For bass anglers, April is prime time -- and Shearon Harris is a prime destination. (April 2006)
Years ago, you could have played "I've Got a Secret" with bass fishermen across North Carolina, and if your secret was Shearon Harris Lake near Sanford, you would have been fairly sure you'd wind up a winner.
Yep, it wasn't too terribly long ago, in the early 1990s, when a good bass fisherman from the Raleigh-Durham area wouldn't have even considered bypassing the tremendous fisheries at Falls of Neuse Lake and B. Everett Jordan Lake to spend a day on the little reservoir in southern Wake County hard by U.S. Route 1.
But like a moth coming out of its cocoon, Shearon Harris has become a dynamite fishery, arguably one of the best lakes in the Southeast for big largemouths. If it was three times as large as its 4,100 acres, it would be known everywhere.
With tremendous numbers of healthy bass cruising its grassy coves, its rocky points and winding creek channels, Harris is a wonder of a fishery. It produces great numbers and great big fish.
And April is prime time for catching some of both. With bass getting ready to spawn, they're likely to be moving toward the shallows on a handful of creeks that feed the Cape Fear River.
Phil Cable of Holly Springs, the guy who let the cat out of the bag when he and a partner brought in a sack of 10 bass that weighed almost 60 pounds in a tournament on Harris, said that any fisherman who doubts that the lake is one of North Carolina's best needs only to put the bow of his boat up against the bank in April, then scan the banks on either side of his trolling motor and start counting the number of fish cruising the sandy shallows or finning on spawning beds.
Cable doesn't tournament fish anymore, but he spends a lot of days every year guiding on Shearon Harris, He and Jeffrey Thomas, a bass pro from Broadway who also guides on Harris, can quote chapter-and-verse about the lake's largemouths -- and how great the fishing can be in the spring.
"There will be more bass on the bank in April at Harris than anywhere I've ever fished, even Florida," Thomas said. "When they move up, they all move up."
And following that move is what makes for great fishing, the two fishermen agree. The peak of the spawn is likely to hit from the second week of April to the end of the month, depending on when the full or new moons hit and how quickly the water has warmed into the 60s.
"Harris is one lake where you can always find some fish (offshore), but they'll be moving in April," Cable said (919-762-9697). "There used to be a real good crankbait bite in April, but not as much anymore. There will still be some crankbait fish in the 8- to 10-foot range, but now it's a great Senko bite right on the bank.
"There are plenty of fish in that lake, and most of the fish you'll catch in April will be from that 8-foot range right up to zero -- on the bank."
To many fishermen, a large part of Harris' allure is the two major aquatic grasses that choke its shallows during hot weather: primrose vines and hydrilla. After all, grass means bass. But in April, the grass isn't a big factor. In fact, Cable doesn't just ignore it -- he searches for banks to fish where there are no remnants of any kind of grass.
"I'll start the month throwing a 400 Poe's (crankbait) on some points as I go back in the creek," he said. "Those are the places they'll move before they get ready to spawn, and when they move in, you've got a lot of pure, clean shoreline at that time of the year. The hydrilla isn't up -- it won't be up until June -- and you have plenty of clean banks you can throw to, just back in the creeks and in pockets.
"They'll spawn all over the whole lake, but I live for clean banks. I don't target the primrose as much as I target banks that don't have it."
When he starts fishing shallow, Cable will throw a handful of baits: jerkbaits, small crankbaits, lipless crankbaits and Senko-type plastic baits.
"Once I get into the mouth of a creek, I put my trolling motor down and start catching fish," Cable said. "People who think this lake is fished out need to go in the spring to a bank where there's no hydrilla and just see how many are spawning."
When he's using a jerkbait, Cable likes a Rapala Husky Jerk, or Lucky Craft Pointer 78 and Pointer 100s. "You can't ignore a jerkbait. There is a great February-March bite here, but there will still be some fish on it in April. Fish are still looking up at this time of the year, and I've learned to have patience when I fish a jerkbait," said Cable, whose favorite April bait is a Berkley Gulp Minnow, a Senko-style bait.
Thomas has a handful of baits on which he relies, moving between them and switching up as the spawn progresses.
"In early April, there are going to be some spawners, but more pre-spawn fish," Thomas said (919-258-3757). "I like to fish pre-spawn fish better, so I'll throw a Berkley Frenzy, a lipless crankbait, on a 7-foot Skeet's custom fiberglass rod. I like to find windy, main-lake points or any point off a spawning flat and cast right up on the bank, then just slow-roll it out to about 3 to 6 feet deep.
"Early April is probably the best time to catch a really big fish at Harris because the big females will stage on those points before they go in, and a lipless crankbait has been a great bait for big fish. Last year, the biggest fish we caught was on a lipless bait," he said.
"The bass will stay in a pre-spawn pattern a lot longer than they'll spawn. They don't stay up long at all. With all the fishing pressure Harris gets, they get up there and get out of there."
As the month progresses, Thomas will still do some prospecting with a lipless bait, but more often than not, he's going to spend more time seining the bank with a floating worm, a plastic crawfish or a jig.
"After I start with a Frenzy, once the sun comes up, I'll go to a pink, 6-inch Berkley floating worm, fishing it on a baitcaster with 12-pound Magna Flex line," he said. "I'll key on the primrose and fish the edge right up against the bank. I'll work the edge of the grass and the little indentations in the grass. Fish aren't really holding on anything; they're mostly cruising, looking for places to spawn. They won't be any deeper than 3 feet. I'll fish the floating worm real slow, just twitching it along. You can keep it in front of them a long time.
"Later in the month, they'll go into a full spawn mode. You can almost bet by late April -- right before
the dogwoods get ready to go to full bloom -- they'll hit the bank That's when you get some of your best topwater fishing of the year, because you've got fish that are guarding fry and fish that are guarding beds. When they hit, it's an aggressive bite.
"I like to fish just a little bit deeper, because I think the bigger females will spawn there, on down to 4 or 5 feet. They'll spawn everywhere, and the beds are so obvious, but every once in a while you'll find a really big fish spawning in the middle of a pocket, in deeper water."
When he keys on bedding fish -- all of which he releases immediately -- Thomas likes to fish a 3-inch Gulp craw, Texas rigged on a 1/4- to 3/8-ounce slip-sinker, or a Lunker Lure jig. "I just want to drop it into the bed and mess with the fish a little bit to get it to bite. If the craw doesn't work, I'll go with a jig. With a craw, I like to fish something bright (colored), something I can see, like chartreuse. But if I get in an area with a real gold-colored bottom, I'll throw green pumpkin because I'll be able to see it."
Both Cable and Thomas are in love with the 16- to 20-inch size limit with which the North Carolina Wildlife Resources Commission manages Shearon Harris. That has knocked out much of the pressure from organized fishing tournaments, Thomas said. "There used to be four or five little club tournaments every weekend," he said, "but now, those guys want to weigh in fish, and at Harris, you can catch a fish that isn't quite 20 inches that might weigh 5 pounds."
Cable believes that the slot limit protects many of the fish, keeping them from being taken out of the lake for several years as they grow into the 5-pound range.
"The slot has definitely helped this lake," he said. "There are many fish caught that guys have to put right back. Sometimes, you'll catch a 20-inch fish that's a good 5-pounder. These fish are really healthy. There's an abundance of bait and plenty of food for them in the lake."