Anglers on their way to the coast often overlook the freshwater fishing in Brunswick County -- but bypassing Boiling Spring Lakes bass is a big mistake.
Photo by Ron Sinfelt
Imagine a town with a seemingly endless number of lakes dotting the landscape, with each lake forming its own unique habitat. Herons, egrets, ospreys and other fishing birds line the shorelines. Alligators, turtles and water snakes peer from their basking places among the lily pads. Some of the lakes are not much more than puddles and fractions of an acre in size. One is relatively big, encompassing 275 acres in surface area and offering many miles of fish-holding shoreline.
Some shorelines are pristine, while one lake in particular has docks with boats resting against them waiting for their captains to take them on fishing excursions. Some are so shallow an angler can wade across them. The biggest has water depths that drop as far as 35 feet.
Amazingly, there is such a town in North Carolina: the town of Boiling Spring Lakes. Its 53 lakes are largely the result of natural forces. Limestone underlies the sandy surface soils. Caverns in the bedrock allowed sinkholes to form that robbed the surface of sand and soil in a similar fashion to the way an hourglass flows sand through its waist. The natural water table of the surrounding pine ridges and wetlands filled the sinkholes with water over eons of time. But humans have lent a helping hand at creating this fishing paradise as well.
Boiling Spring Lakes is named for a large, flowing spring that bubbles forth its water just downstream of Alton Lennon Drive, which crosses the Sanford Dam and impounds the waters of Big Lake. Located at one end of the dam is a boating access area that was built and is maintained by the town. It has generous parking, an excellent boat ramp and a dock where fishing is allowed as well.
"The dam had some leaks caused by holes in the underlying limestone about four years ago," said Boiling Spring Lakes Public Works Director Larry Moudlin. "The lake was drawn down and the leaks were plugged by using geotechnical fabric and pipe clay."
An earlier repair in an attempt to solve the same problem was made around 20 years ago by the pumping of concrete under pressure to fill the underground caverns that had drained the lake. A dam failure would have jeopardized a railroad link to Sunny Point Military Ocean Terminal, so repairing the dam and keeping it sound is a top priority for the town and the military. This time, the repairs to the dam seem to be holding up well, with no noticeable seepage.
"We restocked the three main lakes with fish three years ago," Moudlin said. "The lakes have crappie, some huge catfish, bream, chain pickerel and lots of largemouth bass."
Indeed, the bass fishing has been excellent for "keeper"-sized fish in the past year. However, that could improve dramatically this spring, when many of the stocked largemouth bass reach sizes of 2 to 4 pounds and fish have time to spawn more fish that will be moving up into the keeper-sized ranges. The black bass limit in the lakes is the standard limit, with five fish allowed in the creel with two fish allowed to be less than 14 inches, while the remainder must be greater than 14 inches in length.
The most popular fishing lakes in Boiling Springs Lakes are also the largest. Upstream of 275-acre Big Lake are Middle Lake at approximately 10 acres in size, West Lake at approximately 10 acres in size and North Lake, which is about 7 acres in size. West Lake and Middle Lake are accessible from Dam Road. North Lake is accessible from East Lakeview Drive. Another popular lake upstream of Big Lake is Pine Lake, at about 6 acres. Pine Lake is accessible from East Boiling Spring Road.
"Many of our lakes have private property surrounding them," Moudlin said. "They are not open for fishing to the general public because there is no public access to them. But any lake that is touched by a public street right-of-way can be accessed for fishing from the right-of-way."
Big Lake is the only lake in the town where the use of gasoline-powered boats is allowed. The maximum length of boats that are used on Big Lake is restricted to 25 feet, but there is no horsepower restriction. The other lakes with public access can be fished from the bank or from paddle-powered boats or boats equipped with electric trolling motors.
"North Lake has a floating dock that also serves as a fishing platform," Moudlin said. "The town police sponsor a kid's fishing tournament there each year."
The floating platform has an unusual history. Officials with the U.S. Coast Guard at the Oak Island Coast Guard Station called the town and explained that one of their vessels had towed in a dock found floating seven miles out in the Atlantic Ocean that posed a hazard to navigation. It was a nearly complete dock, with decking, floats, seating benches, rails and a wooden walkway. All that was needed was to add some railing along one side and to set it up on pilings.
"We used a truck and a crane to move the platform to the lake," Moudlin said. "It's handicapped accessible and I hear the fishing from the platform is excellent."
When the Big Lake was drawn down to allow the dam to be repaired, many surviving fish became concentrated in the shallow water remaining in small pockets. Anglers were alarmed that so many fish were being caught by other anglers and that other predators in the over-crowded pools that remained were eating so many bass. However, the restocking program will take care of any concerns they may have had about fish restoration.
When the lake was initially refilled, plant growth during the period that the lakebed was dry began to decompose. This created a system that was starved of oxygen. Therefore, NCWRC biologists recommended a waiting period before any fish could be restocked for the best success.
When Big Lake was drawn down for repairs to the dam, the two lakes upstream of Big Lake, Middle Lake and West Lake were also dewatered. Therefore, these became the three lakes that were the focus of the restocking efforts. North Lake was not dewatered during the dam repairs at Big Lake and was therefore not restocked. No other lakes in the town were restocked because their fish were unaffected by the drawdown and dam repairs.
"We still draw down Middle Lake and West Lake in winter," Moudlin said. "It cuts down on the growth of shoreline vegetation by allowing it to dry up and to freeze. We also use Big Lake, Middle Lake and West Lake for flood control. Whenever a hurricane is predicted to impact the area, we draw the three lakes down to prevent them from overfilling from the rain and causing damage to the dams. We can lower the upper two la
kes as much as 4 feet."
Any savvy bass angler knows that lakes with levels that are periodically lowered and restored can produce some large catches of big largemouth bass. Drawdowns can increase nutrients, desirable aquatic vegetation, increase spawning success and cut down on overpopulation by stunted panfish like bluegills and crappie by allowing predatory fish like bass to have easier access to them.
Combined with water that is not as acidic as most North Carolina coastal bay lakes due to its limestone underpinnings, the lake management regime for the three main lakes at Boiling Springs Lakes should hold the potential to create excellent growth in largemouth bass fishing. Increasing the potential for good bass fishing is that the first few years after a lake is dewatered, refilled and restocked are usually the best fishing years in the life cycle of any lake.
Still, anglers should not overlook the smaller lakes among Boiling Spring Lakes. About a dozen of them are accessible from public rights-of-way. But anyone who knows a property owner on one of the "private" lakes can obtain permission to cross his property to access the fishing on the lake. Many of these lakes have always hosted excellent bass fishing and most have mowed and landscaped borders that allow easy fishing from the bank or an easy slide-in for a canoe or kayak.
Since the lakes at Boiling Spring Lakes offer a varied number of habitats, they also require a number of different approaches for successful bass fishing.
The smaller lakes offer anglers a quick-hit style of fishing. They are perfect for an hour or two of fishing before and after work. Often only a few dozen casts are required to cover the entire lake and see whether the fish are in a cooperative mood. In June, some of the smaller lakes are covered with filamentous algae and lily pads, which create shady ambush areas for largemouth bass and problems with casting lures to get to them for anglers.
Most anglers use topwater lures rigged to be weed- and snag-free for fishing the smaller lakes. Floating soft-plastic worms works particularly well for small-water bass casting. Rigged with just enough weight to allow them to sink very slowly, the worms are tossed onto a pad or algae bed, then reeled, wriggled and jiggled until they reach holes at the edge of the vegetation.
Any lure fished this way produces vibrations that can be felt by every bass within 20 feet of it. Often the pads and algae are rippling from bass swimming toward the lure as it slithers from the surface cover and into the water.
Hard-plastic or wood surface poppers, soft hollow-bodied slug-type floating lures, swimming surface lures and buzzbaits can also catch plenty of fish from the smaller water bodies. The best time to use commotion-creating topwater baits is at dawn, dusk and at night.
All of the larger lakes have similar floating and emergent vegetation cover along the shorelines and at the shallower, upstream ends. The same lures that work for the small-water lakes will work just as well at these locations.
The larger lakes (in particular, Big Lake) have boat docks and fishing piers lining the shoreline. These docks offer the shade and ambush cover sought out by summer bass. Many dock owners also tie evergreen boughs beneath their docks to attract panfish, such as crappie. Some also have added lights, which attract small baitfish and insects in the evenings where bass can find them. Therefore, docks offer the best hard structure cover on any of the lakes. There are some areas with submerged cypress stumps and a few trees that also attract bass.
Soft plastics and crankbaits are popular with fishermen casting to docks and stumps. A good idea is to head to the lakes in fall or winter when the water levels have been lowered and take photographs of the shoreline. The bottoms of the lakes are relatively clean of debris. Therefore, anything solid that sticks up from the bottom can potentially hold a fish or two once the lake level has been restored in spring and summer.
Kayaks, canoes and small johnboats are popular for fishing the lakes, since most of the lakes are small. Wind can be a problem on the larger lakes. But it is usually no problem in finding a lake with a lee shore where fishing from a paddle-propelled or electric-powered boat is possible.
The street rights-of-way are very well maintained and offer lots of bank-fishing potential. There is a guardrail along much of Alton Lennon Drive and an enclosure surrounding the spillway of Big Lake that keeps anglers and other people away. However, there is still plenty of bank access for anglers along the right-of-way and fishing is allowed from the boat dock at the ramp, as well as from the access area parking area. The dock is long enough to moor three or four boats and has an L-shaped section at the end where anglers can reach out beyond any shoreline vegetation to make a few casts.
As water warms in summer, especially during the bright daylight hours, largemouth bass will head for the deepest, coolest water in the lakes. Fishing near the dams of Big Lake and the mid-sized lakes -- Middle, West and North lakes -- is a good bet. Anglers use deep-running crankbaits, jigs and soft plastics rigged Carolina style with slip-sinkers or pegged weights to probe the depths. While using a Carolina-rigged soft plastic cast in the 35 feet of water near the Big Lake Dam may take an ounce of lead to reach the bottom, the shallower 4- to 10-foot depths near the dams of the other lakes upstream of Big Lake will take a couple of split shot or a 1/4-ounce slip-sinker.
Finding Boiling Spring Lakes is something an angler must do on purpose, not by accident. The town is located off the most heavily beaten paths to the beaches. It is situated in western Brunswick County and roughly bounded on the east by N.C. Highway 133 and bisected along its western edge by N.C. Highway 87. The best way to see one of the lakes for the first time is by taking N.C. 87 south off U.S. 17 and traveling toward Southport in a detour from what most consider a thoroughfare to the beach.
N.C. 87 crosses the dam between Big Lake and Middle Lake and the view is spectacular. It is a view most beach-bound anglers miss.
But on days when it's too windy to fish in the surf and from the piers, or when a rest from the hot sands of the beach and sunburn is in order, or if an angler simply prefers casting for bass over saltwater species, the trip to Boiling Spring Lakes is well worth the tiny amount of effort it takes to get there. Any speckled trout rig can serve double duty as a bass rod or an angler can pack along some bass-specific tackle. The fishing is free and it is easy. All an angler has to is be able to find the water and hit it with a cast to get in on some great freshwater action at the myriad lakes chock-full of largemouth bass.
An official street map of the town showing the many lakes is available at Boiling Spring Lakes Town Hall, 9 Boiling Spring Rd., Boiling Spring Lakes, N.C. 28461, telephone (910) 845-2614.