How to Fish in the Winter at HIGH ROCK LAKE
So, you want to try your hand at winter fishing at High Rock Lake, and the only thing you need to be aware of is your wardrobe, right? Wrong.
The winter months, particularly December through February, are the best times to fish for striped bass in lakes across North Carolina, and High Rock Lake has consistently been tops of the sportsman’s list, for those that know how to find the right spots. Fish eat year-round, so why wouldn’t we fish year-round? And the obvious observation, there is less congestion on the lake from fewer recreational crafts.
I spoke with Maynard Edwards of Lexington’s Yadkin Lakes Guide Service recently to get my winter fishing facts straight from someone who has more than 25 years of fishing guide experience here, is licensed in North Carolina as a guide, and to top it off, is a certified coast guard captain.
An astute angler finds schools of forage fish, knowing that bass, stripers, and other predators are not far away. As the saying goes, “Find the bait, and you will catch the fish.” Primary baitfish are shad, which prefer warm shallow waters and attract largemouth bass. Knowing that, anglers search out the water depth and temperature preferred by the baits of their target species. Once located, they fish the area thoroughly.
ADAPT TO THE SEASON
In winter, water temperature is one force that drives bait and predator fish from one place to another. Warmer is usually better, and extreme cold can change the dynamics of fishing. “If the water temperature drops below 40 degrees, stay home,” he said. “The fish won’t bite.”
By the end of December, Edwards will spend most of his time in Flat Swamp, Abbotts, and Crane creeks. “The best areas are Flat Swamp and Abbotts,” he said. “I don’t go into Crane Creek unless it gets really cold.” Edwards said the winter months are excellent for catching big stripers, which run from 10 to 15 pounds. Because stripers prefer 55-degree water, winter is the top time to pursue them at High Rock Lake. They usually don’t grow to trophy sizes, but even medium-size fish can put a significant bend in a rod,” Edwards said. “Anything 10 pounds or better is a real good striper. Twenty-pounders aren’t unheard of but aren’t a normal thing.”
“Good striper fishing usually begins at High Rock in December, but it may crank up in late November if it’s cold enough,” said Edwards. “I look for circling and diving gulls or birds sitting on the water. “It’s not a bad idea to go where birds are sitting on the water. I’d definitely go to such a place if I couldn’t find any flying. In either case, they’re looking for bait.”
In January, when water temperatures at or near freezing, hordes of shad are trapped in the shallows. Eventually, they are stressed, die, and are eaten by bass, perch, and stripers. Anglers tried to snatch stripers from under sea birds that were feeding on the dying shad, but mostly they’ll catch catfish.
LAKE LEVEL VARIANCE IS GOOD FOR THE ECOSYSTEM
Edwards laughs when he hears anglers complain when Cube Hydro/Eagle Creek Renewable Energy drops High Rock’s level in winter since it operates as a hydroelectric plant.
“The winter drawdown used to be 15 feet, but the last three or four years they haven’t dropped it significantly,” he said. “Some people fuss and cuss, but, hey, it’s like this — when the lake goes down, the stripers have fewer places to hide. The less water you must cover, the better chance to catch fish. If the water is up, (stripers) will go into the creeks and stay there because that’s where the baitfish will be.”
Winter lake level drawdown is good for spring/summer fishing too. It allows the banks to create new life forms which sustains our fish, such as bugs, worms, and grass. So, when the water level is back up in the summer it’s a like a sushi bar for the fish.
“The fall bite wasn’t great. We had more than our share of rain from hurricanes which keeps High Rock Lake with higher water than normal.”
LET’S GO STROLLING
Once he settles on an area that looks promising, Edwards uses a technique he calls “strolling” — slow-trolling baits and lures.
“I’d rather have live bait that time of year,” he said. “Once I get in an area with baitfish, I want to put my baits under baitfish schools on the surface.”
When he “strolls” for striped bass, Edwards wants to cover a wide swath of water. His terminal tackle includes Waterbugz planer boards and rigs built with a 1/8-ounce weight in front of a swivel, three feet of leader and a 3/0 to 4/0 circle hook. He’ll put out two or three rods with planer boards.
“I’ll put out 30 feet of line then add a planer board to send it out (to the side),” Edwards said. “The weight is just enough to keep the bait under the surface. The (baitfish) will find his own depth with (the boat) only moving at .08 – 1 MPH.
“I also put out two float (surface) rods out the back with ready-release floats, then I’ll use some down lines,” he said. “I like this arrangement because if you want to stop you can. You can’t do that with artificial lures (that sink to the bottom).”
Edwards’ float rods use the same terminal tackle — except for 2- to 3-ounce lead weights.
“I set one to run eight feet deep and one to run 12 feet deep,” he said. Edwards puts floats on the line with slip knots so he’s always sure the depths his lures are running. “I’ll let one out 50 feet behind the boat and another 75 to 100 feet back,” he said. He’ll also places a down rod at each corner of his boat.
“I run (baits) at four depths,” he said. “The front rods will have eight to 10 feet of line out while the back (baits) will be 16 to 20 feet behind the boat.” He uses line-counter reels so he can set his line lengths correctly.
“They’re easy to adjust,” Edwards said. “I run about 10 rods, but I have put out as many as 12 rods if I’ve got three clients aboard. They keep up with the rods.”
WINTER IS TIME FOR ARTIFICIALS
If live bait is not available, Edwards will pull artificials. “I know a lot of people pull a 3- or 4-inch artificial shad with a paddle tail, but if I’m using artificials, I like Zoom Swimming Flukes — the big ones, 5-inches long. They’re slender, and I think they look halfway like a herring.”
Edwards said sometimes he switches tactics for variety.
“I still troll bucktails, but lemme tell you, I also like Alabama rigs,” he said. “If I’m pulling artificials, you can bet there are two Alabama rigs in the mix.”
Edwards, who makes his own 5-arm Alabama rigs, goes at it a little differently than most anglers, opting for light weights. His trolling rods are spooled with 40-pound braided line connected to the Alabama rigs by way of a 140-pound dual-lock Super Snap that is mated to the braid with an improved clinch knot.
“I also have some 1/8-ounce lures I use for casting,” he said. “I’ll cast from January through March. You never know if you will catch a largemouth or striper. Sometimes I cast bucktails.”
TECHNIQUES, TACKLE, AND INSIGHTS
Slow-trolling live baits with gizzard shad or artificial lures such as Alabama rigs, bucktails, Striper Swiper jigs, Zoom Swimming Flukes or Z-Man paddle tail lures. Tackle includes 61/2- to 7-foot, medium-action rods and reels spooled with 40-pound braid. Keep speed at 1.5 – 2.5 MPH for best results when using artificial lures.
When fish are deep or scattered throughout the water column, Edwards slow-trolls at 11/2 mph with six 7-foot, medium/heavy rods, setting four rods out at the back of the boat with reels spooled with lead-core line. Two other rods, one on each side of the boat, carry planer boards for fishing shallow water.
“Each color of the lead-core line puts the baits — usually shallow- to medium-running crankbaits, Sassy Shad plastics or bucktails — about 7 feet deep,” said Edwards. “I usually let out about two colors or slightly more.”
When Edwards uses bucktails, he employs a double rig with a 3-way swivel.
He likes to run the planer boards close to steep banks using 15- to 20-pound monofilament with shallow-running crankbaits at the business end. He said the best fishing takes place when the water temperature ranges from the lower 40s to the 50s.
Edwards has caught stripers under both sunny and cloudy skies and adjusts his approach accordingly. “When it’s cloudy, fish the deep banks along the creek,” he said. “When it’s sunny, fish the shallow bank. For example, upon entering Flat Swamp, fish the deeper, right-hand side of the creek on cloudy days; fish the opposite side on sunny days.”
“The little things often make the difference between catching fish or just fishing.”
For all the deep-water anglers out there, High Rock is your kind of lake. The bass aren’t shy in the stained waters of this reservoir in the heart of the state. High Rock is a bass factory year-round, but it hits peak in the heat of summer when the bass move out deep. May through October you can find schools of largemouth bass stacked on offshore humps and ledges.
“On sunny days in the winter, crappie move up, and I’ve caught them in 4 feet of water around islands,” he said.
That 30-degree variance in water temperatures is the major reason why the state’s second largest manmade impoundment is such a great winter fishery.
To schedule a fishing charter with Maynard Edwards, Yadkin Lakes Guide Service, call 336-249 -6782, www.ExtremeFishingConcepts.com.
A few excerpts taken from Carolina Sportsman, 2017.
I hope to see you all out on the lake! From a distance.
I would love to hear from you on what your favorite lake activity is, or someone that you would like me to feature in 2021. Please email me at highrock@YourRowan.com.