For anglers who know how to catch fish on summertime structure, there's no place they'd rather fish than High Rock and Buggs Island.
By Dan Kibler
Fishermen, especially bass anglers, in North Carolina love to compare lakes and "how they fish."
Deep-shallow, stained-clear, fertile-infertile, steep-sloping, rocks-stumps, lay downs-docks, huge-small, standing timber-laydowns, creek flow-river flow - all these factors determine whether a lake is "like" or "different from" another lake.
When you start to stack things up, it becomes obvious right away that there are some "kissing cousins" among bass lakes in the Tar Heel State: reservoirs that resemble each other closely enough that they are said to "fish alike." And no two reservoirs are more closely related, it can be argued, than High Rock Lake and Buggs Island (Kerr) Lake.
They are the kingpins of their respective river systems - High Rock on the Yadkin and Buggs Island on the Roanoke. They are relatively shallow, as Piedmont lakes go; they are fed heavily by tributary creeks but affected more by river current, and no one will ever confuse them with clear lakes. They are both relatively fertile, growing good populations of bass, stripers, crappie and catfish of various shapes and sizes. They're also shallow enough upstream that navigation into the upper areas can be touchy.
For bass pro and Buggs Island guide Joel Richardson, summer bass success means hitting main-lake structure in 12 to 20 feet of water. Photo by Dan Kibler
There are a few differences, though. Buggs Island is a shade under 50,000 acres; High Rock is a shade under 16,000. Buggs Island's water level can vary 20 feet on the high side, because there is almost no shoreline inhabitation. High Rock regularly varies 10 to 15 feet on the low side, but it's rarely going to get more than a foot or two above full pool, because its banks are dotted with houses of all shapes, sizes and conditions.
But above all, most bass fishermen would agree that Buggs Island and High Rock "fish alike," and that's never more true than during the summer, when bass are off the bank. The two reservoirs are noted for their fantastic offshore structure fishing, and for the fact that bass in both lakes like to bite crankbaits. In fact, the crankbait fishing may be no better anywhere in North Carolina than at Buggs Island and High Rock.
"They favor each other some; we just don't fish quite as deep as they do," Maynard Edwards of crankbait-crazy Lexington, a High Rock guide, said of the two lakes.
Edwards and Joel Richardson of Kernersville, a pro fisherman and Buggs Island guide, agreed that the two lakes are fantastic warmwater bass fisheries, owing to the way that largemouths react as summer gets into full swing and the water heats up. If tournament weights are any measure of the fisheries, things don't drop off at either lake after the prime springtime pre-spawn ends.
Most bass finish spawning on High Rock and Buggs Island by Memorial Day, putting most of the post-spawn activity in late May and early June. After that, big pods of fish gang up on offshore structure such as humps and points, feeding up to recover from the spawn. That's where we find both fisheries as July 4 approaches.
"I love fishing structure. It's one of my favorite ways to fish," said Richardson, who is a past winner on the FLW Tournament Trail, "and July is structure time at Buggs Island. There are still a few pre-spawn fish, but at that time of year, that's when those fish really get out there. The first part of July, they're out there, and they're good and fresh - ready to bite. You get big numbers of fish starting to group up out there in deeper water."
Richardson focuses on main-lake areas, especially around the mouth of creeks, where fish migrate after the spawn, headed back toward the old Roanoke River channel. "I'm looking for bait and cover at depths from 12 to 20 feet, places with deep water close by. They'll stay 12 to 20 feet deep. When they're feeding, it seems like they're on the shallow end, and when they're not feeding, they're out around 20 feet," Richardson said. "It's probably got something to do with the way they (the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which oversees operation of the lake as a flood-control reservoir) pull water. I've never been able to get an accurate schedule for Buggs Island, but you'll notice the fishing pick up considerably if they're pulling water."
Richardson said that Buggs Island's bass relate to the thermocline that sets up once the water gets hot. A thermocline is a dividing line that separates warmer, oxygenated water from cooler, deeper, less oxygenated water. Bass tend to locate as close to the thermocline as possible, while staying a foot or so on the shallow side. For instance, if a thermocline sets up in 15 feet of water, most bass - and baitfish, for that matter - will show up in 12 to 14 feet of water. Often, the water on either side of the thermocline will differ in temperature by four to five degrees. The bass and the baitfish like the cool, deeper water, but they need the better oxygenated water above the thermocline. So they hang out near the thermocline where the two types of water converge.
"I use a flasher unit (depthfinder). A lot of guys, they don't know how to use one; (but) it's got a fast screen, and I use it to see how deep the baitfish are running, to find cover, and to see if there's a thermocline," Richardson said. "I'll turn the sensitivity way up, enough to get a second bottom echo. If there is one, the thermocline will show up, usually as a kind of broken-up line. Shad will show up in little balls and clusters.
"A thermocline seems to set up the best where you have the deepest water - I'd say from midlake down to the dam, down Nutbush Creek to the Satterwhite Point area. Those are the places where I see the thermocline the best. It's best where you have good, deep water. The bass and baitfish will pretty much stay just above it. If it's running 22 to 23 feet deep, the bass will be within about 5 feet of it, and the bait will always be above it. When I find it, I rule out everything underneath it."
Richardson said that the chances of finding a thermocline declines once you get above the Clarksville, Virginia bridge, in part because the water is a little more stained, and different bands of water will be mixed together, with less of a marked temperature break.
Points are Richardson's primary targets; he also finds some good depth changes close by when he's working them over, determining just how they differ from spot to spot.
"I try to find out how a point lays - how far out it runs, where the end is. I try to pinpoint where the cover would be, whether it's brush or stumps or rockpiles," he said. "I'll put a buoy on the cover or where you st
art to mark fish, where you think you might have marked a brushpile, and I just start fan-casting around, feeling around and learning the bottom."
Richardson would rather catch fish on a crankbait, but he learns the bottom more quickly with a Carolina rig. He ties a leader between 2 and 3 feet long, separates it from the running line - both are 17-pound-test - with a barrel swivel and threads a 3/4-ounce egg sinker on above the swivel.
"If I'm familiar with an area, I can go through it pretty quick with a crankbait to try to catch one of those eager fish," he said. "If I get on a spot and catch two or three on a crankbait, I'll try to catch leftover fish - those lazy ones - by slowing down my presentation with a Carolina rig. Sometimes they won't bite anything but a Carolina rig, especially the farther out they go."
His soft plastics of choice are a magnum 8-inch lizard in green pumpkin and a 10-inch worm in green pumpkin, black grape and red shad.
"I've only got a few techniques I use that time of year. I like the deep-diving crankbaits and I stay pretty much with the bright colors. I like the chartreuse/green back (homer) or the chartreuse/blue back."
Richardson said that fish may change depths as the day progresses, usually starting in deeper water and working up as the sun gets overhead - which might seem a little backward to some fishermen. "I've seen 'em start the day in 17 or 18 feet of water, and by the time you get to about noon or 1 p.m., they're up in 12 feet of water, killing a crankbait," he said. "You won't get another bite out there after they move up, and that's the opposite of what you'd think. When they start to generate current around the middle of the day, they start to move up on top of those points. On a cloudy day, they'll stay deeper. I know several other fishermen who believe that.
"And it's not uncommon this time of year to really get in good fish all stacked up on one place. They'll be schooled up according to size; you might find schools of 1 1/2-pound or 3-pound fish. You're looking for good 2 1/2-pound fish, with some bigger ones mixed in."
Edwards said that a lot of fishermen are also confused by the way bass move around at High Rock when they set up to feed.
"The hotter it is, the better it is," said Edwards. "If we get rain and they move water, they'll really bite. If the water is falling and you've got current, they'll back out on ledges, humps, old railroad beds, and you can catch 'em on crankbaits and Carolina rigs."
He notes that the bite is really affected by the current. When water is pulled, the fish will go deeper, because the dam pulls the water from the bottom. The deep bite turns on when the water is flowing, and the bass gang up on deeper spots and bite better. When the water shuts off, the bite is shallower.
"That's different from other lakes, and that's what makes High Rock so hard to learn," he said. "But once you learn it, you can mop up."
Early July is prime time for crankbait fishermen to clean up on bass that have spawned, gone through their post-spawn recovery and are setting up on the first deeper offshore structure they find after leaving spawning areas. Action can be good in several of the bigger creeks - Second, Abbotts and Flat Swamp - and the bite moves out as the month progresses.
"Around the first of July, they're still pretty much ganged up," Edwards said. "If you catch one on a spot, don't go hurrying off, because usually you'll get two or three off the same spot. Later in the month, when they move deeper, they'll spread out and be harder to catch. Early in July, 10 feet deep is about right, and even when they go deeper, rarely do you have to fish more than 15 feet deep. I think it's the oxygen content of the water that does it. I've always thought that this lake doesn't have a lot of oxygen in deep water, because when I striper fish and put live baits down 20 feet deep, they die."
High Rock is a good bit older than Buggs Island, dating back to the 1920s when a 100-mile length of the Yadkin River was impounded with a series of hydroelectric dams. So most of the stumps that were left in deeper water have rotted out. That, Edwards said, should send fishermen looking primarily for rock, and secondarily for the many brushpiles that have been sunk in the lake by bass and crappie fishermen.
"There aren't many good stumps left in High Rock at the right depth, 10 to 12 feet," he said. "You look for rock veins and dropoffs, humps out on the river channel. If you find a rock vein on the bank, back off and try to follow it out. If there's a brushpile you know about, great. A lot of people do well with a Carolina rig, finding rock and brush. If you can do that with a crankbait, you're a good crankbait fishermen."
Edwards likes to fish an 11-inch plastic worm, rigged either Texas- or Carolina-style, with a 1/2- or 3/4-ounce sinker. He prefers red shad, red-black core or green pumpkin. As far as crankbaits go, he likes one that dives very deep.
"I know it runs deeper than you need it to, but I like banging it around on the bottom. For most of the High Rock boys, that's a little secret. You bang it off the bottom, let it suspend, then bang it off the bottom again," he said.
The water-generation schedule at High Rock is fairly regular, Edwards said. Yadkin Inc., the subsidiary of aluminum giant Alcoa, which operates the hydro plant, generally pulls water heavily on Thursday and Friday, and the water drops a few inches, then shuts the gates on Saturday, and the water level rises. Like many fishermen, Edwards can't wait to see what happens with the water level this summer, after 2002 when the lake started to drop in June and was almost 20 feet below normal pool in August. The Federal Energy Regulation Corporation has asked Yadkin Inc. to keep the water level within 5 feet of full pool from Memorial Day through Labor Day.
"Usually, Thursday is the best day to fish," Edwards said. "If somebody calls and asks which day they should take a guided trip, I tell them Thursday. The water's at its lowest on Thursday, and Friday is a great morning to fish. On Saturday, when they shut the gates, when they turn the wheels off, it greatly affects the fish. If the lake is up, within 3 feet of full, it's a good time to go to docks and flip a jig. Thursday and Friday are the days they bite deep, and Saturday, Sunday and Monday, they bite shallow."
Edwards said that fish will really move as the water rises and falls, often hundreds of yards in a day. "When the fish go to docks, they don't go to channel docks; they get on shallow docks, docks with no more than 5 feet of water," he said. "If the last legs of the dock are deeper than 7 feet, they won't be on it. Well, they may be up underneath it, but you want to fish docks than are 6 feet deep or less on the ends."
As far as productive creeks go, Edwards likes Second, Abbotts and Flat Swamp for a deepwater bite. "Second has good structure everywhere you look," he said. And when the water's rising, or when there has been a heavy midsummer rain, he points fishermen to Swearing and Cra
ne creeks. "There is a lot of water that feeds in through those creeks, and there's more cover in there - more docks."
Richardson and Edwards say that both lakes can produce a fair to good topwater bite during the summer - under certain conditions.
"The first hour or two of the morning, if you can take advantage of it, it can be pretty good," Richardson said. "I try to fish around points with abrupt drops, with 15 to 20 feet of water close to the shoreline - somewhere they can move up real quick and still be close to deep water. I like to set a long cast off the bank or to the top of the point."
He fishes a wooden topwater jerkbait, one that he says "you can throw a mile." Attached to the bait is 15- to 17-pound-test, and he works the rig fast, in a walking-the-dog retrieve.
"Where the bite comes varies," he said. "Sometimes it will be up next to the shoreline, a lot of times the fish will be suspended and come up halfway to the boat. And when they come out of deep water, they really want it."
Edwards likes a buzzbait at High Rock early in the morning, also around steep dropoffs, and only if pulling water has set up a current. "The water needs to be falling, and they'll come up early in the morning," he said. "I throw it out over top of where the fish are when they're in deep water. As soon as the sun comes up, you get out a crankbait."
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