May is prime time to visit Jordan Lake and sample some of its surprisingly good fishing for striped bass. (May 2010)
Young Sam Jarrett looked at the bouncing rod tip, his eyes wide in wonder as he looked up at his father, Dave Jarrett.
The youngster was amazed because he'd never held a rod with a fish this big at the business end -- mainly because this was his first striped bass-fishing adventure.
"Hold him, son," his dad said. "Reel him in."
The 8-year-old second-grader at Scroggs Elementary School in Chapel Hill cranked with determination the handle of the Abu-Garcia bait-caster reel, the butt of the 7-foot-long rod bouncing as it protruded from underneath his armpit.
It took a couple of minutes for the boy to reel an 11-pound striped bass to the surface of Jordan Lake. The feisty fish splashed next to the starboard gunwale of Troy Robertson's fishing boat. The veteran striper guide expertly slipped a landing net underneath the struggling rockfish and lifted it over the side to the deck where the small boy could admire his handiwork.
"That was fun," said a beaming Sam, who was celebrating his birthday with his dad last spring. "Can we go catch another one?"
His father looked at Roberson, who said: "Sure, we'll do it again, if another one wants to bite."
It was a promise Roberson (Striper Sniper Adventures, 919- 656-1887, http://www.striper-sniper.com) would be able to keep last spring. His rods kept dipping over the next couple hours as the boy and his father enjoyed an excellent birthday present, catching rockfish with Roberson at Jordan Lake.
"May is the best month to fish for striped bass at Jordan Lake," said Roberson, 36, a former ranger for the N.C. Parks & Recreation Department and currently a public safety officer for the nearby town of Pittsboro.
May is when Jordan Lake's water temperature reaches 65 degrees and enlivens feeding instincts in striped bass all over the lake following April's "false spawn." The lake's two main feeder streams, the Haw and New Hope rivers, don't have enough length to provide a true spawn (striper eggs require about three to four days of tumbling in 65-degree water to hatch) -- but the fish don't know that. So instinct takes over during May and they try to spawn anyway, struggling upriver as far as they can go.
Once attempted reproduction activities are finished, their spent energy and weight needs to be replenished. So stripers cruise Jordan's shorelines, looking to fatten up on baitfish before they head for deeper water when summer arrives.
Roberson's fishing tactics change as May progresses, although the baitfish he hooks to his trolling rigs do not. They're good for shallow or deep striped bass.
"You can use threadfin shad, which are smaller, even bass shiners, the early part of the month," he said. "Stripers are hungry and they'll eat anything you put in front of them."
Roberson said anglers can buy shad or shiners at several bait-and-tackle stores near the lake or catch their own gizzards or threadfins.
He uses a cast net to land shad.
"Jordan is a shad factory," Roberson said. "It has an abundance of both threadfins and gizzard shads.
"You can buy 'em or use a cast net to catch 'em under the bridge at Farrington or the (N.C.) 751 bridge between the No-Wake buoys. You don't even have to see 'em; just throw a cast net four times and you'll have 70 to 100 baits."
Early in the fifth month, Roberson likes to use 4- to 6-inch-long threadfin shad, but as the month goes on and fish go deeper, he prefers big gizzard shads, sometimes as long as 9 or 10 inches. He also has a tactic that makes stripers more likely to attack his baitfish.
"This lake has dark-colored waters, and the shad take on that color," Roberson said. "So if I know I have a guide trip the next day, before I go home, I'll throw my cast net and catch a bunch of shad and put them in my (boat's) live well. When I get home, I'll fill up my live well with well water, keep the aerator running and leave 'em overnight. When I get up the next morning, those baitfish will have changed color -- they'll be almost white. That's what happens when you put 'em in clear water.
"The next day at the lake when I put a threadfin or gizzard shad on a planer board, free line or lead-core line leader, they'll be really bright in that dark water. I think having shiny baits helps stripers see them better, and I think I get more bites that way."
Early in May, Roberson eschews deep-water fishing for trolling the banks of shallow creeks (in water 10 feet or less deep) using planer boards and smaller baits. He often bangs the shoreline of Beaver Creek, east of the Ebenezer Church Road boat launch area. The ramp there is one of two open 24 hours a day, seven days a week at Jordan.
"Fish are moving in shallow water in the lake early in May, including the creeks but also the main lake shorelines," Roberson said. "You can fish the shorelines of the creeks or at the main lake and catch stripers."
As the month progresses and surface water temperatures rise into the high 70s, stripers pull away from the shallows and move into Jordan's main body, orienting at the creek and river channels from Morgan Creek (near Farrington) then south to Beaver Creek.
Some of the creek channels are as deep as 25 feet while the channels in the lake can be 40-feet deep or deeper.
"When the fish have gone out into the main lake near the end of the month and into June, that's when I'll go looking for them with my depth-finder," Roberson said.
Once he views a concentration of baitfish and stripers underneath them off the deep points with his depth-finder's LCD, Roberson uses his trolling motor and the wind to drift across those spots.
When he's trolling a basic Carolina rig, he'll place four rods in the holders on the gunwales around his boat.
"I start with 7-foot medium-light Eagle Claw rods and Ambassadeur 6500 C3 reels and 15-pound-test Berkley Big Game Electric Blue line," he said. "I'll tie on a 3- to 4-foot leader of 15-pound-test fluorocarbon P-line with a 2-ounce egg sinker and 1-0 Owner circle hooks. Then I hook a baitfish from underneath his jaw and come out between his eyes."
When using lead-core line to troll, he uses 7-f
oot medium-action Penn Power Stick rods and 20-foot fluorocarbon leaders.
"I don't use swivels (to tie leaders to lead-core line) because I think stripers can see them," he said. "I want the baits to look as natural as possible, so I tie the leaders to the main line with a couple of double overhand knots. They're strong knots, and I've never had one separate."
He also trolls a couple of baited lines off the stern of his boat, using floats, when he has youngsters aboard.
"When I'm fishing with children, I like to use floats because they can see when a striper hits," he said. "That makes it exciting for them, and it's something they're probably used to doing, fishing with a bobber or cork. In fact, that's one of the things that I really enjoy -- seeing a kid catch his first fish. I do a lot of father-son and a few father-daughter trips."
Roberson also keeps a topwater rod ready with a Zara Spook or another topwater lure, ready to cast if the stripers start feeding at the surface.
"That's a rare occurrence here," he said. "Stripers used to school on top at Jordan a lot, but you don't see it much in the spring. If it happens, it's usually during the fall when the water cools down after a hot summer, and you get schools of baitfish swimming around on top. Even then it usually only happens real early in the morning or at dusk."
Sometimes stripers are so actively feeding in deep water during late May or early June, Roberson trolls artificial lures instead of live baits.
"I like 3/4-ounce Striper Swiper trolling rigs," he said. "I have a color I call my Jordan Lake special; it's a Striper Striper (jig) with a worm snake trailer in lemon-lime color."
When stripers are swimming in the lake's deepest water during that time, Roberson prefers down-riggers, metal planers that take lures to any desired depth.
"A lot of guys pull four lead-core line rigs and two down-rigger rods and use bucktails," he said. "When I use down-riggers, I like to pull a tandem rig -- a three-way swivel with a 1-ounce bucktail on top and a 3/8-ounce bucktail on the bottom. Normally I'll pull a single bucktail on my lead-core line and doubles on my down-riggers."
Fish sizes at Jordan are something of a controversy, although anglers aren't complaining. Biologists with the N.C. Wildlife Resources Commission aren't convinced Jordan Lake will grow huge stripers because of its relatively shallow average depth. During periods of warm weather, fish become stressed, lethargic and don't eat enough to put on pounds. In fact, they often lose weight during the summer.
District 5 WRC biologist Corey Oakley said the lake suffered its first die-off of stripers around Labor Day 2009, when about 250 dead fish were found floating. The cause was summer heat that produced an algae bloom.
"It was a low-dissolved oxygen problem," he said. "Two-hundred fifty sounds like a lot of fish, but in relation to how many stripers are in the lake, it's not that many. But the lake gets hot in summer and can have pretty low dissolved oxygen levels and stripers don't like that,
"Requirements for stripers to grow (large) have to be a lot better than what's found at Jordan. You won't see any 25- to 30-pound fish, but you can catch all the 7- to 10-pounders you want. I don't know that you could say stripers are doing well at Jordan, as far as sizes go. You could say they're doing better than expected."
Although not complaining about the sizes of current stripers in the lake, Roberson pointed out it's not unusual to catch individuals that weigh as much as 16 pounds, larger than the 10-pound maximum WRC biologists predict.
"There's plenty for them to eat, so they can grow that big," he said. "But I know the hot water in summer holds them back."
The WRC has been putting stripers in the lake since 1988. That year the agency dropped its first "Phase I" (1- to 3-inch-long) striper fingerlings, a "mixed" stocking (35,000 striper fingerlings and 35,000 hybrid white bass/striper fingerlings), into Jordan. But the agency ended that practice in 2002, since then putting only stripers (70,000 annually).
"The reason we went from hybrids, then mixed stockings to stripers-only was a concern about hybrids escaping downstream into the Cape Fear River," Oakley said. "It was partly a genetic issue because hybrids will mimic the reproduction of regular stripers, and we were worried hybrid genes would be mixed with pure-strain ocean-run stripers that move up the Cape Fear. Hybrids actually aren't sterile; they're a cross between male white bass and female striped bass.
"In fact, a UNC-Wilmington scientist, Mary Moser, did a study of Cape Fear stripers a few years ago that showed 30 percent of them already had hybrid genes. With such a small number of ocean stripers going up the Cape Fear, that was a pretty significant number, and we certainly didn't want to add another problem. So we stopped stocking hybrids in Jordan and went with stripers."
However, anglers still catch hybrids at Jordan Lake.
"Some (hybrids) may be escaping from an upstream impoundment (Lake Townsend in Guilford County) where we still stock them," Oakley said. "It's never been proven, but it's possible they could be coming down the Haw River. If they do, there's not many."
"I kind of liked having hybrids in the lake," Roberson said. "They were good fighters, would hit baits readily and gave my clients a lot of fun. They're easier to catch than stripers, too, because they're so aggressive."
When the WRC was stocking hybrids, some of them grew to as much as 14 pounds. But most of those fish have been caught or died out.
Roberson said he doesn't accept the small size predictions for Jordan stripers, noting that a good-sized Jordan Lake rockfish will weigh 12 to 16 pounds.
"There's no 20-pounders in the lake, and I catch a lot of 7- to 10-pounders, but they grow larger than 10 pounds," he said.
Robertson is hoping Jordan Lake will become like High Rock Lake, a Yadkin River system pool. It's about the same size (14,000 acres), is fed by a river and has good baitfish numbers. Not only that, but High Rock anglers catch stripers that push the scales toward 18 to 20 pounds, although most of them average about 10 pounds.
Oakley agreed that Jordan and High Rock have similarities and those factors finally may have convinced WRC biologists to try stocking stripers at Jordan.
"I think (WRC biologist)s were reluctant initially to consider putting stripers in Jordan because it's a relatively shallow lake and everybody thought the water would be too warm for them in summer," Oakley said.
"But yes, (WRC biologists) were surprised stripers have done as well as the
y have. It was a leap of faith when they took this step to stock only stripers because we didn't know how it would turn out. We just knew we had to get away from stocking hybrids because of what was happening downstream (in the Cape Fear).