Longtime Lake Norman fishermen say they've never witnessed a worse seven-month stretch for striped bass fishing than has occurred since a mass fish kill last summer.
The number of participants in the Norman Fishery Alliance's monthly striper tournaments has plummeted because of the low number of fish.
Sales of striper bait and lures are off at such longstanding shops as Perth Bait & Tackle in Troutman and Midway Bait & Tackle in Terrell.
"There's a definite impact on us," said Mike Tsitouris, co-owner of family-owned Perth Bait & Tackle. "There's no fish being caught."
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Fishing guide David Clubb said striper business is off 40percent to 50percent, including sales of gizzard shad and blueback herring, which are bait fish for striped bass.
"Absolutely dead," Clubb said of striper-related business. "The fishing is just horrible. Horrible, horrible. There's really no one fishing."
Last Tuesday should have been ideal for fisherman Sam "Rawhide" Newman to catch a striper or two. It was overcast, and the lake's surface temperature stood at 45 degrees. Such conditions bring stripers closer to the surface, but Newman wasn't spotting any with his fish finder.
"An old codger like me should be happy going home with one or two stripers 20 inches or bigger" each day, he said. "But after five days (the week of Jan. 23), I finally caught one 20-inch fish."
Also missing was the cadre of striper fishermen he'd grown accustomed to seeing over the years. Last Monday, Newman saw only one other striper fisherman north of the N.C. 150 bridge, a prime area for striped bass in years past.
"People are getting discouraged, because they're just not seeing them on their fish finders," Newman said.
The lake's catfish, white perch, crappie and largemouth and spotted bass were unaffected by last summer's kill near McGuire Nuclear Station in Huntersville, and their populations remain strong, said Newman and fishing guide and Observer columnist Gus Gustafson.
"A minimum 80percent of all adult stripers spend the summer at the McGuire dam," Newman said.
The N.C. Wildlife Resources Commission estimates 7,000 adult striped bass were killed last July and August, although Gustafson estimates five times that number died.
Brian McRae, the commission's Piedmont fisheries regional supervisor, has blamed the kill on a natural phenomenon that occurs only in deeper reservoirs such as Lake Norman.
"Because of the depth of these reservoirs, deep isolated pockets of dissolved oxygen form during the late spring and early summer, only to collapse as dissolved oxygen levels decrease through the summer," McRae wrote to Newman last fall.
The state adds 162,500 young stripers that are 2-3 inches long to the lake each late May-early June. McRae told the Observer last week that he'd like to see 10,000 extra young stripers, called fingerlings, added this year. That would return catch rates in two years to what they would have been if the kill hadn't happened, he said. Top state hatchery and other officials would need to approve the extra number, he said.
The state also is considering relocating some of the areas where it releases the fingerlings, McRae said. That's in response to reports from fishermen that the striper population has declined for several years, he said.
The state might focus on releasing the fingerlings at the Long Island Access Area, Lake Norman State Park and Stumpy Creek, which are farther north on the lake in what are thought to be more nutrient-rich areas, McRae said.
Fishermen, meanwhile, say they expect participation in striper tournaments and sales at bait shops to continue to fall.
Norman Fishery Alliance monthly tournaments once averaged 35 boats. With fewer stripers, that number fell to three in December. Twelve boats participated in January, but only three fish caught during that tournament measured beyond the minimum 16 inches.
"Recreational striper fishing has taken a tremendous hit," Newman said.