North Carolina usually doesn't get its coldest winter weather until about the third week of January, but some years – 2010 and 2011 being fine examples - the freeze arrives in time for the Christmas holidays.

While cold, cold weather might drive a lot of fishermen off lakes and to the comforts of cozy dens with roaring fires in the fireplaces, some just can't put their tackle down - and might not all winter.

In many cases, their salvation - especially on days when the mercury hovers around freezing - is a narrow sliver of water whose headwaters are the belly of a power plant. On a handful of North Carolina reservoirs managed by Duke Energy, those creeks or canals - some of them man-made - carry hot water that is returned to the main body of the lake as part of the plant's power-production process.

The official term used to describe them is "warm-water discharge."

Fishermen just call them "hot holes."

On Lake Wylie, Mountain Island Lake and Lake Norman in the immediate vicinity of Charlotte and on Belews Lake north of Winston-Salem, these hot holes can almost make fishermen think it's springtime all the time. They surely make fish think it's springtime, often raising the water temperature in areas affected by the discharge by as much as 10 degrees.

"It's a good opportunity for anybody who enjoys fishing to catch fish all winter," said Jerry Neeley of Jerry's Fishing Guide Service. "It doesn't matter if they like to catch bass, crappie or catfish. They're all attracted to the warm water in the winter.

"Those fish are looking for a little bit of a comfort zone, and a lot of them will be around the warm-water discharge - and you can do pretty good."

Neeley guides regularly on Lake Norman and Lake Wylie for largemouth bass and catfish. Guide Joel Richardson guides for largemouth bass on Belews Lake. Andy Fox of Fishers of Men Guide Service spends plenty of time fishing Lake Norman's hot holes for largemouth and spotted bass; and guide Chris Nichols mines the hot holes at Mountain Island, Wylie and Norman for bass and catfish.

Between the four hot-hole experts, fisherman can stand to learn a lot about how to turn warm water into hot fishing action during the winter when their interests would normally be pointed in other directions.

The hot holes at Norman and Wylie fish roughly the same because of the sizes of the lakes. The hot hole at Mountain Island has much less of an effect on fishing because the Riverbend Steam Station is used to produce much less power than its upstream and downstream neighbors. At Belews Lake, it's just the opposite: The warm-water discharge affects more than half of the 3,863-acre lake.

The warm-water discharge from the Belews Creek Steam Station, the largest coal-fired plant Duke Energy operates, emerges through a man-made canal into East Belews Creek and warms the entire creek, plus Belews Creek and much of the main-lake area where East Belews Creek and West Belews Creek merge.

"The hot hole at Belews keeps 60 percent of the lake warm year-round," Richardson said. "Its effect is way stronger than the hot holes at Lake Norman."

Richardson believes the current produced by water flushing out of the warm-water discharge creek is almost as important as its warming effect.

"The current will always be running, but not always at full speed," he said. "To me, the current is the big thing. Yeah, it's nice to have the warm water, but the current really focuses where the fish are going to be, waiting to ambush baitfish.

"At the mouth of any warm-water discharge, if you can find a ridge or a point that the current is rolling over the top of, the bass will use that to shield themselves from the current. It's a current break, and they'll be waiting right behind it. They create an eddy, and bass and baitfish will concentrate around them."

Richardson has a couple of pieces of structure outside the Belews Lake warm-water discharge that fit that description perfectly, and he'll set up and pitch his baits - usually a shaky head or split-shot rig, up into the current and let it sweep it across the structure.

In such a fast current, using relatively light tackle, keeping the weight or bait in contact with the bottom is of paramount importance - not so when he ventures outside the area the current is affecting.

"One thing I've noticed is if you're sitting about 100 yards in front of the mouth of the discharge canal, you can fish the banks adjacent to the canal, to the left and right," Richardson said. "I've found that you will find fish shallow, around cover, up to a half mile to the left or right. I fish those places a lot in the winter because there will always be warm water coming in there. All you have to do is find cover.

"I'll fish those areas with a spinnerbait, a plastic worm, a crankbait or a topwater bait. Some days, they'll bite one bait, and some days they'll be on another bait, but they like to hang out and feed in that warm water."

At Norman, the two warm-water discharges fish roughly the same; bass and other species will get on docks, blowdowns and riprapped banks up and down the banks where the warm water emerges from the canals, and depending on wind direction, warm water can be blown across the main body of the lake and affect McCrary and Ramsey creeks on the east side of the lake, or it can be blown down toward Mountain Creek from the Marshall Steam Station hot hole.

"You can catch largemouth bass in the warm water, but it seems to me that it affects the spotted bass more," Fox said. "It seems like the spots really go nuts when the warm water is running. And I think the warm water makes more of a difference in cold winters than in mild winters - like we had last year."

Nichols agreed.

"The colder it is, the more power (Duke Power) is generating, and the warmer that (discharge) warms the water," he said. "If you get a couple of days of brutally cold weather, when people are running their furnaces 24 hours a day, they'll be running more water through the power plant, pushing out a lot of water, and it will warm the water more. Some of the worst weather days, as far as temperature, are the best days to fish."

Fox and Nichols have both fished the warm-water discharge on Mountain Island. Fox said it fishes similar to the way the Norman hot holes fish; Nichols agreed, but said the Riverbend Steam Station isn't online and producing nearly as much power, so warm-water discharges aren't nearly as common there.

"I just don't see the same kind of influence at Mountain Island," he said. "First, the impact is more localized; it's a real small area that's influenced by the warm water. But they don't run that coal-burning plant as much. It's used more as a backup to the other ones; I think they're phasing it out."

The one warm-water discharge area that fishes a bit different from the others is the Allen Steam Station discharge on Lake Wylie. The plant is actually on the western shoreline of the main lake, but the canal discharges into the South Fork River, which drains a lot of Lincoln and Catawba counties not in the Lake Norman watershed.

"A lot of times in the winter, the water will get dingy or muddy in the South Fork," Neeley said. "When that happens, I love to go back in there and fish a spinnerbait."

Normally, dingy or muddy water will turn fish off during the winter, but in an area with a warm-water discharge, the fish act more like it's April or May, he said.

"From the discharge, you can fish all the way down the South Fork and even to the mouth of Mill Creek," he said. "If the fishing's really good, you can spend four or five hours in there, fishing trees, rocks, points. There will be a lot of bass in there."

Neeley likes to fish a "standard" dingy-water spinnerbait that combines a No. 2 Colorado blade with a No. 4 willow-leaf blade. That combo produces both flash and vibration, which will draw fish in dingy water.

"You're just fishing down the banks the way you would in the spring," Neeley said. "You can't do that with a spinnerbait in Lake Norman because the water stays too clear."

 

DESTINATION INFORMATION

HOW TO GET THERE/WHEN TO GO - The coldest weather between December and February will often produce the best fishing in areas of reservoirs affected by warm-water discharge from power plants.

• Southwest of Charlotte, the warm-water discharge from the Catawba Nuclear Station is most-easily accessed from the Allison Creek Access Area on Allison Creek Rd. off SC 274. The warm-water discharge from the Allen Steam Station is most-easily accessed from South Point Access Area on South Point Rd. Take Exit 27 off I-85, go south on NC 273 to South Point Rd., and go south to the access area.

• For Lake Norman, the Marshall Steam Station warm-water discharge just downstream from the NC 150 bridge is very close to the Pinnacle and McCrary Creek access areas off NC 150 east of the lake. For the McGuire Nuclear Plant discharge, use Blythe Landing off NC 73 west of I-77.

• For Mountain Island Lake, the warm-water discharge area at the Riverbend Steam Station is just a few miles from the Riverbend Access Area on Horseshoe Bend Rd. just off NC 16.

• The warm-water discharge at Belews Lake north of Winston-Salem is most-easily reached from the Piney Bluff Access Area on NC 65 just off US 158 between Stokesdale and Walnut Cove.

TACKLE/TECHNIQUES - Tackle and lures used around warm-water discharges vary from lake to lake. The South Fork River on Lake Wylie where the Allen Steam Station's warm-water discharge is located is often dingy to muddy, offering great spinnerbait fishing. However, most of the warm-water discharges are on relatively clear lakes, which should point fishermen to lighter tackle, including shakey head rigs, tailspinners and blade baits and topwaters and jerkbaits.

GUIDES/FISHING INFO – Jerry Neeley, Jerry's Fishing Guide Service, 704-678-1043, www.carolinasfishing.com; Chris Nichols, Jerry's Fishing Guide Service, 704-236-8972, www.carolinasfishing.com; Andy Fox, Fishers of Men Guide Service, 828-312-8771; Joel Richardson, Joel Richardson Guide Service, 336-643-7214, www.joelgrichardson.com. See also Guides & Charters in Classifieds.

ACCOMMODATIONS - N.C. Department of Commerce, Division of Tourism, Film and Sports Development, 800-VISITNC or www.visitnc.com.

MAPS - For Lake Norman, Lake Wylie and Mountain Island Lake, Kingfisher Maps, 800-326-0257 or www.kfmaps.com; For Belews Lake, Duke Energy, www.duke-energy.com/belews.pdf.