Have High Rock’s rocks, aka rockfish, gone MIA?

(Photo by Craig Holt)

Where have all the rockfish, aka striped bass, that used to swim in High Rock and other Yadkin River reservoirs been hiding? Fishermen want to know.

High Rock Lake was the site of the Striped Bass Challenge, a tournament that attracted the region’s top rockfish chasers to the 15,180-acre Yadkin River impoundment this past January.

“I fished it with 93 other boats,” said Jerry Hill, a striper guide from Lexington, N.C. “That day, the water temperature dropped below 50, and the lake was muddy red with a lot of stuff floating in it.”

A cold, muddy, flotsam-filled lake doesn’t ignite a hot winter bite for most freshwater species, especially stripers, which prefer clear water and easily visible baitfish.

“Three guys in a jon boat and trolling motor fished on the bottom with bass minnows,” Hill said. “They caught a 6-pound striper and a 5-pound hybrid and won.

“Nobody else weighed in a fish.”

That anemic catch wasn’t a shock to local anglers. They have witnessed paltry catches the past two years on High Rock.

Anglers once caught nice-size striped bass on the Yadkin River chain of lakes.

“I keep records of where, when, what kind of weather and baits I use,” said Hill, 65. “The last time I did well at High Rock was Oct. 8, 2020. I caught nine stripers; a buddy caught nine and another guy caught eight. Even then, they were small for High Rock, 6 to 9 pounds.

“The past five years, we’ve seen stripers like that, where normally the largest ones used to weigh 11 to 15 pounds, some bigger.”

Lexington’s Maynard Edwards, a retired guide, who, like Hill, has targeted striped bass on Yadkin system lakes for nearly a half-century, agreed that something has changed the past two years, not only at High Rock but at other impoundments in the chain.

“No one’s catching anything except small stripers — if they catch any,” he said.

Heavy November rains the past two years may have affected the striper bite.

At many N.C. inland lakes, birds will reveal where stripers are in a feeding frenzy. (Photos by Craig Holt)

“More stripers are in Tuckertown now than any Yadkin lake,” Edwards said, pointing to the reservoir just downstream from High Rock. “When we had big rains, they had to redo the launch ramps at (High Rock) because the lake flooded and washed out the boat ramp,” Edwards said, searching for an explanation. “They had to replace it, but first they ran three (dam) gates wide open for days. Water was shooting up in the air. Stripers will follow current, so I think some probably went through the dam (into Tuckertown).”

Maynard Edwards often turns to old-school lures such as bucktails for striped bass. (Photos by Craig Holt)

When conditions were optimal at High Rock in past years — clear water with a winter drawdown of several feet — anglers trolled the main-river channel with good success Other techniques worked as well in winter. Six years ago, Edwards tried casting for largemouth bass around rocky bluffs in a feeder creek and accidentally hit a mother lode of striped bass.

He and two clients cast shallow-diving crankbaits and suspending jerkbaits at a steep bluff in Flat Swamp Creek. Surprisingly, they caught a dozen stripers, between 12 to 20 pounds.

“Rattling Rogues worked well that day,” he said. “I got a backlash, so I was trying to work it out of my reel. When I did and started to crank the handle, the Rogue twitched a couple times then went under when the line tightened. Then it started moving off. A 12-pound striper had it.”

Before then, Edwards hadn’t considered that threadfin shad might pile into the lake’s feeder creeks, followed by stripers.

When they first chased High Rock’s stripers years ago, Hill and Edwards trolled with planers, downriggers or lead core line to send shad or lures deep toward stripers patrolling the lake’s main channel. With live bait tough to find in winter, they trolled single- or tandem-rigged bucktails and soft-plastic swimbaits. 

Edwards added a twist a few years ago, reducing his trolling speed to .01 mph, a tactic he named “strolling.” He used Water Bugz side planers to push lures 30 feet or more from his boat’s gunwales. 

“I put out 30 feet of line, then add a planer board to pull (lures to the sides),” he said. 

Single rods attached to rod holders on the gunwales and/or stern still dragged bucktails or soft-plastic lures at different depths behind his boat, so he covered lots of water. 

Favorite winter lures included 5-inch Zoom Flukes and Alabama rigs that mimic baitfish schools. This technique worked at all four of the Yadkin’s bigger lakes: High Rock, Tuckertown, Badin and Tillery.

Hill said Badin Lake just downstream from Tuckertown, is the chain’s top striper destination.

“Badin is best striper lake on the Yadkin to catch numbers, but they only run 2 to 6 pounds,” he said. “You might catch a (rare) 7- to 10 pounder.”

Edwards believes Lake Tillery (downstream from Badin) has the biggest stripers, “but they’re also getting smaller, and floating grass is getting so bad, it’s hard to troll without fouling your rigs.”

Edwards and Hill may disagree about Tuckertown, Badin or Tillery as the best current Yadkin striper lake, but there’s no question old reliable High Rock isn’t so reliable any more.


HOW TO GET THERE — High Rock Lake is south of Lexington, forming much of the border between Davidson and Rowan counties. I-85, US 52 and NC 8 provide the best access. Tuckertown, Badin and Tillery are downstream from High Rock, with many of the same access routes, plus NC 109 and US 52.  For ramp locations, visit www.ncwildlife.org/Boating/Where-to-Boat.

WHEN TO GO — November and December

BEST TECHNIQUES — Troll live threadfin shad or shad, white or white/chartreuse bucktails Flukes or Alabama rigs using down-riggers, planers, leadcore line or side-planers. Rods should be 5½- to 6-foot medium-action with baitcasting reels spooled with 30-pound braid attached to 5 feet of 20-pound fluorocarbon leaders. To avoid hangups while trolling, check depth-finders often to avoid bottom structures.

FISHING INFO/GUIDES — Jerry Hill, Triad Fishing & Guide Service, 336-247-1265; Yadkin Lakes Guide Service, 336-247-1287; HWY 49 Sporting Goods, 704- 463-7053; Joe’s Bait & Tackle, 704 982-8716. See also Guides & Charters in Classifieds

ACCOMMODATIONS — Visit Lexington, 866-604-2389, www. visitlexingtonnc.com; Stanly County Convention & Visitors Bureau, 704-986-2583, www.visitstanly.com; Rowan County Convention & Visitors Bureau, 704-638-3100, www.visitsalisburync.com.

MAPS — DeLorme’s N.C. Atlas & Gazetteer, 800-452-5931, www.delorme.com; Gemini Maps, 704- 846-1833, www.gemini-maps-of-north-carolina.com.

Former guide Maynard Edwards said High Rock stripers have gotten smaller and harder to catch over the past several years. (Photo by Craig Holt)

A litany of potential problems

The Yadkin River system is made up of a string of lakes filled with naturally-reproducing largemouth bass, crappie, white perch, bream catfish and baitfish.

But one of its fish species that must be stocked — striped bass — is in trouble. 

Striper anglers and tournaments have experienced low catch rates and small fish in recent years. 

No one has fingered the exact cause, although anglers have many theories: 

  • Extended periods of high water;
  • Heavy fall and winter rains combined with few water releases by the new company that owns the system’s four dams;
  • Sporadic overflows that open downstream escape windows;
  • •Unsuccessful stockings;
  • Years of angling pressure.

Casey Joubert, a N.C. Wildlife Resources Commission biologist, said previous samplings of Yadkin reservoirs showed that at least one striper had traveled 132 miles from W. Kerr Reservoir near Wilkesboro. Other species have travelled farther. The best explanation is migration through or over hydroelectric dams. 

“We’re going to do more sampling this winter and next, using a mix of nets and electrofishing,” she said. “But it’s a challenge to collect stripers with nets or shocking.”

Additionally, the Commission’s Watha Fish Hatchery in Pender County has limited space, so striper fingerlings have short stays before they’re released in North Carolina lakes and rivers. Joubert said the Commission annually stocks a million hatchery-raised fingerling stripers.

Joubert said in May 2020, the Commission released 79,000 fingerlings at High Rock, 64,000 at Badin, 27,000 at Tillery and 13,000 at Tuckertown.

“We also stocked 672,000 fry in High Rock Lake last April, mostly because we had an abundance of fry — over the numbers requested from our biologists,” she said. 

However, angler Jerry Hill said a Commission biologist once told the Tar Heel Striper Club that stockings aren’t quick fixes.

“He said it takes 3 years for a striper to grow to 5 or 6 pounds, so if (anglers) take out fish that size, it takes another 5 to 6 years to replace them,” he said.

Joubert said predation of stocked fry and fingerlings by other species also could be a factor in low Yadkin striper numbers.

“We hope (by stocking enough) stripers will survive in the fishery,” she said.

Joubert contacted dams operator Eagle Creek Renewable Energy about High Rock’s winter water level, which hasn’t been lowered for several years — former owner Alcoa had annual drawdowns. 

“They said drawdowns are a function of rainfall/inflow,” she said. “The last major drawdown was in 2018 (9½ feet), but the lake filled within 2 weeks. In 2019, servicing of units caused outages at the dam, and they couldn’t lower the lake more than 2 feet.”

Edwards and Hill contend talk is cheap, but seeing is believing.

“Four or five years ago, (the Commission) cut our (daily) limit from eight to four fish,” Edwards said. “Biologists said they stocked the same number of stripers as always each year. But I know the past four years, it’s been harder to catch four than it used to be to catch eight.

“There’s still a problem somewhere.”

About Craig Holt 1382 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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