On any normal weekend, Lake Waccamaw is abuzz with water scooters and boats of all descriptions. But today was Monday and the N.C. Wildlife Commission’s Lake Waccamaw Boating Access Area held only one vehicle.
Another pickup pulled in to back its trailer down the ramp. Mackie Gooden climbed out to launch his fiberglass skiff.
“It’s a 1974 McKee Craft, which is a classic fishing boat around here,” said Gooden, a 72-year-old retiree from R.J. Reynolds. “I love fishing in saltwater and freshwater and come to Lake Waccamaw about 15 times a year to catch white perch.”
Gooden parked his vehicle and fired up the boat’s 40 hp outboard engine. Easing past the no-wake markers rimming the 9,000-acre Carolina bay lake, he headed for its interior.
“I am looking for structure,” he said. “I have a depthfinder on my boat, but did not have a GPS when I found some trees someone had sunk. Since the lake has little natural structure, I want to find them again and mark them on my GPS.”
Lake Waccamaw is an unusual Carolina bay lake. The bay lakes only occur in southeastern North Carolina and northeastern South Carolina. Elliptical in shape, they vary in size from a fraction of an acre to thousands of acres. While most are swampy and filled with vegetation, a few are water-filled.
Nearly all bay lakes have low pH, a condition that results in very few fish species. Few have inlets or outlets, which makes them nutrient-starved and oxygen-poor. Lake Waccamaw, however, has a limestone ridge along its northern shoreline that neutralizes its acidity. It also receives inflow from Big Creek, with an outflow at a manmade dam that marks the beginning of the Waccamaw River.
White perch migrate from saltwater to freshwater to spawn. During spring floods, they swim over the dam. Millions remain in the lake all year, where anglers find them easy pickings.
Heading to an area along the northern shoreline, where lake houses with boathouses rose along the bluff, Gooden set out two rods and began trolling.
“I use small lures, No. 2 Shad Raps,” he said. The lake is shallow so you can’t use lures that run too deep. It is 8 feet deep here, which is about as deep as it gets.”
Trolling at a fast clip, Gooden soon saw one of the rods bend backward and begin twitching. He reeled in a white perch and tossed out a floating marker.
“I troll until I find a school,” he said. “If the fish are concentrated enough I stop trolling and start casting. When the water is slick, you can see the perch working on top, which makes them much easier to find.”
Gooden pointed his boat at a disturbance and soon hooked another fish. Within a few minutes, he already had three white perch between 8 inches and 9 inches long. He had found the trees we was looking for, as had the perch. He marked the position on his GPS unit.
“I like catching them because they taste so good,” he said. “I also like eating spots when I fish at the beach and white perch taste a lot like spots.”
Another angler who headed for the lake on a weekday was Bruce Trujillo. The 63-year-old semi-retired machinist and part-time saltwater fishing guide lives in Castle Hayne. While he catches huge fish like amberjack in the ocean, he also enjoys small species of freshwater fish.
“I have passed by the lake on N.C. 74 for decades,” he said. “I saw the lake for the first time a few weeks ago when I stopped at the Waccamaw Outdoors tackle shop. When I realized just how big and beautiful the lake is, I decided to come back and give the fishing a try.”
Trujillo tied Rat-L-Trap lures to two ultra-light spinning rods and trolled them from a 16-foot johnboat, an ultra-light watercraft when compared to the 24-foot catamaran he fishes from in the ocean. Moments later, one of the drags sang its tinny tune. Reeling in the white perch, he remarked on how hard it fought.
“Fishing in saltwater, I would normally use a fish this size for bait,” he said. “But I am going to keep some perch for eating.”
Trujillo trolled until the wind began to rise. The lake’s formerly glassy water became so rough the waves had white caps. He headed back to the lake’s other ramp at Lake Waccamaw State Park. The ramp has a canal that enters Big Creek.
Once he returned to the creek’s protected waters, Trujillo said was happy to be out of the wind. However, with the wind blocked by the trees, the air temperature became oppressive. With more than a dozen big white perch in his ice chest, he decided it was time to head home.