Kerr Lake Fishing Report: Buggs Island Angler’s Guide

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John H. Kerr Reservoir, also known as Buggs Island Lake and Kerr Lake, is an exceptional fishing lake no matter the name, offering outstanding bass action as well as some of the best crappie and catfish fishing in the Southeast.

Straddling the border between Virginia and North Carolina, Kerr Lake spans 48,900 acres at full pool. The reservoir is up to 100 feet deep, with about 30 feet being the average depth.

Kerr Reservoir was created in 1952 with the completion of the John H. Kerr Dam. The dam impounds the Roanoke River, and the reservoir is located immediately upriver from Lake Gaston, another major impoundment that offers excellent fishing in its own right.

At its upper end, Kerr is fed by the Staunton River and the Dan River in Virginia, as well as dozens of creeks of varying sizes. Nutbush Creek, which forms a major arm of the lake in North Carolina, is one of the largest tributaries.

Many Virginians may know this reservoir as Buggs Island Lake, while North Carolinians often prefer Kerr Lake. To make it even more confusing, agencies and maps typically use the more formal Kerr Reservoir. We’ll use these common names in this article so you’ll know right where you are no matter your preference. Oh, and Kerr is pronounced: “Car.”

What’s not confusing is that anglers in both states have a lot of great fishing options to choose from. With abundant deep, rocky structure as well as shallow brush, docks and weed beds, the lake supports a wide range of fishing styles and techniques.

Kerr Lake Bass Fishing

Though Kerr Lake’s bass population has had its ups and downs—most notably during a devastating largemouth bass virus outbreak in 2010—the reservoir’s reputation as a world-class bass fishery is more than secure. 

Buggs Island has also had plenty of time to bounce back from the virus, and the bass fishing today is as good as ever. Largemouths weighing 3 to 4 pounds are remarkably common, and catching an 8-pound bass is a real possibility.

The best time to fish for them is late winter if you’re looking for a wall-hanger or spring if you’re more interested in numbers. That being said, Kerr Reservoir is absolutely a four-season bass lake. 

It’s also a hard lake to know where to begin, because there isn’t a single creek, cove or point that doesn’t have potential.

The Nutbush Creek Arm, essentially an entire lake unto itself, is where many of the lake’s bass tournaments are held.

Overall, a good rule of thumb for bass is to focus on the upper end of the lake main lake or on creek arms that feed it toward the lower end. Another is to check the water level before you arrive.

Kerr Lake’s water level fluctuates a lot and can drastically affect where and how you should fish.

As a general rule, fish deep structure like rock piles, points and channel swings when the water is low. Jigs, Carolina rigs and drop-shots are great tools for this type of fishing.

But when the water is high, look shallow. Buggs Island’s banks are lined with miles of water willow, buckbrush, and other shoreline trees and bushes, which become inundated when the water rises above 300 feet, which is considered full pool.

The reservoir often reaches full pool in springtime, and when it does, you’ll want to beat the bushes hard.

Spinnerbaits and soft jerkbaits are a couple of the best lures for fishing the edges of the brush. If bass burrow deep into the brush, try a weedless creature bait or worm.

Largemouths in Kerr Lake spawn in waves, usually starting around the end of March and continuing into late April. Afterward, if the water is still high, the post-spawn bite in the bushes can be phenomenal, particularly in the backs of creeks like Rudds, Eastland, Grassy and Bluestone.

When water levels drop, shift your attention to offshore structure, which tends to be best in summer. Deep stumps and brush piles can be excellent during the warmer months, and be sure to visit the riprap-lined pilings of the lake’s many bridges.

Gizzard shad and threadfin shad are the primary forage species for largemouth bass at Buggs Island, so stock your tackle box accordingly. Bluegill and blueback herring are also on the menu.

Kerr Lake Catfish

Buggs Island is a top-notch catfish lake, and an increasing number of anglers come here to fish specifically for these whiskered giants. Channel catfish and flathead catfish are common, but blue catfish have really put Kerr Lake catfishing on the map. 

In 2011, a gargantuan blue catfish weighing 143 pounds was pulled from the Goat Island area of the lake, becoming not only the Virginia state record blue cat, but also the world record. The Kerr Lake catfish record still stands, but when it’s broken again, it could happen here. 

Blue catfish are generally solitary fish, and they hunt along creek channels and other structure like humps, points, old roadbeds, and stump fields. Conventional wisdom suggests that big blues are caught in deep water, but that’s not always the case.

While fishing for other catfish species is at its best in summer, winter is when anglers catch most of the truly giant blue catfish.

Some anglers catch blues in deep, 40-foot holes this time of year, but many blue catfish also leave the main channels and head into creeks and tributaries.

Cut bait is the best way to tempt blue catfish to bite, and the best way to find blues is first to locate baitfish. Between December and February, shad are attracted to creeks where the water is a bit warmer, and blue catfish tend to follow them. 

Average-sized blue catfish in Kerr Lake weigh 30 to 40 pounds, and many are much bigger. Some of the best areas to find them include Bluestone, Grassy, Buckhorn, Rudds and Eastland creeks.

Flathead catfish also reach impressive proportions in Buggs Island Lake, often topping 20 pounds and occasionally scratching the 50-pound mark. The best time to catch them is on summer nights when they leave thick, snaggy cover to prowl shallow flats in the creeks and coves. 

Live bait, including shad and bluegill, are the baits of choice for flatheads, which are more active predators than most catfish.

Anglers catch many of the biggest flatheads at the upper end of the lake, above Clarksville, including Buffalo and Bluestone creeks. 

And, of course, it would be a shame to forget about the humble channel catfish, one of Kerr Lake’s most abundant residents and a staple of fish fries everywhere.

Channel cats readily gobble up chicken livers, dough baits, nightcrawlers, cut bait, and various other offerings. 

Fishing around submerged brush piles and timber is a great way to catch a mess of channel cats. Try using a slip bobber rig to suspend your bait just above the bottom and avoid snags. 

Channel cats often bite from spring through fall, with the exception of a brief period in June when they spawn. Otherwise, they’re easy to catch both day and night, especially at the very upper end of the lake, where the water is usually quite stained.

Kerr Lake Striper Fishing

North Carolina and Virginia have stocked striped bass (a.k.a. rockfish) in several large reservoirs across their respective states, creating unique opportunities to catch these naturally anadromous game fish in freshwater.

Stripers weighing up to 5 pounds are common in Kerr Lake, and 10-pounders are possible.

Kerr Reservoir is a unique success story in that it’s the rare lake where the natural reproduction of stripers has been documented. Every spring, stripers mount a major spawning run up the Dan and Staunton rivers. 

That’s just one aspect of this species’ seasonal patterns, and keeping tabs on where stripers are in Buggs Island Lake during any given season is the key element to catching them consistently. 

Stripers do not tolerate warm temperatures, so they head to deeper, cooler waters after spawning. Once the lake warms up to a surface temperature of around 75 degrees, you’ll find stripers concentrated at the lower end of the lake.

That makes summer a good time to troll for Kerr Lake stripers from the dam up to around Buoy 9. The mouth of the Nutbush Arm is another area where stripers often concentrate in summer.

When the lake stratifies in summer, fish right around the thermocline, usually 20 to 25 feet down.

As the lake starts to cool off again in fall, stripers once again can spread out all over the lake. From fall into winter, the best section is often from Goat Island to Clarksville.

But don’t restrict yourself to any one spot in winter. The coldest time of the year is often the best striped bass season on Kerr. Anglers who don’t mind chilly weather catch more and bigger stripers in January than any other month. 

In addition to the aforementioned stretch of the main lake, areas around the mouths of any major creek can attract stripers in winter. Nutbush and Grassy are a couple of big ones. Troll along edges where a flat meets the creek channel, and expect stripers around cover like rocks and stumps. 

If the weather gets exceptionally cold, it can drive stripers as deep as 50 feet, but usually, they’ll be 10 or 15 feet below the surface. Trolling with live shad is the method of choice.

If you start to see stripers blowing up on shad at the surface, switch to casting. Approach the feeding area slowly and quietly, and have shad-imitations like Rat-L-Traps, Flukes and bucktails at the ready.

Crappie Fishing at Buggs Island Lake

You’ll find Kerr Lake on any list of the best crappie lakes in Virginia or North Carolina, and there’s a good reason for that. This lake simply produces staggering numbers of crappies, including some very big fish. 

Both black and white crappies are abundant here, with 9 or 10 inches being about average. Anglers catch plenty of 2- and even 3-pound crappies every year. Best of all, Kerr tends not to suffer much from the boom-and-bust cycles that impact most crappie lakes. 

That’s largely because of its wealth of prime spawning habitat at a wide range of depths. It’s almost unheard of for crappies not to have a successful spawn year here, regardless of the water level. 

But much like bass fishing, water levels significantly impact where and how you should approach crappie fishing on Buggs Island Lake. The fluctuations are often most significant in winter and very early spring. 

In February, big crappies typically stage around trees and brush piles along the creek channels between 10 and 25 feet deep. As the water warms up this time of year, crappies will oscillate back and forth between deep and shallow, but the overall trend is toward the backs of coves. 

The key to spring crappie success on Kerr Lake is not assuming the depth at which you’ll find fish. Stay mobile and work your way slowly along your chosen cove or creek arm. 

Where should you start? Take your pick. Kerr Lake has more great crappie holes than you can fish in a lifetime, but broadly speaking, the best area is the upper end of the lake in Virginia around Clarksville, particularly the creeks that feed that part of the lake. 

Bluestone Creek and Buffalo Creek are two perennial favorites loaded with brush and timber from the creek channels right up to the banks. Butchers, Rudds and Grassy creeks are some good areas farther down around the middle of the lake.

Wherever you choose to fish, keep it slow. You’ll miss a lot of opportunities with a run-and-gun approach. Pick a cove and work it slowly until you find the right lure at the right depth. 

Minnows and jigs under slip float rigs are widely used, with slip floats allowing for easy depth adjustments. Spider rigging and long-line trolling are also popular, but once crappies get deep into flooded shoreline brush, a long rod is useful for dipping baits into thick cover. 

The spawn winds down in May, and crappies gradually transition from shoreline water willow to deeper brush and timber.

Not as many folks target crappies here in summer, but those who do usually fare well around similar deep areas that worked in winter.

Other Fish Species

Keep an eye out for these additional game fish species at the end of your line! Kerr Lake is home to a diverse and well-rounded fishery, and you truly never know exactly what you’ll catch here. 

Spotted Bass

Though less common than largemouths, spotted bass have been introduced into Kerr Reservoir, and angler reports suggest that their numbers are increasing. That being said, it would be unusual to see somebody targeting spotted bass specifically. 

Even so, anglers bring spots up to 4 pounds to weigh-ins at bass tournaments. These bass share habitat with largemouths often enough that catching one now and then is inevitable. 

Spotted bass seem to key in on blueback herring more than other species. As a result, they tend to be more nomadic than largemouths, following schools of herring around the lake and into coves.

Spotted bass also commonly relate to woody cover, including brush and laydowns.

Smallmouth Bass

Smallmouth bass are not common in Kerr Reservoir, but a few are occasionally caught, including some that top 3 pounds. And although they don’t turn up in the lake very often, there are solid smallmouth populations in both the Dan and Staunton rivers.

A few of those fish make their way down into Kerr Lake now and then, and your best chances of catching one are at the extreme upper end of the lake, around the confluence of these two rivers.

Try fishing a jig or crankbait around rocky structure. 


Much like smallmouth bass, walleye are only occasionally caught in Kerr Reservoir. But the Virginia DWR operates a walleye stocking program that includes both the Staunton River above the reservoir and Lake Gaston below it. 

That being the case, either of those bodies of water would be a better bet for walleye than Kerr Reservoir itself.

The upper end of Lake Gaston, immediately below the John H. Kerr Dam, is an especially good area to find walleye during the colder months.

On Buggs Island, look for walleye at the extreme upper end of the lake. Walleye that live in the main lake will head up the Staunton River to spawn in late winter.

White Perch

White perch have proliferated in Kerr Lake in recent decades, which has proved to be something of a mixed blessing.

White perch have largely supplanted the closely-related white bass, which were once much more common here than they currently are. 

Even so, white perch are feisty panfish that put up a great fight on ultralight tackle.

Typically measuring 8 to 10 inches, white perch roam Kerr Reservoir in massive schools, dining on small shad and herring. 

White perch also congregate around deep brush piles, where crappie anglers often catch them.

They readily bite small, minnow-imitating jigs, spoons and swimbaits.

Bluegill & Sunfish

Collectively referred to as bream, Kerr Lake is home to several sunfish species. Bluegill and redear sunfish tend to be of greatest interest to anglers and are widespread in coves throughout the lake. 

Although these fish are abundant, Kerr Reservoir isn’t really known for producing big bream. Bluegill and redears measuring 6 or 7 inches are common, but individuals bigger than that are hard to come by. 

The best time to fish for bream at Buggs Island Lake is May through July when they spawn across the lake’s broad flats in tremendous numbers. Look for their dish-shaped nests in shallow parts of creeks, including Nutbush and Bluestone, among many others.

Planning Your Trip

Every season offers fishing opportunities at Kerr Lake, so there’s no wrong time to plan a trip. That being said, summer is the busiest season, and anglers will have an easier time getting away from crowds before Memorial Day and after Labor Day. 

Clarksville, Virginia, is the largest population center on Buggs Island Lake and offers various shopping, dining and lodging options. Numerous marinas and campgrounds dot the lakeshore. 

Kerr Lake is also convenient to several major cities in both Virginia and North Carolina. Remember that this reservoir is massive, and driving from one end to the other takes up to 45 minutes.

Getting to Kerr Reservoir

The John H. Kerr Dam is about 90 minutes southwest of Richmond via I-85, while areas toward the upper end of the lake are more like 2 hours away. On the North Carolina side, the Nutbush Arm of the lake is around an hour away from both Raleigh and Durham. 

Kerr Lake doesn’t suffer a shortage of access. There are plenty of places to get on the water on both sides of the state line, including 20-plus boat launch sites.

Bank & Boat Access – Virginia

The Commonwealth of Virginia operates two state parks on Buggs Island Lake: Occoneechee State Park and Staunton River State Park. 

Occoneechee State Park is across from Clarksville on the north side of the reservoir.

In addition to campgrounds and cabins, the 2,698-acre park also includes excellent boat launch facilities, a fishing pier, and plenty of bank access.

Staunton River State Park is on the far upper end of the reservoir at the confluence of the Dan and Staunton Rivers. This park offers a similar range of amenities, including excellent bank fishing access, boat launch facilities, camping and cabins.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers manages an additional 18 access sites on the Virginia side of Kerr Reservoir. These range from simple bank fishing access sites and boat ramps to large recreation areas with campgrounds, picnic areas, swimming beaches and other amenities. 

Some of the best launch sites are at Bluestone, Buffalo Creek, Rudds Creek, Eagle Point, Eastland Creek, Palmer Point, Island Creek and Longwood.

Campgrounds are at North Bend, Longwood, Buffalo Creek and Rudds Creek. 

Bank fishing is available at all of the above. A complete guide to Corps of Engineers recreation sites on Kerr Lake is available here.

Bank & Boat Access – North Carolina

Most of the access to Kerr Reservoir in North Carolina is operated by the NC Division of Parks & Recreation, primarily within Kerr Lake State Recreation Area. 

Kerr Lake State Recreation Area is a collection of eight separate access sites collectively managed as a single park. All located on the Nutbush Creek Arm of the lake, these eight sites total over 3,300 acres and offer a wide range of amenities.

Each of these access sites—Satterwhite Point, J.C. Cooper, Bullocksville, County Line, Henderson Point, Hibernia, Kimball Point and Nutbush Bridge—includes its own boat launch.

Satterwhite Point is the centerpiece of the park and is where you’ll find the main park office, visitor center, and Satterwhite Marina.

Ample bank access is also available here, and the large J.C. Cooper Camping Area is just a short drive away. 

Know Before You Go

North Carolina and Virginia have a reciprocal agreement that allows anglers from either state to fish anywhere on Kerr Lake by boat. Bank anglers must have a license from the state they are standing on.