Bassin' on the Roanoke

Staying on the move is the key to taking advantage of the best bass fishing Lake Gaston and the Roanoke River have to offer.

By Dan Kibler

The fifth page of the calendar has one word at the top - "May" - but this month is really made up of several different parts when bass fishermen come to breaking down their strategy.

May can mean pre-spawn, spawn or post-spawn, depending where and when you're fishing. And keeping up with where and when is a huge factor when it comes to getting the most out of trips to Lake Gaston or the Roanoke River, two of North Carolina's better bass fisheries.

Marty Stone of Linden, a bass pro and former Lake Gaston guide, knows that keeping up with largemouths at the 20,900-acre reservoir means knowing when to move and where to move once you crank your outboard.

Joe Nichols Jr. of Ahoskie, a pro bass fisherman whose background includes a lot of river-fishing in eastern North Carolina, knows that there are certain signs to which you have to pay careful attention when it comes to knowing what to do, and when, on the Roanoke, which flows unfettered about 75 miles from Roanoke Rapids Dam near Weldon to the vast Albemarle Sound. There are countless places where bass can hang out on the river; picking the right one, at the right time, is a key.

"May is probably the prime time to go, but it depends on what end of the river you fish. Any part can be good at one time or another," said Nichols. "At this time of year, if we get the kind of water in the river we should, you've got some spawning going on. I think the spawn moves up the river. I think they spawn on the lower end first, around the mouth of the river and in the sound, and it moves up as the month goes along."

Photo by Ron Sinfelt

Nichols doesn't particularly like to fish for spawning bass, opting instead for their more aggressive pre-spawn brethren, but he admits that, in some instances, it's easier to pattern spawning fish than the pre-spawners.

"You won't be able to see the fish spawning, unless you just get lucky and pull right up on one, but what you're doing is casting to likely places," Nichols said. "Around the mouth of the river and in the sound, the fishing will be good on the flats where the river drops off into the sound. There are some key spots where they spawn. They get on sandbar flats and spawn around old stumps. They'll spawn around any kind of stump, but mostly cypress."

Nichols targets these fish with jerkbaits and keys on the stumps because the bass will be somewhere nearby if they're spawning. Pre-spawn fish are more likely to be associated with stumps close to where the water drops down into the river channel. The aggressiveness and location of the bass will tell you what stage of the spawn they are in.

"You know if they're scattered around and real aggressive, they're pre-spawn fish. If they're close to stumps and it takes a lot of casts to draw a strike, they're probably spawning," he said.

From the mouth of the river, Nichols said that fish will be spawning at roughly the same time all the way up to Plymouth, the first major city on the river, and on to Jamesville several miles upstream.

"You've got big flats in the river all the way up to Jamesville, lots of big flats," Nichols said. "There are a lot of logjams on those flats, and the fish will get on 'em, but you want to key on flats that don't have a lot of wood, maybe just a log or two. When you get on a flat that's got a lot of wood, it just scatters the fish out. If there are only one or two logs, they'll be concentrated on them."

In addition to the jerkbait, Nichols fishes those areas with shallow-running crankbaits. Even though they may be spawning, they're still "dumb" river fish, Nichols said.

A sure way to find pre-spawn fish throughout May is to keep moving up the river. Jamesville is a point of division: Below the town, the river is wide and filled with sandbars and shallow flats. Above the town, the river becomes narrower and deeper, and the habitat is quite similar upstream to Hamilton and Williamston and on to Roanoke Rapids and Weldon.

Above Jamesville, where the river gets deeper and narrower, Nichols notes that anglers should start fishing ditches.

Ditches can be anything from small creeks that drain the swampland and farming country on the river's banks to tiny branches or even little rills. The key areas are around the mouths of any of those little openings, and the key situation for catching your biggest stringers is when the water in the river is dropping, drawing water out of the ditches and draining the swamps and farmland.

"They might be big enough to get your boat in, or they might not even be big enough to get a little plastic boat in," Nichols said. "There are a few big ditches, but not many. Most of them are small enough that you can almost ride right by 'em if you're not careful. I've even caught (fish) in this one ditch around Hamilton where the water comes out real dark blue, like dye, because it's below this one plant.

"You want the water draining out of those ditches because the bass will get on the mouths of the ditches and eat anything that's coming out in the current," Nichols said. "I think you can catch 'em within 200 or 300 yards from the mouths in either direction, up or down the river."

He believes many fish never leave the areas around the ditches.

When the water is backing up or rising, Nichols still keys on ditches, but he's more likely to start about 300 yards downstream from the mouth of a ditch and work his way up, hitting any piece of visible wooden cover he can find along the bank.

"You can still catch fish on the bank, but the ditches concentrate 'em," he said. "You can catch 'em on straight banks, on laydowns or logjams. In fact, you'll probably catch your biggest fish on logjams, stuff that has floated down the river and jammed up, than you will on ditches. It's hard fishing, but you'll catch bigger fish, just not the same numbers."

When it comes to catching bass around the mouths of ditches, Nichols puts his jerkbait away and goes with small crankbaits - always in fire-tiger color. He also likes to fish a spinnerbait, either a 1/2-ounce double willow-leaf bait or a 3/8-ounce bait with Indiana and willow-leaf blades.

On the other hand, when he is just running the bank and fishing laydowns or logjams, his favorite bait is probably a plastic worm. "You can catch 'em on those logjams on a jig, but with the current and all, it's too easy to get a jig hung up. A plastic worm probably works th

e best. It'll catch the same fish, and it won't get hung up as much."

On Lake Gaston, Marty Stone's moves are a little more predicable. He goes pretty much by the calendar, feeling that the spawn will work its way upstream from the lower end of the lake all the way to the river, starting around the dam about the first of May and lasting a month or so in different areas. The lake is 34 miles long and has 350 miles of shoreline, but Stone doesn't use very much of it.

During the first part of May, he likes to flip to boat docks in the upper part of the lake with a jig. He uses a black-and-blue combination when the water is dirty, and a color like root beer when the lake is clear. At this point in the month, he's fishing for pre-spawn bass.

"As the month progresses, say, past the first week and a half, I'll go back down the lake and start to work my way back up," he said. "I like to concentrate on the first third of creeks back from the mouth, and on main-lake pockets, places that are protected from a north wind. Now, I'm fishing for bedding fish.

"Gaston is one of the few lakes in North Carolina where you can go sight-fishing and be successful, and it's because the water is so stable; it's always within one foot of being full. It's not like Buggs Island or other lakes where they're constantly jerking the water level up and down, and the fish won't stay on the bed very long. At Gaston, I've seen fish stay on a bed for a week or longer."

Because he's fishing for spawners, and not pre-spawners, he leaves his spinnerbait rod in the rod box and concentrates on covering a lot of water with a floating worm, putting his trolling motor on high speed and running the bank.

"For fish that I can't see, a floating worm is my spinnerbait," Stone said. "I'm looking for boat docks, any isolated stump, any indentation in the bank that a bass might set up on to spawn."

If he sees a fish, he is likely to go to a tube bait. Stone will spend as much time as he thinks it will take to coax a strike out of a bedding bass that he can see, and he can remember going into a pocket, looking around and seeing a dozen fish in the 4-pound class all set up to spawn within sight of each other. That can send a fisherman's blood pressure through the roof, but it's the kind of sight that can be very common at Lake Gaston.

"Gaston is probably the best it's been in a while," said Stone, who feared in the late 1990s that landowners' efforts to eliminate hydrilla, an aquatic grass that has infested many shallow areas, would hurt bass fishing. "The grass has come back and stayed, and anytime you have hydrilla, the fishing will be good for a while. Now, there's more hydrilla than I've ever seen. I believe that when you kill the grass, you kill the fish. People put all those grass carp in the lake, and they've died out now (without reproducing because they were sterile), and the grass has survived and come back.

"This lake has lots of 2- to 5-pound fish, lots of them, and there are some 10s. I've seen 'em and caught 'em off the beds."

Stone gets away from the crowds in May by staying out of the backs of major creeks, believing that he's going to be running into more bass that aren't lure-shy.

He's not looking in the backs of creeks, however. Instead, he concentrates on the first third and main-lake pockets. He's fishing for main-lake fish, and this is one of the few times of the year when those move up in the shallow water. In contrast, he thinks the fish in the backs of creeks have been fished hard for all of March and April and the first of May. In his experience, the first third of the creeks and the main-lake pockets won't have the quantity of fish that the backs of creeks will hold, but they will have more quality fish. The water there warms up later and the fish spawn there later.

Instead of moving back and forth between the back, middle and front sections of creeks, Stone moves up and down the lake. "I'll fish both sides of the lake, but I'll stay down until the latter part of the month, fishing from the dam to Jimmie's, Pea Hill, Stonehouse, Priddy and Stinking creeks. Then, I'll move up later in the month to Hubquarter, Holly Grove and Poplar, and fish around the mouths of those creeks and main-lake pockets. Those pockets are a big key. There won't be as many fish there, but you'll find one or two good ones in each pocket when they're spawning."

Stone will even head up to the areas around the I-85 and Route 1 bridges by Memorial Day or even into early June looking for bass that are getting ready to spawn. It's tougher to see up the lake, however, because the water is a little bit more stained. "But I'll run that pattern all the way up in the river," he said.

Stumps are popular places for bass to spawn, but as landowners have cleaned up their shorelines, a lot of those prime stumps have disappeared. Stone said that really doesn't matter, though, because a bass will use whatever she can for cover when she spawns, as long as it's on a sandy bank. He's even seen a bass set up to spawn on a lawn chair that had blown into the water. So any cover is good cover, as long as there is sand and the spawning site is protected from the north wind.

Even though he does most of his damage with a floating worm - or a tube, once he spots a fish - he keeps a rod rigged with a buzzbait most of the time, and he concentrates on buzzers whenever he gets an overcast or cloudy day.

"Lake Gaston can be one of the best buzzbait lakes of all time on an overcast day," Stone said. "I fish the same places I'd fish with a floating worm, but I'll throw a buzzbait instead. I put the trolling motor down and cover a lot of water, fishing every pocket, every nook and cranny, anything that might hold fish, down to a pine tree that's fallen off the bank."

Gaston is a very popular lake for recreational boating, and finding an access area is not a problem; they're all over the lake, from a wildlife landing just upstream from the Route 1 bridge on the lake's north bank, down to the lower end, where there are landings on the Virginia and North Carolina sides. Three main bridges cross the lake: Route 1, I-85 and the Eaton's Ferry Bridge at mid-lake, where the largest private marina on Lake Gaston is located.

Gaston is divided between the two states and managed with a five-fish daily limit and 14-inch size minimum. Fishermen who hold fishing licenses from either state are covered because of a reciprocal license agreement between North Carolina and Virginia.

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