Fishing buddies catch bass at Sutton Lake

Larry Walpole battles a largemouth bass at Sutton Lake. He was fishing with his brother-in-law, John Hartley.
Larry Walpole battles a largemouth bass at Sutton Lake. He was fishing with his brother-in-law, John Hartley. Mike Marsh

For anglers, February weather is a teaser. One day, the air temperature is below freezing. The next, the thermometer reading may rise higher than 70 degrees. It is these warmer days that bring anglers out.

Two anglers taking advantage of a sunny, 72-degree morning had launched a 14-foot Lowe aluminum johnboat at the Sutton Lake Boating Access Area. Motoring a few hundred yards southwest, they found some good fishing near the mouth of the L.V. Sutton power generation plant’s hot water discharge canal.

“I have caught six bass so far,” said Larry Walpole, 66, a retired banker who lives in Leland. “The biggest fish weighed 6.0, 5.4 and 3.0 pounds. The bite was good this morning, but it is shutting down, now.”

As if to say, “No, it’s not!” another bass struck the small plastic worm on a drop-shot rig he was casting. A drop shot rig has the weight tied to the line below the soft plastic lure, allowing it to remain above the bottom rather than sliding along on the sand. The fish, which weighed about a pound, put up a vigorous, leaping battle for a few moments before Walpole plucked it from the water by its lower jaw. Using pliers, he removed the hook then released the bass.

The fishing at Sutton Lake is great because the water is very warm, compared to most lakes. It is small, at 1,500 acres, and has earth dikes that create a longer retention time for the lake’s water, which is recycled when it enters the power plant’s intake as cooling water. The N.C. Wildlife Resources Commission has enacted special bass fishing regulations designed to protect the fish that enter the discharge canal in winter and help them attain trophy sizes. Anglers may retain no bass from December 1 through March 1.

Walpole owned the johnboat, which had a “For Sale” sign taped to its starboard side. He moved to the area in 2011 from Connecticut and bought the small craft to sample the local freshwater fishing.

“We used to fish for striped bass and bluefish in Long Island Sound,” he said. “I had a bigger boat – a 27½-foot Rinker – for that type of fishing. Now, I want to fish for flounder and red drum in the local saltwater, so I want a bigger boat – a 17½ foot Bass Tracker.”

“It would be nice to get out on bigger water,” said John Hartley, a 69-year-old retired Wall Street trader who lives in Leland. “We fish Sutton Lake once a week and always fish for bass. It would be nice to catch some saltwater species, again.”

Hartley and Walpole have fished together for more than 35 years, a couple of years after Hartley married Walpole’s sister and became his brother-in-law. They fished from Walpole’s boat at Long Island Sound, but Hartley also fished for bass and trout on his own when he lived in New York. He moved to North Carolina two years ago, which was about two years after he retired, so he could be close to other family members who had moved to the Raleigh area.

“I have only caught three fish today,” Hartley said. “They all weighed about 1 to 1.5 pounds. We like fishing at Sutton Lake because the bass bite all year long. The warm water keeps them biting in winter. One of the best trips we had was on Christmas day. The best time to fish during the colder months is when the water is moving because power plant is generating electricity.”

The key to the excellent bass fishing is the abundance of shad, which are small silvery fish that form large schools. Here and there, the bass made their presence known. They would churn the surface as they chased the shad schools. Then, they would disappear.

“They were chasing shad everywhere this morning,” Hartley said. “But now that the sun has gotten up, they are dissipating. Some days, we might catch 30 fish. Other days, we only catch one or two.”