Just when you think you have it figured out, your favorite lake throws you a curve. Lakes like Sutton experience more ups-and-downs than a jig in flooded timber, while others, like High Rock, seem to stay as steady as a Rat-L-Trap runs.
In some lakes, unique changes occur: Mountain Island's spotted bass turned out to be genetically distinct Alabama bass, which grow larger.
Besides dealing with illegally introduced detrimental species like spotted bass, blueback herring and white perch, bass in various parts of the state must survive a variety of problems, such as oxygen starvation from hurricanes and saltwater intrusion or low water caused by drought.
Electrofishing samples help biologists gauge these impacts and assist anglers in selecting which waters to fish or avoid. Biologists also fill in knowledge gaps using anecdotal information.
Electro-fishing generates statistics anglers can use to decide where to go fishing. The most important are the catch per unit of effort, or number of fish caught per hour of electrofishing, a length-to-weight ratio called the condition rating that tells how "fat" or "thin" a fish is (a rating of 100 is ideal condition), and the percentage of bass longer than 14 inches. Other statistics that can help are the number of fish in a protected slot and the largest fish.
District 1 Biologist Katy Potoka said 16,600-acre Lake Phelps had the best fishing, but the upper Chowan was recovering, with the best fishing upstream of Holiday Island.
"Lake Phelps continues to host a fantastic fishery," she said. "Water levels remained high during spring and summer of 2014 and 2015, resulting in two strong year classes. The lake has good numbers of keeper-sized bass between 14 and 16 inches and a large number of fish in the protected slot of 16 to 20 inches. The largest bass we collected in 2015 was 21.5 inches long and weighed 5 pounds. The mean relative weight was 95."
Since Hurricane Irene in 2011, the Chowan largemouth bass population continues to rebound. The middle Chowan around Holiday Island had the highest catch rate of 41 in fall of 2014. The lower Chowan and Meherrin rivers had catch rates of 28 and 27 respectively. The majority of the bass were 8 to 14 inches, but 15 percent were greater than 14 inches. The largest bass was 21 inches long and weighed 5.4 pounds. The mean relative weight was 90.
During summer of 2015, an algae bloom caused fish kills in the Chowan. The lower and middle Chowan suffered the most, but the impact on bass has not been determined. The stretch above Holiday Island appeared to have been the least impacted.
The Pasquotank and Perquimans rivers were not as impacted by Irene as the Chowan so fishing remains good. Electrofishing samples in 2014 showed bass populations were abundant.
Note that any impact on coastal bass from storms this fall, including large-scale rains, has not been determined.
Ben Ricks, the N.C. Wildlife Commission's District 2 Biologist, said bass fishing has been getting better every year since Hurricane Irene crashed river populations.
"We are seeing the best largemouth bass numbers we have had in a long time," he said. "We haven't found any 5- and 6-pounders yet, but there are lots of 14-inchers. The fish are from reproduction that occurred since the hurricane. We do not do any stocking unless we see no reproduction."
Sampling showed many 8-inch bass the year after the hurricane and those fish fattened fast, as they typically do when numbers are low and resources are abundant. The best places to fish along the Neuse River are creeks, including Hancock and Slocum. Best fishing in the Tar River is in the creeks between Greenville and New Bern.
White Oak River has naturally low bass abundance because saltwater influx reduces recruitment. However, Ricks said electrofishing was turning up lots of bass up to 5 pounds around Stella.
"Salinity is not good for bass reproduction, but it is good for growth," he said. "They are eating shrimp and mullet. With a few more years of stable weather, bass fishing should get even better."
Biologist Kirk Rundle said 4,100-acre Shearon Harris and 12,500-acre Falls are District 3's best lakes.
"As usual, Harris was excellent," he said. "Catch rates dropped a little to 80, but the fish looked good, with an average relative weight of 97. Eighty percent were greater than 14 inches and 40 percent within the protected slot limit of 16 and 20 inches. Ten percent were greater than 20 inches and 10 percent were less than 6 inches, showing that good reproduction is occurring."
Rundle characterized Harris as a big farm pond due to its bluegill forage base. However, threadfin and gizzard shad also fatten bass.
"At Falls, we had a catch rate of 81," he said. "Seventy percent were greater than 14 inches and 6 percent greater than 20 inches, with lots small fish to show reproduction is good. Relative weight was down to 94. During the last sampling, it was 99."
Another excellent lake is Tar River Reservoir, which was electrofished in 2014 and had a catch rate of 93. Thirty percent were greater than 14 inches, 15 percent longer than 16 inches and 5 percent longer than 20 inches. The relative weight was 91.
District 4 Biologist Michael Fisk sampled 9,000-acre Lake Waccamaw, 1,100-acre Sutton Lake and the Lumber and Waccamaw Rivers.
"At Lake Waccamaw, we caught more than 500 bass, mostly around maiden cane islands," he said. "Most were 11 to 14 inches, but plenty were 14 to 18 inches. A few were greater than 21 inches and weighed around 5 pounds. All were good quality fish."
The catch rate was 20 in the Waccamaw River and 16 in the Lumber River, typical for black water systems. Bass from the Waccamaw River had relative weights of 91. From the Lumber River, relative weights were 97. The biggest bass were a 22-inch, 6.6-pound fish from the Waccamaw and a 23-inch, 6.7-pound fish from the Lumber.
"At Sutton Lake, the fishery showed improvement," he said. "The condition rating was 87 in 2015 compared to 80 during 2014. The turnaround was dramatic. The catch rate of 71 was about the same as in 2014 and the biggest fish was a 22-inch fish that weighed 5.1 pounds."
District 5 Biologist Jessica Baumann said small lakes, including 800-acre Oak Hollow, 340-acre High Point and 540-acre Cane Creek, were the district's bass-fishing standouts.
"At Oak Hollow, 60 percent of largemouth bass in our samples were harvestable size," she said. "Relative weights for all age classes averaged more than 100 and the catch rate was 72. At High Point Lake, almost 50 percent of the bass were harvestable size and the relative weights were over 100 with a catch rate of 68. Those lakes have some excellent bass fisheries."
Cane Creek has is only open on Fridays, Saturdays, Memorial Day and Labor Day. The low fishing pressure helps Cane Creek's bass can grow huge, so anglers hoping for a trophy 8- to 9-pounder should give it a go.
"Cane Creek acts like a big farm pond," she said. "It has a sunfish forage base and the bluegill and redear sunfish are also very large."
For information on Cane Creek Reservoir, visit www.visitchapelhill.org/plan-a-visit/entry/cane-creek-reservoir or call 919-942-5790.
District 6 Biologist Lawrence Dorsey said the Yadkin Chain's 15,180-acre High Rock and 5,260-acre Tillery are excellent destinations. However, the Catawba Chain's 3,261-acre Mountain Island yielded a shocking surprise.
"Our catch rates at High Rock have been variable," he said. "However, mean relative weight continues to be excellent and half of the fish we collected were harvestable size. Catch rates for Tillery were in line with what we've seen in the past as well as the number of harvestable fish."
At High Rock, recent sampling turned up 58 fish per hour with an average relative weight of 98; furthermore, 50 percent were greater than 14 inches. Tillery gave up 105 bass per hour with an average relative weight of 88 and 29 percent were greater than 14 inches.
The Commission's first formal electrofishing bass survey of Mountain Island turned up disappointing results. Its largemouth bass are below average condition and its Alabama bass are in poor condition. The catch rate for largemouth bass was 21 fish per hour, the condition rating was 83 and 26 percent were at least 14 inches. For Alabama bass, the catch rate was 31, condition rating was 72 and 11 percent were harvestable.
"While catch rates are low, these values may not be completely accurate," he said. "Low primary productivity also results in clearer water and fish often see our electrofishing boat coming and are able to escape. Unfortunately, the limiting factor to producing better fish is the lack of nutrients."
District 7 Biologist Kin Hodges said 375-acre Salem Lake is coming back strong.
"It was drawn down to 80 acres in 2010-2012 while the dam was being replaced," he said."In 2013 after the lake refilled, our catch rates decreased to the mid-40s from historical averages in the 70s-80s. A high proportion of the lake's bass had always been in the 16- to 20-inch range, but their numbers decreased significantly. The bright spot in 2013 was a huge number of bass in the 4- to 6-inch range, which suggested juvenile survival was very high.
The lake had stayed down so long that trees and bushes were growing in dried out portions. When the new growth was flooded, it created ideal habitat and helped create the big 2012 year-class. In each successive year since 2013, our catch rates have increased and we are seeing more quality-sized fish. This year we saw our highest numbers yet, with more fish in the 16- to 20-inch range."
Lookout Shoals anglers have been complaining about the bass fishing. Intensive sampling has confirmed its declining bass population. The historical catch rate was 70 to 90 bass per hour, but a three-year survey in 2008-10 resulted in catch rates declining from 86 to 61. The catch rate was 59 in 2013 and 61 in 2015.
District 8 Biologist Chris Wood said 80-acre Rankin Lake and 13,443-acre Lake Wylie have the district's best bassing.
"This was our first sampling of Lake Wylie," he said. "We caught more than 300 fish. Anglers have said it was a high-quality lake for some time."
The catch rate was 93, condition rating 91, and 43 percent of the bass were greater than 14 inches. All Commission sampling occurred in the North Carolina portion along the Catawba River, Paw Creek and South Fork.
Located in Gastonia, 80-acre Rankin Lake has two large fishing piers and a paved perimeter trail. Anglers who want to use boats may use only onsite rental boats. The 2015 sampling caught 100 bass with a catch rate of 80, condition rating of 94 and 60 percent were greater than 14 inches. Seven percent weighed more than 5 pounds. When the lake was down, the Commission installed fish attractors and gravel spawning beds.
For information, visit www.cityofgastonia.com/rankin-lake-park.html.
District 9 Biologist Powell Wheeler said smallmouth bass anglers should try 1,462-acre Lake Glenville.
"Our gill net sampling in Glenville turned up lots of 3- to 4-pound smallmouth bass," he said. "We set our nets on points in 30 to 40 feet of water, so that is where anglers might want to look for them."
Glenville is an infertile lake, but Wheeler said the reduced numbers of bass in infertile lakes often results in them growing much larger than in lakes with high populations. That cause-and-effect extends to the lake's largemouth bass, which can top 7 pounds. The opposite is true at Santeetlah, which has a super-abundance of largemouth bass in poor condition.
"Santeetlah has so many bass that they are stunted," he said. "We encourage anglers to take home as many bass as they want. There is no creel limit for bass less than 14 inches. The limit for bass longer than 14 inches is five."
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 sounds. To order an autographed copy, send a check or MO for $26.60 to Mike Marsh, 1502 Ebb Dr., Wilmington, NC 28409. His books include Inshore Angler — Carolina's Small Boat Fishing Guide ($26.20) and Offshore Angler-Coastal Carolina's Mackerel Boat Fishing Guide ($22.40). For credit card orders or to contact Mike, visit mikemarshoutdoors.com.