I’ve been neck-deep in tournament preparation for the past few days, organizing tackle and rigging rods for practice for REDCREST at Lake Norman in North Carolina. This REDCREST is going to be a lot of fun because Norman is such a unique lake. As I’ve been studying the lake’s satellite and digital mapping over the last few weeks, I’ve been trying to think of lakes that might be similar to it, and there really are none.
I’ve been to Norman many times before for tournaments and I always remember coming away thinking: this lake certainly has a character of its own.
I can tell you this about Lake Norman: It’s a whole lot better lake now than when I fished it for the first time in 1992 for a Bassmaster Top 100. Stanley Mitchell won that tournament with a four-day total of 46 pounds – roughly 11 1/2 pounds a day. We returned in 1994 and it only took 39 pounds to win that one – less than 10 pounds a day.
Back then, Norman only had largemouths in it and I think the length limit was 14 inches. Those bass were so poor looking, they were pitiful. If you caught five that weighed 9 or 10 pounds, that was a big bag!
Since then, Norman has gone through a lot of changes. Sometime around 2000, spotted bass were introduced to the lake, and they took off. By about 2010, spots were the predominant bass species in the lake. In recent years, there have been stocking efforts to introduce F1 largemouth into the lake to help replenish the largemouth population as well.
Also, over the last 30 years, the development around Norman has exploded and it’s now lined with thousands of docks. Physically, Norman is not really that big of a lake, but given the sheer number of docks crammed onto the banks, it almost doubles the amount of shoreline cover the fish have to hide under.
That’s why some of the best dock skippers in the world come from the Carolinas.
With so much development, Norman does not fluctuate very much either. I think the most it varies is maybe one to two feet, and to my knowledge, I’ve never heard of it rising or dropping fast. Its terms of water level, it’s pretty stable.
Another interesting twist is that Norman houses a couple of hot-water discharges, which are unique features themselves. Wintertime is when these discharges really shine, but they also attract a lot of fishing pressure. There are a lot of nuances to fishing discharges that usually require local knowledge for the right timing. I do know that when you combine stable water levels with artificially increased water temperatures, it can lead to earlier than normal spawning activity when compared to other lakes in the region.
From a topographic standpoint, Norman is more of a lowland impoundment, sort of flat and rolly, without much steep contour. It has a lot of subtle offshore points and humps with scattered timber. Given that, forward-facing sonar is certainly going to play.
The strong irony here is there are plenty of docks for bass to hunker down around, but spotted bass are more prone to be nomadic, especially if there are blueback herring in the system. So do you lean towards stable shoreline cover, or do you get out in the main lake basin and try to intercept roamers following bait? These are the questions that have gone through my head many times the last few weeks.
I’m not claiming that REDCREST will be a hawgfest, but I can assure you of this: the fishing will be way better than some of the visits I made there in the 1990s. I believe we’ll see plenty of limits in the mid to high teens and maybe even a 20-pound catch or two, which was unheard of 30 years ago.
MLF changing to a five-fish limit for the BPT is going to make this a dynamic tournament. If it was still every fish counts, I would 100% be all in on Humminbird MEGA Live, glued to my Apex and Solix units with a deck full of spinning rods every day. I would commit to fishing for spotted bass and stack as many as I could on SCORETRACKER® that met the minimum weight.
But with a five-fish limit, it’s a different game now, especially on a place as prolific as Norman. The format change pushes the issue of needing bigger fish. Five spotted bass that weigh 13 or 14 pounds is great, but the winner will need to get beyond that. The last three days of the event are cumulative weight, so a 5 or 6-pound largemouth any day is going to go a long way toward putting a guy in the winner’s circle.
In my mind, that requires more strategy and opens up other realms of lures than just little soft plastics. You can bet there will be guys throwing big swimbaits or big glide baits or skipping big jigs way back under docks to catch that one largemouth that could carry them to victory lane.
I didn’t pre-practice Norman, so my two days of practice will be extremely critical. I’ll be covering massive amounts of water as efficiently as possible. Yes, I plan to beam around with my MEGA Live, but you can also bet I’ll be doing plenty of casting, winding, cranking and jerking, looking for something that fits my strengths.
I’ve prepared for every possible scenario I can think of on Norman. At last count, I had 40 rods locked and loaded. But ultimately, I’ll be practicing for the conditions in the tournament. The more detailed the daily weather forecast becomes, the clearer my intentions will be on how I want to fish.
In the end, this event will come down to weather and bite windows. Carolina lakes are very weather sensitive. Sun versus clouds versus wind versus slick calm – all are huge variables on those lakes that change by the hour. A little wind shift can put a perfect ripple on a bank that’s been calm for three days. Or the opposite can happen: a bank thrashed by wind during practice becomes more in the lee and settles out. These are examples of windows opening that create a sudden opportunity for a bite that did not previously exist. Catch one or two of these windows open during a competition day and that will be the difference between a 12- to 14-pound limit and 16- to 18-pound limits.
The more I think about it, the more excited I get about putting my boat in at Norman for REDCREST.