Destination Lake Gaston

By C.C. McCotter

 

   This month’s Destination File focuses on the other part of Lake County – Lake Gaston. This 20,000-acre lake located on the border of Virginia and North Carolina boasts 350 miles of shoreline along its 35-mile length. Gaston was named after William J. Gaston, a politician and author of the NC state song, and it was created in 1963 by Dominion Resources to provide water for four hydroelectric generators. Gaston was formed by damming the Roanoke River below Kerr Reservoir.

   Today, Gaston is known as a getaway spot for recreational boaters with hundreds of homes and docks along the shoreline. Fishing remains a popular activity with the main species pursued including largemouth bass, crappie, striped bass and catfish.

   We consulted with an expert fisheries manager for this article; Kirk Rundle, the District 3 Fisheries Biologist for the North Carolina Wildlife Resources Commission was kind enough to answer our my many questions.

   Rundle told me he’d been monitoring Gaston for the past 12 years after studying fisheries science at Virginia Tech and Mississippi State.

   In addition to the multitude of homes built on the lake over the past decade, Rundle noted the increase in the blue catfish population was the biggest change he’s seen in the fishery.

   That’s good news, because unlike its upstream cousin, Gaston has experienced a relatively stable period when it comes to its piscine inhabitants.

   I asked Rundle to rate the fishing for largemouth bass, crappie, striper and blue catfish in Gaston based on his scientific observations.

      “Largemouth Bass fishing at Lake Gaston is good to excellent.  We sample largemouth bass at Lake Gaston every other spring with electrofishing and our catch rates are slightly above average for similar Piedmont reservoirs.  Our latest sample had a good representation of size classes with approximately half of the fish above 14 inches, and approximately 15 % of the fish above 18 inches.  Fish as old as age 11 were sampled and the majority of fish surpassed 14 inches by age 3.  Additionally, the fish were plump and robust, or healthy, and appeared to have plenty of forage available. 

  “My greatest concern is the recent introduction of spotted bass, with the latest sample having approximately 8% spotted bass.  They were likely illegally introduced by an angler and now we will have to live with the consequences. 

   “The problem is that they tend to outcompete largemouth bass and push them back into the coves.  Spotted bass tend to over-populate and have slow growth rates and could gradually turn a typical trip of anglers anticipating four- or five-pound largemouth bass into trips where catching one- or two-pound spotted bass is considered good.  And they can hybridize with largemouth bass to further complicate the picture.  So if you catch what appears to be a rather large spotted bass, more than likely it is a hybrid.

  When he first started seeing spots in Lake Gaston, guide Rick Morris says he was thrilled.

   “I started noticing them about four years ago, a lot of 10-14” fish. I’ve heard that anglers brought them from Alabama and stocked them, which means that they are the same as the Coosa River strain that gets huge.”

  The Virginia native BASSMasters Classic qualified that now guides on Gaston told W2 that if you put a smallmouth and largemouth in a tank the smallmouth will beat the largemouth up. And if you put all three in a tank the spot will have the others backed up on the corner.

  Needless to say, Morris is one angler that is very happy to welcome spotted bass to Gaston.

    So what are the Gaston spots feeding on that is helping them to thrive?

  “I think the spots eat just about anything. We got three kinds of shad and crawfish. I’m not an expert on what they are eating but we have them up to five pounds so they are eating something,” Morris told W2.

   With that in mind Morris explained the Coosa spots will hit just about anything he’s throwing including c-rigs, buzzbaits, crankbaits and they love topwater. Morris says the best lure is a seven-inch ZOOM Shaky Worm in green pumpkin.

   Gaston’s tournament anglers have done a good job distributing the fish throughout the lake, Morris notes. The fish are particularly prevalent from the Eaton’s Ferry Bridge down to Pea Hill Creek on the main lake.

  “They like deep water, so main lake bluffs are good. They also like current. They like to school all year long, too, so when you catch them it’s more than one, always,” the Virginia guide explained.

  Morris notes spotted bass spawn just a little deeper than largemouth and don’t go as far back in pockets, instead preferring rocky stuff spawning sites near the mouth of coves and creeks. The female of the species also guards eggs on the nest with her mate for a day or so after she lays them.

 

  “Crappie fishing at Lake Gaston tends to have catch rates below average, yet the growth and size of the crappie caught is normally very good.  We sample crappie every other fall at Lake Gaston with nets and approximately 70% of the fish we see are greater than 10 inches.

     “Striped bass fishing at Lake Gaston is an excellent fishery with quality habitat to support a large population of stocked striped bass.  We sample striped bass at Lake Gaston every winter with gill nets and the majority of these samples have shown good growth rates and healthy or robust fish.  This indicates that our stocking rates are appropriate with adequate forage available.  They normally surpass 20 inches by age three at Lake Gaston.  We stock fingerling (one- to two-inch) striped bass in at the highest stocking rate in the state with just over 400,000 fish being stocked each June.  Striped bass are not able to reproduce in Lake Gaston and this is a put-grow-and-take fishery that relies on our stocking.”

“Blue catfish at Lake Gaston have increased in abundance dramatically over the past 10 to 15 years.  The prior and most recent North Carolina state record for blue catfish is from Lake Gaston.  They are and will continue to increase in popularity and whether you like them or not, they are now essentially the top predator at Lake Gaston. 

   “We recently initiated a project to look at blue catfish relative abundance, diet, and growth rates at Lake Gaston.  It will be interesting to see what comprises the bulk of their diet and determine to what degree they are competing with other species and what their size specific growth rates are.”

  So why hasn’t Largemouth Bass Virus (LBV) hit Gaston as hard as it hit Kerr? This was something we thought Rundle could explain.

  “Lake Gaston did test positive for LBV in 2011, yet the incidence of infection did not appear to cause a decline in the fishery or any virus related fish kills.  Lake Gaston never appeared to have as much of a decline as did Kerr Reservoir, as we continued to see larger and older fish in the population. Regardless, both lakes seem to be doing well currently as bass do tend to build up an immunity to the disease which is still a concern yet appears to be in the rearview mirror for now.”

   There are a lot of lakes with largemouth bass in them in Virginia but Gaston is one of the best. We asked the fish biologist why?

  “A good forage base, with relatively high numbers of gizzard shad, threadfin shad, river herring and sunfish.    

   Threadfin shad are ideal prey and don’t grow as large as gizzard shad, however, they are susceptible to winter kill.  We stock threadfin shad when possible to make up for fish lost after a rather cold winter.  Also, the habitat available is ideal for largemouth bass with a variety of structure available, including natural structure along with numerous docks that provide a location for anglers to target concentrated fish.  Finally, Lake Gaston fluctuates very little which helps with reproductive success and recruitment of young fish.”

  While not widely known outside of the immediate area as a good striper fishery, Gaston is, and many anglers are beginning to figure them out. I asked Rundle if he had noticed any predictable, seasonal movements and patterns.

   “Striped bass fishing varies greatly from season to season.  During the winter months the fish are scattered throughout the lake following schools of baitfish.  They tend to concentrate somewhat at the mouths of large creeks such as Hubquarter Creek, Stonehouse Creek, Lizard Creek, Pea Hill Creek and Jimmies Creek. 

   As spring approaches the striped bass tend to move up the lake and into larger creeks in an attempt to spawn.  This attempt is not successful, yet it does tend to concentrate fish, particularly near the base of Kerr Dam.  Fishing can be successful from where US Route 1 crosses Lake Gaston to Kerr Dam. 

   As summer approaches and the water heats up the oxygen levels drop and striped bass are continuously looking for suitable habitats containing cool water with adequate oxygen.  During this time, they are more likely to be found as deep as the water column allows them to go before running out of oxygen, often referred to as the thermocline. 

   Striped bass can be more difficult to catch during extremely warm times of the year because they are not feeding as actively. 

    As fall approaches and the temperatures start to decline, the activity level of striped bass increases and they begin to feed more aggressively.  They will be seeking schools of baitfish and can often be found mid-lake near the river channel and in the creeks throughout the lake.  The key to successful striped bass fishing in Lake Gaston can often be in locating the baitfish that they feed upon.

  Gaston is a top citation producer for largemouth bass and crappie. I asked Rundle what the biggest fish he’s seen during his tenure as lake fisheries manager.

  The largest largemouth bass we have sampled lately has been just under eight pounds.  However, I hear of anglers catching them over eight pounds every year. Unfortunately, that may change with the presence of spotted bass.

  The largest crappie we have sampled lately has been approximately 2.5 pounds.

  The largest striped bass we have sampled in the last 10 years or so has been approximately 15 pounds.  We simply don’t target the larger striped bass in our sampling.  There are reports of larger fish being caught each year, however, the pressure is rather high and the majority of striped bass just don’t have a chance to make it past age five or soix.  Most fish caught are in the three- to eight-pound range.  I do hear of fish over 20-pounds being caught on occasion during most years, and believe there are a few fish that would top the scales at 30 pounds, yet these are quite rare and indeed a trophy.”

 I’d heard Gaston offers a decent walleye fishery and asked Rundle about that

    “The Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries stocks Walleye during some years when they have surplus fish available.  We sample walleye every two to three years at Gaston and to the surprise of some anglers there is a rather good walleye fishery here, which is rare east of the North Carolina mountains.  We have documented natural reproduction for walleye which is enhanced during years when they are stocked.”

 Editor’s Note: To book a fishing trip with Rick Morris on Lake Gaston, visit him at www.rpmfishing.com or call him at 804.868.0014.