Two guides tell their secrets for catching bass on High Rock and Falls of the Neuse lakes in May. (May 2007)
Photo by Tim Lesmeister
A hundred miles apart, High Rock Lake and Falls of Neuse Lake are among North Carolina's best reservoirs for catching largemouth bass.
And May is a month when, on either body of water, a fisherman with the right kind of know-how can get rich, fishing-wise, in a hurry.
The key is being able to determine at what stage is the spring spawn. On both lakes, there will be quite a few bass fanning beds and depositing their eggs before Memorial Day arrives. The peak of the spawn at High Rock is typically during May; at Falls, it's closer to the end of April.
That's enough to point fishermen in several different directions, looking for fish that are actively feeding.
On High Rock, David Wright of Lexington, one of North Carolina's most successful bass fishermen, is hoping for certain things to happen, weather-wise, that will really turn on the bass. But he's afraid that recent trends that have changed the way the lake fishes will continue.
Kennon Brown of Roxboro has guided on Falls of Neuse Lake for more than a decade, taking full advantage of the huge fish that the 12,800-acre reservoir occasionally spits out. He works the entire length of the lake -- from the northern outskirts of Raleigh near the dam to the headwaters of the Neuse, Flat and Eno rivers north of Durham.
"May is an awesome time to fish on Falls Lake," Brown said (919/358-3207). "But it can be a time of big transition, too.
"You've got a lot of everything going on. You've got a lot of fish coming off from mid-lake to the lower end, and on the upper end, you'll have a lot of fish that are spawning or just fishing to come off -- in a mood not to do much of anything."
So, Brown has a handful of tricks up his sleeve, tactics that he expects to use throughout the month as conditions change and bass move through the spawn.
"What I'm gonna do is look in the upper end of the lake for fish that are either pre-spawn or spawning," said Brown, who operates Hawg Hunter Guide Service. "I'm going to be anywhere from Ledge Creek up to the I-85 bridge, and I'm going to be looking for little isolated pieces of cover in only a foot or two of water -- a laydown that's all by itself, a stickup no bigger than your thumb -- stuff that fish will relate to."
The upper end of the lake, from the Cheek Road bridge upstream past I-85 and to the mouth of the three small rivers, is a navigational nightmare. There's plenty of water in the narrow, winding Neuse River channel, but once you leave its perimeter, the lake consists of countless shallow, stump-studded flats extending from bank to bank. You can be comfortably riding along in the channel in 20 feet of water, make a wrong turn and find yourself in 18 inches of water on top of stumps.
But May is one of the easier -- make that less dangerous months -- to fish the upper end, Brown said, because typically, spring runoff will have filled the lake to the brim or above, leaving fishermen with several feet of water on top of those flats.
"If you've got high water, you don't have to worry as much about it being shallow up there," Brown said. "The way you fish will be totally controlled by the water level. If you have a lot of runoff coming into the lake from the spring rains, then the water level will be high, and fish will back up in the bushes and stay there until they come out. You go in there with a floating worm or a spinnerbait. They'll be in the backs of pockets, all over the bank, all up there in what I call that 'nasty' area where if you're out of the channel, you're in a stumpfield.
"From Ledge (creek) up to the I-85 bridge, you're fishing shallow, visible cover. What's the color of the water? If it's stained, you may want to go with a little different kind of spinnerbait -- instead of two willow-leaf blades, you may go to a bait with a single Colorado blade that puts off a lot more vibration so those fish can feel it in that dirty water. And you'll want to fish a big trailer on your spinnerbait. I use a Culprit double-tail, but I break off about 3 inches of it and thread it on the hook. I like to use a white trailer on a white spinnerbait."
Falls tends to stay a little on the stained side most of the year, so it can be a tough place to sight-fish for spawning bass -- shoot, it can be a tough place to even see fish to determine if they're spawning.
Brown figures that he's got at least one great indicator -- the lake's carp population.
"If the water level is up, there are plenty of bushes in the water to fish," he said. "What you're looking for when you're looking for spawning bass is carp. What happens at Falls Lake is, when you find carp thrashing around in the shallows, spawning, throwing their eggs up on the bank, the bass will come in right behind them to spawn," he said.
"Between Ledge and I-85, on the (Granville) county side, there are a lot of little islands along the bank with grass all around them, and the carp will get on them to spawn -- and the bass will be right behind them.
"I think the carp have disturbed the bottom, softened it up by thrashing around, and the bass can come in, wallow out a bed a lot easier and go to it.
"That's when something like a Fluke or a trick worm will really work."
Soft-plastic baits that at least "semi-float" like a Fluke or trick worm have long been excellent baits for spawning fish. Twitched slowly on light line with a spinning rod, the darting, sinking motion many fishermen use is a sure ticket for a strike from a bass that's guarding its nest from predators.
If Brown isn't interested in catching spawning fish -- especially later in the month -- he heads to the lower end of the lake, where bass have typically recovered from the spawn and are beginning to feed up again.
But he's still looking for a spawn -- only this time, it's gizzard shad spawning along rocky banks in extremely shallow water, flipping at the surface and drawing the attention of plenty of hungry cruising bass.
"If you find shad spawning, there will be bass roaming around," Brown said. "They'll already be off their beds and hungry, looking for shad around those rocks, where they can corral them. That's when you take a
(spinnerbait) and go to work."
Brown checks almost every rocky point or bank he knows, and he never passes up a riprapped bank without giving it a look for shad.
"If they're spawning, they'll be on any rock point or riprapped bank," he said. "They'll be going to it. What happens is, the bass will be 2 or 3 feet off the bank, behind them, trying to corral them up against the rocks."
Brown said that he tries to cast a handful of different lures right to the bank, retrieving them a couple of feet before reeling in and starting over. His favorites are a Fluke (bone or albino colors), a spinnerbait with three or four small willow-leaf blades, or a 1/4-ounce Rat-L-Trap.
"You cast right up on the rocks and work it off; you probably won't have to go 5 or 6 feet before you get bit -- if they're there," he said. "The bass will be holding right off the banks, working on those shad. They'll get up there roaming; you may catch a dozen fish in just a few minutes. You may get a lot of 1 1/2- to 3-pound fish, but you may also get a real bruiser fishing that way."
The shad spawn, Brown said, may last through the last half of May and past Memorial Day into June.
For years, Memorial Day was a holiday that David Wright really looked forward to, because it typically marked the end of the slow post-spawn period for bass on High Rock, a Yadkin River reservoir that makes up the border between Rowan and Davidson counties, east of Salisbury and southwest of Lexington. That's when Wright unloaded his tackle box and tied on medium-running crankbaits for the bass that normally ganged up on secondary points outside spawning areas, ready to feed up and recover from the rigors of reproduction.
However, the past two years, Wright said, High Rock has fished like a different lake. It's always been a great boat-dock lake in the spring and fall, but it has been a year-round boat-dock lake since 2004.
"Bass have gotten to where they don't like to hit a crankbait at High Rock anymore," lamented Wright, one of the top crankbait fishermen in the country. "They stay around the piers all the time now."
Wright believes that unusually high water levels in 2005 and 2006 have kept fish from moving out onto the lake's signature deep structure after the spawn. That hurts Wright, who knows most of the best offshore humps, points, drops and stumpfields on the 15,900-acre reservoir.
On the other hand, it's been a blessing for the average Joe Fisherman.
"The bass have changed their habits -- but there are still quite a few quality fish to be caught at High Rock," said Wright, who has fished the Wal-Mart BFL All-American and Bassmaster Weekend Series championship on numerous occasions. "Boat docks used to be a place where you could catch fish, but never big fish. The past two years, that's where they've been. I don't think High Rock has changed much as far as how many fish you catch -- just how."
Wright said that early May is the peak of the spawn at High Rock, but catching spawning fish is not easy -- at least not sight-fishing for them. High Rock is typically very stained, almost dingy in the spring, catching runoff from 80 upstream miles of the Yadkin River. "You catch spawning fish at High Rock, but you don't see them (first)," he said.
For years, Wright said, High Rock rarely reached full pool, even in the spring, because Yadkin Inc., which operates an aluminum smelting plant two reservoirs downstream at the town of Badin, kept the wheels running through the High Rock Dam hydroelectric plant, producing electricity. But the past two years, the water level has been abnormally high in the spring and stayed there the rest of the year.
"If you go back 10 years and check the water levels, you'd see that the past two years have been the highest levels ever," Wright said. "The lake used to stay down 4 or 5 feet all the time, and the bass would pull out on all kinds of different cover.
"If you look at the lake, from zero to 5 feet deep, there's no cover left -- except for boat docks. You go out into 10 feet of water and you start finding all kinds of cover -- but with the water up, they don't need to be that deep.
"You look at a boat dock, and you think, What else does a bass need? They've got a place to hide, shade, cover, shallow and deep water. Nothing else."
So, faced with catching bass in May, Wright has tended the past two years to go with the crowd, attacking the lake's boat docks -- which number literally in the thousands. High Rock having one of the most developed shorelines of any lake in North Carolina, nearly every one of the lake's major tributary creeks are dotted with piers and docks.
It becomes a matter of finding a "pattern" that's working -- figuring out what kind of docks are holding the most fish at any given time, and where those docks are located. Beyond that, it's a matter of catching them.
"When you find fish on boat docks, you have to go to the right ones," said Wright, a retired high-school business teacher. "Where you fish depends on the water clarity. If the water is dingy, I'll go to Flat Swamp (creek). If it's clear, I want to be in Second (creek)."
Wright said that most fishermen who are proficient at taking apart docks will be flipping jigs around pilings, ladders, crossbeams -- anything that's in the water that will hold fish, including brushpiles that many dock owners have sunk around their piers to attract crappie.
"If I could pitch or flip and jig under a dock the way a lot of guys can, that's probably the way to go," Wright said. "But I think with everybody fishing docks, you have to do something a little different."
And for Wright, that means picking up a spinning outfit spooled with 8-pound-test braided line and skipping a tiny worm up under docks, looking for fish that flippers and pitchers can't easily reach.
"I'm fishing a spinning rod and a finesse worm most of the time now," Wright said. "I fish a Zoom trick worm in June bug or black, and I'll fish it with a 1/16-ounce Tungsten weight pegged, on 8- or 10-pound braid, maybe with a short piece of 17-pound fluorocarbon leader.
"With that weight pegged, I can skip that little worm like a rock and get it back under the docks where people can't pitch or flip."
In the back of his mind, however, Wright is hoping that the high water the past two years is just part of a cycle, and that this spring, bass will return to their "normal" High Rock patterns -- spawning in May, starting the pre-spawn around Mother's Day and being totally off the bank and feeding like sharks come the last week of the month.
"Usually, around the end of May, you'll really
start catching them out on points. In years past, I'd have my crankbaits out by then," he said. "There is an extreme amount of difference between the first of the month and the end of the month. The first part is basically the largest part of the spawn; the end of May, there will barely be any fish left spawning.
"And it depends a little bit on what kind of spring you have. If you've got a later spring, you'll have more fish spawning; if you've got an early spring, almost all of them will be in post-spawn."