The Breadth of Bait

Topwater lures that mimic river herring work well throughout summer at Kerr Lake.

Kerr Lake’s largemouths no longer hang out only at shallow-water areas but have moved offshore to follow different baitfish, two bass pros say.

Understanding forage behavior will help anglers catch more bass at Kerr Lake this summer.

There’s a change going on — in case you didn’t get the memo — regarding the forage base in Kerr Lake (aka Buggs Island). Many largemouth bass anglers have come home from the massive, 50,000-acre lake scratching their heads.

Techniques and tactics that worked in the past no longer provide as much action or excitement. Weigh-in bags resemble donut holes instead of a big sack of fat largemouths.

For anyone who considers himself a knowledgeable Kerr Lake largemouth bass angler, listen up. With a forage menu big enough to choke a horse, astute bass fishermen adjust to the dietary habits of the quarry they chase. At a massive lake such as Kerr, forage species can change in abundance or, more importantly, predators can change how and when they dine upon the prey.

Curt Lytle, a 10-year pro on the Wal-Mart FLW Tour from Zuni, Va., and Elton Clements, a Durham native and current pro angler with a record of consistency at Kerr Lake, consistently catch largemouths when other skilled bass casters roll snake eyes.

They have concluded that blueback herring and alewives — collectively termed “river herring” — drastically have changed how Kerr Lake bass eat and act during the summer.

They agree largemouths in the past would camp out at stumps, relating to major points during the summer. Today, they believe that’s not the case to the same degree.

Largemouths instead cruise in wolf packs, looking to pounce on the unsuspecting herrings. They roam more — and stay at home less — than in years past.

Lytle and Clements have a fine-tuned approach to coerce Kerr’s bass to the landing net. They apply the tips and tricks that follow from June through most of September.

Kerr’s Baitfish

Vic DiCenzo, a fisheries biologist with Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries, said the order of abundance and importance to largemouth bass at Kerr Lake are gizzard shad, threadfin shad, alewives and blueback herring, although this order can shift from year to year based upon the spawn of each forage species.

“There are more shad (gizzard and threadfin) than herring (alewives and bluebacks) at Buggs Island,” DiCenzo said. “Alewives and bluebacks will concentrate in cooler, more oxygenated deeper parts of the lake (below Island Creek) during the summertime. There still will be some gizzard and threadfin there, too.”

DiCenzo said the main difference between the four forage species in the summer is the environment in which they live. During the hot months, gizzard shad and threadfin shad are more shoreline-oriented forage, whereby alewives and bluebacks spend more time in open water.

Alewives (Alosa pseudoharengus) and blueback herrings (Alosa aestivalis) are closely-related anadromous fishes and similar in appearance. The two species have compressed and streamlined bodies, a single soft-rayed dorsal fin and rough protruding scales on their ventral (belly) surface.

According to fisheries biologists, blueback herrings range from Nova Scotia to Florida, while alewives range from Labrador to South Carolina. River herrings eat zooplankton, eggs and larvae of fish, insects and crustaceans, small fish and insects.

DiCenzo said blueback herrings and alewives are virtually indistinguishable.

“The take-home point is that anglers who key at deeper, more offshore forage at Buggs Island are trying to catch largemouths that prey upon bluebacks and alewives,” he said.

Skinny on Kerr Bass

Local tournament angler Elton Clements said he doesn’t believe the overall forage base has significantly changed at Kerr Lake.

As a Kerr regular, Clements has caught a 7-pound, 14-ounce bruiser and a 7-pound, 13-ounce lunker. While not considered a giant fish at other N.C. lakes, Kerr isn’t known for double-digit fish and anything just shy of 8 pounds is a true trophy at the Piedmont lake.

“However, I believe the blueback herrings have become the forage of choice for the majority of bass in Kerr Lake, and any lake where they have been introduced,” he said. “Particularly post-spawn fish as they move out of the creeks and into the main lake.”

Lytle, 38, sees it the same way. He said while the overall forage base probably hasn’t changed drastically, the preferences of bass have.

“Bluebacks must be to largemouths like potato chips are to us humans,” Lytle said. “I think the biggest bass in the lake are keying on bluebacks for some reason. The biggest fish have changed their habits.”

Like Clements, Lytle’s best fish is close to 8 pounds. For this pro, a jerkbait is his go-to lure when trying to mimic bluebacks.

“It’s more important to be in the right place at the right time, rather than lure choice,” Lytle said. “I like to look for windblown banks or mud lines. However, in clear water, bass will come up 15 feet to hit a jerkbait 5 feet from the surface if they’re feeding on bluebacks. The strike is certainly not a subtle one either.”

Lytle prefers to use a Lucky Craft Pointer 100 in the Aurora Black pattern or a pearl-white Berkley Power Jerkshad. He said bass that are accustomed to chasing river herring have no problem moving far distances or quickly chasing down prey.

“Another thing about the herring is the winter fishery,” he said. “I used to heave a Silver Buddy or a jigging spoon in 25 to 30 feet of water in the winter, but because of the bluebacks, I can now catch winter bass on jerkbaits — and lots of them.”

“What I have gathered is that these anglers monitor forage fish abundance, and blueback herring abundances have altered largemouth movements,” DiCenzo said.

Expert Tactics

Clements breaks down the Kerr season based upon water temperature. He methodically plans how to tackle what can sometimes be a finicky bite and also provides a compare-and-contrast scenario before and after the arrival of river herring to Kerr Lake.

“Prior to the arrival of bluebacks in the early spring with water in the 45- to 50-degree range, bass would move to shallow backs and flats of creeks and at that time threadfin shad were the main target, as they were also seeking warm water,” he said. “This was the primary pattern. Slow-moving crankbaits such as Speed Shads, Shad Raps and spinnerbaits fished on sunny banks produced.”

Clements said since the introduction of river herrings, bass congregate at main lake bluff points near deep water and eat bluebacks in the early spring. Jerkbaits and large spinnerbaits are responsible for sacking up impressive bags of fatso bass.

“Rat-L-Traps and jerkbaits on long, tapering main-lake points are the new baits of choice to win early tournaments in lakes with blueback populations,” Clements said.

The local expert said the springtime (water ranging from 50 to 60 degrees) fishing at Kerr before river herrings arrived was best at rocky or gravel points and stumps as bass prepared for the spawn. Threadfins were still the primary forage because they also were seeking the same temperature range.

“If the lake was flooded,” Clements said, “threadfins spawned in the bushes and the major bite was in the warming areas. If the lake was normal or low, riprap was the primary shad spawning area.

“However, since river herring have been introduced, anglers must be attentive to bass following baits back to the boat. Areas where this is occurring will be very productive.

“You must be aware of fish chasing bait in open water in the middle of coves and creeks. This will occur in different areas of the lake at different times as the water warms.”

Regarding the post-spawn, bass used to move to flat, stumpy creek points in 6 to 10 feet of water and readily take Carolina rigs and jigs before river herring were prevalent. Every stumpy point held resident fish, he said, and some held concentrations of fish.

“Since the introduction (of river herring), this is the time of year fishermen must switch from threadfins in the creeks to bluebacks in the main lake,” Clements said. “Full moons in late May and early June will trigger bluebacks to spawn at hard clay and gravel points in the main lake.”

He said this activity begins in Nutbush Creek and Little Nutbush Creek and continues uplake toward the rivers as the water warms. When that happens during sunny days (bluebacks move to open water on cloudy days, Clements said), large schools of bass will gorge themselves on bluebacks and take topwater baits and crankbaits.

During the heat of summer, Clements said bass used to move to main-lake points and dropoffs in 10 to 20 feet of water. Brush piles coughed up fish for anglers chunking crankbaits and Texas-rigged worms.

“Now bass will leave the bank at the conclusion of the blueback spawn, stopping briefly — if at all — on points and drops,” he said. “Schools of bass form and follow the bluebacks into open water.

“Striper fishermen using live bait report catching bass from 25 to 30 feet. Some fish remain shallow, chasing blueback fry schooling around stumps. This is when many fishermen lose contact with the fish.”

Clements and Lytle agree that tournament weights drop for most anglers, except for those who target brush piles, as they’re the ones that win most events.

“Before bluebacks were here, bass in the fall of the year followed threadfins back into the creeks,” Clements said. “Large crankbaits on flats in 10 to 12 feet with bait schools took most large sacks. Small crankbaits at rocky corners back in the creeks continue to take fish until the water cools.

“Since the bluebacks have arrived, fish can be taken at humps and drops with Carolina rigs and jigs at the intersection of major creeks and the main lake.

“Bass are schooling at the humps and chasing small bluebacks. Topwater baits and tailspinners will take schoolies, and jigging spoons will take fish when located with sonar.”

Clements breaks down winter fishing with a similar fashion. He said before bluebacks and alewives, winter (55- to 45-degree water) bass remained in the creeks and chomped on medium-diving crankbaits at points and corners. He said fish in the main lake school at the first hard-bottom primary creek points in 25- to 35-feet under schools of threadfin shad.

“Fish follow the schools, picking off shad that are slowed by the cold,” Clements said. “Spoons, bucktails and blade baits will take fish.

“Now that herrings are present, bass follow them to open water, ignoring the schools of threadfin in the creek mouths, suspending below the schools in the main lake. Bait schools move quickly when you idle over them, making jigging difficult.”

Tips, Tricks and Spots

Lytle and Clements concur with one another that the first half of most major creeks will be productive from summer through fall.

Points where bass can intercept schools of herring are productive. They recommend road beds, train trestles and brush piles, since these types of structures hold largemouth bass. They are likely to suspend at any open water high spot.

“From June through September, I split my time between shallow water and offshore structure,” Lytle said.

“During June,” said Clements, “I target packs of roving bass chasing blueback fry around stumps. Senkos and trick worms pitched to the deepest stumps I can see produce on clear, sunny days. Flukes and topwater baits are good bets on shoal points.”

Later in the day, he said bass are susceptible at humps with a Carolina rig or deep-diving crankbait. Clements also fishes jigs at deep drops in 20 to 25 feet of water.

If chubby largemouths are chasing bait and acting frisky, he will fish a clear-colored Zara Spook, Lucky Craft Sammy or a Storm Chug Bug. He said a 1/4-ounce Hopkins Shorty jigging spoon with black feathers on the treble hook — skipped across the surface — is a sure bet for schooling fish.

As for paying attention to depth-finders and structure, Clements offered some advice.

“Put your (depth-finder) on manual,” he said. “Cut off the digital depth. Turn down surface clutter and suppression, and adjust the signal strength and gray line to receive a second bottom signal. This’ll allow an angler to see the thermocline and fish near the bottom.”

He said threadfin shads appear as tight balls and may be found anywhere from the surface to the thermocline. However, he said river herrings appear as long smears on the screen and seldom stay in the same place.

Clements said if anglers find concentrations of baitfish in open water to look for ambush points, long points or humps the shad will use as travel routes. When bass are chasing shads to the surface, the Durham native uses tail-spinner lures such as a Mann’s Little George or a blade bait such as a Silver Buddy to capitalize on the feeding frenzy.

“If shad are on flats in 12 to 15 feet of water, big crankbaits will work. Always look for arches under or intermingled with the baits,” he said.

Clements has had several good tournaments using a double Fluke rig, sometimes catching two fish at a time. During September, he catches schooling fish at the mouths of Eastland, Mill, Butchers, Island and Grassy creeks.

“Overcast skies have a tendency to scatter bluebacks over open water, and push them down,” he said. “Sunny skies are best for schooling fish. Clouds are best for fishing the humps.”

Summer Scores

According to Clements, anglers can expect 20 largemouths during good summer and early fall days. Most fish will be in the 2- to 2 1/2-pound range, with the possibility of a kicker fish stretching the scales to 6 pounds.

“Twelve to 20 pounds can be expected to win most five-fish tournaments,” he said.

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