CHARLOTTE, N.C. – North Carolina’s Lake Norman will host the Bass Pro Shops REDCREST Presented by Shore Lunch March 8-12, rewarding one of the Bass Pro Tour’s 40 best anglers with only the fourth-ever REDCREST trophy and a cool $300,000 payday.
Located less than 45 minutes due north of downtown Charlotte on I-77, this 32,000-acre impoundment of the Catawba River is very well known in regional bass fishing circles, but it’s been several years since Norman has served as the playing field for a top-level national bass tournament.
Although Norman has never hosted a tour-level championship of the size and scope of REDCREST, at least two locals fishing the event – North Carolina pro Bryan Thrift and South Carolina angler Andy Montgomery – believe that the “inland sea of North Carolina” is up to the challenge. And if Thrift and Montgomery are correct, the improved spotted bass fishing over the past several years (and primo early-spring tournament timing) will let the rest of the country in on the quiet little secret this week of just how good Lake Norman really is.
Named after Norman Cocke, the former president of Duke Energy, Lake Norman was created by the damming of the Catawba River upon the completion of the Cowans Ford Dam construction in the early 1960s. The process of filling the lake began in 1959 and was completed four years later in 1963. Since then, the lake has become heavily populated with houses along the banks of North Carolina’s largest manmade lake. As a result, most of the lake is lined with one of a bass angler’s favorite targets – docks.
Located a short drive from the 2.7 million people living in the Charlotte metropolitan area, Norman hosts more than its fair share of on-the-water traffic and is a destination for all things watersports, including bass fishing. Norman flows over 34 miles from north to south and boasts 520 shoreline miles in Catawba, Iradell, Lincoln and Mecklenburg counties. It covers 32,475 surface acres, and the majority of the water is clear.
Over the past decade, spotted bass have become the predominant species and grown to impressive sizes. The North Carolina state record spot – a 6-pound, 5-ounce specimen caught by Eric M. Weir – came from the fishery in 2003 and 5-pound class fish are showing up each year. Largemouth are still a factor and fans should expect to see some nice ones showing up on SCORETRACKER® each day of the event.
According to Montgomery, REDCREST’s timing is smack in the middle of the lake’s traditional prespawn phase. Montgomery, who won a Southern Open on Norman in 2010, predicts that the 40-angler field will be divided between shallow- and deep-water patterns, as bass will be just starting to make their annual push shallow to spawn.
“If you look at the weather history around the lake, the very end of March and the first week of April are typically the full-blown spawn,” Montgomery said. “Of course, everything is weather dependent, but things are set up for perfect prespawn conditions and some huge fish. The March weather in the Carolinas can be unusual, though – it could still be a winter pattern, it might be prespawn, and there’s an outside chance that some fish will be spawning.”
Thrift echoed Montgomery’s assessment of Norman’s March fishery and agrees that the March 8-12 tournament dates are ideal.
“The first two weeks of March are the best time of the year for big fish,” Thrift said. “We’ll see 5-pound fish with the possibility of fish up to 7 pounds. The big fish will be staging to spawn and the fishing should be excellent.”
Thrift grew up fishing Lake Norman and believes it has shaped his fishing style. Known for his “run and gun” pace and hitting multiple targets with different baits, Thrift believes that approach is the best way to fish Norman.
“I hate to call it a ‘junk fishing’ lake because that sounds bad, but that’s how it sets up, especially this time of year,” Thrift said. “We’re going to see a little bit of everything in this event, with guys catching them on spinnerbaits, ChatterBaits, jigs, shaky heads and a bunch more baits. There’ll be fish caught on docks, out on the points and around wood. That makes Norman so much fun; you can catch them so many ways. There’ll be so much in play and you’ll have to keep an open mind each day.”
If REDCREST follows historical trends, Montgomery predicts that three main prespawn approaches will be in play this week.
“Some guys will be fishing super-shallow for spots and largemouth, some will focus on the creeks and pockets, and a group will be out deep using their forward-facing sonar,” he said.
The forward-facing angle is something that Montgomery is interested to see play out, as it has yet to be a factor in many prior large events on Norman.
“This will be the first national cold-water event where the technology was around,” Montgomery said. “We’ve seen (forward-facing sonar) expose fish that people never knew existed in other fisheries, and that same thing could happen at Lake Norman, too. Guys have been catching big ones in local events, targeting those big spots that suspend out deep and swim around chasing bait, which could be a way to win REDCREST.”
Another possible way to win is fishing Norman’s myriad docks. The abundance of them is partially why Montgomery and Thrift are regarded as two of the best in the world at picking apart docks and skipping their jigs as far underneath them as humanly possible. Docks have always been part of the recipe to win on Norman, but that recipe has seen some new ingredients in recent years.
Norman can get fickle when it’s calm and the sun is shining.Bryan Thrift
“Fishing docks used to be the only deal, but not anymore,” Montgomery said. “The lake has changed, and there are many more ways to catch them.”
Two other things to consider, according to Thrift, are the water clarity and weather. Although Lake Norman is generally a clear lake, dirty water may be a key to locating better-than-average fish.
“The lake is a typical highland reservoir with a clear main lake and dirtier water in the river and feeder creeks, but (March) is when we get most of the runoff from rains, and those dirtier areas can be really good early in the year,” Thrift said.
Looking at the weather forecast for REDCREST week, the upcoming turn in the weather should get the fish in a biting mood.
“Norman can get fickle when it’s calm and the sun is shining,” he explained. “That’s when the bite is usually the toughest, so I’d like to see some clouds, some wind. If that happens, it’s going to be a free-for-all and we’ll get to see what this lake can really produce.”
While Norman has hosted multiple sizable tournaments in recent years, most have occurred in the fall, when fishing is generally the toughest of the year. The closest comparable event was a 2010 FLW Tour stop won by Thrift (Montgomery finished third). That event was held in late March. A year later, Fletcher Shryock won a Southern Open on roughly the exact dates.
Thrift, Montgomery and Shryock will compete in this event with Tennessee pro Wesley Strader, who has also won an Open on Norman.
Another relatively recent event came in the form of an FLW Tour Invitational in 2016. That event was held in September and was again won by Thrift, with Strader finishing third.
“It’s crazy that four out of the 40 competing in REDCREST have won here, because there haven’t been a lot of big tournaments on the lake,” Montgomery said. “It’s also interesting because the wins were spread out on the whole lake. That’s how Norman is – it can be won everywhere. Wesley and Fletcher won way up the river as far north as you can go. My win was from mid-lake, and Thrift won it down the lake one time and from one end to the other for his other win. Norman is unlike other lakes we go to where there’s a hot area that always seems to win tournaments.”
The big news for the 2023 Bass Pro Tour season was the switch to a five-fish format versus an every-scorable-fish competition. The REDCREST winner will be decided by cumulative weight over the final two days.
While Thrift and Montgomery share much of the same outlook on the event, likely from growing up fishing the lake and competing as teammates in their younger years, they differ on their predictions and how the format change will impact the event.
“The change to a five-five format is going to change how guys fish REDCREST,” Thrift said. “There are so many fish in the lake right now, and you won’t see guys finesse fishing to catch 50 every day. There will be many more techniques in play and the weights should be tighter, but that doesn’t mean someone won’t still run away with the win because big fish will go a long way here. Catching over 14 pounds a day will set yourself apart from the field, and having a kicker will help even more.”
Montgomery, on the other hand, believes REDCREST’s outcome would be the same even if the previous format were still in place.
“When we changed to a variable minimum weight on the Bass Pro Tour, I fished the same way, and I believe the outcome of this event will be the same regardless of the format,” Montgomery said. “I believe it’s going to take consistent days averaging 15 pounds a day to advance and more than that to win, and you’ll likely need to catch a lot of fish and cull up to that mark.
“Norman is capable of kicking out 23-pound bags of spotted bass, and I think we’ll see some impressive single-day catches up to 20 pounds, but the key will be those who can back it up to keep their average weight consistent. Many people will be pleasantly surprised with how good this lake is fishing.”