Lake Norman has been a melting pot for nonnative species of fish since its beginnings in the early 1960s.
By 1970, striped bass, Arkansas blue catfish and white bass had been introduced. The white and striped bass were stocked to enable Norman to compete with South Carolina’s fabulous fishing on Lake Murray and Santee Cooper. Arkansas blue catfish, which aren’t considered game fish, were added to control what was thought to be an overabundance of shad, a forage fish, at the time. As it turned out, blue catfish are the largest fish swimming in the lake today. There are those who believe a 100-plus pounder will be taken sooner or later.
During the 1980s, yellow perch, a popular pan fish, died off. Rising water temperatures and lower dissolved oxygen levels at the Cowans Ford Dam were blamed for their demise. At the same time, flathead catfish were being caught. Whether they were accidentally stocked with the blue catfish, or relocated from other rivers and lakes by well-intended fishermen, is unclear.
Regardless, this invasive species was well established by the end of the decade. Unlike other catfish, which are scavengers, flatheads are predators that feed on bream and other live fish. The flathead is the same catfish taken by noodlers on the television show “Hillbilly Handfishin’” on Animal Planet.
Recreational fishing declined in the 1990s and Lake Norman was given the unflattering nickname, The Dead Sea. That changed around the turn of the century when anglers took it upon themselves to begin a stocking program of their own. One group stocked spotted bass, a member of the black bass family, while another put alewives, a deep-swimming forage fish, in the lake.
The spotted bass adapted quickly to Norman’s deep-water environment. As their population grew, so did the number of bass tournaments. While the average spotted bass is smaller than the largemouth bass, it makes up for size with its tenacity.
The white perch, an invasive saltwater species, was first noticed about 1998. As their numbers increased, the white bass population declined. Within a few years, the aggressive perch population had devoured so many white bass eggs, fry and fingerlings that white bass was no longer viable. Today, white perch are so plentiful that they do not have a size or creel limit. Anglers can keep all they want, even when taken in a cast net.
The new century brought with it rising lake water temperatures that eventually exceeded the striped bass’ tolerance. Higher temperatures and other factors caused massive fish kills that eventually reduced the striper stocks to the point of extinction. Again, concerned anglers took it upon themselves to supplement the ailing species by stocking a much hardier fish.
Millions of hybrid striped bass were stocked during several years before the N.C. Wildlife Resources Commission agreed to an annual stocking program of its own in 2013.
This year’s stocking will mark the third year NCWRC hatchery trucks will place 162,500 hybrid striped bass in Lake Norman. While the jury is still out on their adaptability to Lake Norman’s harsh water conditions, early indications are that hybrid striped bass are popular with boat and bank fishermen.
Today, Lake Norman has fish for everyone – from bream and channel catfish for the children, to crappie for the catch and fry crowd, as well as, black bass, hybrid striped bass and big catfish for the sport fishermen.
Tips from Capt. Gus
To lure crappie, experiment with different colors and types of jig tails. At times, they prefer twister tails over tubes, or jigs dressed with marabou hair. When all else fails, use a plain jig-head tipped with a live minnow.
Free Fishing Seminar: I will conduct “Fun Fishing for White Perch and Crappie,” a 90-minute session, at 6:30 p.m. March 18 at Gander Mountain, Exit 36, Mooresville. For information, call 704-658-0822.
Hot spot of the week
Hybrids, stripers and perch are hitting in the main river, while bass are hitting off deep creek and river channel points. Crappie are biting around covered docks and in deep brush, but haven’t moved to the banks to spawn yet. Catfish are hitting fresh-cut baits and chicken parts in and around the hot holes. Bass, hybrids and a few stripers are chasing bait to the surface at daybreak in the Marshall Steam Station’s discharge channel.
The surface water temperature varies by location, but is mainly in the 40s in open waters not affected by power generation. The water level is about 3.3 feet below full pond on Lake Norman and 3.4 feet below full on Mountain Island Lake.
Gus Gustafson is a freelance writer and a professional fishing guide on Lake Norman. Have a story idea for Gus? Email him at Gus@lakenorman.com.