Destination File: Kerr Reservoir/Buggs Island

by Chris McCotter

John H. Kerr Reservoir was once revered as one of bass fishing’s jewels of the east. National bass fishing organizations made Clarksville and South Hill into “Tournament Towns” on the weekends.

Known by many as Buggs Island, this 49,000 acre lake was one of the top destinations for the weekend angler and the serious tournament angler alike. That began to change in the early 2000’s when anglers as well as biologists started noticing a decline in numbers of bass being caught and particularly those in the three- to five-pound range.

Although it was obvious that fish numbers were down, the reasons still remained a puzzle. Many began to speculate that the bass were over pressured, stressed by low and constantly fluctuating water levels, and some even blamed the exploding numbers of blueback herring, claiming that these baitfish were feeding on the eggs of spawning bass. 

In 2002 the Virginia Department Of Game and Inland Fisheries sought out answers and discovered something far worse than had been imagined. The Department had discovered that one in every 60 bass surveyed tested positive for LMBV, or Largemouth Bass Virus. In 2009 this Virus gained national attention as fish numbers dropped to an all time low and test revealed that 41% of bass on the lake were infected. This was the same virus that had plagued lakes in Alabama, Texas, Florida, and throughout the south in the late 1990’s.

The good news is that there was a silver lining. In each instance of a LMBV infection in these powerhouse lakes of the south, the infected fish died off and it was discovered that the surviving populations were completely immune to the virus. This virus had taken its course in a period of about six years. We all know how well those lakes are doing now. They are fishing better than ever! 

Almost 10 years have past since the virus was first discovered on Kerr and the latest reports suggest that the virus has taken its course and Buggs is on the rebound!

I was so excited about these latest findings that I figured I must find a way to make a trip down to Kerr to confirm these recent reports for myself. To make it an easier pill for the wife to swallow, I creatively turned this Destination File into our family vacation and reserved a site at Northbend Park.

On August 4th I loaded up the truck and boat, rounded up my son Jack, baby Ava, black lab Jake, and skeptical wife, Aimee, as we were on our way to the lake to see if I could confirm these recent reports/enjoy a family vacation.

Amidst the dog days of summer and probably the most difficult time of the entire season I was unsure if this trip would serve as an accurate barometer as to the condition of the lake. In spite of all odds being stacked against me, I rallied the troops and set out on our adventure.

As we arrived at site #52 and started unpacking, I soon realized that my odds of getting out on the water that evening were slim to none if I wanted to maintain the idea that this was a family vacation. So as the gang headed down to the beach to play in the water I played it safe an spent the next three hours setting up a camp fit for a queen. Surely this gesture would afford me at least one wish from the queen, and with a little luck I may even be able to get a good night’s rest. I was correct in my assumption.

On the morning of August the 5th, with eager anticipation I launched the Triton into a very low (296’) and windy Kerr Reservoir. Now was the moment of truth. Had Bugg’s really bounced back? At this point I was still very skeptical but, none the less I idled past the buoys and jumped up on pad just as the sun peaked through the dark clouds and I was on my way.

I wanted to focus on mainly three types of reaction baits. A crankbait, (Rapala DT 16/WEC 6-10 ft), spoon (7/8 ounce Toothache Spoon), and topwater (Reaction Innovation’s Vixen/Barely Legal Vixen).

I also set out to fish three types of cover/areas. Hydrilla in the backs of creeks, brush piles, and slow tapering points off the main lake and secondary creeks.

With this in mind I set out to check out some grass in the back of a creek where I found small patches on my last visit.

What I found was shocking. In almost all of the areas that I had found grass previously I had found even more. Much more. Not only did I find loads of healthy hydrilla but I also encountered massive schools of blueback herring in over half of the creeks I explored. I had also noticed that the grass had started working its way up the lake. This was a good sign as this grass provides great cover for particularly the young bait.

Although I didn’t catch a fish in each creek, I was definitely seeing more bait and more activity in these creeks that ever before.

As mentioned earlier some people believe that the expansion of the blueback herring is a negative. I do not agree with this assumption. The herring is like fillet mignon to a bass. Its tender, juicy and full of protein. The herring also provides a larger meal for the fish, which can enable them to grow more rapidly.

The only caveat to the blueback is that anglers may have to adjust their approach. Typically as the population of herring grows to the point where it becomes a staple for the fish, many of the bass will move off shore as this bait spends most of its life in open water. When this happens the largemouth tend to relate to these schools of bait just like they would a brush pile, rock pile, ledge or grass edge. This can be frustrating as locating contour and structure near shorelines is far easier than locating a school of herring in open water.

As the sun broke free from the clouds and lifted higher into the sky, I decided to abandon the creeks where I had landed several healthy two-pound largemouth and a few stripers in the morning, in search of an off shore bite.

I ran each of my favorite points in the down lake region and throughout Nutbush Creek. Each time starting at the very far reaches of the point and working my way forward towards the shore.

As I would troll forward slowly I would keep a close watch on my Humminbird scanning for bait in both directions. I would also alternate between baits depending on depth and cover seen on the graph and continually panned the surface for any activity.

I ran about eight different points repeating this process each time and then moved on to point number nine. This particular point was protected from the wind slightly which enabled me to notice any disturbance on the water. As I glanced to my right I could see what appeared to be a small shadow from a cloud. As I looked over head I realized there was no cloud above me I suddenly got excited and realized what I had found. It was a large school of bait.

I continued towards the school throwing my baits on each side of them and at all depths with no luck. I then continued up the point even further, losing confidence in the area with each cast, as I left the school of bait behind.

“Time to leave”, I told myself. So I strapped down the rods, pulled the trolling motor and as I walked back to start the big engine I glanced up and all Hell had broke loose.

The water was boiling with fury. In a panic I ran back up grabbed my Vixen and “Oh crap”, the back treble was stuck in my carpet.


That doesn’t always work but this time it did. I reared back flung that Vixen as far as I could to reach the frenzy, walked it two times, and WHAM. I’m hooked up good, however, as the fish dove instantly and peeled drag I was sure it was a striper. Sure enough it was about a five-pound striper.     

After wrestling around with three razor sharp trebles and a wiry, bitter, land-locked striper I made another cast.

This time I got about three twitches in before another striper grabbed it. This continued for about five minutes. One striper after another. I was convinced that I was simply on large school of striped bass when suddenly instead of a giant explosion on the surface I heard a “bluuuppp”, and yes it was a green fish almost three pounds.

Next cast produced another one about two-and-a-half, and another one two-and-three-quarters. I continued to catch largemouth about every five minutes for the next 40 minutes and not one was less than 2.5 pounds. These fish were not the long skinny emaciated 14-inch fish that I remember. These bass were of the pig skin variety. Healthy, fat, well-fed footballs.

I was catching so many nice fish on top that I assumed that I could catch them on a crankbait or spoon or perhaps a swim bait.

I was wrong.

Although i was able to coax a few on a spoon and a crankbait it was clear they were looking up.

With this piece of the puzzle solved, I was able to duplicate this pattern all over the lake. One out of about every five points that I hit I caught at least one or two bass over two pounds and some over three pounds. The key was covering lots of water, fishing fast, finding points and humps that reach out to the depths of the main lake that have good current flow.    

Then locating what I call “Home Room” completed the puzzle. This home room can be a brush pile, rock pile, deep cut against the point or even a concentration of stumps. These are places that you can hone in on when you have an inactive school. Like kids in junior high, bass have a “home room” too.

I continued to run this pattern each day with amazing results with bigger fish and more numbers than I can ever remember.

Do I think Kerr s coming back? Absolutely. Do I feel that the blueback herring proliferation has negatively impacted the fish? Heck no! It’s just that maybe now they want anchovies on their pizza instead of pork.

Well when it was all said and done the trip was a success. The weather held up, the fish bit, the kids and dog lived it up on the beach and I even scored a home run with the Queen. Looks like the crew will be back next year to live the good life at Bugg’s Island.

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