Summer Hotspots for North Carolina Fishing

Summer Hotspots for North Carolina Fishing
Photo by Ron SInfelt

North Carolina during July and August can be brutally hot for fishing, on both freshwater and saltwater fisheries.

Most summers the temperature slithers up and down the scale between 90 and 100 degrees Fahrenheit with the humidity index hitching a ride. Air conditioning works overtime, and one can break a sweat just thinking about going outside.

Happily, places exist in the Tar Heel state where anglers can enjoy the outdoors, catch a cooling breeze and have fun fishing, rather than feeling like you're being pulled across South Carolina on a trashcan lid.


Here's a look at some of those places:


FRESHWATER

Lake Rhodhiss

In Burke and Caldwell counties, Rhodhiss is a Blue Ridge foothills lake.

It doesn't look much like a lake but instead a wide section of the Catawba River. Just upstream nearer to Asheville is Lake James, which resembles a real lake.


At 3,060 acres and almost 1,000 feet above sea level, summer temperatures usually top out in the mid to low 80s and sometimes lower, so fishing is almost always pleasant.

Rhodhiss has largemouth and smallmouth bass, crappies, catfish and striped bass. But the lake has two distinct regions that different species find amenable. That's because of various drainages that feed the lake.

Hayes Mill Creek snakes out the town of Hudson then into Rhodhiss while Island, Hoyle and McGalliard creeks come out of Valdese. Gunpowder, Warrior and Lower creeks flow from Morganton, and the Johns River's clean water falls eastward out of the Pisgah National Forest into the lake.


"Morganton's treated sewage discharge goes into Rhodhiss near the dam, and I believe Lenoir also dumps into Gunpowder," said N.C. Wildlife Resources Commission fisheries biologist Kin Hodges. "It's all treated stuff, so it supplies safe nutrients for a big shad forage base. The lake's water quality walks a fine line between a happy medium when it comes to nutrients. That's why the forage is so good and (why it) produces really good largemouth and striper fishing, perhaps the best on the upper Catawba chain of lakes."

Electro-shocking samples in the eastern portion of the lake hit the 100-bass-per-hour mark, challenging Raleigh-Durham's Shearon Harris. The bass don't grow as big as Harris' lunkers, but they're as plentiful.

"The lake can be finicky," said District 8 biologist David Goodfred. "You might have the best day you ever had one day and the worst the next. For guys who know how to fish it, it's a great black bass lake."

Smallmouth fishing can be excellent in the Johns River section because that water is upstream, cold and clean.

Downstream anglers can find other species, including largemouths and catfish.

One secret spot is the Rhodhiss Dam, where magnum stripers wait to ambush baitfish in the tail race.

Shearon Harris

The Triangle-area's lakes — Falls of the Neuse, Jordan and Harris — each have impressive numbers and sizes of black bass.

But at Falls and Jordan, largemouths go deep during July and August. The only way to catch them is to cast Carolina-rigged worms or lizards with 3/4- to 1-ounce weights or jig spoons. A select few throw and retrieve deep-diving crankbaits.

However, at Harris anglers discovered fish schooling on the surface during 100-degree days, mostly from dawn until 10 a.m. Catching them only requires being there.

"It doesn't happen every morning, but at times, you'll have bass schooling on top at daybreak until the sun gets up in some of the coves near the dam," said Jeff Thomas, a Broadway-based guide.

Thomas, who fishes the lake more than any other Triangle-area impoundment, chooses a buzzbait, Zara Spook, Zara Puppy or Pop-R lure to throw at Harris schoolies.

"They'll come up on top to feed on small threadfin shad," he said. "If you can drop a lure where a bass has blowed up on top (and) get it close, you'll get a hookup almost every time."

Harris surrenders largemouths that reach 10 pounds and larger, but most school bass run 2 to 4 pounds. Not huge, but lots of fun.

High Rock

The 15,180-acres impoundment along the Yadkin River isn't going to be as cool a venue as foothills and mountain lakes during the summer.

But great catfishing makes up for the discomfort. Just bring some sunscreen.

Lexington guide Maynard Edwards (Yadkin Lakes Guide Service, www.extremefishingconcepts.com, 336-249-6782) has been plying The Rock's waters for decades and knows every nook and cranny where stripers, bass, catfish and bream are likely to be at any given time.

As a sure bet for summertime clients, Edwards attaches Extreme Concepts rod-holder bases to the cleats of his bass boat, then puts four to eight rods in the holders and goes "strolling" at High Rock.

Strolling is his term for allowing the wind to barely push his boat along relatively shallow creek channels or using his trolling motor if the wind's not helping.

He puts an Eagle Claw 4-0 to 6-0 hook at the end of a 1 1/2- to 2-pound section of 20-pound-test monofilament leader with his own version of the Santee trolling weight tied in front of the leader's swivel.

He uses gizzard and threadfin shad for cast-net-caught bait that he cuts into chunks. Edwards likes Bringle Ferry Road Bridge for netting shad.

"We fish creek channels from 6- to 8-feet deep," he said. "It's not deep fishing like a lot of people imagine cat fishing to be."

Edwards' anglers regularly catch delicious-tasting channel catfish ranging from 6 to 16 pounds.

"We can fill a fish box up in a little while," he said. "And it doesn't matter if there's a lot of boat traffic. One July 4 we strolled in Abbott's Creek with jet skis and outboards swarming around and rockin' the boat and loaded up on 5- to 12-pound channel cats.

"You can't do that in summer for bass or stripers."

John H. Kerr Reservoir

When most anglers think of John H. Kerr Reservoir (aka Buggs Island) their memories rewind to fabulous largemouth and striped bass days.

But summer is when they should be thinking of catfish, particularly magnum blue cats and especially at night. Buggs not only has a supply of channel cats and flatheads, blues regularly push 100 pounds. In fact, the night of June 18, 2011, Nick Anderson of Greenville, N.C., landed a 143-pounds world-record blue cat near Goat Island while fishing with his father, Rick Anderson, and Jeramie Mills. Three months earlier, blue-cat hunters Tony Milam and Michael "Chubb" Reaves landed the previous Buggs' record catfish, 109 pounds.

"I think there's probably bigger catfish in the lake," said guide Marion F. "Ramrod" Hall.

Best places to fish for big cats are near Bluestone and Buffalo creeks on the Staunton River arm of Buggs.

However, Hall said he doesn't use rods and reels but "noodles," which are cylindrical floats made of PVC pipe encased in a swimming-pool float (a noodle) that sit vertically in the water when a blue cat chomps down on a piece of cut bait.

Hall, 72, puts out two dozen noodles and baits them with strips of white catfish bellies.

And they work.

"Me and a friend had a large blue cat hit one of our noodles about three weeks before the world record was caught at the same spot," he said. "The two of us couldn't lift that fish in the boat, and it tore loose from a gaff. It was at least 100 pounds, maybe more."

In the absence of any comments about tackle used for the world-record, Hall thinks Anderson might have caught the record blue cat with a noodle.

"You need some reflective tape on noodles if you fish 'em at night and a flashlight," Hall said. "You also don't need to fish noodles in 15- to 20-mph wind because it'll blow your noodles all over the lake, and you'll have a hard time keepin' up with 'em."

SALTWATER

Offshore

Given that July and August are prime vacation months for many Tar Heels who'll spend a week or two at the N.C. coast, it's also a welcome time of year for charterboat captains.

Business usually is good and so is fishing.

The fly in the ointment the last few years has been National Marine Fisheries Service species closures, forced upon south Atlantic anglers by the Manguson-Stevens Act. Originally called the Fishery Conservation and Management Act of 1976, the plan has been amended many times. A May 1, 2010, amendment by NMFS created 17 fishing sectors in New England, which the feds later expanded up and down the eastern seaboard and into the Gulf of Mexico. Anglers believe many restrictions — such as periodic closures of sea bass harvests — are too restrictive.

Happily, NMFS will re-allow keeping sea bass beginning at 12:01 a.m., June 1, 2012. Last year the season re-started June 1 and lasted 4 1/2 months.

Bottom-fishing anglers also will be permitted to land groupers (red, scamp, yellowfin, yellowmouth, gag, black, snowy, plus vermillion snappers and red porgy) from June until mid September.

N.C. ports at Holden Beach, Southport, Carolina Beach, Wrightsville Beach, Swansboro, Bogue Inlet, Morehead City and Hatteras have charter boats specializing in bottom fishing. Private boats also make trips for bottomfish.

Experts believe NMFS will drop this summer's per-person trip limit for recreational anglers to 15 sea bass to make the season last longer until a pre-set catch quota is met.

Inshore

Two species always attract attention during the sizzling days of July and August at the N.C. coast. Both are common everywhere, although the biggest specimens of one come from two small regions.

Sheepshead are one of the best-tasting of saltwater game fishes (grilled, cooked skin side down inside sealed tinfoil with butter, salt and pepper splashed on the top side) and are challenging to catch.

They eat barnacles and small crabs (especially mud crabs that burrow between oyster shells) but readily take fiddler crabs used as baits.

Underwater structures, such as pilings or broken concrete or rocks, will have barnacles and attract sheepshead.

The key angling aspect is being able to detect their lightning-quick yet delicate bites, especially if an angler is using fiddler crabs for bait on a Carolina rig with a 1- or 2-ounce barrel sinker weight. Line should be 30-pound-test braid mated to 40-pound-test fluorocarbon leaders with 1-0 VMC triple-barb hooks.

The Snow's Cut Bridge (U.S. 421) at Carolina Beach is a good spot to anchor and drop fiddler crabs beside the pilings.

The rock jetty extending south in the Cape Fear River near the Fort Fisher ferry landing also contains sheepshead as do the pilings across the river near the Southport waterfront. Other top sheepshead venues are the Surf City draw bridge, the Sneads Ferry (N.C. 172) bridge, the N.C. 33 bridge between Swansboro and Cape Carteret and the Atlantic Beach Causeway.

"Bridge-piling fish usually run from 2 to 4 pounds," said guide Jeff Wolfe of Wilmington. "If you want to catch big ones, you need to go to the ocean fishing piers."

Sheepshead of 12 to 16 pounds come from N.C. ocean piers. Many pier anglers use barnacles as bait or sand fleas (mole crabs).

Convict fish circle pier pilings and easily can be seen from above. Ease the bait into the water then gradually lower it until you feel a line twitch and set the hook with a quick upward snap of the wrist. Sheepshead move up and down pilings, nipping barnacles.

Flounder are the second-best summer inshore species and, while once common up and down the coast in large numbers of large fish (from 6 to 12 pounds), netting has almost wiped out big flatties — except at two places.

The first is at the lower end of the Cape Fear River.

Snow's Cut comes into play again. Cape Fear River flounder regularly trade back and forth from Carolina Beach Inlet to the river through the Cut. That's because daily tidal changes suck baitfish between Myrtle Grove Sound and the river through the Cut.

Bank anglers at Carolina Beach State Park sacrifice boxcar loads of lead, hoping to hook up with one of the Cut's doormats on its snaggy bottom.

Flounder boat anglers who tie up at bridge pilings often soak pogies on Carolina rigs the two hours before and just after slack tide.

Cape Fear River islands (also with too many snags for netters) hold doormats, as does the small public pier at Southport.

The state's other magnum flounder spot is the Port Wall at Morehead City near the Turning Basin.

The water is much deeper (35 to 45 feet), the baits and tackle are the same, but the current is stronger. Big pogies and big finger mullet are good bait choices here, too. You might even catch a Spanish, king mackerel or cobia.

Anglers land 10-, 12-, even 15-pound flounder at the wall.

Get Your Fish On.

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