A triple play of summertime bass reservoirs awaits North Carolina anglers who love to lip largemouths.
Photo by Ron Sinfelt
Most bass fishermen look longingly in their rearview mirrors as spring turns into summer. Going down the bank, fishing visible cover, casting to fish that are shallow and hungry -- it's just so elementary.
But when the water warms up and those same fish move out into deeper areas of your favorite reservoir, things get a little dicey for a lot of anglers. They have to use their depthfinders, which a lot of them don't understand or don't trust. Many of them don't understand how fish relate to those humps and ditches and dropoffs they see on their LCD screens. Some of them throw out marker buoys as casting targets to mark something they think is down there.
And after all, they just don't bite as well during the summer, do they?
Well, in a word, yes, they do. At least some places.
Take, for example, three wonderful reservoirs in the Piedmont region of North Carolina: Buggs Island (Kerr) Lake, Jordan Lake and High Rock Lake. None of them are tremendously deep reservoirs. All of them are fed by a lot of very nice, large creeks. None of them would ever be considered "clear" by any stretch of the imagination. All of them have a very strong rung at the bottom of the food-chain ladder: great populations of baitfish.
And for some glorious reason, all of those features (and some others) cause or allow bass to bite on those three reservoirs when the weather is pushing 90 degrees and more pages on the calendar have been throw away than are remaining.
At least three fishermen in North Carolina appreciate this phenomenon. David Wright is a retired teacher who has been winning bass tournaments across North Carolina since the high school students he taught up until a few years ago were in diapers. A native of Lexington, he's one of the crankbait mafia that put nearby High Rock Lake on the map as one of North Carolina's best summertime fisheries.
Phil Cable of Holly Springs used to tournament fish. One afternoon in 1992, he made a name for himself almost overnight when he lifted a 14-pound, 6-ounce Jordan Lake bass over the gunwales of his bass boat. That lake-record fish was the kick off for a great two or three years of tournament fishing that Cable abruptly ended in the late 1990s when he quit fishing for cash and opened a guiding business.
And Joel Richardson of Kernersville has Wright and Cable covered on both sides. He's been a tournament fisherman almost since he was old enough to get his driver's license. He won enough money to buy a little cottage on the banks of his favorite lake -- Buggs Island -- where he could guide whenever he wasn't off at Lake Okeechobee or Lake Sinclair or the Louisiana delta trying to cash a big check against the Rick Clunns and Kevin Van Dams of the world. He knows and appreciates that the bass-fishing season doesn't end at Buggs Island when the water drops out of the bushes and fish take up residence somewhere other than the base of a flooded gum tree.
Wright said that a number of different factors go into High Rock being a great lake during the summer. "All around," he said, "the fishing is better at High Rock during the summer than the rest of the year. There are not many lakes that can compare with it in July and August. When it gets real hot, they don't bite that way at many other lakes.
"It's an easy place to fish in the summer. There are always some shallow fish around boat docks, especially if the water (level) isn't down more than a foot or so, and you can catch 'em shallow at High Rock a lot of times better that you can catch 'em out. You can catch 'em out to 9 or 10 feet deep, and you can also catch 'em around docks."
Being a fan of deep-diving crankbaits, however, Wright roots for the water level to drop several feet after Memorial Day, when bass have normally recovered from their post-spawn blues and moved off the bank and toward deeper water to feed and replenish their energies. If the water is down, fish will move to little breaks and dropoffs, points and humps, and there is no real trouble finding or catching them, as long as you understand the kind of cover they like to use on that kind of offshore structure.
"At High Rock, you're not chasing baitfish because they're everywhere," Wright said. "You're fishing the cover. At High Rock, I'm only fishing for one fish on each piece of cover; I'm not hunting for a school. I'm looking for rocks and brush and stumps. You may be keying in on one kind of cover, maybe brush, but you don't pass up the chance to fish a rock or a stump."
Being a relatively shallow lake -- it also stays stained much of the year -- High Rock (15,900 acres) has a lot of nice little dropoffs and humps and points where fish may be holding 100 yards off the bank but still be in less than 10 feet of water. The magic depth, Wright says, is often between 9 and 12 feet deep. It's a rare bass at High Rock that is caught at more than 15 feet below the surface, in part because a majority of the good structure and cover is in that 10-foot range.
"An ideal situation for me in July is if the water is down 3 feet; you can catch fish out on those little breaks," said Wright, whose favorite crankbait is a Zoom Z3 in either chartreuse/ brown or white/brown. Because it dives down to 10 or 12 feet, "It's an ideal bait for High Rock when they're off the bank."
If he can't get a crankbait bite off a favorite stump, he'll turn to a huge, 10-inch Zoom Ole Monster worm, and he'll fish it Texas-rigged with a 1/2- to 3/4-ounce bullet weight.
If the water level is up and he thinks more fish will be shallow, he'll fish his big worm around boat docks and other kinds of shallow cover. He's partial to long sea walls.
"If the water is up, boat docks are where they're gonna be -- or around sea walls along the bank," he said. "I fish both the main lake and creeks, because you can't pinpoint where the fish are going to be. A certain creek can be real hot for a week or so, then it will change."
Cable's huge fish was caught in the spring, but it is the summer when he is most comfortable fishing Jordan or any of the other lakes around the Raleigh-Durham area. Like Wright, he is a deepwater expert, a lover of big-lipped diving plugs and structure fishing.
Jordan, he says, is the top lake for "traditional" summertime bass fishing in his part of the state. It has an abundance of the kinds of offshore structure and cover that attract bass when hot water forces them to live off the banks, from long, stumpy flats that drop off abruptly into winding creek c
hannels, to long points, to humps and even submerged roadbeds.
"What makes Jordan better, I think, is as much what it doesn't have," said Cable (919/815-1185). "It doesn't have any grass, and it doesn't have too many schooling fish. The bass have to move out and live on that offshore structure because that's where the baitfish live during the summer."
Bass usually move off the bank and toward deep water around the first of June, and Cable will search for them in 8 to 10 feet of water. As the summer progresses and the water warms up even more, they move progressively deeper, but Cable rarely has to fish much deeper than 15 to 18 feet.
On a daily basis, it's just a matter of finding the kinds of spots on which bass are holding, and which depth range, then matching up different places with similar characteristics.
"There are a lot of community holes, and you've got to fish them to see if the fish are there. They get a lot of pressure, and a lot of times they'll quit biting on those spots for a while, but you've got to check them out. They're community holes because they produce a lot of fish, and you need to know that," Cable said.
Probably the "biggest" community hole is a submerged railroad bed that enters the lake in Little Beaver Creek and runs all the way to Farrington Point, crossing the lake in a number of different areas. On top, at normal summer pool, it's about 15 feet deep, which puts it within reach of the deep-diving crankbaits that Cable likes to throw, as well as Carolina- and Texas-rigged plastics and tailspinners.
"Ninety-five percent of the time, I'll cast shallow and bring a bait out into deep water," Cable said. "I'll fish it first with a crankbait, and if I think I'm on a spot where I should be catching fish, I'll fish it with a Carolina rig or a big Texas rig if I don't get a bite on a crankbait. There are times when fish will bite soft plastics when they won't bite a crankbait, and times when they'll bite a crankbait when they won't bite soft plastics."
Cable's favorite baits are Poe's Series 400 and 400P crankbaits in all shades of chartreuse. His favorite is the "homer" color -- chartreuse with a green back, but he fishes chartreuse/brown, chartreuse/blue and occasionally a bone or shad pattern. In plastics, he prefers a ZetaBait "Ringo" -- a centipede-type bait -- when he Carolina rigs, and a 10-inch Gillraker worm with a 1/2-ounce bullet weight when he hops a Texas rig down a drop. His fourth go-to bait is a Little George tailspinner, which he casts into shallow water and hops and drags down a bank toward deep water.
Impounded in the early 1980s and covering 14,300 acres, Jordan was one of North Carolina's best trophy-bass lakes in the 1990s. Managed by the N.C. Wildlife Resources Commission with a 16-inch size minimum, Jordan spit out a lot of big bass for a good 10 years. Cable said, however, that fishermen shouldn't come to Jordan expecting to catch a lot of lunkers.
"It's a real lake now, not a new lake," he said. "I can't count the number of 8-pound fish I've caught out of Jordan, but I can count the number I've caught in the last year or two -- because there haven't been many.
"When you fish offshore structure like this, you catch a lot of 2 1/2- to 4-pound fish, with an occasional 5 or 6. You don't catch many dinks," Cable said. "You look at the tournament weights, and you still see good weights, but what you don't see are the really big fish anymore. You'll hear of a 7- or an 8-pounder every once in a while.
"Back about 10 years ago, if you had a good day fishing a crankbait, you might have 10 or 12 keepers, and you'd have maybe a couple of 5s or 6s, and probably at least one 7 or 8. Now, you get plenty of 3s and 4s, and maybe a 5 or a 6."
Like Jordan and High Rock, Buggs Island (49,500 acres) has a lot of wonderful offshore structure, according to Richardson. "It's also has a lot of baitfish, and you've got different-colored water all over the lake. You can go down and fish clear water near the dam, or you can go up and fish shallow, colored water up toward the river," said Richardson, who posts Buggs Island fishing reports on his Web site
Richardson does most of his damage on the main lake and around the mouth of major creeks. In the summer, he prefers to stay in the mid-lake area, from around North Bend upstream to the Island Creek area. He'd rather fish the fairly clear water on the main lake than fish stained water back in the creeks.
"I like to fish around the mouth of the big creeks, the mouth of the small creeks that dump into the main lake, and around big bays," he said. "One good thing about fishing the mouth of creeks, I believe, is that there will be a good topwater bite in the morning -- or all day if it's cloudy.
"I'll throw a topwater until about 10 o'clock every morning, either a Zara Spook or a white Zoom trick worm," Richardson said (336/803-0370). "I normally like to fish a topwater around steep, rocky points that I know have stumps or rocks -- some kind of cover. I like to throw across the point. I'll try to sit my boat at least 12 feet deep and throw up across the top in 3 to 10 feet of water. Those bass will come up a long way in the summer to get a topwater bait."
When that morning topwater bite fizzles out, however, Richardson follows Cable and Wright out to the offshore structure -- drops, humps, long points -- with a deep-diving crankbait.
"That summer bite will start at Buggs Island by mid-June, and from the middle of June all the way through July, that's the best time to fish at Buggs Island. That time of year is the best time to catch a big school of bass on one spot. You might catch 15 in 15 casts," he said. "You might find a school of little fish or a school of 3- or 4-pounders. Or you might wind up just catching one here and one there.
"When I move off the bank, I'm looking for high spots and long, tapering points that have some kind of cover: rocks, brush or stumps. You can catch more fish on rocks in the early part of the summer than anything else. I always sit deep and throw shallow and try to crank that bait off the ledge."
Richardson divides his cranking time between three main baits: a Zoom Z400, a Mann's 20-Plus and a Bill Norman DD-22. He prefers shad and chartreuse color variations. If he can't get a crankbait bite, he'll either Carolina rig or Texas rig the Zoom Ole Monster worm.
"There are times when it seems like they'll bite one bait better than the other," he said.
There is one thing that will send Richardson running from his normal spots -- an extremely windy day.
"If I get a good, windy day and if I don't feel like I can sit out and fish offshore, then I'll run up the lake to the Clarksville area," he said. "Even in July, you can catch a fish on a spinnerbait up there on deep, rocky bluff banks that have the wind blowing in on 'em, or pockets with logjams that have the wind on 'e
"There are more steep, bluff-type banks up in that part of the lake, and fish will relate to them, even very shallow fish. You can fish those places with a spinnerbait, and you can even fish those kinds of places with a Rat-L-Trap and catch 'em."
This summer, if you're tempted to think that the bass just aren't biting, remember that they're out there somewhere, they have to eat, and they'll have reasons for feeding at some places and not others. You figure those reasons out, and the fishing can be as easy as pre-spawn angling in April.