Bowfin Angling in the Durham Impoundments

Finnin' in the Piedmont: Part I

The Jordan Lake Impoundments (Durham, North Carolina) by HenryV

{Updated February 2010} Durham, North Carolina is both a city and a county, and everything in between. It is also rich with wild and diverse fisheries. At its north end, Durham borders Falls Lake, where the state record Bowfin (taken by archery) was shot. The Eno River is of the main tributaries of Falls Lake. It runs through historic Eno River State Park, which enters Durham from the west. Due to its steep banks, thick vegetation, and remote stretches, the Eno River is not ideal for bank fishing. But the Eno's upper reaches are excellent places to wade and fly fish for Bowfins (and the rare Roanoke or "red-eye" bass) while it's wider lower reaches make for excellent float fishing.

On Durham's southern edge, the forests and tributaries that comprise the northernmost edge of Jordan Lake State Park form a natural barrier between developed and undeveloped land. The impoundments are located along the Jordan Lake tributaries on this southern edge of Durham. Generally accessible by foot from nearby parking lots, they are ideal places to bank fish for the Bowfin.

The Tributaries of Jordan Lake State Park

These tributaries consist of three major creeks and several minor ones. The major creeks, moving from East to West, are Northeast Creek, the New Hope Creek, Upper Little Creek, and Morgan Creek. Beaver Creek, which begins in the eastern side of Durham county, flows into the lake on its eastern shore. New Hope Creek begins the western side of Orange County, flows east into Durham County and through Duke Forest, then turns south and follows a forest corridor that runs south through Durham. Upper Little Creek begins in eastern Chapel Hill where Bolin Creek and Booker Creek converge to the east of Rt. 15-501, then it crosses a country club and enters the State Forest System. Finally, the south branch of Morgan Creek begins at the spillway under the dam at University Lake in Carrboro, N.C. With the exception of Northeast Creek, all three tributary creeks or the smaller creeks that form them begin in the least developed areas in Western Orange County, then course through Chapel Hill, Durham, and Carrboro, before reaching Jordan Lake State Park.

The Tributary Impoundments

The majority of the water on these creeks in the Jordan Lake State Forest is inaccessible from the bank, but each is several miles in length and offers limited access points. The best of these access points are the impoundments built by the state along their course. These structures flood sections of local forest above each impoundment, and the flooded sections attract and provide sanctuary for a rich diversity of waterfowl and woodland birds (they also attract birdwatchers and hunters, so anglers should wear bright lors during hunting season). While the flooded sections are difficult to navigate in anything but a kayak (and some are impossible to navigate at all), the impoundments themselves offer ample space for fishing from the bank. Each of these creeks hosts strong resident populations of flathead and channel catfish, largemouth bass, carp, crappie, redfin and chain pickerel, assorted panfish (warmouth, bluegills, red-eared sunfish), gizzard shad, yellow perch, and a seasonal run of white bass during the early spring; most importantly, local anglers can access a remarkable Bowfin fishery from the concrete impoundment dams and the paths that encircle them.

Structure of the Impoundments

Each of the four impoundment creeks runs through a gate. State wildlife crew sometimes drop boards into the gates during the autumn months. They alternate between impoundments on a biennial basis, closing one this year and another one the next. The planks create backwaters that flood the forests above the impoundments. The main channel of each creek flows over or through the gate, where to the west of every creek channel the state excavated large shallow pools. The pools range from less than acre in size to several acres in size. The largest of these is the impoundment on New Hope Creek at Stagecoach Road; the smallest is the southernmost impoundment on the Upper Little Creek.

Concrete walls hold the northern end of each impoundment, but earthen ridges, paths, and bridges offer other access points to the creeks around every impoundment, as well as parking (a cautionary note: if the gates to the impoundment are closed, do not park in front of them, or you will be receive a parking ticket). The access points and fishing space increase dramatically when foliage drops in the fall, opening long paths and casting lanes that are otherwise inaccessible during late spring and summer months. In addition, when state wildlife crews remove the boards in the spring, the flooded areas drain, making more fishing areas accessible.

Individual Impoundments

These are arranged moving east to west on a map of south Durham. While there are other impoundments on Jordan Lake's tributaries, the ones listed below are those that have a proven record of producing Bowfin. The size of the Bowfin in these impoundments averages between 4-8 lbs in the spring and fall months, with 10+ lb fish common. A 12-15 lb fish is rare, but not impossible to catch during these months. The smaller, younger fish tend to be more active during the summer months, when juvenile Bowfins are most often caught. During winter, anything can happen, and Bowfin are sometimes caught with ice on the water. (For more on NCARP, see below).

1. Northeast Creek

Located on a back road only a few miles from Jordan Lake, the Northeast Creek impoundment does not receive as much attention as other impoundments do. This is also due to the fact that it is a small and inconsistent fishery. The main pool is less than one quarter acre in size and very shallow. The main channel runs on the north side of it, and fish are often caught close to it or at the back end of the channel's first large pool. There is, however, a large beaver dam above the impoundment, and it has produced fish for the angler brave enough to wade in its still black waters. A trail on the north shore leads downstream for roughly on mile, and some of its deeper holes are known to produce fish.

Northeast Creek can also be accessed from Jordan Lake. The fastest way to do so is to park at the lot on the south west side of Rt 751, launch a canoe or kayak, then row under the bridge and head northeast to the mouth of the creek.

2. New Hope Creek

New Hope Creek hosts the two largest Durham impoundments. The first is located on Route 54, east of I-40. The second is located on Stagecoach Road, about one mile from the Upper Little Creek impoundment on Farrington Road and one half mile from Route 751 (there is a third impoundment on the south side of I-40, and it is visible from the highway, but I do not know of an access road).

each of which is about 100 yards from the water. Two creeks converge above the dam, and Bowfin can be found in the pool where they meet. The large pool below the dam also contains Bowfin, and they can be found around the channel, the bridge, and also in the deep holes in the large pond on the western shore. There is also a long path that runs along the creek through the woods on the eastern shore. It begins past the bridge; I have followed it for one mile without reaching its end. Casting lures is difficult, but not impossible, along this stretch, and I would recommend using flipping lures such as jigs or plastic baits, as well as spinners. Fishing with live bait is less difficult, but there are many fallen trees in the creek, and snags are common.

The parking entry gates to the Route 54 impoundment have been locked since April of 2007, and it is dangerous to park on the side of the road on Route 54. It is nonetheless a large impoundment with good shore access along its eastern and western banks down to the Route 54 bridge (about a quarter mile south of the dam).

3. Upper Little Creek

Of the three creeks, the Upper Little Creek runs through the most intensely developed area, and it has greater problems with run-off pollution than do the other two creeks. This is complicated by highways, malls, and developments - as well as a golf course - that border its flow in Chapel Hill. The creek hosts two small impoundments. The first one is off Route 54 on King George Road; the second is downstream on Farrington Road. The northernmost impoundment sits below a large, open swamp (the walk from the entrance to the dam is about 100 yards). The various waterways that course through that swamp deliver forage into the impoundment, and it is common to find schools of crappie near the gate. When water is low, Bowfin generally haunt the structure along the edge of the main channel; when it is high, and they can also be found in the center of the main pool. Bank access is limited in summer, but in winter it is possible to reach the Route 54 bridge by walking the western bank.

The southernmost Upper Little Creek impoundment is the smallest of the most accessible and commonly fished impoundments. Unlike its northern neighbor, it flows out of a forest, and its pond is perhaps only a few hundred square yards in size. The Farrington Road bridge is very close, and the walk from its parking lot to the water is the shortest at this impoundment.

3. Morgan Creek.

This is the least accessible of the creeks, and to my knowledge there is not a single impoundment along its course. It begins below the dam at University Lake and runs southeast through the least developed border areas of Chapel Hill. The best access to this creek is by canoe or small boat from the public Jordan Lake boat launch area on Farrington Point Road. Morgan Creek enters the lake at a cove that is north-east of that launch, on the other side of the Farrington Point Road bridge.

There are alternative points of access to Morgan Creek in addition to its final destination in Jordan Lake. Morgan Creek enters and leaves University Lake, which hosts an excellent Bowfin fishery. For more about fishing and boat rentals at University Lake, read this informamtion about the Bowfin fishery.

4. Other Impoundments.

Game land maps of Jordan Lake State Forest and local maps of Durham show other possible impoundment locations (seven, to be exact). For example, maps suggest there may be impoundments on Third Fork Creek where it runs under Route 54 in Durham and also where it runs under I-40 shortly before it joins with New Hope Creek. Maps suggested similar structures on Morgan Creek at Farrington Mill Road, but no impoundment was built at that intersection. Jordan Lake State Forest is immense, and while it is worth exploring, it is best to do so with caution by observing private property boundaries, taking precautions during hunting season so as to avoid disturbing hunters (or becoming their accidental targets), and venturing into the deep woods with a good compass and, if possible, another angler.

Local Fishing Resources

A trophy Bowfin could earn you a North Carolina Angler Recognition Program (NCARP) certificate. These certificates are very popular in the state, and this is due in part to the high quality of the certificates. The minimum size requirements for Bowfin are by weight (10 lbs) or length (22"). The application is easy to complete, the fee is small ($5), and the reward is a beautiful certificate that features your name and a painting of a Bowfin.


Last, but not least, the gear. While techniques vary, there are some basic rules and advice you might follow.

Lures: I fish for Bowfin with artificial lures (anything that imitates a crayfish of wounded baitfish works well). The most important factor with crankbait selection is not size or color but "wobble." Walleye fisherman know that a lure should "flash" as its wobbles - that is to say, the lure should wobble in a manner that makes the top of the lure swing from side to side in such a way that catches light and reflects it. While water conditions in the impoundments will affect the visibility of that flash, I find it to be a critical element: a lure that flashes is a lure with the right vibration in its wobble. Furthermore, I prefer crank baits that dive deep. While sinking lures are okay, fat-lipped lures are best because they serve a dual purpose. If a Bowfin takes the lure anywhere but on the bottom, they think it's a wounded baitfish. If they take it on the bottom, they think it's a crayfish. In this way, certain crank baits imitate the Bowfin's two primary food sources.

The majority of local fisherman use live or cut bait. This technique is effective because it allows you to drift bait into inaccessible areas along the bank, under logs, etc. For more thorough commentary, I recommend reading the "Tips" section of this site.

Line: The impoundment creeks and pools all have the characteristic "tea" colored water typical of the Piedmont. This may affect your decisions about line. I primarily use braided "smoke" colored line, which is nearly invisible below two feet. I prefer braided line because it has little stretch and guarantees a strong hook-set. It is also resistant to wear from Bowfin teeth and impoundments rocks and snags.

Tackle: Light tackle can be both versatile and fun when you are fishing the impoundments. I often target crappie and both largemouth and hybrid striped bass in the early spring with medium-light rods and reels rigged with 8-10 lb test monofilament, but light tackle complicates things when you hook a Bowfin. To prevent line breakage, I use a short leader of braided line on these light rigs, but a stronger monofilament leader will do the job (catfish anglers often use such leaders in the area). This will increase your odds of landing a monster Bowfin when you hook one on light tackle. When fishing specifically for Bowfin, I use medium action 6.6' to 7' rods with 3500-4000 series spinning reels. If I use a bait casting reel, I choose one with a high gear ratio because it maintains the speed of the retrieve on the medium-to-fast pace (an important but overlooked factor when fishing for Bowfin with crank baits).

Handling Your Catch: It's a good idea to use a gripping device instead of a landing net. Bowfin roll like crazy, and with hooks in their mouths they can trash a good net and also hurt themselves more than necessary. I use one of the fish grips that are on the market to land any Bowfin 5 lbs or above (a common size in the impoundments). Because I lost a fight to remove a hook from a Northern Pike several years ago (and almost lost a finger, too), I also use hook-proof gloves when removing hooks and handling Bowfin. Never try to "lip" a Bowfin like a bass; even a small Bowfin can drive a treble hook through your hand with one whip of its tail. I use the gloves when removing hooks and returning fish to the water (remember - you should always wet the gloves first to prevent removing slime from the fish). I know it seems like a lot, but I learned from experience that it's better to be safe than sorry - after all, where would you rather be: fishing or sitting in the emergency room?

Clothing and safety gear: wading is strongly discouraged in the impoundment creeks and ponds. They may look shallow, but the holes are deep and current can be swift. Strong, comfortable boots with good soles and high ankle support are your best bet for shore angling on the slippery rocks (I avoid lighter footwear because of the many snakes that live in the impoundments - a snake/spider/wasp bite kit is also a good idea, just in case). Spray for bugs and wear light colors - deer ticks are common along the trails. Bright colors during hunting season are essential.

Maps and Directions: A gameland map of Jordan Lake State Park is a good investment, but because the impoundments are mostly located on or near major roads any map of the Durham area should suffice. All of the Bowfin fisheries I discussed above are within a few miles of another. If you are visiting from out of state, you might stay at any of the hotels along Route 54 in Durham or Chapel Hill. And while you are in the area, you might visit the N.C. Museum of Natural Sciences in downtown Raleigh to observe the live Bowfin and gar on display in their tanks on the second floor.

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