Largemouth bass are always under attack and it is not only anglers that impact their populations. Introductions of detrimental species have affected various waters throughout the state. Among the worst offenders are spotted bass. They can, and in larger lakes typically do, displace largemouth bass, which is good if you like spots, but bad if you prefer largemouth.
Other damaging fish include white perch and alewife, which compete with bass and eat their eggs. Some lakes suffer invasive vegetation outbreaks, while others are changing for reasons unknown, leaving anglers and biologists scratching their heads trying to guess why the fishing is better or worse than before.
Too much rain also harms the fishing. Hurricanes create flooding, particularly along the coastal fisheries, which leads to oxygen depletion and fish kills. Drought, on the other hand, can create low water (especially falling water after the spawn) in spring, conditions that can in some cases destroy an entire year-class in a given body of water. However, dry-summer water level declines may help bass and prey maintain balance.
Because conditions in every fishery change from year to year, biologists depend upon systematic electroshock surveys to keep track of bass. The numbers they rely upon include relative weight, which is the ratio of the fish's weight to its length. This condition rating indicates how "fat" a fish is, with a relative weight of 100 ideal. Other important information includes the catch rate per hour and distribution of size-classes.
Combined with anecdotal angler information, these scientific samplings tell biologists where the good fishing is occurring or where it is hurting. So, spool your reels with new line, tie on your favorite lure and fire off a few casts into one of this year's hot spots.
District 1 biologist Jeremy McCargo said hurricane-free autumns are restoring bass populations in the northeastern part of the state.
"The Chowan River continues to recover from fish kills caused by Hurricane Irene in 2011," he said. "The lower Chowan produced some good fishing last spring around Holiday Island. We have had two good year-classes and anglers have been catching lots of 12 to 13 inchers. By the spring of 2014, they will see a fair number of 14-inch keepers."
The lower Chowan is recovering faster than the upper. Bass from Holiday Island downstream are recovering well, with catch rates high in Bennett's Creek, Catherine's Creek, Wiccacon River and Rockyhock Creek. These creeks have good numbers of 4- to 5-pound bass. The upper Chowan at Tunis and the Meherrin River had poor catch rates.
"Hurricane Irene did not have the severe impact on the eastern rivers, so they have continued to have good fishing," he said. "We sampled the Little and Perquimans rivers last year and didn't see much change. The bass were healthy and populations were strong."
Lake Phelps continues to have the district's best bass fishing. Last spring, abundant rain kept the water high, resulting in a good spawn. A good spawn produces keeper-sized, 14-inch bass two or three years later. The fishing for smaller fish remains excellent from two previous, solid spawns.
"The lake has good numbers of sub-keepers in the 12- to 13-inch range, plenty of 14- to16-inch keepers and lots of fish within the protected slot size of 16 to 20 inches," he said. "Anglers catch bass as large as 8 pounds, but we don't see them in our surveys."
District 2 Biologist Ben Ricks said the bass population in the Neuse River continues to recover from Irene's floods.
"We sampled the Neuse River and what we are seeing there should also apply to the Tar River," he said. "We saw decent numbers of bass during our catfish sampling, increasing substantially from what we were seeing a year ago. The growth rates have been good, with the younger fish growing very fast. When we have seen fewer bass in the system after a fish kill, the remaining fish do really well because they are getting all the food they need.
"Bass are growing to 8 inches in their first year and those fish should be well above 14 inches by 2015. The 14-inch size limit is in effect for coastal rivers so bass have at least one good spawn before they reach harvestable size and this is a case where it is working well. Some of our highest catch rates occurred near Cliffs of the Neuse State Park and Pitchkettle Creek."
Biologist Kirk Rundle said Shearon Harris is District 3's best bass lake, with Falls Lake not far behind. However, anglers should not shun 1,860-acre Tar River Reservoir and 20,300-acre Lake Gaston.
"Our biggest fish are at Falls and Harris," he said. "But our catch rates at Tar River Reservoir were just as high. We caught 93 per hour, which is way above average. Thirty percent were greater than 14 inches, 15 percent above 16 inches and 5 percent above 20 inches. Their relative weight was 91."
Gaston yielded an above-average catch rate of 66 fish per hour. Sixty-five percent were larger than 14 inches, 15 percent greater than 18 inches and 5 percent greater than 20 inches. Relative weights averaged 93.
District 4 Biologist Michael Fisk surveyed White Lake, Lake Waccamaw and Sutton Lake in 2014.
"We did not see lots of bass in White Lake, but they were nice-sized fish," he said. "We always catch some 4- to 6-pounders, but our catch rate only averages 20 fish per hour. We see a good size distribution, with fish having relative weights in the 90s."
Lake Waccamaw holds plenty of 14- to 18-inch bass; however, the 2014 survey caught none topping 4 pounds. Nevertheless, relative weights size distribution was excellent. The catch rate was 30 fish per hour.
"Sutton is in a down cycle," he said. "Lots of the fish were thin and the population appears to be crashing from the boom of the last several years. We did not catch the numbers we have in years past and have not seen as many baitfish. Anglers noticed that huge boom of baitfish several years ago. But, now there are fewer gizzard shad and menhaden, so there is not as much food for bass."
District 5 Biologist Jessica Baumann said Jordan Lake is particularly productive.
"Jordan has plenty of threadfin and gizzard shad, which results in a good bass population with lots of nice fish," she said. "We collected 422 bass at Jordan and 55 percent were over 14 inches. Relative weights ranged from 90 to 110 and 190 of them, almost half, were 15 inches to 20 inches long and the fish in that size range had the higher relative weights. We had 23 fish over 20 inches and their relative weights were 110. They were fatties."
Most of the bass came from the Haw River and the Narrows, the lake's primary largemouth bass habitat. The catch rate was 66 per hour, topping the average for a piedmont lake.
"Mayo Lake was (also) surprisingly good, with 50 percent of the 250 fish we caught greater than 14 inches," she said. "Their condition ratings ranged from 87 to 93."
Lake Michie is a 541-acre Durham city lake. Impounding the Flat River, it is narrow and river-like. Of 258 bass sampled, 57 percent were 14 inches or greater with mean great relative weights of 100 to 104.
"Michie has a dynamic water level," she said. "In summer, it is drained to the river channel. That concentrates predator and prey and, by reducing spawning habitat, provides a check against over-abundance of bass. Bass growth is fast and age structure is excellent."
District 6 Biologist Lawrence Dorsey said bass anglers are catching bragging-sized bass at Badin.
"Badin jumped out at us in terms of bass numbers and sizes," he said. "It has always been a good lake. But, for some reason, it just got better. Anglers were saying they were catching more and bigger fish than ever and we caught them, too. Our catch rate was 187 fish per hour and 56 percent were 14 inches or greater.
"More good news is that relative weights increased with size. That means there is enough forage for the bigger fish so they pack on weight. The mean relative weight was 95. However, in the preferred sizes, fish from 15 to 20 inches long, the mean relative weight was 98, so those are good fish, tournament weigh-in fish. Out of 455 fish we caught, 144 were in the preferred sizes."
At Tuckertown Lake, the catch rate was 75 fish per hour. Sixty percent of the bass were longer than the 14-inch keeper size and the average condition of fish in the preferred sizes was 97.
Meanwhile, Blewett Falls Lake looks like it should have great bass fishing. However, the Commission's sampling had a low catch rate. The lake is challenging for bass because of extreme water level fluctuations.
District 7 Biologist Kin Hodges said 4,223-acre Lake Hickory was his district's best. However, 1,475-acre W. Kerr Scott offers great fishing, too. Both are better than 3,863-acre Belews Lake.
"At Belews, growth rates are very fast, but the bass don't live long," he said. "We are trying to figure it out. The power plant makes the water hot and it is an infertile lake with skinny bass. Belews has only two tiny creeks and low inflow means low nutrients. Occasionally, someone catches a fish of 7 to 9 pounds and we caught one that was 24 inches. Our catch rates ranged from 30 to the mid-40s."
In contrast, Lake Hickory receives nutrients from municipal wastewater plants, resulting in one of the state's densest bass populations. Catch rates were 90 to 100 bass per hour with lots of 2- to 4-pound fish in good condition ratings. However, an introduction of spotted bass makes Hodges uneasy.
"We first saw spotted bass in 2008," he said. "They started near Oxford at the lower end, which has the clearest water. We hope they will stay in the lower end and not affect the largemouth fishery in the upper end."
W.Kerr Scott does not rival Hickory for numbers. However, Hodges said it has fat largemouth bass, with 10 percent of them at least 20 inches long.
District 8 Biologist Chris Wood said 3,515-acre Lake Rhodhiss has the district's best bass fishing.
"In our 2014 survey, we caught 70 fish per hour," he said. "The relative weights were in the mid-90s and 4 percent were above 20 inches. The lake is narrow with few big creeks, but it has a high nutrient level."
At Lake James, the catch rate was 32 and the fish averaged 13 inches. Forty percent were 15 to 20 inches long. All largemouth bass sampling was conducted in the Catawba River arm because smallmouth bass prevail in the Linville River. Smallmouth bass sampling is done in alternate years.
Moss Lake is a unique study in the introduction of spotted bass. The 1,660-acre lake provides water for Kings Mountain. Biologists had been sampling the lake because they stock it with hybrid bass.
"Moss Lake went from a largemouth bass fishery to a spotted bass fishery in just a couple of years," he said. "Our catch rates went up because of the spotted bass recruitment. If you like catching spotted bass, it's good."
District 9 Biologist Powell Wheeler said anglers should take a chance at 6,800-acre Lake Chatuge.
"Chatuge is a great place for spotted bass, but there are some good largemouth bass as well," he said. "Conditions and catch rates are really good and it is the best spotted bass fishery in my district. Spots tend to be offshore more than largemouth because they are cruising around, eating shad."
Fontana's 11,700 acres held lots of largemouth and smallmouth bass. Now, its anglers are seeing spots.
"Fontana doesn't produce huge bass, has really good numbers," he said. "The Little Tennessee River arm has the best largemouth fishing and the main river channel has the best smallmouth fishing. We are seeing some spotted bass, but they are not hurting the fishing for the other bass species because they tend to be in open water. Anglers catch spotted bass by jigging in the channel."
Editor's Note: Mike Marsh's book, "Fishing North Carolina," has detailed information on fishing these lakes among 100 of the state's best lakes, rivers and coastal areas. To order an autographed copy, send a check or MO for $26.60 to Mike Marsh, 1502 Ebb Dr., Wilmington, NC 28409. For credit card orders, to contact Mike and to order his other books, visit his web site.