Paradise at Phelps

The author used a topwater lure to catch this big bass from a lily pad bed at Lake Phelps.

Only one lake in North Carolina offers fly casting for lunker bass and tons of panfish in crystal-clear summer water.

If you don’t live in the northeastern part of North Carolina, Washington County’s Lake Phelps may seem to be a long ride just to go fishing.

But while most anglers consider the state’s best fishing waters to be the artificial impoundments and reservoirs of the piedmont, if the ever try the fishing at the clear natural waters of this 16,600-acre lake, they may change their minds.

It was early June of 2006 and Mike Noles was fishing the lake wearing shorts and a T-shirt. His “pontoon boat” was no more than a pair of sockless wading shoes.

In the waist-deep water, his feet were visible as was everything else about him below the surface. The water was as clear as crystal as he scouted, as methodically and carefully as a heron, tiny channels in the waving grass beds for signs of lunker largemouth bass.

“I’ve already seen an 11.5-, 10.7-, two 9-pound bass this year,” Noles said. “I’ve caught six fish myself over 8 pounds.”

Now that’s some powerfully good bass fishing anywhere on the planet. But consider the fact that Noles only fishes the lake with a fly rod, only occasionally using a water scooter to get to a good wading area as his primary means of power transportation, and it demands keen attention.

“I fish the lake every day during the summer,” he said. “I host deer, bear, swan, rabbit and turkey hunters during those season.

“In summer we have lots of campers and vacationers who use our cabins, but the activity for my wife, Connie, and myself is less intense than during hunting season, so it leaves me more time to fish, and I only fish with a fly rod. Connie has spent her time since the Hurricane Isabel renovating the vacation cabins.”

Noles hooked a nice bass of about 4 pounds near his boat dock and played it expertly. Lipping the fish between thumb and forefinger, he admired it for a moment then unhooked it and let it swim away.

“Anything over a 5-weight fly rod will work for our bass and pumpkinseed bream,” he said. “A 5-weight, 6-weight, or 7-weight outfit with a floating line will catch anything in the lake.

“I once caught a big bass with a 2-weight fly rod just to prove to someone who said it couldn’t be done.”

Noles uses a 4- to 8-pound copolymer fly leader. He said the tough, small diameter leader material cuts through the grass without breaking.

“I like to use popping bugs mostly,” he said. “Yellow and chartreuse are good colors. But any bug also needs to have some pink on it somewhere, even if you have to put on a dot of pink nail polish where the fish can see it. I also use flies tied in dragonfly patterns.”

Noles didn’t use the delicate cast of a mountain-stream trout angler. Rather, he virtually swatted the water with his popping bug by picking the line up and laying it back down almost like the lash of a coach whip.

“You can see the bass and sometimes they’re right at your feet,” he said. “If you can see him, he can see you — and that makes him wary.

“If you want him to strike your fly, you have to make him mad enough to strike. Hit the water hard with the fly, and you can draw an impulse strike, just as though you were fishing with a bait-casting rod and using a buzzbait.”

Noles selects popping bugs with large, sturdy hooks for largemouth bass. Bream poppers are fine for catching the big pumpkinseed sunfish and the few bluegill sunfish. But a big bass can miss being hooked with a small hook and a flimsy hook can straighten from the impact of setting the hook or if the fish weaves the line through the grass with the angler holding on tightly to try to regain control.

Noles said he doesn’t use flies or popping bugs with gold Aberdeen hooks because they can bend or break from the strike of a heavyweight bass or if they get snagged in the grass. He prefers flies and popping bugs with wide bronze wire hooks.

“You have to make sure the fish has the bug in his mouth before you set the hook,” he said. “You plop the bug down hard and let it rest. The feathers and rubber legs do the work after that.

“I hardly ever swim the bug after it hits the water. I may cast it several times to the same spot if I can see the fish is interested or if it’s a really nice fish. But if he’s going to hit it, he’ll hit it while it’s resting on the surface.”

Noles keeps the line tight and strip strikes once he feels the fish. He said lifting the rod to set the hook moves the bug out of the strike zone. Strip striking allows the popping bug to stay in front of the fish through several attempts at eating it. When he feels the fish, he sets the hook before he lifts the rod to begin the fight.

“Once he’s hooked, you need to keep your rod tip high to keep the leader out of the grass and use your fingers to control the line tension until the line is down to the reel so you can use the reel handle,” he said. “Bass usually aren’t going to take the fly line down to the backing. The fight is going to be so close and so hard, the fish is going to wet whatever there is exposed of you above the water.”

The only two ramps the public can use for access to Lake Phelps are the ramp at Pettigrew State Park on the east side of the lake and Mike and Connie Noles Conman’s Guide Service and Vacation Rentals ramp. Only the people who are renting cabins, participating in hunts or renting camper spaces from Conman’s are allowed to use Conman’s ramp and dock, without exception.

“You can come out at night and see the fish under the dock lights,” Noles said. “It’s really something to see when the fish are all around the dock. The water is so clear, it’s like looking into an aquarium.”

Ned Connelly of Wilmington was staying in one of the cabins. He was using an aluminum john boat to explore the shallow lake, which has a maximum depth of 9 feet and an average depth of 4 1/2 feet. At Noles’ suggestion, he used the Pettigrew ramp the first day.

“Mike said the wind was out of the east so the fishing would be better on that side,” Connelly said. “He told me where there would be some lily pad beds, and I fished those with a Zara Spook,”

Connelly had some luck with the Spook, boating a bass of about 4 pounds. But he could hear fish in a swampy area behind the pads.

“I thought they might be carp or gar,” he said. “But I poled the boat into the swamp and tossed in a floating worm.

“A big bass made a spider web out of my line, weaving it among the bushes. I was using superbraid line so I caught the fish. But had to wade into the bushes to land it. Then I had to cut the line so I could retrieve the lure and reel in the line.”

The second day and last day of his trip, the wind was blowing out of the west so he launched at Conman’s ramp. He said the lake is shallow, but big waves can get up with even light winds.

“It was choppy and I was fishing little cuts and points in the grass beds with the Spook,” he said. “I wasn’t doing much with the quiet bait so I switched to a noisemaker, a Devil’s Horse. It really did the trick and I boated some nice fish.”

Still, Noles had insisted fly-fishing was the way to catch the most bass at Phelps. Connelly has fished for all species with a fly rod, having cut his teeth in the mountains of Kentucky and the river of Montana, fly-fishing for big trout.

“I fished along some of the deeper drops at the edges of the grass beds,” he said. “I anchored the boat, got out and waded.

“If you have a partner, the partner drops you off, moves the boat along the direction you’re fishing about 200 yards, anchors the boat and begins fishing the same direction. When you get to the boat, you get in and hopscotch beyond your partner 200 yards. When he gets to the boat, he does the same thing. That way, neither of you covers the same water.”

Connelly caught pumpkinseed sunfish by the dozen once he found an abrupt temperature change. It occurred in about 3 feet of water.

“The foot in the deep water would be freezing and the foot toward the bank would be warm,” he said. “There must have been 250 pumpkinseed in one area, concentrated in a hole in the grass on the warm side of the temperature change.”

Connelly was mesmerized by the panfish for a half-hour, but then he moved on. He caught more than four-dozen bass in one afternoon with a fly rod. Most of the fish he could see before he made a cast to them.

“At one time, I was looking down and between the rod tip and my legs were three bass,” he said. “The three fish combined would have topped 25 pounds. But I couldn’t get any of them to hit my popping bug. Whenever I moved, they’d move into small channels in the grass.

“I waited for them to come back out, and they always did — right in the same spot. But once they had seen me, they wouldn’t strike.

“Smaller fish were too aggressive and beat them to the popping bug. But mostly the big guys were just ignoring it.”

Connelly said before he left Conman’s ramp, Noles made several suggestions about how and where to fish. He paid attention and had the best bass fishing he experienced with a fly rod.

“It’s uncanny how Mike can tell you exactly which direction the wind is going to blow, how hard it’s going to blow, and what the fish are going to do,” Connelly said. “He said the fish would bite when the sun came out and they’d quit when a cloud came over or when a breeze came up.

“He told me what time all these events would occur and I couldn’t believe anyone could do that.”

Noles just smiled with the confidence gained by someone who fishes a lake every day and learns its various moods. He listens to the NOAA weather broadcasts before making his predictions about the time and intensity of the bass bite.

“It’s easy,” he said. “You want to fish for bass with flies during the calmest, sunniest parts of the day because that’s when they’re likely to be biting.

“I can pick and choose the times of the day when I go so I pay attention to things like that. But if you come from a long distance, you have to fish the conditions as you find them.

“The biggest factor is the wind. It’s hard to fish when there’s a lot of wind and big waves. You can’t see the fish and they can’t see your flies.

“A boat will be hard to maneuver and makes way too much noise if it’s windy.”

Connelly nodded in agreement. Then he checked out his tackle box.

“If it’s windy, you can switch to a buzzbait or Devil’s Horse,” he said. “If you can’t use a fly rod, there’s nothing wrong with using a soft-plastic worm or lizard cast with a spinning or bait-casting rod to get to bass fish in the grass when the wind is up.

“If it’s quiet, toss them a quiet lure like a (Zara) Spook or a floating worm and you can catch lots of nice bass at Lake Phelps.”

About Mike Marsh 356 Articles
Mike Marsh is a freelance outdoor writer in Wilmington, N.C. His latest book, Fishing North Carolina, and other titles, are available at

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