List of Common Kerr Lake Fish Species [Updated]
Kerr lake (pronounced as ‘car’) or Buggs Island Lake is a 50,000 acres (202.34 km²) reservoir operated by the U. S. Army Corps of Engineers. The construction of the John H. Kerr Dam began in March 1947 and finished in 1952. The resulting lake is the largest in Virginia based on surface area.
At the foot of the dam, the reservoir reaches a depth of 100 feet (30.48 m), however the average depth is closer to 30 feet (9.14 m). The John H. Kerr dam was constructed for flood control and hydropower generation in the 1950s. The seven generators average 425,000 megawatt hours annually and the estimated cumulative flood damage savings surpass 400 million USD.
The reservoir is situated between Virginia and North Carolina, and the two states refer to the lake as ‘Buggs Island Lake’ and Kerr Lake, respectively. When construction began, it was named the ‘Bugg’s Island Project’, because the dam was built upstream from an island belonging to the descendants of Samuel Bugg, an early settler who arrived in Virginia in 1701. However, during construction, it was renamed after John H. Kerr, a congressman in North Carolina, who secured the funding for the construction through Congress.
The reservoir-flooded land was once inhabited by the Occaneechi, who primarily lived on an island where the Dan and Roanoke rivers converge. However, the Occaneechi was forced to flee their land already before 1700.
Kerr Lake is situated in a nature-rich area with lots of options for wildlife enthusiasts. The 12 campgrounds encompassing the lake are managed by the states of North Carolina and Virginia in addition to the Corps of Engineers. This provides great access to the area, which offers a broad spectrum of recreational activities such as hiking, birdwatching, and fishing. Anybody interested in the latter can find information about the primary fishes in the lake in the following list!
List of Fish Species in Kerr Lake
1) Alewife (Alosa pseudoharengus)
The alewife is an anadromous member of the Clupeidae family (herrings, shads, sardines, and menhadens). They are closely related to the blueback herring, and the two species are very similar in appearance. The alewife has larger eyes and a slightly more greyish-green color. Both have a dark spot on the shoulder. The easiest way to distinguish the two species is through a visual assessment of the lining of the gut cavity, known as the peritoneum.
Collectively, the two species are often referred to as river herring, as they migrate up through the rivers to spawn, while spending most of their life at sea. These landlocked populations were introduced to Kerr Lake as prey species for popular sports fish such as largemouth bass and striped bass.
The alewife is a schooling fish, feeding primarily on zooplankton. They can sometimes be seen disturbing the water’s surface in the evening. During the warmer summer months, they move to deeper waters and come to the shallows at night. The alewife spawn in spring, slightly before the blueback herring, when the water temperatures reach 51 °F (10.56 °C). They lay their eggs in slow-moving water and the fertilized eggs hatch in three to six days. After about four years, the young fish mature and spawn themselves.
2) American shad (Alosa sapidissima)
The American shad is a member of the Clupeidae family (herrings, shads, sardines, and menhadens). They are silver in color with a distinct dark spot on the shoulder, which is sometimes trailed by multiple smaller spots. The dorsal side is deep blue and the dorsal and tail fins an opaque black, while the pectoral fins and anal fins are translucent. The species is native to the Roanoke River Basin but spends most of its life at sea. The adults return to freshwater to breed.
The American shad is currently maintaining a population at Kerr Lake through the stocking of fish raised at hatcheries. The goal of the project, which is carried out in collaboration with the NC Wildlife Resources Commission, US Fish and Wildlife Service, and Dominion, is to restore the population to a self-sustaining level. Therefore, the species is currently protected statewide. Juvenile American shad are stocked every year, and the population is evaluated each fall, where they move downstream. However, the creation of the dam has strongly altered the flow of the river, which has caused the banks to erode.
3) Black crappie (Pomoxis nigromaculatus)
The black crappie is a member of the Centrarchidae family (sunfish), which can be tricky to distinguish from the white crappie. Black crappies have green or black random blotches, whereas white crappies have distinct vertical bars on a lighter background. In addition, the black crappie has 7 – 9 dorsal spines, whereas the white has 5 – 6. There is no size limit for black crappie at Kerr Lake, and the daily limit is 50, with a possession limit of 100.
Knowing the demographic distribution is important for the correct management of fish; many different methods are used to estimate the age of wild-caught fish. While size gives a general idea of age, it is greatly impacted by factors such as food availability and the sex of the fish. Scientifically, scales, spines, and otoliths are used for age estimates.
A study on black crappies showed that scales were the least precise way to estimate age, while both dorsal spines and otoliths resulted in a complete agreement between at least two out of three observers. However, for complete observer agreement, the otoliths proved to be the most precise method. The downside of using otoliths is that the black crappie must be caught and killed, while dorsal spines can be plucked from a live individual and used to estimate the demographic distribution of black crappies in a lake.
4) Blue catfish (Ictalurus furcatus)
The blue catfish is a member of the Ictaluridae family (North American freshwater catfish) and is generally considered to be the largest species in the family. They are opportunistic bottom-feeders consuming aquatic invertebrates, clams, and fishes, which they locate in strong flowing water using their eight taste-sensitive barbels. They are originally native to the mid-eastern states but have been introduced widely as sports fish. Some of these areas now regard blue catfish as an invasive species, as they outcompete native species and can disrupt the local ecosystem.
For those interested in blue catfish fishing, Kerr Lake has an almost mystical reputation. This non-native species likely found its way to this lake after the species was stocked in Virginia lakes in the 80s, although it is also possible that it was illegally introduced. Since then, the blue catfish has grown in both number and size.
In June 2011, Richard Nicholas Anderson caught a world-record catfish at Kerr, a fish that took him 45 minutes to haul in. The monstrous catch is a still-standing IGFA fishing world record and clocked in at 143 lbs (64.86 kg)!
5) Blueback herring (Alosa aestivalis)
The blueback herring is an anadromous member of the Clupeidae family (herrings, shads, sardines, and menhadens). They are slender with a dark blue dorsal side and silver belly with a black spot behind their eye. Historically, the blueback herring was believed to be infertile in landlocked populations. However, the first evidence for successful breeding in subpopulations without ocean access came from the Keowee and Jocassee reservoirs in 1978 and 1979. The species has since been introduced to a range of lake systems as a prey species for game fish.
The introduction of blueback herring and alewife to Kerr Lake is believed to have caused a change in the behavior of largemouth bass and striped bass, as they now spend more time following prey species into deeper water.
The blueback herring was last assessed by the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species in 2011, where it was listed as vulnerable due to a steep decline in population numbers in recent decades. This decline is likely to exceed 30% across the entire range. They are threatened by the results of human activities, such as pollution from industrial, agricultural, and domestic wastewater, and they are sensitive to modifications done to the water systems they inhabit.
6) Bluegill (Lepomis macrochirus)
The bluegill sunfish is a member of the Centrarchidae family (sunfish). They are opportunistic omnivores, feeding on a broad diet of aquatic invertebrates, crustaceans, and fish eggs, which varies in accordance with availability. They have the typical deep-bodied shape of a panfish, an olive-green dorsal side, and faint vertical bars. They have a characteristic black ‘ear’ on the opercular flap – an extension of the gill cover, and a dark mark at the base of the dorsal fin. During the breeding season, the male coloration intensifies and might develop intense blue or even orange coloration on the flanks.
Bluegill sunfish are native from Quebec to northern Mexico but have also been introduced as far away as South Africa and Japan. In some countries, the introduction has resulted in disruption of the local ecosystems, as they tend to overcrowd and thereby stunt the growth of other fish. Population monitoring from the Missouri River has shown that bluegills in some cases adapt well to human impacts, with an increase in abundance in the lower Missouri River following reservoir construction.
7) Channel catfish (Ictalurus punctatus)
The channel catfish is a member of the Ictaluridae family (North American freshwater catfish) and is often nicknamed the ‘blue cat’, although it should not be confused with the blue catfish, which is a different species. The nickname stems from the blue hue that the males acquire during the spawning season. The two species can also be distinguished visually, as the channel catfish is brown with darker spots, whereas the blue catfish, as the name entails, is blue. However, both species can vary in base color, which can lead to confusion. For sure identification, counting the rays in the anal fin is the best option. The blue catfish has more than 30 rays, while the channel catfish’s anal fin is lightly rounded and has 24 – 27 rays.
The channel catfish depends on ponds, lakes, and reservoirs, avoiding upland streams. Their natural habitat ranges from clear, rapid-flowing rivers with firm bottoms to turbid, mud-bottomed ones. The latest assessment by the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species was in 2012, when the species was listed as ‘least concern’, due to the current population increase. Generally, the species distribution and abundance have increased over the past ten years due to introductions to new lakes and the stocking of juvenile channel catfish for recreational anglers.
8) Common carp (Cyprinus carpio)
The common carp is a member of the Cyprinidae family (carp and minnows). Its Latin name means ‘carp carp’, as cyprinus is the Greek name for ‘carp’, and carpio is the Latinized form of ‘carp’. Common carp are laterally compressed with a robust body in a brassy color, which becomes golden on the lower sides and milky on the belly. The coloration of the males increases in the breeding season. They have two barbels on each side of the upper jaw which they use to locate their preferred prey. Their diet primarily consists of insect larvae, crustaceans, and mollusks, but careful observations have shown that they also consume worms and occasionally walleye eggs.
Despite being widely introduced across the world as a food source and sports fish, the common carp is native to the Black, Caspian, and Aral seas, where the species is continuously declining. This decline is in part due to the introduction of domesticated stock, which the wild type hybridizes with. Therefore, a ‘pure’ common carp is considered to be rare, if it even still exists. In their latest assessment of this species in 2008, the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species listed it as ‘vulnerable’.
9) Flathead catfish (Pylodictis olivaris)
The flathead catfish is a member of the Ictaluridae family (North American freshwater catfish), and, like other ictalurids, has eight barbels surrounding the mouth and sleek skin with no scales. As the name implies, the head is dorsoventrally compressed. The lower jaw protrudes beyond the upper jaw, and both are covered with bands of small, sharp teeth. The color can vary with size and habitat but tends to be lightly mottled brown with a lighter belly. The male and female are sexually dimorphic; the male has a single urogenital opening behind the anus, while the female has a separate urinary and genital opening.
The flathead catfish is a highly predatory piscivore. They are less opportunistic in their feeding strategy compared to blue catfish and consume a less varied diet compared to the other two catfish species at Kerr. They feed predominantly on fish, crayfish, and prawns, which in a study from the Mississippi River made up 97% of their diet. Seasonal variation or unpredictable changes such as flooding, which changes prey availability, seems to have a limited impact on their feeding strategy.
10) Gizzard shad (Dorosoma cepedianum)
The gizzard shad is a school-forming member of the Clupeidae family (herrings, shads, sardines, menhadens), sometimes referred to as ‘skipjack’ for their habit to skip over the surface of the water when surprised. In appearance, they resemble a herring with a silver to brass color and a darker dorsal side. They have a dark spot behind the gill opening and the last ray of the dorsal fin is elongated, as is the anal fin. They congregate near the surface of open water in medium to large rivers, lakes, and impoundments, although they may descend to deeper water if the water is well-oxygenated.
The gizzard shad has a rounded snout and small mouth, which lacks teeth both in the jaw and on the tongue. The teeth are present at the larval stage, but they are soon lost. They feed primarily on zooplankton or phytoplankton depending on which one is the most abundant. The ‘gizzard’, a thick-walled muscular structure typically known from birds, forms in the juvenile stage. This structure frequently contains sand grains, probably consumed to aid in breaking down food.
11) Grass carp (Ctenopharyngodon idella)
The grass carp is a member of the Xenocyprididae family (East Asian minnows) and tolerates a wide range of temperatures and salinities, while thriving in large, slow-flowing bodies of water with ample vegetation. They can be distinguished from the common carp by their silver to olive color, upwards-turned mouth, and lack of barbels.
The grass carp is not a native species but has been introduced to Kerr Lake among others as an aquatic plant control agent. They are generalist feeders; however, they tend to prefer southern naiad, hydrilla, or duckweed. This preference for hydrilla is exactly why the species is frequently introduced. Hydrilla verticillata is an aquatic invasive plant species, which has created many problems. This plant outcompetes native aquatic plant species, leading to a decrease in food for an abundance of animal species, resulting in lower population numbers and the potential risk of extinction.
The specific grass carps that are stocked in Lake Kerr are triploid. This is a chromosomal abnormality, where there is an additional set of chromosomes in the cell. Practically, this means that the introduced grass carp is infertile, protecting the lake ecosystem against a grass carp population boom.
12) Hickory shad (Alosa mediocris)
The hickory shad is an anadromous member of the Clupeidae family (herrings, shads, sardines, menhadens). They can be tricky to distinguish from American shad also found in the lake, of which this species is the most common. The simplest way to tell the two species apart is by the position of their mouth. The American shad has a terminal mouth where the lower and upper jaw fits together. In contrast, the hickory shad has a superior (or uptilted) mouth where the lower jaw protrudes beyond the upper jaw.
The spawning migration of the hickory shad is initiated by temperatures around 53 – 77 °F (12 – 25 °C) with peak activity between 53 and 61 °F (12 – 16 °C). They are iteroparous spawners, meaning that they spawn multiple times in their lifetime (three to five). A recent local assessment of the species in North Carolina points to a current positive population trend, which is supported by the last IUCN Red List of Threatened Species assessment in 2011.
When it comes to fishing for hickory shad at Kerr Lake, there is no size limit, and the possession limit is 50 pounds per day.
13) Largemouth bass (Micropterus salmoides)
The largemouth bass is a popular sports fish and member of the Centrarchidae family (sunfish). Members of this family are often sexually dimorphic, which means that males and females can be readily distinguished by visual inspection. The largemouth bass, however, is monomorphic and socially monogamous. This means that both the male and female tend to the nest and care for the eggs and fry. However, males that sneak into other nests and fertilize the eggs of another female than their mate does occur, albeit very rarely. In a study investigating monogamy and biparental care in the largemouth bass, 88% of nests contained almost exclusively full siblings.
The largemouth bass has a green to olive base color with a cream-colored belly, dark blotches, and a dark line running from the operculum to the tail fin. The spawning season is typically initiated in April, when the water reaches 65°F (18.33°C) and maintains that temperature. To attract females, the color of the males become much more striking in this period. The species is a generalist and preys on a wide variety of fish.
14) Pumpkinseed (Lepomis gibbosus)
The pumpkinseed is a member of the Centrarchidae family (sunfish). The body is deep and strongly compressed laterally. The dorsal side is brown to olive, which fades down the side and the belly is orange. Seven to ten vertical bands cover the sides. Yellow, blue, and green lines run across the face which ends in an operculum flap with a black center and a strikingly red halfmoon spot. Within the family, hybrids are known to occur. Of the species occurring in Kerr Lake, they can hybridize with the bluegill sunfish.
The parental male of the pumpkinseed is the sole provider of parental care, which comprises aggressive nest guarding and ‘fanning’ to aerate the eggs. Because of this close guarding of the eggs, the males lose weight during the breeding season, which increases the risk of mortality. Interestingly, an alternative mating strategy exists, where non-paired males sneak into the nests of parental males and attempt to fertilize the eggs. Such a male is typically termed a ‘cuckold’. These males do not participate in parental care, and therefore the usual adverse effects on males during the breeding season do not apply to them.
15) Redear sunfish (Lepomis microlophus)
The redear sunfish is a member of the Centrarchidae family (sunfish); its common name stems from the red mark on the operculum flap. The body is deep and has a bright olive color with darker spots and a yellow belly. They prefer clear backwaters of smaller rivers and reservoirs with abundant vegetation and lots of underwater cover, in which they can hide and search for their preferred prey (mollusks).
Following a coal ash spill into the Dan River in February 2014, redear sunfish and largemouth bass from Kerr Reservoir were assessed to investigate the incorporation of heavy metals in fish tissue. This investigation was conducted by the NCDWR to assess the potential risk to human health. The tests were conducted multiple times to evaluate potential accumulative impacts. Of the heavy metals studied, only mercury and selenium were reported to have concentrations above the NCDPH’s screening values. A more recent reassessment of Kerr Lake (2016) found no evidence of bioaccumulation in the examination of aquatic invertebrates and fish, nor did they find unusual levels of mercury in the river substrate.
16) Smallmouth bass (Micropterus dolomieu)
The smallmouth bass is a member of the Centrarchidae family (sunfish) and is popular among anglers. The dorsal side and head are a brown to olive color, with lighter sides and a yellow-to-white belly. 9 to 16 vertical bands mark the sides. The bands are most prominent in young individuals and become patchy with age. Three horizontal stripes pattern their cheeks, one which goes through their red to orange eyes.
Male smallmouth bass begin to construct bowl-shaped nests when the water temperature reaches 59 °F (15 °C). After courting the female, she enters the nest and lays her eggs, after which her duty is over. Parental care is completed solely by the male and takes around five to six weeks. Sudden changes in temperature with increases as small as 36 °F (2 °C) or the temperature falling below 59 °F (15 °C) can lead to premature brood abandonment. A study on the species revealed that water temperature changes of ± 43 degrees °F (± 6 °C) are the maximum that the eggs can tolerate. Parental care is costly for the males, who, prior to the breeding season, build up energy reserves to carry them through until the fry become independent.
17) Striped bass (Morone saxatilis)
The striped bass is a member of the Moronidae family (temperate basses) with seven to eight distinct horizontal stripes on a silver background. They are considered opportunistic feeders from a young age. Juveniles eat crustaceans, annelid worms, and insects, while the adults additionally feed on a broad spectrum of fishes. Shortly before breeding, they stop feeding, which is resumed after spawning.
The population of striped bass in Kerr Lake is one of the few landlocked populations due to the construction of the dam. Since 1992, a protocol has been established to protect the population from passing through the turbines. The introduction of the protocol followed two separate occasions in the 1980s, where heavy rains meant an increase in heavy power generation, resulting in striped bass passing through the turbines with a 50% mortality rate. The protocol has resulted in the implementation of fish finders upstream from the turbines. If large fish such as the striped bass are observed, the turbines are stopped to allow the fish to escape. Since the protocol was introduced, turbine-induced mortality of striped bass has not been observed.
18) Walleye (Sander vitreus)
The walleye is a popular sports fish in the Percidae family (perch), named for its distinctive silvery eyes. This is due to a reflective layer known as the tapetum lucidum, which also glows in low-light conditions. The sides are green and gold with six to eight dark blotches on the dorsal side. They have a milky belly and a distinct dark mark low on the front dorsal fin.
The male and female walleye can be sexually distinguished in the same manner as the flathead catfish mentioned earlier. They spawn shortly after ice-out in temperatures of 38 – 44 °F (3 – 7 °C), where the eggs are spread over a suitable bottom. The eggs are adhesive for a period of about two hours, where they stick to whatever they touch. The parental fish are not territorial, and they do not build nests, but they do show high site fidelity. This means that the walleye is likely to spawn close to the area where it itself hatched, which can result in local adaptations even within one lake. The newly hatched walleyes swim exclusively in a vertical manner, as they have not yet developed paired fins.
19) White bass (Morone chrysops)
The white bass is a member of the Morinidae family (temperate basses), and, like the white perch, has striking golden eyes. The white bass has a white to silvery base color with six to seven dark horizontal lines. They have a dark shading across their dorsal side, which feeds into their dorsal, tail, and anal fins. The lower jaw reaches slightly further than the upper jaw, and the mouth is filled with needle-like teeth in irregular rows.
The white bass’ spawning behavior is temperature-dependent, with a peak around 63 – 73 °F (17.2 – 22.8 °C). The females only enter the spawning grounds briefly to release their eggs, while the males congregate in spawning shoals throughout most of the season. They seem to prefer flowing waters above sand, gravel, rubble, or rock, where the adhesive eggs attach. The juvenile and adult fish avoid competing through markedly different dietary preferences. While juvenile white bass primarily feed on various invertebrates, the adults become piscivorous. In addition, they do not seem to markedly affect other game fish even at high abundance. They can sometimes be observed schooling with yellow perch and crappies.
20) White crappie (Pomoxis annularis)
The white crappie is a member of the Centrarchidae family (sunfish), similar to the black crappie. The body of this fish is strongly laterally compressed with a dark green upper head and dorsal side. The sides are lighter in color, with five to ten columns of dark blotches giving the illusion of vertical bands, which can be used to distinguish them from the black crappie, which has irregular dark blotches. The dorsal and tail fins are alternating light and dark in uneven bands, while the anal fins and pectoral fins are unpigmented. They typically occur above sand or mud in a broad range of water systems from pools to rivers.
The white crappie is considered a short-lived species with few individuals surviving past their fifth year. During their first year, they feed almost solely on zooplankton, with aquatic insects and smaller fish being included in their diet as the individual fish grows larger. The growth of the species is strongly impacted by food availability, with stunted growth rates resulting from too much competition among white crappies. As a mesopredator, they also serve as a food source for popular sports fish such as the largemouth and smallmouth bass.
21) White perch (Morone americana)
The white perch is a member of the Moronidae family (temperate basses); despite its name, it is not a member of the Percidae family (perches) like the last species on this list! Instead, it is related to the white bass and striped bass also found in Kerr Lake. The white perch can be difficult to distinguish from the white bass, but in comparison to the latter, the white perch has no stripes. They have a deep, thin body that hunches towards the beginning of the dorsal fin, which can make older specimens look almost humpbacked.
Like the striped bass, the white perch is essentially a marine species. Despite this, they occur frequently in brackish water, and even in lakes and ponds with no sea connection following human-mediated introduction. They were introduced to Kerr Lake in 1988 and have since proliferated. As an invertivore, they compete for food with crappies, and compared to native species, they are rarely consumed by larger piscivores like the largemouth bass. Additionally, they are known to consume the eggs of crappies and striped bass, however, the abundance of white perch in Kerr Lake is currently too low to have a significant effect on these species.
22) Yellow perch (Perca flavescens)
The yellow perch belongs to the Percidae family (perch). They are typically yellow to green in color, which becomes darker towards the dorsal side and lighter towards the belly. The sides are marked by eight dark vertical bars. The fins are yellow to orange, which becomes brighter in breeding males.
The yellow perch is not particularly picky with its spawning grounds and will spawn on any substrate in shallow, slow-moving, or static waters. They typically spawn after ice-out at water temperatures around 45 – 52 °F (7 – 11 °C) often coinciding with walleye spawning, with deeper sites spawning later than shallower ones.
The yellow perch does not build nests and does not provide any parental care; however, they do seem to deposit the fertilized eggs in sheltered areas, such as covering over submerged vegetation. The eggs are deposited in a characteristic thick stand, which is transparent, gelatinous, ribbon-like, and accordion folded. The number of eggs laid by an individual female depends greatly on her size, but the average is around 30,000. Despite this nutrient-rich egg mass not being protected by the parental fish, the amount of predation on the eggs is thought to be low.