Look in creeks on upper end of lake for top December bass action
During the winter, most of the fishermen who sing the famous line “Let it snow! Let it snow! Let it snow!” from Sammy Cahn’s classic Christmas song have comfortably shielded themselves from the elements by nestling up to a warm fireplace with a cup of hot chocolate in hand.
Not so with guide Joel Richardson of Kernersville. When he belts out the lyric, he does so outdoors, on a lake, urging on the powdery flakes on like a jockey prodding a horse to the finish line.
Richardson’s not hesitant about fishing in the cold on Kerr Reservoir, aka Buggs Island. More often than not, he’s hauling in largemouth bass from this winter wonderland. One of Richardson’s greatest days on the water took place in December in a heavy snow storm.
“I was catching so many bass, I didn’t pay attention to the deteriorating weather,” he said. “When I went to the ramp to leave the lake, I couldn’t trailer my boat because of all the snow.
“I had to leave the boat at the ramp for two days before I could get it out. But those fish were worth the trouble.”
Searching for winter bass isn’t nearly as much fun as catching them, but Richardson knows it’s essential for success. Fish and forage go together like peanut butter and jelly, but finding this combination is especially difficult in cold weather because the baitfish bunch up in tight pods.
The problem is compounded when the search for bass and baitfish takes place at Kerr, a mammoth lake meandering along the North Carolina/Virginia border with more than 850 miles of shoreline.
Locating forage at Buggs takes time, patience, and experience, three traits that Richardson embodies. He began fishing the reservoir in 1985 as a teenager and has been a guide at the lake for more than 19 years. Despite his wealth of experience, locating forage and fish remains a demanding task.
“It requires lots of riding around, extensive use of your electronics, and knowing the effects of changing weather,” Richardson said. “In the winter, motoring about in freezing temperatures may not be enjoyable. That’s why you hire a guide and let him run around in the cold for you.”
Richardson’s search involves reducing the lake to manageable proportions. Based on years of experience, he knows the areas where he’s most likely to locate bass and forage in the winter.
“I search from the middle of the lake to the river and the creeks in that area,” he said. “If you look at a map of Buggs, that’s still a substantial stretch of water that’s bigger than most lakes.”
To further reduce the size of the search area, Richardson focuses on the creeks.
“Sometimes the baitfish are concentrated in the middle of the creeks, sometimes at the backs of the creeks,” he said. “Weather changes are important, too. Cold water temperatures put the fish and forage down, while milder water temperatures put them closer to the surface. You need to fish a lot of places before the right bank is found.”
As a rule, Richardson said baitfish will be in 15 feet of water or less. They’ll congregate near broken rocks, points and channel breaks. More than likely, the lake will be three to 10 feet low and lightly stained.
“I can’t recall Buggs Island being high during the winter months,” he said.
Seagulls also help Richardson as he searches for fish and forage. Their presence indicates baitfish are in an area, and any surface disturbances mean hungry bass or stripers are driving the forage to the surface, which attracts the attention of the birds.
A pair of binoculars helps to look for bird activity and can cut down on the number of long runs in the boat.
For search baits, Richardson favors small crankbaits in natural shad, chrome and white colors. The smaller baits imitate the size of the winter forage. He also selects 1/4-ounce Rat-L-Trap. He can cover a lot of water quickly with these baits, which expedites the search, and he uses a medium-to-fast retrieve.
The speedy retrieve and lure selection might seem odd for fish that are supposed to be lethargic because of cold water. However, Richardson said that when bass are found close to pods of baitfish at this time of year, they are usually feeding fish and are aggressive. Reduced fishing pressure throughout the winter also makes them less skittish. Those factors translate into biting fish.
Richardson selects his tackle based upon the baits he plans to use. For fishing small crankbaits, he favors a 61/2-to 7-foot medium-action baitcasting rod and a Shimano reel with a 5-to-1 gear ratio. For lipless crankbaits, he switches to a reel with a 6-to-1 gear ratio for a speedier retrieve. The reels are spooled with 10- to-12-pound line.
Richardson said the ideal conditions for winter fishing are a mild, overcast day or one with slowly developing snow flurries.
“There’s something about a snow flurry that turns the fish on,” said Richardson. “They’ll be fish at every point and eager to bite.”
Conversely, the worst day to be at the lake is one where high pressure dominates, a bright and sunny day with the wind blowing.
“You can catch a few bass, but not easily,” said Richardson.
Given the right conditions, Richardson said anglers typically catch largemouth from two to four pounds. As a plus, striped bass are often mixed in, so a fisherman never knows what might be at the end of his line from one cast to the next.
Richardson ranks Buggs Island as one of the best cold-water lakes in the state.
“From late November through December, the fishing is as good as it gets all year,” he said.
Richardson doesn’t confine his winter fishing at Buggs Island; he also guides at nearby Lake Gaston, where his approach is the same. He targets the middle of the lake to the upriver portion, focusing on the creeks in that stretch.
Richardson said the one difference is that Gaston isn’t subject to major drawdowns; its water level remains fairly stable. Another significant difference is the size; at 20,500 acres,. Gaston is much smaller than 49,500-acre Buggs Island, so the search for forage and fish at Gaston isn’t as formidable in the cold as it is at Buggs.
HOW TO GET THERE/WHEN TO GO — Public boat ramps are all over shoreline of Kerr Lake. Popular ones for North Carolina fishermen are Satterwhite Point of CR 1319 near Satterwhite Point Marina northwest of Henderson, the Henderson Point and Hibernia landings off USNC 15 and Longwood at Grassy Creek off US 15 between Oxford and Clarksville, Va. Fish from the middle of the lake to the river, including major creeks in the area. The best fishing is in November and December. Dress appropriately.
TECHNIQUES — Using your electronics, look for forage and fish in 15 feet of water or less in the middle to backs of creeks. Look for diving birds that indicate fish driving forage to the surface. Use search baits that allow you to cover water quickly, such as small crankbaits and lipless crankbaits in shad patterns.
GUIDES/FISHING INFO — Joel Richardson, www.joelgrichardson.com; Lynn Harvell Jr., Topwater Guide Service, 434-374-8914; Bobcat’s Bait & Tackle, Clarksville, Va., 434-374-8381; U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Boydton, Va., 434-738-6371.
ACCOMMODATIONS — Econo Lodge, Henderson, 252-438-8511; Hampton Inn, Henderson, 252-492-3007; Scottish Inns, Henderson, 252-438-6172, Best Western on the Lake, Clarksville, Va., 877-564-2464; Lake Motel, Clarksville, Va., 434-374-5500.