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The Triangle's Electric-Only Bass Lakes

The Triangle's Electric-Only Bass Lakes

No bass boat? No problem! These electric-trolling-motor-only lakes in the Triangle area will get you away from the noise and close to good bass.

By Mike Zlotnicki

Tired of long lines at the ramps or too many pleasure boaters running amok at favorite bass-fishing reservoirs?

Sanctuary may be closer than you think: Several smaller bodies of water in the Triangle offer good bass fishing and the opportunity for anglers - even those who don't own a boat - to get off the bank and enjoy a day on the water.

Just a mile or so west of Carrboro/ Chapel Hill lies University Lake, a 213-acre gem impounded in 1932 and operated by Orange Water and Sewer Authority (OWASA). A primary source of water for Carrboro and Chapel Hill, University Lake serves the crew teams of the University of North Carolina, recreational rowers and sailors.

It also has some of the best bass fishing in the Piedmont. A few years ago, the North Carolina Wildlife Resources Commission sampled the lake via a shocking boat and found that it held as many 5-pound bass per acre as any lake they'd studied.

Bob Glosson, senior assistant lake warden, is also a veteran bass angler and has some tips that will help you score on University.

The author holds up a 4-pound bass taken on a spinnerbait at University Lake. Photo courtesy of Mike Zlotnicki

"Obviously, in April the bass will be in the shallows," said Glosson. "I target water depths from the surface to about 6 feet, and I usually start out with a topwater bait and switch to a white spinnerbait or shallow-running crankbait if there's no topwater action. The plastic worm is always a producer, and some anglers did real well with the pig-and-jig this past year. And the fly guys using big bass bugs have done well, too."


For the first-time angler, Glosson recommends fishing the Price's Creek section at the southern end of the lake. After a 10-minute or so ride from the dock, the angler will come to an area where the lake narrows, with rocky outcroppings and stump flats on the east side (Glosson's favorite spring topwater area), and blowdowns with a lot of subsurface structure from beavers on the west side.

According to Glosson, "A good day in the spring may mean five fish weighing 12 pounds or so, but much bigger stringers are not unheard of. Most of our bass anglers practice catch-and-release, so there are a lot of big bass in the lake and we have a very healthy forage base of shad. The largest bass I have personally seen out of the lake was over 11 pounds."

If You Go
University Lake is located on the west side of Carrboro just off Old Fayetteville Road, which can be reached via Jones Ferry Road.

The lake is open the first Saturday after the first day of spring and closes the second Sunday in November. Hours are Friday through Monday, 6:30 a.m. to 6 p.m.

The lake rents 14-foot johnboats and 44-pound-thrust electric motors and batteries. Anglers may bring their own, but trailered boats are not allowed. For OWASA customers and Orange County residents, boat fees are $5 for the first person and $2 for each additional adult. Electric trolling motors are $10. All rentals are for half-day. Fees are slightly higher for non-Orange County residents. Season discounts are available.

University Lake has picnic facilities, modern bathrooms and vending machines. No alcohol is permitted on OWASA lakes, and the wardens take their policing job seriously. Call (919) 942-8007 for more information. All North Carolina Wildlife Resources Commission regulations apply to OWASA lakes.

A few miles northwest of University Lake sits Cane Creek Reservoir, a 540-acre OWASA lake impounded in 1989 and opened to the public in 1993. Much larger than University Lake, Cane Creek also has a much different personality, with significantly more open water; Cane Creek flooded open farmland when it filled. Lake warden Eric Barnhardt is caretaker of Cane Creek and an avid angler with some advice for the aspiring bass chaser here.

"April bass fishing can be really good at Cane Creek," said Barnhardt. "Typically, I'll start with a walking-type surface bait or a buzzbait (and I target fish) from the surface down to about 4 feet. Some wind will help the topwater bite. If it's not happening on top, I'll go with a clear soft plastic in clearer water or a medium-running crankbait. Orange County lakes are 'chartreuse lakes,' so those are good colors in dingy water. I've seen fly-anglers catch 7- and 8-pound bass on chartreuse fly bugs."

Although April will see many bass on the beds in the shallows at Cane Creek, the shallows are devoid of cover, so the savvy angler may want to target other structure for spring success. Barnhardt recommends the north and northwest areas of the main body of water, where the steeper banks are littered with numerous chestnut oak blowdowns, courtesy of Hurricane Fran. Bass staging to and from spawning flats nearby can be found in this structure.

Cane Creek doesn't have a forage base of shad like University Lake, so the young panfish that make up much of the bass' diet can found in the numerous treetops lining this part of the lake. With an electric motor run of over an hour from the boathouse to the shallows at the mouth of Cane Creek, the smart angler would be wise to avoid the spawning flats and concentrate on mixed cover closer to home.

Barnhardt considers a five-fish limit of 16 pounds to be a good day on the lake, but has a personal best of 8 pounds, 3 ounces on the lake and knows of several anglers who have boated fish over 12 pounds. But big bass are not the only attractions to Cane Creek.

"It's a very pretty lake," said Barnhardt, "and the variety of wildlife here is unique to the area. We've had black bears sighted, and we have a nesting pair of bald eagles in the watershed. The lake holds crappie, bream and catfish in addition to bass, so don't be surprised at what you catch."

If You Go
The same seasons and rates that apply to University Lake also apply to Cane Creek, but Cane Creek's operating hours are Thursday to Saturday 6:30 p.m. to 6 p.m., and Sunday 1 p.m. to 6 p.m.

Fourteen-foot johnboats are available for rent, as well as 44-pound and 50-pound-thrust trolling motors. Barnhardt recommends that serious anglers bring an extra battery or two, as the lake's size and spring winds can sap the best batteries for all-day anglers.

Cane Creek Reservoir is l

ocated on the north side of NC 54 about eight miles west of Carrboro, and the entrance to the recreation area is on NC 54 just west of Stanford Road. Call (919) 942-5790 for more information.

The third offering in this trilogy is last (in terms of size), but certainly not the least where quality fish are concerned. Lake Johnson, a 150-acre lake managed by Raleigh Parks and Recreation (RPR), is located on the west side of Raleigh near Cary. Built in the mid-1950s as a water supply lake for Raleigh, it now supplies recreation (including nice bass) for area anglers.

Park manager Richard Costello has spent a lot of time on the lake and has a good idea of what it takes to score at Johnson.

"Spring is a great time to fish Johnson," said Costello, "and I would say that this lake puts out more 7-pound-plus fish than any other city lake in Raleigh. In April, I tend to target water from the surface to 7 feet deep, as the bass seem to spawn at different times in different parts of the lake. Lipless crankbaits and shallow- to medium-running crankbaits are good bets, as there are really good dropoffs and a lot of shore cover close to the bank where the creek channels come in. These fish ought to be wearing Gold's Gym t-shirts, because they're chunky and strong . . . a 3-pounder will fight like a 5-pounder. We've got a lot of shad, and there are plenty of 3- to 6-pound fish, and the lake record is 11.5 pounds. The better bass anglers have no problem catching 18-pound limits, and we've had some over 25 pounds."

Lake Johnson has some other unique qualities. Being relatively small, it takes only minutes to find likely cover and start casting. Two electric-only bass tournaments are held each year, and lake has its own guide service and a tackle loaner program.

If You Go
Lake Johnson is located in west Raleigh at 4600 Avent Ferry Road. Twelve-foot johnboats are available without motors for $3 per hour/$15 per day, and $8 per hour/$40 per day with 32-pound-thrust motors.

Lake Johnson also has full concession services and facilities. The lake is open year 'round, but between November and March, the combined air and water temperature must equal 100, according to RPR regulations. This is a safety precaution to offset the possibility of hypothermia in event of a capsizing. Call ahead to make sure boat rentals are available.

For more information, call (919) 233-2121 or check the RPR Web site at

Three other area lakes offer similar electric-only opportunities for Triangle anglers. They offer good fishing, but fewer amenities than those previously detailed.

William B. Umstead State Park has 55-acre Big Lake, and boat rentals are available, but you must bring your own motor. Boathouse hours of operation vary seasonally. The park is located at 8801 Glenwood Avenue in Raleigh. Call (919) 571-4170 for information.

Little River Lake, a water supply lake for the city of Durham, is located at the intersection of Orange Factory Road and Blalock Road in northern Durham County. The lake is open from Feb. 28 to Dec. 16 every day except Tuesdays and Thursdays and offers boats and motors for rent. Call (919) 477-7889 for more information.

Shelley Lake is part of the Raleigh Parks and Recreation stable located at 1400 West Millbrook Road in Raleigh. A popular recreation area for joggers and walkers, the lake also offers boat rentals, but anglers must bring their own motors. Rentals are available from March 17 to Oct. 14 on weekends only. The lake receives very little serious fishing pressure and has given up some huge bass. Call (919) 420-2331 for more information.

Equipment for electric-only lakes is both standard and specialized. Standard because you probably have it somewhere; specialized because space in the craft and afloat is limited (but not necessarily limiting).

First off, waterproof boots are a necessity for the colder mornings and sandals or the like are good for warmer temps. The 10- to 14-foot johnboats that you will rent or haul to the lake obviously lack drainage, and water will collect in them.

Also, these smaller craft typically lack storage space, so leave the triple-decker tackle box at home. A couple of small bags or boxes of seasonal lures should suffice, and it adds to the fun of scaling down. Ditto for rods and reels. I like to pack three outfits with at least two of them spinning rigs. You may not have the room to do sweeping or "flip" casts with a bait-casting outfit, so spinning rods allow you some versatility for presentations.

When renting a boat (or using your own), you're required to have a throwable flotation device like a seat cushion. Go ahead and bring an extra if you are renting and two if you're using your own boat. The extra 2 or 3 inches are a huge difference in comfort when sitting on the bench seats in a johnboat. Veterans often use commercially available seats that wedge onto the bench and have firm back support. The best seats will swivel, which allows for easier casting.

An extra battery is a good idea for the larger bodies of water, and an extra prop and shear pin is an inexpensive insurance policy against a long day of paddling back to the dock.

One the best tools for fishing an electric-only lake, hands down, is a portable fishfinder unit. The model I use has a suction cup transducer and uses D-cell batteries for power. It costs about $100 and is worth every penny. Just as on any larger reservoir, having an idea of bottom contour and structure allows for smarter targeting, especially if the local bass population is in a state of flux regarding the spawn. April bass fishing in Triangle lakes can mean pre-spawn, spawning or post-spawn fish, and various combinations of the three. Locating staging fish on stump flats or creek bends on these electric-only lakes will provide anglers with the same rewards that similar structures on larger waters offer. Although I don't exclusively rely on them to find bass, baitfish and structure are the currency of bass fishing, and a portable fishfinder is an ATM on the water. Cash in.

As for tackle, April is a shallow-water month, but then (to me), most months are. You may decide to pack light, but make it versatile. I take soft plastics from 4 to 10 inches, various weights and hooks, topwater lures, crankbaits and spinnerbaits. Jigs don't see much action, as the johnboat is hard to pitch or flip out of, but you can use the low silhouette to conventionally cast other offerings fairly close to cover.

A point-and-shoot camera in a zip-loc bag is another must, as you will catch a "career fish" the first time you leave it at home. Trust me.

These small lakes (and boats) are tailor-made for ultralight spinning gear. Small lakes don't mean small fish, but scaling down can have its own rewards, and a 3-pound fish caught on 6-pound-test will be remembered long after one that was dredged

in with 17-pound-test from the deck of a bass barge.

As a general rule, small crankbaits and spinnerbaits are great offerings in water less than 5 feet. But if you have a tough day, a 4-inch finesse worm rigged Texas-style with a 1/0 hook and a 1/8-ounce bullet weight can be a trip saver from the bank down to 10 feet. Small crankbaits and spinnerbaits can do the same when their bigger brothers are not producing.

Remember: Big things come in small packages. Small boats and small lakes equal big opportunities for Triangle bass anglers who are willing to pass gas and go directly to electric-lake opportunities.

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