For some high-quality fall bass action, think small -- small lakes, that is. Rhodhiss, Mayo, Mountain Island and Roanoke Rapids have what you're looking for.
Photo by Ron Sinfelt
Ever had one of those days when you just couldn't wait to get on the water, when the bass were eating your spinnerbait all the way back to the trolling motor, when they sucked down every plastic worm or lizard you presented them, or when every crankbait they hit was swallowed so deep that you could barely see the bill?
Of course, for many anglers those days don't come as often as the days where they just anticipate having one of those days, only to miss that early bite because they were lined up for 90 minutes at the boat ramp, waiting their turn in line. Or those days when their wives gave them the cold shoulder because they missed dinner that afternoon, waiting another 90 minutes to get the boat out of the water.
Welcome to the land of fishing pressure. When you pull up to fish a point and there's already a bass boat there. And when it happens two or three times in the same morning. Or when you round the corner, heading back into a favorite pocket and there's already somebody in there. Or when you headed back into a creek to fish a stretch of productive boat docks only to find another boat halfway through that series of docks, with both guys in that boat smiling broadly.
If that happens to you too often, maybe it's time to look for less-crowded territory.
The first thing to do is to think small. The bigger, big-name lakes always draw more fishermen. Second, look for a lake that's off the beaten path, another country mile or two from the big city so the mob isn't as likely to show up there every Saturday.
The following are some suggestions for lakes that fit the bill.
Guide Kennon Brown of Roxboro has, almost at his back door, Lake Mayo, an impoundment on the Mayo River that doesn't see the raw number of fisherman that nearby Buggs Island Lake gets.
"It gets some traffic, but nothing like the others," Brown said (919-358-3207). "You're not gonna have to wait to put your boat in or take it out. It's fished, just not very heavily."
Mayo is a 2,800-acre lake in Person County near Roxboro. Brown said that it is an extremely clear lake and is filled with hydrilla, the aquatic grass that is known to grow bass.
"It's a good lake, good in the fall," Brown said. "It's got numbers and big fish. Most of the fish you catch, as far as quality fish, will be anywhere from 2 to 2 1/2 and 4 pounds, but there will be some line stretchers that will go 8 to 10. Those are spring fish, but you'll occasionally catch one in the fall. In the fall, you get a lot of the other sized fish, especially schooling."
Brown said that finding fish is as easy as finding the deep edge of the hydrilla beds. He said that the grass is fairly thick in the shallows, all the way out to the channel drops.
"There will be some schoolers that come up in the main channel when they can push the shad up," he said.
Normally, however, Brown starts with a topwater early in the morning, working the edge of the grass or waiting for schooling fish to blow up on shad. He likes three different baits: a Pop-R, Baby Chug Bug and Sammy 85.
"You've got a lot of inch-long threadfins -- young-of-the-year -- and you want to match the size of the forage. The Sammy is a little bigger, and it will draw a lot of attention," he said.
"What you want to do is go down the edge of the grass where it comes out to the channel and parallel it. It won't be all the way to the top, but you can see it beneath the surface. There will be a little bit of water over top of it.
"Some of the channel drops go all the way down to 30 feet, but most of them are from 10 to 15 feet; it will drop from 10 on the end of the flat to 15 in the channel. A lot of that depends on how far back you are in the creeks. And the mouth of coves can be out of sight."
As the day progresses, Brown stops focusing on the topwater bite -- unless it stays overcast all day -- and goes back to the same areas with a Carolina rig, since most fish will be holding along the bottom.
"I will drop down to a Carolina rig and run it right along the edge of the channel and grass, paralleling it again," he said. "You want to work it off the edge of the drop a little bit. There are two plastics that I like to use: a green pumpkin or watermelon seed Zoom lizard, and a 7-inch hand-poured worm from Live Line Baits in Washington. I like black with blue fleck; it really shows up good in that clear water. The only problem is, it's so soft, you'll only catch one or two fish on a worm before you have to change.
"Mayo is not a big lake; it's got a lot of main-lake pockets and some small tributary creeks. All you've got to do is find the edge of the grass; that's the best pattern on the whole lake in the fall. And if you get a cloudy day, the topwater action can be good all day."
Jerry Neeley, a long-time guide from Bessemer City, said he's almost surprised when he sees more than two or three boat trailers in the parking lot at Lake Rhodhiss, a 3,060-acre reservoir on the upper Catawba River near Morganton.
"There's nothing wrong with this lake, other than it's a little smaller," Neeley said (704-629-9288). "It's sort of an in-between lake (in between Lake James and Lake Hickory), and fishermen just don't seem to go there that much.
"The quality of the fishing is fabulous. You can catch a real nice stringer of bass just about every time you go. You can go up there and catch bass anytime, even in the dead of summer."
In the fall, Neeley runs two basic patterns. The shoreline at Rhodhiss is littered with laydown trees, some of which are left over from the area's bout with Hurricane Hugo, and Neeley pays special attention to them.
"At Rhodhiss, topwater fishing is very good around all of those blowdowns," he said. "I'll fish them the better part of the morning and late in the afternoon, and I can usually catch a nice stringer of fish just doing that. Sometimes they'll hit a Fluke, and I'll use a Chugger or Chugger Jr., and any of those propeller baits works well.
"On up into the middle of the day, I'll use a Carolina rig with a Zoom lizard or worm off the main-lake points and do pretty well."
Neeley said that he normally casts into about 10 feet of water with a Carolina rig and works it out into about 20 feet before it drops off into the old Catawba River channel. In October, he'll replace the Carolina rig with a crankbait.
"It's a fairly shallow lake," he said. "It's deep on the lower end, but the rest of it is shallow to me. Really, I fish all over it. You can fish it from one end to the other in a day, and you can tell the fish don't get hit too hard. You don't have to do too much to catch your limit. It really has to be a rough day not to catch a limit. There's just not that much pressure; the fish aren't shown that much."
Biologists have long indicated that Lake Rhodhiss is among the most fertile lakes on the Catawba River chain, even though it was impounded back in 1925. Fish growth rates are excellent, and the overall amount of fish in the lake is also tremendous. The lake is known to produce some whopper-sized stripers, and Neeley said that the number of crappie in the lake is incredible, even if size is a little lacking in some cases.
MOUNTAIN ISLAND LAKE
Chris Nichols, who hails from Gastonia, guides on Mountain Island Lake, 3,280 acres of water wedged in between Lake Wylie and Lake Norman on the Catawba River chain. The location is about all you need to know about the lack of fishing pressure on the lake, even though Nichols says, "If you go and see more than a handful of boats in a whole day, that's a bad day. And most of those guys will be striper fishing or catfishing. The fishing pressure on bass is minimal; you can go there and have a lot of fun."
Nichols said that Mountain Island is full of 1- to 3-pound bass, with an occasional 5- or 6-pounder showing up. In terms of quality, the bass more closely resemble fish from Lake Norman than Lake Wylie.
In September, bass will be in transition as the water starts to cool and baitfish start to move shallow and back in creeks. If it's been a long, hot, dry summer, bass will almost certainly be out on main-lake structure, such as humps, channel drops and long points that run close to the river channel. In that case, Nichols will either use a DD-22 crankbait, a Hopkins jigging spoon, a Little George tailspinner or Carolina rig a 4-inch Zoom finesse worm.
"Not many guys will fish a Little George, but when bass are deep, it's pretty deadly," he said. "I throw it as far as I can on 8-pound-test line, let it go to the bottom, wind up the slack and pull it off the bottom 4 to 6 feet, then let it flutter back down -- the way you'd fish a 1-ounce Hot Spot. It's deadly on bass, and it will catch a lot of big fish, too.
"You're looking to fish it on humps that come up 10, 12 or 15 feet off the bottom, or ledges that drop off into the river channel."
Nichols (704-868-2298) said that if you catch an early fall, or if the summer is fairly mild or wet -- keeping the water level fairly high -- baitfish will start back into shallow water in early September, setting up a totally different pattern.
"You'll be looking at throwing a Rat-L-Trap or Hot Spot, in 1/4- or 1/2-ounce sizes, across points, and you can get a pretty good topwater bite on a Heddon Chugger or even a buzzbait," he said. "Fish will hit a buzzbait if you fish it around laydowns and rocky points."
Nichols said that there are plenty of rip-rapped and rocky banks at Mountain Island that will hold baitfish and bass early in the fall. He likes to target those areas with a Rat-L-Trap or a No. 5 or No. 7 Shad Rap in natural or silver with a black back.
"Mainly, you're looking at a couple of creeks, and they're not that big, but the shad will move up in them, and the bass will go in right behind them. Sometimes the shad will surprise you; they'll move real early."
Nichols said that boat docks are an off-and-on producer of nice bass at Mountain Island. He'll try to target them with a jig-and-pig, but he doesn't rely on them all the time.
"There are some days when you can catch a big stringer of fish off piers, but it's kind of like Lake Wylie. You won't catch 'em like that every day. It's off and on. You're not guaranteed to catch bass on piers every day. But it can be a good secondary pattern."
ROANOKE RAPIDS LAKE
Kenny Deloatch lives in Roanoke Rapids and fishes Roanoke Rapids Lake regularly. A former fishing guide who now runs a hunting operation at Meherrin River Outfitters in Hertford County, he loves his hometown lake. At 4,600 acres, it's just downstream from 20,500-acre Lake Gaston, which draws most of the fishing traffic that isn't going even farther upstream to 49,500-acre Buggs Island (Kerr) Lake.
"The fishing pressure here is nothing like at Lake Gaston," Deloatch said. "There's a little local tournament, probably 10 or 12 boats, once a week, but there isn't a lot of outside traffic. The lake isn't built up yet."
For one thing, Deloatch said, the lake is dangerous to run because it consists basically of extremely shallow, stump-filled flats that drop off directly into the old Roanoke River channel. Fishermen who aren't familiar with the lake should stay away from the upper half of the lake until they learn it -- and that's where Deloatch said the best fall fishing usually happens.
"You'd better know where you're going on this lake -- anywhere on the lake," he said. "And that's enough to keep a lot of people away from here. One other thing that's good is that even though there is some local pressure, the local guys know what they've got here -- and they take care of it. You don't see 'em taking a lot of fish out of here."
Like Gaston, Roanoke Rapids Lake is full of hydrilla. On the upper end of the lake, from Deep Creek upstream to Gaston Dam, the grass grows out literally from the bank to the river channel, the edge of which is lined with big stumps that can instantly turn into dangerous obstacles to navigation because the water level can fluctuate up to 2 or 3 feet within a couple of hours.
"There are some places where you've only got 2 or 3 feet of water all the way out to the drop -- then it drops all the way out to 18 feet (in the channel)," Deloatch said.
The key is working that edge because in most places, the hydrilla will be matted out at the surface, or perhaps just a couple of inches below the surface.
"The fish will be on the edge, or they'll be buried up in it," he said. "You can throw a buzzbait up there if the water's up because it only takes an inch or two of water to fish it with a buzzbait. If you don't have enough water for a buzzbait, I like to fish a floating worm or a Fluke across the top of the grass. They'll come up to get it, and sometimes, they'll be so deep in the grass that when you hook the fish, you've got to go in and get them."
Deloatch keys on the upper end of the lake because the water coming through Gaston Dam is cooler and the fish will be more active. In addition, there's more grass on the upper end, and you get the chance to fish stumps along
the end of the grass on the channel drops.
"I like fishing that kind of cover -- the stumps and rocks and grass all together," he said. "That's where I normally fish in the fall. The farther you go up, the more water they move, and the more defined the channel drop is."
There you have it: four pretty good bass lakes, some with weeds, some with channels and points, some with blowdowns and boat docks but none with heavy fishing pressure. If you get a chance this fall, check them out.