LITTLETON, N.C. (Feb. 15, 2012) — Lake Gaston, a 20,300-acre reservoir located in Halifax, Warren and Northampton counties, has long been a favorite fishing spot among striped bass and largemouth bass anglers.
But what may be a surprise to many anglers is that the lake also contains a little-known and rather robust fishery for walleye, a coolwater species found mainly in larger reservoirs in western North Carolina.
Kirk Rundle, a district biologist with the N.C. Wildlife Resources Commission, says that walleye, also known as pike and jackfish, do well in Lake Gaston mainly because of the lake’s multiple refuges of cool, deep water and substantial rocky areas that provide good spawning habitat.
Since 2000, Commission biologists have surveyed the lake each spring, during the fish’s spawning run just downstream from the John H. Kerr Dam. From these surveys, they collect data on walleye abundance, length-and-weight distribution, sex ratio, and age and growth.
Biologists from North Carolina and Virginia also have stocked the lake periodically with walleye fingerlings to supplement the existing fishery, although Rundle says they’ve documented natural reproduction in the lake as well.
Based on past surveys, Rundle says fish average about 21 inches and just over three pounds, which seems to be about the size caught by most anglers as well.
Because Lake Gaston spans five counties in two states, different creel and size limits apply.
When fishing for walleye in North Carolina waters, there is an 8-fish daily creel limit with no minimum size limit. When fishing in the portion of the lake that falls in Virginia, there is a 5-fish daily creel limit and an 18-inch minimum size limit. North Carolina and Virginia have a reciprocal license agreement for Lake Gaston, which means that hook-and-line fishing licenses purchased from either North Carolina or Virginia are honored in Lake Gaston.
For anglers hoping to tangle with the elusive walleye, Rundle offers some advice on where to fish, when to fish and what baits to use.
Where to Fish
Walleye tend to travel considerably and Rundle says that a good depth finder is essential in locating walleye, baitfish and suitable habitat. During the spring spawning period, walleye tend to congregate in the very upper reaches of Lake Gaston, transitioning to areas just downstream (in the vicinity of the U.S. Route 1 and Interstate 85 bridges) during the late spring/early summer. During the remainder of the year, they’re spread out across most of the lake.
When to Fish
Dusk and dawn are perhaps the best times to catch this low-light loving fish. The walleye’s most identifiable characteristic is its large, glassy eyes, which are sensitive to light. Because of this sensitivity, walleye normally seek deep cover during daylight, although they may be more active during the day when the water is muddy or the sky is overcast. On sunny days, Rundle suggests anglers fish at dawn or wait until dusk, when walleye tend to undergo their most active feeding periods.
What to Fish
Popular walleye lures include spinners, crankbaits and jigs. Spinnerbaits are a trustworthy walleye lure, and Rundle says it’s important to weight them when fishing in deeper water so they get down to where walleye are hiding.
Sinking and deep-diving plugs, or crankbaits, are excellent walleye baits because they have the characteristic of getting deep and are ideal for trolling.
Walleye are very finicky and often take their time when deciding whether to bite or not, which make jigs one of the most popular types of walleye fishing lures because they are meant to be retrieved slowly.
When retrieving a jig, Rundle recommends using an intermittent reeling action, allowing the jig to rise and fall. Walleye typically strike when the jig is falling. Slow jigging works best during the cooler months when the fish are less active, while faster retrieves work better in the warm months.
Safety is a key concern when fishing a large reservoir such as Lake Gaston, with an abundance of boat traffic during the warmer months and dangerously cold water in the winter. Rundle recommends a “float plan” so that someone knows where you’re going and when you expect to return.
While walleye is considered by many to be one of the best tasting of all freshwater fish, anglers should note that there is a consumption advisory for walleye due to mercury levels in Lake Gaston. Consumption advisories are issued by the N.C. Department of Health and Human Services, which maintains an updated list on its website.
For more information on fishing in public, inland waters, visit www.ncwildlife.org/fishing.