- The Washington Times - Sunday, November 30, 2003

CORNELIUS, N.C.

Not far from former Washington Redskins coach Joe Gibbs’ sumptuous shoreline home, Lake Norman fishing guide Gus Gustafson reached into an aerated tank that fairly brimmed with baitfish and snatched up a 5-inch-long rainbow trout. He inserted a circle hook through the trout’s upper and lower lip, then slowly released it over the side of his pontoon boat, hand-feeding plenty of line from an expensive Penn International reel until the little trout wriggled about on a barren ledge in water that fell from 20 to 50 feet.

Rainbow trout as striper bait? Is nothing sacred?

The tall, slender Gustafson laughed when asked about the rainbows. “I buy them from a hatchery,” he said. “They can be very effective as bait, but we also use live bream, white perch, threadfin shad or herring.”

Gustafson repeated the bait-hook-and-line release scenario four more times, with half the lines getting hand-sized planing devices clipped to them so even the slightest forward movement by the boat would force the planer and the baitfish to move out to either side of the upholstered craft, settling down 50 feet away as long as soft breezes or a quiet electric motor propelled the boat along. It was all very precise, very smooth.

This peaceful scene changed quickly, however, when a land-locked, freshwater rockfish picked up the scent of the trout, realized it was in distress and then did what all good predators must: It took advantage of an easy snack. “Gulp!” Down it went.

Gustafson, who has fished the 32,000-acre Lake Norman for 40 years, moved with amazing speed, picked up the quivering rod from its holder and began to reel in a fish — a striped bass that looked to weigh about four pounds. He did all that while I was busy casting a small, rubbery Sassy Shad lure, hoping to attract a striper the hard way. The trout-munching rockfish, meanwhile, was netted. With a broad grin, Gustafson peered over his eyeglasses and said, “Mighty fine eating here. Let’s keep it.” The rockfish met the required 20-inch minimum and it soon reposed on a bed of ice.

Why would a fellow who lives in Chesapeake Bay country, in an area that currently delivers 25-pound stripers in good numbers, visit an impoundment that boasts of a 520-mile-long shoreline and at first blush appears to be a tough place to fish? That’s easy. Lake Norman has long confounded hard-core fishermen all along the eastern United States. It is huge by man-made lake standards. When it was built by damming the Catawba River in 1962, the electricity-generating owner, Duke Power, cleansed the soon-to-be lake’s bottom of all trees, all natural hiding spots for fish, yet today the lake supports an astonishing supply of fish.

Gustafson explained, “You need to know where to go and you need to learn about your prey and the baitfish schools, learn what the fish like to eat or what kind of lures raise their adrenaline. I prefer the stripers, and I know where the underwater ditches, humps and ledges are located that draw large numbers of threadfin shad or perch. The stripers follow the food. On the other hand, the bass fishermen usually stick to shoreline boat docks and the like.

“When I go striper fishing, I think of this lake as a yard and my boat as a lawn mower. The wider the lawn mower, the quicker you’ll cover that whole yard. It’s one reason why I use planer boards and enough rods to widen my ‘mower’ deck.”

Gustafson knows whereof he speaks. Before long, more stripers were put on ice. I also caught one on the plastic bait, softly jigging the lure as we drifted along. Then Gustafson asked if I’d like to hook some white perch. Would I? Marylanders love white perch — especially when they’re in a frying pan.

The guide, whose tackle included Penn Slammer 360 reels, all of them loaded with fine Ande line, studied a color depth locator and soon found an underwater ditch — most likely a creek channel or old roadbed.

“There they are,” he said as the bottom revealed what appeared to be a ragged ball. With light spinning tackle and 2-inch-long silver or gold spoons, the two of us jigged vertically in 30-foot depths and quickly latched onto white perch as if it was child’s play.

“That’s the house of NASCAR great Bobby Allison over there,” said Gustafson as we began to reel in our lines so we could get lunch. He also pointed out that Hank Parker, the former world champion bass angler and TV fishing show, had a lakeshore home, as did some Carolina Panthers players. This definitely wasn’t a sleepy Southern backwater. No, this was upscale Charlotte-area terrain.

Gustafson is a delight to be with. For information about his various fishing plans, call his company, Lake Norman Ventures, Inc., 704/896-1704, e-mail [email protected], or check his Web site LakeNormanStriperFishing.com.

Look for Gene Mueller’s Outdoors column every Sunday, Wednesday and Thursday, only in The Washington Times. E-mail: gmueller@washingtontimes.com.


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