Meet the Chowan River: Bass Pro Tour heads to new waters for Stage Five - Major League Fishing

Meet the Chowan River: Bass Pro Tour heads to new waters for Stage Five

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Major League Fishing will hold its first ever event on the Chowan River when the Bass Pro Tour visits for Stage Five. Photo courtesy of Visit Edenton.
June 1, 2024 • Mitchell Forde • Bass Pro Tour

As anglers embark on practice for every event, there’s an element of uncertainty in the air. That’s part of what makes tournament bass fishing compelling — fisheries change, and even on well-worn venues like the Kissimmee Chain of Lakes, there’s the potential for an unexpected pattern to emerge, like the frog bite that dominated General Tire Heavy Hitters

But when the Bass Pro Tour arrives at North Carolina’s Chowan River for U.S. Air Force Stage Five Presented by WIX Filters Tuesday through Sunday, it will bring a whole new level of mystery. 

No Major League Fishing or FLW event has ever been contested on the Chowan River. As best we can tell, none of the 79 pros in the field has competed in a professional event on the fishery before. In fact, many have remarked they had never even heard of the coastal river prior to the BPT schedule release last fall.  

As those anglers prepare to face a new test, here’s a primer for what to expect when the Chowan makes its national tour debut. 

Not your typical river

Cypress trees and other forms of wood cover abound on the Chowan River. Photo courtesy of Visit Edenton

Formed where the Blackwater and Nottaway Rivers converge near the North Carolina-Virginia border, the Chowan River runs southeast through North Carolina until it drains into Albemarle Sound. The Bass Pro Tour field will fish the lowest 30 or so miles of river – including its numerous tributaries – as well as a portion of Albemarle Sound and the neighboring Roanoke River. 

While the Chowan has long been a popular local tournament venue, one reason it hasn’t gained more traction nationally is its cyclical nature. Ben Ricks, a fisheries biologist for the North Carolina Wildlife Resource Commission who oversees the coastal region, said each hurricane that hits the area typically results in a fish die-off. But with no hurricanes making landfall in several years, the bassin’ is currently about as fruitful as Ricks has ever seen it. 

“We see a lot of ebbs and flows in our bass fisheries on the coast,” Ricks said. “But right now, we are kind of on the mountaintop, so to speak, because we’ve had several years with no hurricanes, relatively stable water. So, our adult fish are doing quite well. That’s leading to a lot of good bags, a lot of happy fishermen and good fishing in general.” 

The Chowan probably isn’t what first comes to mind when most anglers hear “river.” According to Ricks, the lower Chowan is a “low-energy system,” meaning it doesn’t have much current flow. Additionally, while its “sweet-tea-colored” water does get more saline in the lower reaches of the river, it’s not impacted by tides. 

Instead, wind is the key factor that determines water flow and level. A strong breeze out of the west can move water out of Albemarle Sound and into the Atlantic Ocean, lowering the water level in the river, while an east wind can do the opposite. Expect anglers to pay close attention to the wind throughout the event. 

“If you’re fishing moving water, it’s going to be mostly wind-driven water movement,” Ricks said. “So, that could be a factor. … If the wind shifts, sometimes that can turn the feeding activity on or off.” 

As for habitat, much of the Chowan looks more like a swamp than a conventional river. Bass will be found living around a few species of aquatic vegetation, be it hydrilla or emergent grasses like lily pads and reeds around the banks. The dominant cover, though, is wood. Cypress and Tupelo gum trees line the banks, according to Virginia native David Dudley, who figures he’s one of the few anglers in the field who had some experience on the Chowan prior to pre-practice. In addition to standing timber, fallen trees have created an abundance of laydowns and stumps for bass to use as cover.  

“The types of cover you can look for in this fishery will be cypress trees, it will be duckweed, it will be a mixture of grasses in some areas,” Dudley said.

Shallow, postspawn tactics should play

One of the few Bass Pro Tour anglers with experience on the Chowan River, David Dudley expects shallow power fishing to dominate. Photo by Garrick Dixon

It’s been a dry year for the Chowan River basin. While Ricks said that might make the playing field fish a bit smaller than it otherwise would due to some creeks being too low to hold bass and a “salt wedge” — the point past which freshwater species like bass can’t survive — being present in the lower river, it might be a welcome development for anglers, making the bass less spread out. That could make for a scenario where, once an angler finds a hot area, he could stack weight onto SCORETRACKER® in a hurry. 

“Especially since we’ve been in a relatively dry season, salinities in the lower parts are going to be relatively high,” Ricks said. “I think it’s going to fish big because you can go lots of different places, lots of different relatively large creeks. But I also think when you find the fish, there very well could possibly be a concentration.” 

No surprise, Ricks said the Chowan bass should be in their postspawn to summer patterns. On many fisheries, that might mean part of the population heads for deep water. But that likely won’t be the case this week, as there simply isn’t a lot of deep habitat on the river system. Ricks said there are a few “ledges,” or dropoffs, that can be productive, but both he and Dudley expect the majority of anglers to focus their attention on the shallows. 

“There will be a lot of power fishing in this event – not much forward-facing sonar in play,” Dudley said. “I think most of the fish will be caught in 3 foot of water or less. Fishing in a foot of water will be considered deep.” 

As for forage, the Chowan once again presents a unique wrinkle. The river gets runs of shad and herring that migrate from saltwater to spawn during the spring, but Ricks said they’re likely gone by now, while their offspring will still be too small to interest bass. As a result, panfish and crawfish constitute the bulk of bass’ diets this time of year, although Ricks said they’ll also eat terrestrial critters like frogs, lizards and even some of the many snakes that live around the waterway. 

Ricks thinks MLFNOW! viewers could be treated to some explosive topwater action, especially early each day. Topwater frogs, a major player for each of the past two BPT winners, could once again be a popular tool. Once the sun gets up, he expects to see plenty of flipping and pitching as well as winding with bladed jigs and squarebills. 

“I think the guys that are fishing the weeds and the lily pads, they may be able to get on a frog or a topwater bite, and then in the heat of the day, soft-plastics, jigs are going to be what I would lean toward,” Ricks said. 

What will it take?

The Chowan River contains a healthy number of 5- to 8-pound largemouth like this one NCWRC biologist Chris Smith caught during a recent sampling. Photo courtesy of Ben Ricks

It’s extremely rare for a full field of touring pros to make their debut on a new fishery at the same time. On the surface, that might seem like it would make for a stressful grinder. However, Dudley believes this event will actually be “elementary fishing” for the field.  

Since no one will have a local advantage and just about every angler on tour is proficient power fishing shallow, he thinks the key will be finding areas with the concentrations of fish and figuring out the best way to make them bite – Tournament Bass Fishing 101, indeed. 

“Pretty much every professional is at a level where he can power fish well,” Dudley said. “It takes away the home advantage is what I’m saying. It’s kind of the nuts and bolts of fishing, and pretty much every professional is up to speed on nuts and bolts.” 

Despite the field’s lack of experience on the river, both Dudley and Ricks expect the fishing to be solid. Dudley guessed it will take 12 to 14 scorable bass each day to qualify for the Knockout Round. With the variable minimum weight set at 1 pound, 8 ounces, that would figure to mean about 20 to 30 pounds each day during the two-day Qualifying Round.  

Dudley also predicted that it will take a 7-pounder to earn the Berkley Big Bass award each day. Ricks expects a handful of fish in the 5- to 8-pound range to hit the scales. Local results seem to back that up, with winning five-fish limits often weighing in the mid- to upper-20s. It took more than 27 pounds to win a team tournament around this time last year. 

“It’ll get exposed, for sure,” Dudley said. “I think people will be impressed with it.” 

Not only is Dudley excited to show the rest of the country what the Chowan River can produce, Ricks is eager to get a glimpse of a waterway he grew up fishing through a new lens. 

“Some of these guys may stumble onto something that other folks aren’t aware of,” he said. “I’m always interested when these new tournaments come and we see new techniques that get employed, what folks figure out as they’re learning the system.”