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06/01 - Destination File - Lake Gaston Largemouths

By: C.C. McCotter

"There’s another one! And another. Look at that one on that stump over there! That one must be eight pounds!" I bubbled with excitement and my guide for the morning just laughed as he showed me some of Lake Gaston’s better bass coves full of spawning fish.

It was a perfect fishing day and time of year. Conditions were clear and calm with air temperatures of around 76 degrees and a water temperature around 72-76. During a quick Destination File visit last month around the full moon and the final spawn, we had hit the big lake just right. Guide Dennis Gilmer of Fishing Lake Country Guide Service was on fish, and I was along for the ride.

Lake Gaston is a 34-mile long, 20,300-acre impoundment created in 1962 by Virginia Power to serve as a source of hyroelectric power. The lake was formed by the damming of the Roanoke River, below the Buggs Island Dam. Gaston is much different than Buggs Island, though. Most of the difference comes from the more constant water level in Gaston that allows the presence of aquatic vegetation so absent in Buggs. The stable water levels have also allowed Gaston to become heavily developed in spots -- there are literally thousands of boathouses and piers. There are also plenty of stumps along the lake bottom.

All this adds up to a shallow water angler’s paradise for much of the year. Put in a healthy dose of striper stockings, a good crappie fishery, enough chain pickerel to break a line or two a day and lots of bream and you have a premier fishery on the border of Virginia and North Carolina.

Since we visited during the middle of the week, boat traffic was minimal. Gaston can get busy during summer weekends so a full-sized fishing rig is nice. The Anna Point Boat Sales ProCraft Pro 205 with Mercury 200 EFI outboard was the perfect tool for fishing this full-sized impoundment. While we did not have to travel more than three miles to fish our pattern, the 20’4" rig allowed us to fish comfortably and gave us the option to run safely all over the lake if necessary.

I met Gilmer at the AmeriCamps ramp on Holly Grove Creek at 9:30 and after a brief settling in period, we backed our rig into the lake. Once onboard, Dennis noted he had several bass follow up his soft plastic jerkbait around the campground docks as he waited for me. With this in mind we quickly tried to establish the stage the bass were in so we could pattern them for the rest of the trip.

We did a thorough circuit of the dock systems and discovered some largemouths were spawning and some were already guarding fry. There we plenty of bluegills and even some post-spawn crappie holding on the pilings and willow grass.

With our campground cove experience we set out beyond the No-Wake buoys into the main lake. Dennis knew of more coves with docks and willow grass. In fact, most of the upper portion of Lake Gaston is full of boat houses, piers and grass beds. We were to find out, just about all of them had bass in mid-May.

Dennis’ pattern keyed on pockets and coves just off the main river that had grass and wood structure. Areas/coves we fished included Holly Grove Estates, Pine Bluff, Gaston Heights, Turkey Run and pockets off Poplar Creek. Checking your GMCO Lake Gaston Pro Series map (see Woods & Waters Marketplace to order or visit www.woodsandwatersmagazine.com), you will notice none of these areas are very far from the AmeriCamps ramp.

I chose to stick with a pearl Berkley Power Jerk Shad and an Eagle Claw 2.5 FeatherLite hook. Dennis fished a MoJo rig dressed with a watermelon lizard. At each stop, we kept the trolling motor running until we reached a big boat house or grass bed. At each we either saw fish cruising or caught fish -- most on the soft plastic jerkbait. The fish we caught were fiesty males, most about one-and-a-half pounds.

So where were the females? Oh, we could see them alright. I saw more big bass cruising the shallows that I have ever seen, we just couldn’t catch them. They were much more interested in finding boyfriends than eating, unfortunately. It was inspiring, though.

Dennis and I could have caught 100 bass with the pattern we established that morning, but I had to get back to the campground. I was thoroughly impressed by Gaston and Dennis. Just this year, Gilmer has personally caught three citation largemouth bass from the lake. While he is a rookie guide, he knows Lake Gaston’s largemouths because he lives there (on Holly Grove Creek). Most importantly, Gilmer knows how to put his clients on Gaston’s bass. He loves to teach his MoJo tactics and has the patience of a preacher with all levels of anglers. Dennis Gilmer is a good resource for anyone preparing to visit the lake for a tournament or vacation.

What Gaston lacked in size, it made up in numbers during my visit. After Dennis put me on the pattern and some great areas, in the late afternoon I started casting a Frenzy Popper and had bass just about every 10 yards along the weedy shorelines. It was the grass that allowed the fish to spawn successfully and the boat docks that many fish were guarding their fry under. It also allowed anglers the chance to catch the fish.

North Carolina Wildlife Resources Commission Research Biologist Scott VanHorn notes Gaston’s largemouth population continues to maintain itself at a high level.

While total numbers of bass will never equal those in the early days, the lake is in good shape.

VanHorn explained Gaston currently has a very liberal 14" minimum size limit with two fish under 14" allowed for a total of a five fish creel.

"The reason for this was originally to avoid stockpiling of fish under a straight minimum size limit. We wanted to stimulate growth rates. It’s all a moot point now because no one keeps any fish anyway," says the biologist. "The ability of size and creel limits to manage fish is up to anglers harvesting fish. It’s been a long time since we’ve seen lots of sizes and ages of fish in Gaston artificially engineered by angler regulations."

Regardless, every year VanHorn and his fellows sample the fish just to ensure things are okay. For the past 15 years they have done the sampling, seen everything is good, and put any changes back on the shelf for another year.

Perhaps the most effective way to best manage the lake these days it to protect the littoral zone -- or shallow water next to the shoreline around the lake. Virginia Power is undergoing relicensing this year for their hydroelectric dam so VanHorn and the Commission are trying to influence both the power company and landowners to better manage the lake and shoreline for fishing.

"We are trying to get Virginia Power to issue rules to landowners for when they decide to develop their shorelines," says VanHorn. "We are trying to soften that development process and get some natural structure protected in the process."

Other parts of VanHorn’s Gaston management plan include asking;

"How much weed control is going to be going on and what it’s purpose will be";

"Asking for less severe tree clearing";

"Asking for some rip rap in front of a bare bulkhead";

"Trying to protect water willow grass lines in front of shoreline. (We want as little of it destroyed as possible)".

So with all the development around the lake, what continues to make Gaston’s bass fishery so prolific? VanHorn notes a diverse pantry.

"Our forage base is a mix of gizzard and threadfin shad, alewives and blue back herring. The fact that all four species are in the lake guarantees on any given year when one doesn’t do well the others will."

How big do Gaston’s bass get these days eating all those baitfish?

"It is rare to see a Gaston bass much over 10 pounds. I see eight to 10 pounders from Gaston every year, but in 26 years I’ve only seen five eleven pounds or bigger," notes the North Carolina Biologist.

According to biologist Wayne Jones, anglers should visit several creeks with a high rate of bass caught during annual samplings -- Songbird, Holly Grove and Six Pound Creeks are excellent. The back of these creeks have green water and plenty of shad flipping around. It doesn’t take Rick Clunn to figure out they have bass, too. A notable annual hydrilla bed is located Hubquarter, just up from Easton’s Ferry Marina, says Jones.

Use this information on your next visit to Gaston and remember your source -- Woods & Waters Magazine.


Editor’s Note:

During our brief visit, my wife and daughter and I were guests at AmeriCamps Campground. I can highly recommend this facility for several reasons. First, the location is excellent. You have access to some truly great bass, striper and crappie fishing. Second, the facilities were well-tended. From the camper we stayed in, to the boat houses, pool and mini golf, the folks at AmeriCamps were on top of maintenance and cleaning duties. Lastly, the place was quiet during our mid-week stay. I like quiet nights after a long day of fishing and certainly only stay at family-oriented establishments. AmeriCamps has trailer rentals, tent sites, RV sites and year-round rental sites. Many are right on the lake.

Another place I thoroughly enjoyed visiting during our Lake Gaston stay was Grubb’s Place on Holly Grove Creek. This is an unique shop because it offers both on-the-water and roadside service (via Rt. 903). One morning I pulled up in the boat with my daughter and picked up some crappie minnows from the tackle shop. That afternoon, my wife daughter and I went back and ate a great lunch on the back deck over-looking the creek. Grubb’s Place has a great tackle shop and everything else one would want while vacationing at Gaston.

How To Get There:

Interstate 85S is the main road to the Lake Gaston area. Leave the interstate at the Bracey/Lake Gaston Exit. State Route 903 follows the Virginia side of Gaston. You can also use I-95 to access the lower end of the lake


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