Amidst a generally steady fishery statewide, here are some new hotspots and news of a fish disease at one of the state's best lakes.
As much as North Carolina deer hunters looking forward to November, bass anglers anticipate March.
It's a magical month for fishing as the year begins to shake off the winter doldrums and the first sprigs of green appear on trees and in the water.
Largemouth, smallmouth and spotted bass become active again and begin feeding binges during this pre-spawn period. And with the rising water temperatures, they're ravenous, following relative little feeding activity during most of the preceding winter.
Anglers catch many of the Tar Heel state's heftiest largemouth during March, especially at large impoundments. That's because they're easier to target after they head for the shallows where schools of baitfish ring the dinner bell.
Following is a look at some of the best bass-fishing waters in the state as assessed by N.C.'s top fisheries biologists. The order of mention is an approximate ranking by catch-rates-per-hour of electro-shocked fish in each body of water.
"Without a doubt, I'd say Shearon Harris Lake (Chatham and Wake counties) is the best largemouth bass lake in the state," said Kirk Rundle, District 3 fisheries biologist.
Although a drought during August and September 2010 reduced hydrilla (made it grow deeper), the lake level didn't fluctuate enough to harm its bass population, Rundle said.
Although no one knows exactly why, the ring of hydrilla, elodea and primrose growing around its entire shoreline probably is the main reason Harris Lake produces magnum bass. Eight-, 9- and 10-pound bass are still commonplace catches during spring here, although perhaps because of the fishing pressure the lake gets, big fish have been more difficult to land in recent years.
It's definitely not because big bass aren't swimming in Harris Lake.
"When we electro-shock for samples, we get plenty of 7- to 9-pound fish," Rundle said. "And we regularly bump up more than 100 bass per hour, which is the highest rate in the state. Plus the age of the fish in our samples is spread from 1 to 12 years, meaning we've got good reproduction in the lake."
A "trophy" slot limit (no fish kept between 16 and 20 inches in length) has helped Harris retain its reputation as a hawg factory.
The No. 2 bass lake in North Carolina is new Randleman Dam reservoir, which opened in the spring of 2010.
Impounding the Deep River downstream from High Point City Lake and Oak Hollow Lake, "this lake is phenomenal now, especially in the spring," said N.C. bass pro and guide Joel Richardson. "I had 40- and 60-fish days last year in March and April."
Richardson said most of the bass he caught on shallow-running crankbaits, spinnerbaits, buzzbaits and floating worms.
Richardson has knowledge of two 11-pound-plus bass plus several over 8 pounds coming from Randleman Dam.
Corey Oakley, the WRC's District 5 fisheries biologist, said Lake Lucas was "1-A" on his list of top bass lakes in his district.
"It's a small Asheboro City Lake of only 238 acres, but it's a really great bass fishery," Oakley said. "It's got a lot of really high-quality 8- to 9-pound fish and high densities of bass. Its smaller fish are skinny, but the bigger ones are really fat."
Anglers must pay a small fee to fish the lake and it has a motor-size restriction. John boats and canoes are available for rental.
Falls of the Neuse Lake in Durham, Granville and Wake counties ranks fourth as a largemouth factory.
"Overall sample rates are near the highest in the state for largemouths," biologist Rundle said. "The forage base is good at Falls along with bass growth rates overall."
However, he said the WRC's sampling discovered the lake was slightly overcrowded with bass in the 14- to 16-inch range, so the 16-inch minimum-keeper size was dropped to 14 inches this year.
"We wanted to give more opportunities to anglers to keep fish without affecting the fishery and we think it definitely will increase tournament traffic," Rundle said.
District 7 biologist Kin Hodges calls Lake Hickory "the shining star of the district" when it comes to largemouth bass.
Because of an influx of fertile water from Morganton (through Lake Rhodhiss) and also from the town of Hickory's Gunpowder Creek, this Catawba River impoundment has a good balance of nutrients to support a forage base of threadfin and gizzard shad and alewives. That forage has led to electro-shocking rate samples of 90 to 100 bass per hour.
"That puts Lake Hickory at the high end in the state, just behind lakes such as Falls (of the Neuse) and Shearon Harris," he said.
However, the 4,223-acre lake doesn't have a supply of 9- to 10-pounders.
"But Hickory has a good supply of solid 2 1/2- to 4-pound fish," he said.
The Yadkin River chain of lakes has several excellent bass lakes, but the best is undoubtedly the northernmost, High Rock, in Davidson County.
"It's probably No. 1 in the chain, although Badin and Lake Tillery also have good bass numbers," said District 6 biologist Troy Thompson. "We have electro-shocking rates of more than 100 bass per hour at High Rock."
High Rock's largemouth size distribution averages around 16 or 17 inches, which corresponds to 2 to 3 1/2 pounds.
"We don't have a lot of big bass, but there are 6- and 7-pounders in the lake," Thompson said.
Jordan Lake has become "an average" bass lake, said District 5 fisheries biologist Corey Oakley of Mebane.
Still, in the spring, anglers can have tremendous catches, especially in the lake's shallow upper reaches.
"It has lots of 5- to 7-pound fish but not a lot of 9s and 10s like it used to have during the first 10 years it was impounded," Oakley said. "That pretty much follows what happens at all lakes."
Jordan Lake's forage base is tremendous, filled with gizzard and
One of the most popular and heavily-pressured lakes in the state is shared by South Carolina, just below Charlotte in Mecklenburg County.
"Lake Wylie has an excellent largemouth bass fishery," biologist Thompson said. "It's a good fishery that's got lots of 2- to 4-pound bass. It's evident from the number of tournaments held at the lake that bass fisherman think a lot of it."
The Bass Anglers Sportsman Society held its 2004 Bassmasters Classic at Wylie where Japanese pro Japanese pro Takahiro Omori landed 39 pounds, 2 ounces of bass during three days.
South Carolina's Department of Natural Resources manages Lake Wylie as most of the lake lies south of the N.C. border. Neither state honors the other's fishing licenses.
Greensboro has several water supply lakes, but the best for bass fishing is Lake Brandt.
"It's an 800-acre lake but it's got a lot of quality 5-, 6- and 7-pound fish," said biologist Oakley. "I'd rate it 1-B in my district behind Lake Lucas."
Lake Brandt does receive a lot of fishing pressure, he said.
"It's a very shallow lake, too, with the maximum depth only 16 feet," Oakley said.
Spring is the best time to try for largemouths around the edges of Lake Waccammaw in Columbus County.
"It's got some very nice bass in the spring," said District 4 biologist Keith Ashley of Elizabethtown.
Best places to find these lunkers, which can weigh up to 8 pounds, are docks that rim the Carolina bay lake.
A fairly unknown bass lake is Bay Tree or Black Lake in Columbus County.
"Bay Tree has a fantastic bass population, but (the WRC) doesn't advertise it much because the lake has one of the highest mercury concentrations in the state," said biologist Ashley.
The 1,000-acre lake, located in Bladen County, also is in the Bay Tree subdivision, so there's no public access.
"You have to know someone who lives on the lake in order to fish it," Ashley said.
Because of a tremendous forage base of threadfin and gizzard shad, Lake Rhodhiss, a chain lake of the Catawba River system in Burke County between Lake James and Lake Hickory, has one of western North Carolina's top largemouth populations.
"Anglers routinely catch 5-pounders in tournaments," said District 8 biologist David Goodfred. "It's long and more like a river than a lake and loaded with woody debris, perfect largemouth habitat. But it can be finicky; you might have the best day you ever had one day and the worst the next. For guys who know how to fish it, it's a great black bass lake."
Spotted bass are a relatively new introduction in North Carolina, and there is good and bad news about them.
Biologists believe they tend to take over a lake once they've been introduced because they're so aggressive they outcompete largemouth bass for forage. The usual outcome is that as spotted bass numbers grow, largemouth numbers decline.
Lake Norman near Charlotte may be a good example.
"Lake Norman has both largemouth bass and spotted bass," said biologist Thompson. "The big issue is whether as the spots come on strong are they displacing largemouths. Both (subspecies) are pretty abundant right now, but we don't know what the future holds."
Thompson said although the lake has good numbers of spots, the majority are smaller than 14 or 15 inches in length.
"Spring is the best time to look for them," he said.Perhaps the most surprising body of water to have spotted bass is the lower Cape Fear River.
"If you want to change up and go for spots, you can try the Cape Fear River south of Lillington," said biologist Ashley. "There have been spotted bass in the river for 30-plus years since an original stocking in 1977."
He said the river near Lillington, Avent and Parker creeks and Upper and Lower Little Rivers has good numbers of spots.
"In 2008 we did black bass (electro-fishing) samples and collected a good sample of spotted bass (in that area)," Ashley said.
WRC biologists shocked up the most spots at Elwel's Ferry in Bladen County, halfway between Riegelwood and Elizabethtown. There's a WRC boat launch ramp at Elwel's Ferry.
"We collected a 4 1/2-pound spot and were shocked," Ashley said. "At first thought it was a (largemouth) bass, but it was a spot."
Lake Chatuge in Clay County is divided between North Carolina and Georgia and once was the home of the state-record smallmouth.
"It's almost all spotted bass now and has a lot of 3- and 4-pounders," said District 9 fisheries biologist Powell Wheeler. "It provides a great spotted bass fishery for that area and a lot of big spots are in that lake."
One of the top western N.C. spotted bass lakes is Moss Lake, also known as Kings Mountain Reservoir, said biologist Goodfred.
"It's 1,800 acres and has a really good spotted bass fishery that's coming on strong," he said.
The lake is located east of Shelby.
WRC electro-shocking samples have revealed "lots of 2- to 3-pounders," Goodfred said. "The lake is loaded with 12- to 13-inch fish."
W. Kerr Scott, a 1,475-acre mountain lake near Wilkesboro in District 7, has a bass population evenly split between spotted bass and largemouths.
"There are a few smallmouths but not enough to show up in (electro-shocking) surveys," said biologist Hodges. "However, we do get reports from anglers that they catch spots and most of them are good ones."
WRC surveys show a combined sampling rate of 50 largemouths and spots per hour at W. Kerr Scott.
"The lake has a lot lower density (of bass) than Hickory, but it's got bigger fish," he said.
The top smallmouth bass waters in the state are found at Lake James.
"It has a tremendous smallmouth population and is definitely one of the best smallmouth lakes in the state," said biologist Goodfred. "People routinely catch 4-pounders and occasionally larger fish. We had a report of a 7-pounder not too long ago."
The Linville River arm of the lake is where most anglers go for smallies because it has the best ha
"It's deeper and has a lot of rocky points," Goodfred said. "Spinnerbaits and jigs, classic smallmouth lures, work well."
Lake Hiwassee in the far-western corner of the state (Cherokee County) has a mixture of bass, but smallmouths may be the top species.
"It's got spots, largemouth and smallmouth," said biologist Wheeler. "It may be better than Fontana as far as overall bass fishing is concerned."
Fontana Reservoir, west of Bryson City in Swain and Graham counties and fed by the Little Tennessee River, is a serpentine 20-miles-long TVA lake with classic smallmouth bass habitat.
"It has lots of big smallmouth and is certainly the best smallmouth lake in the western counties south of Asheville," Wheeler said. "It's got plenty of 5-pounders and larger smallmouths."
Anglers mostly use tube jigs for smallies in Fontana.
The French Broad River contains three distinct fisheries -- mountain trout, muskies, and smallmouth bass.
"Below Asheville, it's mostly smallmouth bass," Wheeler said. "There are plenty of 5-pounders in the river in that section."
Wheeler said he also casts tube jigs, plus Panther Martin spinners, when he's fishing the French Broad for smallmouth bass.