Sutton Lake’s roller-coaster bass bite

Jason Dew (bow) and Randall Soles catch two largemouth bass at Sutton Lake.
Jason Dew (bow) and Randall Soles catch two largemouth bass at Sutton Lake.

After Hurricane Florence breached the dike at Sutton Lake last fall, the Cape Fear River entered the lake and the power plant shut down temporarily. Will 2019 be a good year or bad year for the lake’s bass? Only time will tell.

Fishing for Sutton Lake’s largemouth bass is like riding a roller coaster. Sometimes the bass fishing is hot. Other times, it is not. This year, it might be harder to predict which way things go than ever before.

A 1,110-acre lake that served as a receptacle for water used to cool a coal-fired power plant retired by Duke Energy in 2013, Sutton Lake, which is across the Cape Fear River from Wilmington, N.C., has a history as one of North Carolina’s top trophy bass lakes. The always-warm water contributes to fabulous growth rates, so good that the lake was once managed with an 18-inch size minimum to promote its trophy status.

Then, things began to change. Shortly after the coal-fired plant closed, a gas-fired combined cycle plant came online. The water in the discharge canal warmed up again, but not as warm as previously.

Then, Hurricane Hurricane Florence struck last September. Flooding from the river breached the dike in several places, and Duke Energy shut the plant down, reopening it in early December.  And excavation of a coal-ash storage area caused the discharge canal that enters popular Pond 1 to be fenced off to anglers. A partial re-opening of the canal could take place when the mitigation project is finished, and could increase Sutton’s size by 55 acres.

Ned Connelly caught this big largemouth bass at Sutton Lake. The fish struck a Zoom Trick worm.
Ned Connelly caught this big largemouth bass at Sutton Lake. The fish struck a Zoom Trick worm.

One angler who will be fishing Sutton on plenty of days this month is Jason Dew of Whiteville, who fishes a handful of tournament trails.

“I have always had good luck at Sutton Lake in late winter and early spring, with March one of the best months,” Dew said. “I’ve seen the fishing when it was on fire and we would easily have 40-fish days. But I have also seen it when it the fishing was off, especially just after the coal-fired power plant shut down. The cold weather fishing is always better when hot water is discharging through the canal.

“I have been fishing at Sutton several times since Hurricane Florence hit,” Dew said. “The water used to be as clear as glass, which was one of the problems you had to overcome when you fished the lake. But after the river water came into the lake, the water turned pitch black. As long as it stays that way, you  have to change tactics. Right after the hurricane hit, the bass were biting like crazy. Two weeks later, they shut down. (In January), they are biting hard again.”

In March, Dew fishes deeper areas, which include the channels excavated along the dike edges that provided material for the construction of the dikes. He also fishes the Catfish Creek channel winding through Pond 1 and snaking close to the boat ramp.

“The fishing has been best in Pond 1,” he said. “But, it has also been good in the last one, Pond No. 8. I’m not sure why, but it could be due to the pH. Normally, it is the coolest pond, so it doesn’t usually have the best fishing in cold weather.”

Jason Dew cast a crankbait to catch this largemouth bass at Sutton Lake.
Jason Dew cast a crankbait to catch this largemouth bass at Sutton Lake.

Dew locates the channel edges with his depth finder and works his lures inside the channel. He casts to the deep side, not the shallow side.

“Imagine you are standing in a ditch,” he said. “If you cast your lure right or left, you are going to hang it up in stumps and trees. You have to cast it right down the middle of the channel. The fish are done spawning in March, so you can catch them on just about anything.”

If Dew wants to cover lots of water, he uses crankbaits, preferring a Strike King KVD 1.5 or Lucky Craft square bill. He also uses an Alabama rig.

“For fishing the woody cover, I use a Carolina rig with a big soft plastic like a Zoom Ol’ Monster,” he said. “I also cast a 5/8-ounce Jewel football jig. Sometimes I add a Zoom Super Speed Craw trailer to the jig to make it more tantalizing.”

One thing that anglers are going to have to be aware of is water clarity, or lack of it. Under normal conditions, the lake’s water is extremely clear, making the use of light lines and leaders the rule for catching wary bass. The fish have seen just about everything and the clear water makes them cautious. However, the dark water Dew observed over the winter could carry into spring and summer, a possible indicator of excessive fertility that might also lead to another algae bloom.

“If the water stays dark,” I will use lighter leaders,” Dew said. “I might use to a fluorocarbon leader of 15-pound test on my Carolina rigs. If it’s clear, I would normally use a leader of not more than 12-pound test.”

Sutton Lake bass facts

The N.C. Wildlife Resources Commission has done plenty of sampling of largemouth bass in Sutton Lake over the years, and the on-again, off-again nature of the fishery has been on display, with population spikes every three to five years since the early 2000s.

Randall Soles lip-locks a largemouth bass for Jason Dew at Sutton Lake.
Randall Soles lip-locks a largemouth bass for Jason Dew at Sutton Lake.

“Sutton Lake has the fastest growth rate for largemouth bass of any lake in the state,” said Kyle Rachels, a fisheries biologist with the Commission. “In 2018, we caught 55 largemouth bass per hour of electrofishing, which is pretty typical for Sutton. However, the average size was 16 inches, which is the largest average size we have seen in our 31-year dataset.”

Rachels said the average size of bass sampled at Sutton since 1988 has been 13 inches.

The 31-year average largemouth bass size at Sutton is 13 inches.”

Environmental factors contributing to good or poor fishing have included algae blooms and heavy growths of southern naiad and pondweed that required herbicide applications.

The fantastic winter fishing for trophy sized bass was what originally prompted the Commission to enact a regulation prohibiting keeping bass from Sutton Lake between Dec. 1 and March 31.

Recent angler surveys show that anglers release 98 percent of the bass they catch, but only 10 percent agree with the three-month prohibition, leading the Commission to consider opening the keeper season to 12 months. Currently, the daily creel limit is five fish, with a 14-inch size minimum.

Largemouth bass at Sutton reach 20 inches in six to eight years, one of the fastest growth rates in North Carolina. A survey in 2015-16 showed that fishermen catch 1.2 bass for every hour of fishing.

Destination Information

  • HOW TO GET THERE — Beginning at the junction of US 421 and I-140 take US 421 north for 3.2 miles to Sutton Lake Road. Turn left and go 1.5 miles to the access area.
  • WHEN TO GO — Sutton Lake is open year-round and has excellent fishing for largemouth bass. Regulations prohibit anglers from keeping bass from Dec. 1 to March 31. March is a great month for catch-and-release of trophy largemouths.
  • BEST LURES/TECHNIQUES — Square-billed crankbaits like a Strike King KVD 1.5 or a Lucky Craft in crawfish or watermelon seed colors are popular, along with an Alabama rig. Anglers who like to fish a Carolina rig should go with a big worm like a Zoom Ol’ Monster in plumb, watermelon seed or green pumpkin. Jigs will also work with soft-plastic trailers; green pumpkin candy with a green pumpkin trailer is popular. For tackle, a 7-foot-6, heavy or medium-heavy action baitcasting rod and a fast reel spooled with fluorocarbon works well.
  • FISHING INFO/GUIDES — Tex’s Tackle, Wilmington, 910-791-1763.
  • ACCOMMODATIONS — Sleep Inn, Wilmington, 910-313-6665; Pleasure Island Chamber of Commerce,
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