Anglers who drive by Lake Rhodhiss and the Tar River Reservoir to fish bigger water are forgetting that good things sometimes come in small packages.
By Dan Kibler
He's sitting on a secret, but Stanley Correll isn't shy about letting the cat out of the bag.
His secret is Lake Rhodhiss, a 3,515-acre reservoir on the Catawba River near Morganton. Thirty-five hundred acres is a lot of water to keep secret, but Rhodhiss is one of those lakes that sees less pressure than it would otherwise because many anglers head to its bigger neighbors - in this case, Lake Hickory to the east and Lake James to the west.
That leaves Correll, who operates Catawba Lakes Guide Service out of Nebo, pretty much fishing the lake by himself - at least in terms of the kind of bass-fishing pressure that most reservoirs in North Carolina experience.
Sammy Bray knows how Correll feels. A longtime resident of Rocky Mount, Bray had another little lake in his old stomping grounds that, like Rhodhiss, was often overlooked by fishermen more interested in heading to bigger lakes 30 to 45 minutes up the highway. Bray's little bit of heaven was 1,860-acre Tar River Reservoir in Nash County, which he often had to himself, especially late in the fall.
"I used to fish there a lot," said Bray, who this past summer pulled up stakes and moved to Davidson County to run bass pro David Fritts' boat dealership/sporting goods store, David Fritts Outdoors.
"There are a lot of fish in that place. It's hard to fish in the summertime because of all the water bikes and water skiers, but the fall is good," Bray said. "There's not a lot of bass-fishing pressure on the lake. It's kind of out of the way."
Photo by Tom Evans
Bray said that the Tar River Reservoir is a basic lowland reservoir that impounds the Tar River and one of its major tributaries, Saponi Creek.
"It's basically a standard river system - a dam, one large creek," Bray said. "It's got some deep water, 25 feet in the channel, maybe 20 to 25 feet of water in the creek. There are some real good drops, good stumps. In the creek part, there's no water skiing allowed, so you can fish in there without having to avoid skiers.
"All the fish are fat; there's an abundance of feed in there for 'em. Most of the fish in the lake are chunky. And the crappie fishermen also do extremely well in there in the fall."
The fall is one of Bray's favorite times to fish Tar River Reservoir. He notes that as long as the river isn't high, anglers can get up in the Tar River far enough to find some current. In that area, anglers fish the water as they would in any river system.
"You fish the mouths of all the little guts with a crankbait . . . or you flip any log that's in the water, any vines, any other current break," Bray said. "The bass will get in the little guts on the river. I like to go up there and flip logs and cypress knees with a black/blue 1/2- or 3/8-ounce jig, and I like to match it with a real bright chunk, something like electric blue."
Bray said that Tar River Reservoir routinely spits out fish in the 8- to 10-pound range throughout the spring, and that he had his shortest and most successful fishing trip ever there. "I took a boat out to test drive it once. I made a cast right under the boat and caught a 10 1/2-pound bass. It took 15 minutes."
Saponi Creek is much different from the river section of the lake, especially in how it fishes. "There are some dropoffs in there, and the bass will get stacked up on them sometimes. If you can find the right drop, you can drag a worm or a lizard or you can catch 'em on crankbaits," Bray said.
"The creek, most of the time, stays clear, regardless of the rain, but the river can be just like anywhere else - it can muddy up. But there's still a pretty good flipping bite."
Biologist Scott Van Horn of the North Carolina Wildlife Resources Commission said that Tar River Reservoir really falls more into the category of "municipal reservoir" than major reservoir and not just because of its size, but the fact that it's a few miles outside the Rocky Mount and Nashville city limits and is managed by the city government.
"It's typical of a city lake because if you want to go and fish at a place where the bass population has a pretty high density, it's not bad," Van Horn said. "It's a fairly clean little lake, with some development; it's not just an ugly little lake. It's quite good for a city lake. Catch rates are pretty good, and its reputation over the years has been that it's a place where you can go and catch lots and lots of bass, but not necessarily big ones. It's kind of like Lake Cammack in Burlington or maybe the (upper) end of Lake Norman; you can go and catch 12 to 14 bass in a trip."
Van Horn said that the forage base is generally gizzard shad. The commission has stocked threadfin shad over a period of years, but they are apt to die off during any extremely cold winter, so threadfin numbers are not predictable from year to year.
"At one time, we used to put a few hybrid bass in it; in fact, it was actually among the first reservoirs where we started experimenting with hybrids in the 1970s," Van Horn said.
Like other municipal reservoirs, Tar River Reservoir doesn't get an overdose of fishing pressure, Van Horn said. "You know, when you're living in Nashville, you're not really far away from Kerr and Gaston. And it being a city lake, it doesn't really get hammered. Most of the guys who run the big (bass) rigs are looking for a place where they can exercise their boat, and in that regard, my sense is that Tar River is a little different. It rarely gets tournament pressure because it's not big enough to support any big tournaments. If you get 25 guys out there, they start bumping into each other. The lake isn't used that way. A lot of the fishing that does happen there tends to be more consumption-oriented - maybe not so much for bass, but for crappie."
And Van Horn drums home the point that being a municipal reservoir may actually help the bass fishery. "Over the years, in an electroshocking boat, some of the prettiest bass populations I've seen and sampled, some of the most successful days I've ever had, have been on city lakes. They're nothing to sneeze at."
Correll said that fishing at Rhodhiss profits not only from the relative lack of pressure the lake receives, but also because it is an extremely productive reservoir, in terms of the number and size of fish it contains.
"It's awesome; the fishing is always good. This lake is covered, absolutely cov
ered in bait," he said. "It's like a dog with a bad case of fleas. You can't get away from the shad.
"There are some night tournaments during the summer, but during the fall, the tournaments are over and the lake gets virtually no pressure until the early spring. Guys with bass boats looking for tournaments to fish will go to James or Hickory. That's when you want to be on the water - when everybody else is on another lake or in the woods hunting."
Correll (828-205-1429) guides striper fishermen on the lake during the spring spawning run, and he's taken fish upward of 35 pounds. He said that Rhodhiss has a reputation of producing big stripers and largemouths.
"The bass clubs in the area, they all want to go to Lake Greenwood (S.C.) in the spring to catch big fish, but they've got one of the best lakes for 4-, 5- and 6-pound bass right in their back yard," he said. "There are as many 5- and 6-pound bass in Lake Rhodhiss, per acre, as in any other lake in the state."
The enormous forage base, Correll said, translates into fast growth rates for game fish. Although threadfin shad have disappeared over the past two years - probably because of coldwater winterkill - Rhodhiss still ranks at the top of the Catawba River chain as far as productivity is concerned.
Biologist Win Taylor of the North Carolina Wildlife Resources Commission, whose territory encompasses a handful of the upper Catawba reservoirs, said that Rhodhiss stands out in samplings done on the river.
"Rhodhiss is a nice fishery, especially because you're not getting the fishing pressure there that you do on other lakes," he said. "Something is going on out there right now, probably related to the lack of threadfins, but it does have a good gizzard shad base; we're seeing a fair number of small shad and a lot of big shad, too. We're working on (stocking) threadfins, trying to find a clean source for them . . . if we can find a clean source, we're going to stock them again.
"For largemouth bass, Rhodhiss is one of the top lakes (on the Catawba chain) as far as number of fish sampled per mile of shoreline - comparable to Lake Wylie," Taylor said. "As far as pounds of largemouth bass per mile of shoreline, it's at the top, higher than Wylie."
Lake Hickory is well known for being a nutrient-strong reservoir because of the water-treatment plants, but many anglers are not as aware that Rhodhiss has a discharge from Connolly Springs and a discharge coming in from the tailrace from the town of Marion, that give Rhodhiss a high-nutrient inflow.
Lake Rhodhiss is not particularly deep - and Taylor said it rates about midway between clear and muddy - and the Catawba River is the only tributary of any size. Correll said there are a handful of relatively small creeks worth fishing, and in the fall, bass move in there mirroring the movement of baitfish.
"In November, there will be largemouth bass biting all over the lake," Correll said. "Most of the bass are going to be found halfway back in the creeks all the way to where the tributaries enter the lake. There will be shad in the main lake and in the backs of creeks, but you're going to do better targeting largemouths back in the creeks than on the main channel."
Correll usually starts in either Cook's Creek or the "crackerbox," a small creek that enters the lake on its southern shoreline next to the Waterworks Road boating access area. He's fishing two distinct kinds of cover - rocks and laydown trees, both of which are in abundance at Rhodhiss. There are literally thousands of laydowns at Rhodhiss, largely because Hurricane Hugo rolled way up I-77 before finally petering out, its high winds uprooting tree after tree and laying them out over the shoreline.
"Boat docks don't come into play at Rhodhiss - there are very few docks - and because thanks to Hugo, there are a million laydowns to fish," Correll said. "The fish will be relatively shallow, from 10 feet deep to the bank. November and December can be excellent times to fish a jig; work it along the rocky structure, along the laydown trees.
"At that time of the year, crankbait fishing will also start to heat up. You fish the same kind of structure that you would with a jig, but you can cover a lot more water with a crankbait. I like any kind of shad pattern, especially Tennessee Shad, and just like at places like High Rock, the 'homer' (chartreuse/green) color will work really well.
"Just go down the bank, throwing at anything you see. Work the banks and work secondary points because the fish can be anywhere. In the creeks, you won't see many steep banks - they just shallow up gradually."
Fishing will often stay excellent into mid to late December, depending on the weather. "Normally, after the first couple of weeks in December, the bass fishing will slow down. They'll start moving back out on channel bends and to the ends of laydown trees, maybe 10 to 20 feet deep. When the water temperature drops under 55 degrees, that's when they start to slow down and go to their wintering areas," Correll said.
Fishing is not difficult at Rhodhiss, Correll said, and it can be very productive.
"The fishing is great; you're looking at large numbers of 2- to 5-pound largemouths," he said. "On a good day, you might catch 25 fish. This lake can be as good as Buggs Island or High Rock at that time of the year. This is one lake where anybody can go and just spin his map around, put his finger down and say, 'I'm going to start here and go down the bank and catch fish.'
"People with very little bass-fishing experience can have an enjoyable time on Rhodhiss in the fall. The adventurous angler who is willing to do a little homework will find a pleasant surprise tucked away there."
Apparently, there aren't that many adventurous anglers around. Doug Besler, a longtime fisheries biologist for the commission who was promoted a year ago and succeeded by Taylor, believes that Rhodhiss gets less fishing pressure because relatively few people live on the lake.
"It's really fertile, and it gets overlooked," Besler said. "People don't live on the lake; that's a big part of it, although Rhodhiss is getting much more developed now than it was. But Lake Hickory is closer to that metropolitan center, and Lake James is much more of a scenic lake, and most people are going to one of those."
Taylor believes that some fishermen avoid Rhodhiss because it is not laid out like a standard Piedmont or Foothills reservoir - that is, dominated by tributary creeks and coves.
"It's a long, skinny lake, and to me, it doesn't have those cove-type situations you find on other lakes. Fishing is more on the main-river channel habitat. I don't know if that pushes people away from it or not."
One thing's for sure: If you like catching bass in the late season, you shouldn't let it keep you away from this lake.
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