Beat the bushes for Kerr Lake bass

Brush up on your brush tactics to catch Kerr Lake largemouths in May.

Kerr Lake’s flooded shoreline brush is a magnet for prespawn and spawning bass in May, and savvy anglers know how to pull them out of tough spots.

After a battle with largemouth bass virus that infected about 40 percent of its population before running its course, John H. Kerr Reservoir’s largemouth bass have recovered, as fishermen discovered the past couple of years. And while the spawn ends for most North Carolina chub chasers on most lakes by the end of April, there’s still plenty of reason to visit John H. Kerr Reservoir, aka Buggs Island, in May.

“A good portion of the spawn still is going on during May,” said guide Joel Richardson of Kernersville, who fishes the 49,500-acre reservoir year-round.

One reason the bass spawn occurs fairly late at Buggs Island may be its size and the typically flooded spring conditions of its shorelines. The huge volume of water usually takes until May to warm up to the ideal mid-60s water temperature that trigger bass to head for the shallows to fan out beds and deposit their eggs.

There’s also the possibility the bass wait for water levels to drop. If they spawned in March and April, before the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers open the dam’s flood gates, bass beds might be left high and dry.

“The first half of May, the water most years will be up in the bushes a few feet,” Richardson said. “Spring rains usually put water in the bushes during March and April, and it takes a while for the level to drop, which means spawning fish will be near the banks in May.”

The lake’s normal pool is 300 feet above sea level but has risen as high as 319.61 feet. Some years, spring floods cover roads and close access to U.S. Army Corps of Engineers camp grounds and boat ramps.

“If the water level is 302 to 304 feet in spring, I think that’s about ideal,” Richardson said.

Under those conditions, he likes to fish a spinnerbait or buzzbait on a baitcasting outfit spooled with 17- to 20-pound line early, then  switch to a flipping stick to drop a pig ‘n’ jig into heavy cover as the sun gets up.

“I fish protected pockets that are out of the wind to start the day,” Richardson said. “As it gets later in the morning, I’ll switch to soft-plastics and jigs and throw them in the bushes.”

Richardson’s favorite lure for fishing flooded bushes is a 6-inch, green pumpkin Zoom plastic worm or a 1/4- to 3/8-ounce jig with a Zoom Baby Bush Hawg trailer in green, purple or black/blue.

“Black and blue is good for fishing stained water at Buggs a majority of the time,” he said. “Buggs isn’t a good spring sight-fishing place because it’s got so much rain water coming in from the Dan and Staunton rivers. The water can be from a light stain to muddy.”

Although he spends most of his May fishing coves and creeks on the northern side of the lake at mid-lake, between East Bend Park and Butcher’s Creek, Richardson knows other places, especially Nutbush Creek, hold spawning bass in May.

“I like the northern shore because it gets more direct sunlight for a longer time, which warms up shallow water quicker than other places,” he said. “Spring winds often are from the south and pile up that water on the north shore coves and in feeder creeks.”

But the extreme southern end of Nutbush Creek, which runs south to north, has an advantage — submerged aquatic vegetation.

“Buggs doesn’t have a lot of grass, but it’s got hydrilla and milfoil that’s 5 feet or deeper in (the back of) Nutbush,” Richardson said. “You can find spawning fish in that grass in May when the water’s in the bushes. A green or pumpkinseed lizard with a chartreuse tail is good to try in that grass. The only wrong thing you can do is fish it too fast.”

Halfway to Nutbush’s hydrilla and milfoil section is Little Nutbush Creek, which doesn’t have grass but has coves and feeder creeks with buck brush and willow bushes along the  shorelines, with the shallows near-perfect spawning habitat.

“People should try to pattern the types of bushes (bass) will be on” Richardson said. “They like buck brush, but if the water level is at 303 feet, they’ll spawn in (flooded) sweet gums.”

Pig ‘n’ jigs and Texas-rigged plastic worms and lizards will be effective in those situations.

“In the spring, I like to flip into their strike zones in the bushes,” he said. “Their nests will be near those bushes, even though you can’t see the nests because of the stained water. The main thing you have to do is work your lure slow and don’t make very big hops with it.

“A lot of times, you’ll get a real light bite, especially if it’s a female. A lot of times, they’ll pick up a lure if you drop it in her bed, swim off and spit it out. She’s not too interested in eating, but laying eggs. Sometimes if your lure gets a peck, you can throw it right back to the same spot, and she’ll pick it up again.

“If I feel a light tap, I usually try to pop ’em quick before they get a chance to carry it out of the bed. Sometimes, a female will slam a lure; you never know, but most of the time if a bass slams a lure on the first cast into a bed, it’s a buck guarding a nest.”

Because Richardson casts into bushes and around sweet gum trees, he spools his baitcasters with 17- to 20-pound mono to keep fish from breaking off on limbs and/or rocks.

“You’ve got a lot of bushes to deal with,” he said, “and many times they’re abrasive.”

If he uses a Texas rig, he ties his lures directly to his line and pegs his bullet-weight sinkers.

“I like to tie lures this way so I can pull them through the brush,” Richardson said. “It works better than a Carolina rig. If I get tied up in a bush by a bass, I keep the line tight. It usually will stay on the hook, and I can go in and pick him right out of the bush.

“The most important thing if a bass hangs you up or wraps you is to check the line for abrasions. If the line’s worn or nicked, I cut off that section and re-tie. Better to be safe with a strong piece of line than regret losing a fish because you didn’t take time to check your line and re-tie if you need to.”

Richardson doesn’t use fluorocarbon because “it’s no good around rough cover,” he said. “It’s the worst line of all because it’s not abrasion-resistant.”

Jeff Thomas of Broadway, a guide and former pro angler, spends most of his time on Triangle-area lakes, but he makes a point of heading to Buggs Island to fish pockets and blowdowns every spring. He prefers to throw floating worms when bass are in shallow water and chooses to target certain areas depending upon cloud cover.

“If it’s cloudy, I’ll stay in Nutbush because the water’s usually got some color to it in May,” he said. “If it’s sunny, I’ll go toward Clarksville where the water is slightly stained.”

Thomas casts floating worms at blowdowns, shallow pockets and stump flats.

“I like the Danny Joe Humphrey Original Floater in sherbert (pink/yellow); it’s a killer,” said Thomas, who fishes floating worms weightless and weedless on 14-pound Vicious mono but will drop to 12-pound, tying to TroKar laser EWG 4/0 hooks.

“If they want a quick, side-to-side movement, I’ll use a 4/0 (hook), and if they want a slower presentation, I’ll use a 3/0.”

Thomas’s largest Kerr Lake bass weighed 8 pounds, 2 ounces; it hit a pig ‘n’ jig.

“We caught four bass in four straight pockets, and I said we needed to slow down and fish the laydowns because that’s where the big females were,” Thomas said. “I threw a black/blue jig on top of a log back in there, and the fish jumped the log to the front side to get to the jig, and I got that big momma out. If she’d jumped to the back side, I doubt I’d have landed her.”

During the postspawn period in late May, Richardson targets bass that have pulled away from the shoreline and stacked up at points inside spawning coves.

“They won’t be very deep, in 3 to 10 feet of water,” he said, “but they’ll be extremely aggressive because they’re hungry after expending energy during the spawn. They’ll be feeding fish.”

When bass leave bedding areas, Richardson’s likes an Alabama rig in relatively open water.

“They’ll be on the flats off the spawning areas,” he said. “If the wind gets up a little, an Alabama rig works well. It imitates little shad, about 3 to 3 1/2 inches. Z-man swim baits are durable, so you can fish them a long time before they start getting torn up.”

Richardson likes Alabama rigs with five wires and hooks, and he prefers white, paddletail swimbaits.

“In the winter, you can catch bass and stripers with an Alabama rig, but by May, the stripers will be up the Dan and Staunton rivers. A few may have spawned and headed back, but you’re mainly going to catch largemouths in May.”

Richardson will also use lipless crankbaits like Rat-L-Traps in postspawn, fishing them on a 7-foot, medium-action Shimano Clarus rods and Shimano reels with 5-to-1 or 6-to-1 retrieve rations spooled with 10- to 12-pound mono.

“Rat-L-Traps also are good lures to throw when bass are in the postspawn,” he said. “Little Fishies and Speed Shads also catch bass then.”

DESTINATION INFORMATION

HOW TO GET THERE — Kerr Lake flows roughly from northwest to southeast along the Virginia-North Carolina border. I-85 skirts Kerr Lake to the east but is the key route to accessing the lake. Take NC 38 to Hibernia, Henderson Point and Ivy Hill ramps, Satterwhite Point Road to Satterwhite Point ramp, US 1 and CR 1369 to Bullocksville and County Line ramps. NC 15 north from Oxford and US 58 will get you to Clarksville, Va., and the many ramps in that area. From points west, US 58 is the key route, accessible from US 501 and NC 49 from the south.

WHEN TO GO — Late April through May are the best times to bass fishing at Kerr Lake.

BEST TECHNIQUES — Concentrate on flooded willows, buck brush and gum trees, especially on windy banks. Fish spinnerbaits, buzzbaits, topwaters, floating worms, Texas-rigged soft plastics and jig ‘n’ pig. You’ll need medium-heavy rods and reels fitted with 17- to 20-pound mono. In late May, fish slightly deeper off points with medium-diving crankbaits, lipless baits, topwaters and Alabama rigs.

FISHING INFO/GUIDES — Joel Richardson, 336-803-2195, www.joelgrichardson.com; Tim Wilson, 434-374-0674, www.kerrlake.com/timguide/index.htm; Bobcat’s Bait & Tackle, Clarksville, Va., 434-374-8381, www.bobcatslakecountry.com. See also Guides and Charters in Classifieds.

ACCOMMODATIONS — Best Western, Clarksville, Va., 434-374-5023; Lake Motel & Efficiences, Clarksville, 434-374-8106; Bayview Efficiencies, 434-374-9216; Econo Lodge, Henderson, 252-438-8511; Sleep Inn, Henderson, 252-433-9449. For camping, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, 343-738-6143.

MAPS — Fishing Hot Spots, 800-ALL-MAPS, www.fishinghotspots.com; GMCO Maps, 888-420-6277, www.gmcomaps.com; U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, John H. Kerr Reservoir, Boydton, Va., 434-738-6143.

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About Craig Holt 1363 Articles
Craig Holt of Snow Camp has been an outdoor writer for almost 40 years, working for several newspapers, then serving as managing editor for North Carolina Sportsman and South Carolina Sportsman before becoming a full-time free-lancer in 2009.

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