Yadkin Division of APGI stipulates Tuckertown Lake must stay within 3 feet of full pool.
Consequently, Tuckertown’s water level wasn’t affected much by the drought, but the lake’s bass fishery experienced relentless fishing pressure from tournament anglers once tournaments shifted from High Rock to the 2,500-acre lake.
Tournament catches declined until it took only 10 to 14 pounds to win at Tuckertown instead of the customary 18 to 20 pounds.
Once High Rock reopened, the fishing improved at Tuckertown.
Water movement triggers the bass bite at Tuckertown. The lake is generally pulled during the week rather than on weekends, and the fish react accordingly. Sunday is the poorest day because water seldom gets pulled on Sunday.
Many anglers target grass and tree laps in April.
If the water is clear, Edwards and Kingen probe the greenery and wood with floating worms for pre-spawn bass. The fish also hold on gravel points and high spots where they’ll hit lipless and shallow-running crank-baits. The stump-ridden ridges and creek mouths at Lick and Cabin creeks also produce.
Bedding fish can be found in grassy pockets at the backs of creeks, such as Ellis (Newsom’s) and Riles creeks, where they’re taken on jigs and spinnerbaits.
Sight-fishing opportunities are few at Tuckertown because of muddy conditions in the spring. When the lake turns red, fishermen resort to big-bladed spinnerbaits, blue/black jigs or orange-colored lipless crankbaits.
Because High Rock’s generating efficiency depends upon Badin Lake being no more than 5 feet below full pool and because of operating license restrictions, APGI dropped Badin sparingly during the drought.
On July 20, 2002, Badin was 4.28 below full pool, not much of a drawdown for a lake over 100 feet deep, but low enough for APGI to close the Garr Creek access.
Many of the boat ramps at Badin were constructed without making allowances for low water levels since the lake rarely fluctuated more than 2 feet.
The poor boating access saved Badin from receiving the heavy fishing pressure that plagued Tuckertown once High Rock shut down.
Badin, however, did take the plunge after the drought.
In December 2003, the FERC gave APGI permission to drop the lake so APGI could study the effects of low water levels upon fish habitat and to determine if such drawdowns could be used to reduce the drawdowns at High Rock in future situations.
On Dec. 15, Badin was 16.57 feet below full pool. Local residents hadn’t seen the water that low in over 40 years. By Dec. 17, the refilling process began.
The drawdown revealed a bass fishery of surprising numbers. In five days of fishing, David Wright, Gerald Beck, Dale “Red” Leonard and the late Homer Biesecker, all of Lexington, caught 258 largemouth bass, giving Wright cause to raise the question, “Where do all these fish go when the water level is up?”
For pre-spawn fish, Badin anglers like cuts and pockets along the main lake where the fish are caught on spinnerbaits, small crankbaits and jerkbaits. Shad Raps wiggled through the branches of tree laps also produce.
Since Badin usually stays clear in the spring, especially the Beaverdam and Lake Forest sections, sight-fishing can be effective for bedding fish.
Edwards and Baldwin rank Badin as one of the best sight-fishing lakes in the state.
In Badin’s clear waters, white jigs and tube baits are the baits of choice for spawning bass.
Topwater baits and floating worms come into play when bass start swimming along with their fry.
The Yadkin River lakes have survived the worst of what Mother Nature has sent their way. Despite fears that bass fishing would decline at these waters because of the drought, the Yadkin’s bounce-back bass still offer some of the best fishing in the state.