Lake Norman and Buggs Island serve up some winter striper fishing you don't want to miss. (December 2009)
Fresh coffee, crackling fires, fleece pullovers and wool blankets all have their place this time of year. However, nothing will take the chill off a midwinter day quite like striped bass ripping line off reels -- especially when two or three stripers get hooked up at the same time. While some kinds of fish turn sluggish when temperatures drop, striped bass get fired up this time of year. The cooler water suits their preferences, and their favorite food fish stack up in big schools.
Two of North Carolina's largest reservoirs are also two of the best places in the state to get in on hot fishing when the weather turns cold. Let's look at the fine fisheries at Lake Norman and Buggs Island -- lakes that are in some ways similar but in others quite different -- and then dig into how to connect with the best winter striper fishing at each lake.
Fast action is the main attraction at Lake Norman, a deep, clear impoundment of the Catawba River that spreads across more than 32,000 acres just north of Charlotte. Anglers do catch an occasional large striped bass from the big lake, but stripers average 4 or 5 pounds, and fish that weigh more than 10 pounds are fairly uncommon. Fishermen ought not be deterred a paucity of trophy fish, however, because stripers of all sizes pull like trains, and Lake Norman's big schools sometimes serve up furious fishing action.
The winter months bring some of the best striped bass fishing of the year to Lake Norman. Stripers favor cool, well-oxygenated water, and through the cool months, the conditions they favor are found at all levels of the water column. Threadfin shad, meanwhile, tend to pile up in big schools. The stripers follow the food, so where there are big schools of baitfish, happily feeding striped bass typically are not far away.
Winter conditions cause a lot of Lake Norman's stripers to move to the warmer waters around the two power plants that are built on Lake Norman's shores, according to striper guide David Clubb. Clubb grew up near the lake and has been guiding striped bass fishermen full-time for eight years. Not all the fish migrate, he noted. However, enough do move to cause the warmwater discharges of the Marshall Steam Plant and the McGuire Nuclear Station to have a very significant influence on winter fishing patterns.
An important consideration for anglers is that the fish will not all be right in the "hotspots." The discharges affect considerable areas to some degree at least, and the size and whereabouts of warmed areas vary according to the amount of power being produced by the plants, wind patterns and the degree of cold that is battling the warmth. The stripers also won't necessarily be in the warmest water. They will be in the vicinity, however, because of the concentrations of shad that will stay in the warmer water.
Wind is a major controlling factor, according to Clubb, and he advises anglers to track the wind direction and strength for two or three days before a winter striper fishing trip. If the wind has blown steadily in the same direction for two or three days, warm water will have been pushed in that direction, both in the main river and in the creeks. Armed with knowledge of how winds have been blowing and a good lake map to see how waters are really oriented, an angler can then use his graph both to see how temperatures compare in different areas and to look for baitfish and for stripers.
Winter stripers typically begin the morning shallow, move deeper through the middle part of the day, and then move shallow again late in the afternoon, according to Clubb.
"Of course, if the day is overcast, they might stay shallow all day long. And on some days I don't find any of them shallow," he said.
Based on the fish's most common behavior, Clubb focuses on areas where deep water is adjacent to shallow flats. He typically will begin a morning working the tops of flats, pulling live blueback herring very slowly on free-lines, with a couple lines spread out from the boat with planer boards. When the fish begin moving down, he'll go down after them, fishing the same baits on down lines, which are usually set 30 to 40 feet deep.
Clubb fishes both in the main river channel and in the creeks during the winter, with recent days' findings and the orientation of the warmer water both being major factors for determining his starting point. He catches a lot of stripers in both areas, but he has found that he catches more quality fish up the creeks this time of year.
Although Clubb does the bulk of his fishing with blueback herring, he noted that trout are also extremely popular and can be very effective for putting stripers in the boat. Bait trout are available from several stores around the lake.
Biologists' surveys suggest the lake has a very stable striper fishery, according to North Carolina Wildlife Resources Commission fisheries biologist Brian McRae.
"Recent gill net surveys conducted in collaboration with Duke Energy have been similar to past surveys," he said. "In 2007, the average length of striped bass collected was 21 inches and the average weight was approximately 3.3 pounds."
Clubb believes the lake's striper fishery has been improving, in terms of the number of better quality fish in the mix. Fish being weighed in local tournaments have been a little larger overall, he said. However, changes in the fishery have also created challenges for fishermen.
"Bait-bucket stocking of herring has changed the lake," Clubb said. "We used to have predictable surface schooling. Now you don't see fish schooling nearly as often."
Interestingly, Lake Norman's forage base is arguably both its greatest attribute and its greatest limitation as a striper lake. On one hand, the threadfin shad population tends to be very stable, with few winter die-offs, because of the warming influences of the two power plants. On the other hand, Lake Norman is substantially less fertile than other Piedmont reservoirs, so it won't support as large a total biomass. There simply isn't enough food for large numbers of striped bass to grow to large sizes.
Secondary limiting factors relate to a lack of quality summer habitat and invasive species that have been illegally stocked in the lake by anglers. White perch and spotted bass probably compete somewhat for striper habitat and/or forage, while alewives have actually attracted stripers into waters that did not have enough dissolved oxygen in them and caused large numbers of stripers to die during the summer.
In 2006, the NCWRC decreased the seasonal minimum size for striped bass from 20 inches to 16 inches. "Over 10 years of
research from NCWRC and North Carolina State University has indicated that a lower size limit is the most efficient way to manage the Lake Norman striped bass fishery," McRae said.
The lower minimum size allows anglers to take home more stripers from a lake that would not produce many trophy fish anyway. In addition, biologists hope that the increased harvest of smaller fish will result in better condition and growth rates of the fish that remain in the reservoir.
"We are currently evaluating this change in the minimum size limit; however, we typically need five years of data before we reach a conclusion resulting from a regulation change," McRae said.
Lake Norman's striper population is totally dependent on stocked fish, as no natural reproduction occurs. The North Carolina Wildlife Resources Commission annually stocks the lake with 162,500 1- to 2-inch striped bass fingerlings.
In other cooperative research with North Carolina State, the NCWRC has been analyzing the impact of predation on freshly stocked stripers. Using gillnets, researchers have captured fish at various distances within 1,500 meters of stocking points and at various times within 72 hours of stockings. Contrary to expectations, they have found minimal evidence of other fish eating the 1- and 2-inch stripers during the first few days after stockings.
The striper limit at Lake Norman is four fish. From Oct. 1 to May 31, the minimum size is 16 inches. There is no minimum size from June 1 to Sept. 30. Access to Lake Norman is very good, with more than 20 boat ramps scattered around the lake. To learn more about Lake Norman striper fishing, visit David Clubb's Web site, www.fishclubb.com, or contact Clubb by phone, (704) 633-9441, or e-mail, FishClubb@aol.com.
Similar to Lake Norman, John H. Kerr Reservoir (or Buggs Island Lake as it is more widely known) does not produce many trophy striped bass. The fish are somewhat larger on average than those in Norman, and both numbers and average sizes are currently on the increase. However, few stripers in Buggs will ever reach trophy proportions, according Vic DeCenzo, a fisheries biologist for the Virginia Department of Game & Inland Fisheries.
DeCenzo, whose agency takes the lead fisheries management role over this big, borderline impoundment, characterized Buggs Island striper population at its best as "an 8- to 12-pound fishery."
Completely unlike Lake Norman, Buggs Island is exceptionally fertile and the stripers enjoy extremely abundant forage. However, that same fertility actually lies behind the lake's biggest limitation for producing true heavyweight stripers. When summer hits hard and the lake stratifies, cool well-oxygenated water becomes extremely limited, and stripers (especially large stripers) require cool, well-oxygenated water.
Despite this limitation, high fertility and four different shad and herring species guarantee plenty of food on the table, and proactive management has dramatically improved the fishery over the past decade or so.
Through the late 1990s, the Buggs Island striper population was totally dependent on natural reproduction. Year-classes were inconsistent, though, and during the second half of the '90s, anglers were expressing increasing concerns about the lake because they were catching fewer and smaller fish. Data indicated that the best recruitment during the '90s occurred in 1998, when state hatcheries had a surplus of striped bass fingerling, and a bunch of those fish had been stocked in Buggs Island.
"That showed us that there was a place for stocking as a tool to supplement natural reproduction," said DeCenzo. Instead of studying the inconsistent natural reproduction, which would have cost money that wasn't available and taken several years, the VDGIF began stocking 350,000 striper fingerlings per year. While no means has been established to distinguish adult stocked fish from lake-spawned fish and therefore quantify the specific effect of the stockings, the indisputable fact is that both netting surveys and fishermen's reports have shown a gradually improving fishery ever since the supplemental stockings began.
In 2006, regulations were changed to benefit size structures. It's a two-fold regulation. From June 1 to Sept. 30, the daily limit is four fish, with no minimum size. Release mortality is extremely high during the summer on Buggs Island, so biologists encourage anglers to keep every striper they catch up to the four-fish limit during this period and then to stop fishing for the day. From Oct. 1 to May 31, the limit is two fish, with a minimum size of 26 inches. This encourages catch-and-release during the time when the fish generally can be released in good condition and protects fish for two extra years on average, when compared with the previous 20-inch minimum size.
Marion "Ramrod" Hall, who has been fishing Buggs Island for nearly four decades and has guided for 19 years, only fishes for striped bass during the cool months. Because Hall does not normally keep stripers, he simply won't fish for them during the period when released fish are less likely to survive.
Fortunately for Hall and other striper fishermen, winter ranks among the best times to enjoy fine striper fishing action on Buggs Island. They congregate around big schools of baitfish and feed somewhat predictably. Because the fish do tend to stack up, once an angler finds feeding fish and hooks up, the next strike often comes quickly.
The challenge begins with finding fish in the first place. Unlike spring, when most fish run up the rivers to spawn, and summer, when climatic conditions force most fish to stay in the lake's lower main body, the fish find comfortable living virtually everywhere during the winter, and they do a lot of moving.
Hall focuses much of his winter attention on the lower ends of major creeks, and he'll commonly spend some time searching for schools with his graph before he ever puts down a line. He named Grassy, Eastland, Mill and Nutbush creeks as consistently good areas for winter striper fishing and suggested that anglers begin looking for fish in water that's around 30 feet deep. He noted, however, that the fish will move up and down a lot during the winter and could be substantially shallower.
Hall does most of his fishing by slow-trolling with live bait, using flatlines, downlines or some combination, depending on the depth of any fish he has located. He'll move the boat very slowly with the trolling motor, either concentrating on fish he has marked or searching as he fishes. His downlines typically are set 20 to 30 feet deep.
Another good thing about winter is that the fish will sometimes give themselves away by pushing baitfish to the surface. Seagulls also help anglers home in on fish because the birds will feast on the baitfish that the stripers push to the top. If big numbers of birds are hanging around an area, chances are good that schools of stripers have been working in that area. If the birds start circling and diving, fish are almost certainly beneath them. Even if the schools are sporadic or stop coming up after a couple of frenzies, they reveal the areas where the striper
s are most congregated, and often Hall's regular trolling tactics will help him zero in on those fish and catch them.
Hall's baitfish variety of choice is a blueback herring. However, he also fishes with threadfin shad and gizzard shad at times, depending on availability. Hall catches his own bait with a cast net, as do most guides and many other lake regulars. However, he noted that shad or herring can be purchased from bait stores.
Much of Buggs Island lies within Virginia, but a reciprocal agreement between North Carolina and Virginia allows anglers properly licensed for either state to fish anywhere on the lake. To plan a guided striper day on Buggs Island, call Ramrod's Guide Service at (919) 622-2796.