KERR LAKE

 The Lake With Two Names
By Jack Randolph
 
 

    We could see the white of gull wings flashing in the distance. As we approached more and more
birds joined the gathering. We could see them wheeling and diving and, despite the roar of the
outboard, my imagination furnished the sound effects - the excited cries of the feeding birds.
    A quarter mile away I throttled down, fearful that the motor noise would put the fish down. We
hadn't actually seen them breaking water, but the tell-tale antics of the birds told us that there must
be surface action below.
    As we came closer we could see the surface churning below frantic shoals of gizzard shad that
spread across the surface in silvery sheets. I cut the outboard and flipped the electric motor into
position. As we neared casting range I snapped a Bomber Speed Shad onto the line. My daughter,
Christy, having never witnessed feeding stripers before, watched in wide eyed amazement.
    A striper clobbered the silver plug as soon as it hit the water. I let him feel the full weight of the
light rod as I attempted to move it away from the feeding fish.  I didn't want its struggle to put down
the school.
    Characteristic of the breed, it took charge and steamed off on a determined run. I could tell it was
a good one, probably a ten pounder. It's funny, but I've taken thousands of stripers over the years,
most of them in salt water, and I have found stripers in the ten pound class to be the most active of
all. This one was no exception.
    I feared for the light hooks on the lure. They weren't built with striped bass in mind. Fortunately
they held and before long I had the fish to the boat. I noticed, during the battle, that another boat had
joined us. As I unhooked my bass I saw one of the anglers in the other boat hook a fish and I heard
him shout, "Doggone, I hooked a bass!" Sure enough, in the middle of all those stripers he found a
fat, five pound largemouth.
    The hooks on my bait were bent, so I snapped on another and took off in pursuit of the feeding
school. We landed one more fish before full dark when we had to call it quits.
     "I never saw anything like that before in my life!" said Christy as we arrived at the ramp, "Do they
do that all the time?"
    "No, not all the time," I replied. "I wish they did."
    "Wow! I see why you drive all the way down here now, said Christy. "The next time you come,
remember, I want to come, too."
    We were fishing Buggs Island Lake, a 50,000 acre impoundment on the Virginia - North Carolina
line. Claimed by both states, this big reservoir is known nationwide for its striped bass and
largemouth bass fishing.
    Virginians recognize this big reservoir as Buggs Island Lake, named for a tiny island that exists
below the dam. The dam itself is named the John H. Kerr Dam in honor of a Senator from North
Carolina who played a major role in encouraging the Corps of Engineers to construct the reservoir.
Quite naturally, Tarheels call the reservoir "Kerr Reservoir" or "Kerr Lake" which they pronounce
"Car."
    The reservoir was completed in 1952 to serve as a flood control and hydroelectric impoundment,
backing up the Roanoke River.
    The Roanoke, incidentally, was once a major spawning river for striped bass. In fact, it still is in its
lower reaches. After Kerr Darn was built stripers were stocked in the reservoir. It was later
discovered that they were spawning naturally in the two rivers, the Staunton and the Dan, that feed
into the lake.
    It's fitting that the Staunton, a river that feeds into a lake with two names, also has two names.
This river is actually a reach of the Roanoke River, but it is the Staunton upstream to Leesville
Reservoir and Smith Mountain Lake. Above Smith Mountain Lake it becomes the Roanoke again.
    Ten years passed from the time the reservoir was built until it began to figure prominently as a
striped bass lake. In 1963, the first year of the Virginia Game Commission's fish citation program,
Buggs Island did not contribute one striper over 10 pounds. However, it was off and running in 1964
with 19 citation stripers.
    The season of 1974 was the best in the lake's history. By then the minimum citation weight for
stripers was increased to 15 pounds and Buggs Island produced 156 of them. After the '74 peak the
take of citation stripers dropped off considerably, hitting a low of four in 1979. Since then the catch
of citation stripers has been on the up swing, averaging between 60 and 70 in recent years. Overall,
Buggs Island ranks third or fourth among Virginia's striper lakes, behind Smith Mountain Lake, Lake
Gaston and, in some years, Lake Anna.
    Actually, Buggs Island's striper catch is probably better than it appears on paper. Compared to
Smith Mountain Lake, where from 400 to 700 citation stripers are registered annually, Buggs Island
is a rural lake. When an angler catches a citation fish he really has to go out of his way to register it.
On Smith Mountain Lake there are numerous places to register a citation fish. The same is true at
Lake Gaston. Many of the citation catches are made immediately below Kerr Dam where there are
several weigh stations located near-by.
    Despite the relatively low number of citation stripers recorded in the lake, anglers continue to
make excellent catches of nice fish. It's not unusual to hear reports of acres and acres of stripers
feeding on the surface.
    Over the years that the Game Commission has awarded citations for large fish, July appears to be
the best month for catching big stripers at Buggs Island. The fishing is relatively slow in January and
February,  picking up in March. April, May, June and July are the prime months for taking stripers
here. September is the poorest month and October is also slow, but November and December are
good.
    In January and February stripers are generally relatively deep and are taken jigging slab spoons,
such as the Shorty 75 Hopkins and the Bagley Salty Dog. Some are taken on cut shad or whole live
shad fished on the bottom.
    Trolling picks up in March, although many are taken jigging. Some trollers use downriggers to get
their lures down 25 or 30 feet to the fish. Bucktails and such spoons as the Hopkins, Accetta and
Drone are good. A few fishermen use planers such as the Luhr Jensen Pink Lady to carry their lures
deep.
    In April most of the stripers start their upstream spawning run, moving to the upper end of the lake
to enter the Staunton and Dan Rivers. As the fish surge up the rivers large numbers of anglers turn
out to fish for them. Bucktails, large plugs such as Cordell Redfins and Rebels and cut shad are
popular baits in these streams.
    There is a Game Commission hatchery at Brookneal on the Staunton River. The spawning stripers
are electrofished from the river and are  spawned out in the hatchery. The resulting fingerlings are
used to restock all of the state's striper waters. Some fry are exchanged with other states for
northern pike, walleyes and other species.
    When the stripers complete their spawning in late May and early June they slowly move
downstream to the lake. It appears at this time that they are following an ancient urge to head for salt
water because large numbers of them seem to move completely to the lower end of the lake until
they are turned around by the dam. If there is a great deal of water in the lake and the turbines in the
dam are operating quite a few may attempt a run through. A surprising number make it. There are
two dams downstream of Kerr Dam before the fish can reach North Carolina's Albemarle Sound. A
few Buggs Island fish have successfully made the trip.
    During August, September and October the stripers are where you find them. They are often
found deep, but there is some occasional surface activity, particularly in October. November is a
transition month with good surface activity and trolling.
    Generally speaking Butchers Creek, Eastland Creek and Nutbush Creek are the best areas for
catching  striped bass. Of the three, the lower end of Nutbush is probably the most consistent.
During the summer, trolling in this area is often very good as is jigging in the spring and late fall.
    Both, North Carolina and Virginia licenses are honored on the lake. The daily creel limit for
stripers is four and the minimum length is 20 inches. To qualify for a Virginia citation a striper must
weigh 15 pounds or more.
    The lake is well endowed with first class boat ramps. More than two dozen provide access from
both, the North Carolina and Virginia sides of the lake. All of the ramps are well marked and easy to
find. Although Buggs Island is a huge lake, it is generally not necessary to cover all of it to find fish.
In the early spring the fish are well spread out, usually in deeper water. In late March and early April
the up-lake movement commences and stripers are likely to be more plentiful in the upper end, from
below Occoneechee Park to the mouths of the Dan and Staunton Rivers. When they return from
their spawning run in late June they are  more congregated at the lower end of the lake, spreading
out as summer comes to an end.
    Most anglers find a flasher or graph type fish finder a necessity for locating schools of linesiders.
These instruments, in addition to finding fish, tell the fishermen how deep they are. Downriggers are
also very useful for trolling this lake. Generally lures such as bucktails, spoons and plugs are trolled
relatively close to the downrigger weights; say six to ten feet. Most trolled baits, except plugs, are
"sweetened" with a plastic Twister Tail or a strip of pork rind.
    Lure colors are much a matter of preference. Chartreuse, silver, white and yellow are good
choices, but at one time, red plugs were deadly. Bucktails ranging from a quarter ounce to a full
ounce are commonly used and spoons tend to be on the medium to large size, equivalent to the 550
Hopkins and smaller. The primary bait fish sought by stripers here are gizzard shad that range up to a
pound, but shad in the four to six inch size appear to be preferred.
    Night fishing for stripers here has  not caught on as well as it has in other lakes, but the few
fishermen that pursue it have found it to be an excellent way to catch stripers, which is not surprising.
In the striper's native salt water haunts night fishing has always been the best in most areas. In the
lake, fishing with live shad or casting plugs to the points is an excellent night fishing technique. During
the early summer stripers may often be found at night feeding on the surface where they are very
vulnerable to such lures as the Cordell Pencil Popper or Near Nuthin'.
    Hugh Hamby at Castle Heights Grocery is an excellent contact for fishing conditions on Buggs
Island Lake and below Kerr Dam. Located close to Kerr Dam, Hugh carries a full line of tackle
tailored for the lake and keeps in close contact with the fishermen. He can be reached at
804-738-6349.
    One thing that can impact heavily upon the lake is excessive rainfall. The normal pool height is 300
feet, but a heavy rain can put the lake far out of its banks and make it very muddy.  These high water
conditions, while terrible for the lake, often create good striper activity just below Kerr Dam,
particularly if the water level in the lake is being maintained by running water through the dam.
    Since many of the local experts maintain contact with each other on CB radios, it's not a bad idea
to carry a CB aboard your boat.
    Speaking of boats, this lake is capable of generating some heavy seas. Most bass boats are
excellent under most conditions and some use 16 to 20 foot skiffs. It is not jon boat water unless you
stay within any of the several creeks.
    Sticking inside a creek is not the greatest handicap in the world. Many of these creeks, such as
Butchers and Eastland, offer a wide variety of structure, depths and fishing conditions. A fisherman
can do worse than picking out a creek and fishing it thoroughly. If there is one mistake that is
common on this lake it is attempting to cover too much water. On a lake this size the attraction of the
"greener pasture" around the bend is great, but a fishing trip can turn into a long boat ride if you
succomb to the temptation.
    If you live far away from Buggs Island it is a good idea to phone ahead to determine fishing
conditions. Often, if conditions in the lake are not just right there may be action immediately below
Kerr Dam or in Lake Gaston, another good striper lake that lies immediately below the dam.
    The two lakes, Gaston and Buggs Island, are so close together they can be considered twin lakes;
both excellent for stripers. Often, when one won't produce, the other will, but simply fishing either
can provide all the pure fishing pleasure one can handle. If you get tired of Buggs Island, there's
always Kerr. But Kerr is really Buggs Island, just as the Staunton River is really the Roanoke, as the
rockfish is really the striped bass and ..as this is where we came in. Have fun!


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