North Carolina’s waters are loaded with lunker largemouth, smallmouth and, unfortunately, spotted bass. The N.C. Wildlife Resources Commission’s electrofishing surveys can turn up surprises. When we asked them, they gave us the shocking truth.
Just when you have it figured out, your favorite lake throws a curve. High Rock has had more ups-and-downs than a jig, while others like Harris have remained steady as a Rat-L-Trap.
Besides coping with illegally introduced fish - Alabama bass, spotted bass, blueback herring and white perch – largemouth and smallmouth bass must survive floods, saltwater and droughts.
Sampling helps biologists gauge these impacts and assists anglers in selecting waters to fish. The most important statistics are catch rates per hour (CPUE), length-to-weight ratio (ideal condition rating is 100), and percentages of bass of keeper and trophy sizes.
Biologist Katy Potoka said Lake Phelps’ fishery was the best in years. “Our 2018 Lake Phelps largemouth sampling CPUE was 71,” she said. “The majority were from Bee Tree Canal to the private residences on the southern shore. Our fall Chowan River surveys had a CPUE of 27, but it was as high as 71 in the lower creeks, with the best creeks Salmon, Bennett’s, Catherine’s and Rockyhock. We also caught a 10-pound-plus bass in the Holiday Island area during a summer herring survey.”
The 2017 fall Roanoke River survey continued showing high largemouth bass numbers below Jamesville. However, Hurricane Florence caused fish kills in the Roanoke below Plymouth and in Cashie below Windsor. Low dissolved oxygen (hypoxia) may have affected bass fishing in the lower Roanoke, Eastmost, Middle and Cashie rivers.
The 2017 Lake Mattamuskeet survey had an average CPUE for the lake and canals of 27. The highest catch rates were at culverts on U.S. 94, ranging from 40 to 96. Anglers reported good catches in the Yeopim, Perquimans, Little and Big Flatty rivers, with their reports backed up by Commission surveys in 2016 and 2018.
Biologist Ben Ricks said the Tar and Neuse Rivers had rebounding largemouth bass fisheries.
“We saw a 10-pound-plus largemouth from the Neuse River last year,” he said. “The Tar and Neuse rivers have been very strong. The White Oak and New also support good fisheries. River Park North in Greenville continues to be a sleeper location for big largemouth bass.”
Still in recovery from Hurricane Irene, the Neuse and Tar have been producing lots of 14-inchers through natural reproduction. Sampling showed many 8-inch bass after the hurricane that fattened rapidly, but not many yet that weigh more than 5 pounds, which is a typical recovery following a hypoxia event. The best places to fish in the Neuse are Hancock, Slocum and other creeks. The best fishing in the Tar occurs in creeks between Greenville and New Bern.
The White Oak has naturally low bass numbers due to saltwater influx, but low numbers are great for growth rates because the fish dine on shrimp and mullet rather than the sunfish and shad of inland reservoirs. Sampling turned up lots of bass weighing up to 5 pounds at Stella.
Biologist Kirk Rundle said four lakes deserve anglers’ attention, with Harris Lake the perennial favorite. “Tar River Reservoir is the best bet for catching lots of smaller largemouth bass and Falls and Shearon Harris are the best for sizes and numbers,” he said. “As usual, I think Harris is the absolute best due to habitat and forage – lots of sunfish and shad. It also does not have as many competing species as say, Lake Gaston, and the slot limit allows more fish to reach trophy potential.”
Harris’ 2017 sampling had CPUE of 72. Relative weights averaged 97. Sixty-four percent were greater than 14 inches and 12 percent greater than 20 inches. The largest bass weighed 8 pounds. In 2015, Falls had a CPUE of 62. Relative weight was 94. Thirty-eight percent were greater than 14 inches, 5 percent greater than 20 inches and the largest bass weighed 7 pounds.
The 2018 sampling of Tar River Reservoir had a CPUE 66. Relative weight was 91. Twenty-eight percent were greater than 14 inches, 3 percent greater than 20 inches and the largest bass weighed 7 pounds.
Gaston’s 2018 sampling and had a CPUE of 31 for largemouth and 15 for spotted bass. Aggregate relative weight was 92. Forty-four percent of largemouth bass were greater than 14 inches and 5 percent greater than 20 inches. The largest largemouth weighed 7 pounds. Six percent of spotted bass were longer than 14 inches and none longer than 20 inches, with the largest 3 pounds.
Biologist Kyle Rachels said Sutton had a high catch rate but suffered from Hurricane Florence. “Sutton’s CPUE in 2018 was exceeded 50, with 39 percent of largemouth bass 15 inches or greater,” he said. “Sutton can be inconsistent but holds as many largemouth bass as anywhere. Hurricane Florence breached the dam and the lake was inundated with Cape Fear River water. Duke Energy was working to contain as much water as possible.”
Lake Waccamaw has a good largemouth bass population, with a CPUE of 20 to 25 and 22 percent of fish 15 inches or greater. While Big Lake at Boiling Springs Lakes suffered a dam breach from Florence, Spring Lake produced a CPUE of 30, with two fish greater than 5 pounds.
“Low dissolved oxygenproduced fish kills in most District 4 rivers, including the Waccamaw, Cape Fear, Northeast Cape Fear, Black and South,” he said. “In the past, it takes two to three years for species richness and abundance to recover and five years to recover normal distributions.”
Biologist Kelsey Lincoln said in 2018 the Commission sampled Graham-Mebane, Mackintosh, Ramseur and Hyco lakes. “Largemouth bass in those lakes exhibited excellent conditions,” she said. “Hyco’s largemouth exhibited less than ideal condition ratings yet were still within the average range expected for piedmont reservoirs.”
Hyco had the highest CPUE at 96 but yielded no fish greater than 7 pounds. While Graham-Mebane Lake had the lowest CPUE at 44, more than 10 percent exceeded 7 pounds. At Mackintosh, the CPUE was 76, with 3 percent weighing more than 7 pounds.
The biggest fish from Ramseur and weighed 8.4 lbs. Ramseur had a CPUE of 90, with 4 percent greater than 7 pounds. Other historically great, big lakes in District 5 are Jordan and Mayo. Good small reservoirs include Lucas, Brandt, Oak Hollow and Michie.
Biologist Lawrence Dorsey said it’s tough to rank District 6 lakes because it has so many good ones. “I’d have to say Badin is one of the more consistent lakes,” he said. Badin’s CPUE was 87 (2017). Mean length exceeded 14 inches and 9 percent of bass were 18 inches or greater. Condition rating was 93 and the largest fish was 21 inches and weighed 5.5 pounds. Also on the Yadkin chain, High Rock’s bass population is highly variable in sizes and numbers. Tillery continues to be a good place.
On the Catawba chain, anglers should avoid Mountain Island. The clear water is nutrient poor, resulting in poor condition ratings and numbers. The CPUE for largemouth bass was 21 and average condition rating was 83. The CPUE for Alabama bass was 31 and the condition rating, 72.
Biologist Kin Hodges said Lake Hickory was the top spot. “We surveyed Hickory in 2018 and haven’t had time to analyze the data,” he said. “But, based on an eyeball exam, things still look great. Catch rates in Hickory are consistently among the highest in the state, with CPUE averaging 80 to 100.
The numbers in 2018 appear to be higher than any previous survey. After spotted bass appeared 10 years ago, we have seen their numbers slowly increase, but they have thankfully not taken over as they have at Norman. They are all still concentrated in the lower lake below NC 127. Largemouth bass still dominate here. It doesn’t produce a lot of trophies, but it’s full of 2- to 4-pound fish.”
W. Kerr Scott has historically had spotted and largemouth bass, with spots slightly more abundant than largemouth bass over recent decades. Back in 2011, CPUE rates increased, with more largemouth than spotted bass for the first time. In 2016, catch rates increased again to 99, which is astounding given the historic fish densities in the lake and largemouth were again more abundant than spotted bass. In 2018, average CPUE for both species combined was 54.
Hodges attributed the total increase in numbers and the shift in largemouth-to-spot ratios to a increasing nutrient levels in the lake over the last decade that N.C. Division of Water Resources water quality monitoring. Besides higher numbers, the largemouth population has an above average proportion of quality sized fish.
Salem Lake continued its reputation as a bass factory. It was partially dewatered for dam repair eight years ago, but the largemouth population recovered. The CPUE was 80 in 2016. The proportion of quality-sized fish is very high, with 60 percent at or above 16 inches.
New River was surveyed in 2018. While Hodges has not analyzed the data, he said catch rates were in line with historical CPUEs of 60 to 90. Highest smallmouth numbers are in the North Fork. CPUE numbers in the South Fork and main stem are similar to each other. Fish are larger in the main stem and bass in both the South Fork and main stem are larger than in the North Fork. A 20-inch smallmouth turned up in the main stem. However, most average 8- to 10-inches, with nicer fish usually 12- to 16-inches, as is the case for all high elevation smallmouth rivers. Faster growing and bigger fish occur in lower elevation rivers, including the Yadkin, Dan, Fisher and Mitchell.
Biologist Chris Wood said lakes Wylie, Rhodhiss, Moss and James are the best bass destinations. “Lake Wylie had the highest CPUE for largemouth bass at 80 during our 2017 survey,” he said. “The average size was 13 inches, or about a pound, and the mean relative weight was 85.”
Lake James is the district’s primary smallmouth bass fishery. Within the last decade, alewife, blueback herring, white perch, and spotted bass have entered the fishery. While the condition rating of smallmouth bass is good, and fish seem to be taking advantage of the new forage, the occurrence of spotted bass is troubling. Biologists are examining hybridization between spotted and smallmouth bass to determine management options.
Excellent smallmouth bass fishing is available in the rivers. The Broad, Johns, Catawba, North Toe and Nolichucky rivers all have floatable sections.
Biologist Powell Wheeler said smallmouth bass anglers should try Lake Glenville. “Our gill net sampling of Glenville turned up lots of 3- to 4-pound smallmouth bass,” as we set our nets on points in 30 to 40 feet of water, so that is where anglers should look for them.”
Anglers should use tube jigs or other crawfish imitations to catch the fish. Glenville is an infertile lake, but Wheeler said lower bass numbers often results in fish growing much larger than they do in lakes with high populations. The same cause-and-effect extends to the lake’s largemouth bass, which can top 7 pounds.
“Lake Chatuge has a good spotted bass fishery,” he said. “It has been producing lots of 3-pound spotted bass for a long time.”
Fontana has seen angler introduction of spotted bass that ruined its formerly fabled smallmouth bass fishing. Its spots are small and stunted and biologists are monitoring the problem.
Mike Marsh’s book, Fishing North Carolina, details 100 of the state’s best lakes, rivers and sounds. To order a 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.