Hit The Creeks For Carolina's Specks & Reds

Hit The Creeks For Carolina's Specks & Reds

Going into the "little water" of coastal creeks can produce some fine action as summer wanes and the fall fishing has yet to crank up.

Watching the tides and knowing the location and characteristics of creeks are key ingredients in guide Chris Elliot's game plan for catching summer redfish.
Photo by Dan Kibler

On a lot of coastal highway maps, they're the little blue lines that are hardly wider than a pencil lead.

On chart maps, they're slightly larger, but often not enough to really look inviting enough to run your skiff in there for a look the next time you're motoring up the Intracoastal Waterway looking for a new place to catch puppy drum.

But coastal creeks and small coastal rivers can be tremendous and underutilized fishing holes for the enterprising fisherman who is willing to invest some time learning the twists and turns of those bodies of water.

Depending on the season, those streams can hold puppy drum, speckled trout, flounder and sheepshead, among other species of interest to North Carolina's inshore anglers, and they can be excellent places to go when you don't feel like heading to the briny deep.

From Cape Lookout south to the South Carolina line, where barrier islands are separated from the mainland by narrow sounds and waterways, creeks are a real option for fishermen who don't have the biggest boats and the biggest outboard motors. In fact, big boats and big motors might not be the best outfits for getting back into a creek that only holds 3 feet of water at mean low tide.

Places like Spooner's, Hoop Pole, Mill, Calico and Ward's creeks in the Cape Lookout area; Page's, Bradley, Hewletts and Whiskey creeks around Wrightsville Beach; Cape and Cedar around Baldhead Island; Dickenson and Walden's creeks around Southport; the Shallotte and Lockwood Folly rivers west of the sprawling Cape Fear River are all areas where fishermen like Chris Elliott, Rick Bennett, Jimmy Price and Hunter McCray, with a bait tank full of minnows or shrimp, might find plenty to do for a morning or an afternoon.

Elliott is a pro bass fisherman from the coastal town of Gloucester, and he works the waters around Cape Lookout regularly. He believes that jerking a lot of puppy drum, speckled trout and flounder out of creeks in his area is a matter of understanding what kinds of places hold fish and how the rising and falling tides affect their feeding habits.

"When you're back in the creeks around here, you don't have a lot of oyster rocks, so you'll be looking for wood -- laydowns, piers and docks," Elliott said (252-729-9925). "I know from going (electro) shocking with a buddy of mine who works for the N.C. Division of Marine Fisheries that there will be all kinds of puppy drum and trout holding around a laydown. He'll pull the shocking boat up to a laydown, hit the (electricity) button, and all kinds of fish will pop up.

"So you're really looking for anything that breaks up the bank: either old, rotten boats, docks, laydowns -- if they're around deep water. And any bend on the outside of a creek will have deeper water, so you fish it; you fish the deeper holes."

He believes that normally fishing a falling tide is better because in high water the fish can become dispersed and therefore harder to pattern. When the tide is falling out toward low tide, water levels of course drop and the number of locations that are prime feeding stations drop with it. The fish have to move into a more compacted area. A lot of the tidal creeks around here have little ditches that run off into the marsh, and when the water is falling, they're perfect places to catch fish.

"I usually fish the mouth of those little ditches when the water is falling out because that's where the little baitfish will be concentrated," Elliott noted. "Those will be prime spots. If you've got good water depth back in the ditches, you can make a few casts back in there. I don't think the size of the creek matters as long as it's got enough water in it and enough bait to hold fish."

Elliott said that game fish will move into the tidal creeks late in the spring and will stay put all year. "The fish will quit feeding around Christmas," he said.

"I'll start fishing with plastic grubs, and I might put a live shad down there," he said. "If it's an area where pinfish aren't plentiful, I may put a live shrimp down under a cork, because the fish will hit it off the bottom.

"One thing about creeks is they'll normally have darker water in them, so you use darker baits or real bright colors like chartreuses and pinks. Natural, clear and minnow patterns and colors may not show up as well," he said.

Elliott pays attention to the tidal stages because he can make a little "milk run" to several creeks as the tide changes to make sure he's hitting each one at about the same stage of the falling tide.

Around the Morehead City area, Elliott can fish Spooner's Creek along the north side of the waterway, Hoop Pole on the Bogue Banks around Pine Knoll Shores, Mill Creek in the back of the Newport River, Calico Creek off the Newport River in Morehead City proper and Ward's Creek at the head of the North River marshes.

Bennett, who owns Rodman Charters and builds custom fishing rods on the side, is a puppy drum specialist who loves to fish the creeks that dump into the waterway from as far north as Figure Eight Island down toward Carolina Beach.

Whiskey Creek is the southernmost of the major creeks that Bennett (910-799-6120) fishes. It has a particular feature that separates it from the other creeks he fishes: a channel cut through an oyster bar that funnels a lot of fish into a relatively small area.

"At the mouth of the creek you've got the Masonboro Boat Yard," Bennett said. "Behind the boat yard is a big oyster bar, and the channel is cut through the oyster bar, then it winds its way back into the creek. It serves as a natural funnel for the fish to come in there. I like to fish it from the outside and just wait for the drum and flounder to work in there."

Hewletts Creek is a mile or so north of Whiskey Creek. "It's really good for flounder, puppy drum, black drum and speckled trout," Bennett said. "In the summer, it's mostly flounder and puppy drum; then the trout show up in the fall.

"Bradley (in Wrightsville Beach proper) is a very good creek for nice red drum, black drum and small flounder. The fish will get in there in May and stay the rest of the year. Page's Creek (opposite Figure Eight Island) is a good creek for flounder and puppy drum."

The last creek of any size is Howe Creek, which is just south of Page's Creek. Bennett said it's an extremely shallow creek, so he generally avoids fishing it.

Bennett loves to fish for puppy drum throughout the summer, keying on docks and piers that are positioned around the mouth of the creeks. He'll pitch a live mullet minnow or menhaden on a Carolina rig back under the dock and wait for things to happen. They normally do.

"I like to go into a creek an hour after high tide so the water will be falling out at a good pace," he said. "The baitfish are being pulled out, and the fish will be following them. I'll fish all the way down to an hour or an hour-and-a-half before low tide, because by then you'll need to get out -- or you'll be there another six hours. But you need to stay until that time."

Bennett loves docks, but he also likes to find deep holes along marsh banks and oyster rocks, places he says that fish will gather.

"You cast to the bank and let your bait work its way back with the current," he said. "You throw upcurrent, let it work back down, then when it gets downcurrent from you, you crank it in and start over."

Bennett likes to fish live baits for most of the summer months, when baitfish are in good supply. As the fall arrives, however, he'll fish a combination of live bait and his two favorite artificial baits, a Berkeley Gulp minnow (curlytail), and something from the MirrOlure Catch 200 series.

There is a small run of trout in the spring, but the majority of specks show up in the fall. Bennett said that, unlike his preference in fishing drum and flounder, he prefers to work on trout on the high end of the tide cycle, from two hours before to two hours after high water.

Price, who runs Wildlife Bait & Tackle in Southport and is one of the state's best-known inshore guides, keys more on the stage of the tide than the direction when he fishes creeks around his hometown -- especially for drum and trout.

"I can catch fish on a rising and falling tide," Price said (910-457-9903). "I'll fish a place on the rise, and it will be productive for a little while, then slow down. If you come back there after the tide turns and it gets back to the same level, you'll find 'em again.

"If you find fish at 9:30 in the morning, about two hours before high tide, you'll have 30 or 45 minutes or an hour of a real strong bite, then it will shut off. If you catch at the same time level in the afternoon, two hours after the high tide, you can do the same thing."

Price's knowledge of the creeks that drain Baldhead Island, particularly Cape Creek and Cedar Creek, borders on intimate. Those are some of his favorite creeks in the spring when speckled trout are spawning in them.

"The best fishing is in May and June, when they're back in there spawning, but you can catch 'em in July and August and on through the fall; you can catch speckled trout here 12 months a year," he said. "The colder it gets, the farther you want to go up the creeks because the baitfish will go farther back up the creek the colder it gets. As it warms up in April, they'll start to come back out toward the mouth of the creek."

Price fishes most of the Baldhead Island creeks, often working several of them in a day's time as he tries to find the greatest concentration of fish.

"They're all a little different. Some of them have more oyster rocks than the others. We look for little points in the marsh grass, little places that stick out a little farther into the water that might create a little eddy that can be an ambush point for fish," he said. "And we'll catch a combination of drum, flounder and trout."

Price said that Dutchman Creek in Southport and the Elizabeth River behind Oak Island are excellent creeks for puppy drum as the water warms up.

"They'll get behind Battery Island, where there are lots of oyster rocks. They seem to hold fish in that shallow water. When I go over there, if the fish aren't tailing, I'll look for birds working the surface," Price said.

Walden Creek is a long, winding creek that flushes into the Cape Fear River about four or five miles upstream from Southport. Price said that he fishes Walden Creek when it's cold, because those are the only times of year that the creek holds enough baitfish to attract sufficient numbers of flounder, trout and drum.

"Walden Creek is good in the dead of the winter, in the late fall and the early spring," he said. "It holds bait the best when it's real cold."

McCray runs the Rod & Reel Shop, a tackle shop in the village of Supply, which is just across the waterway from Holden Beach. He is located, he admits, in an area where fishing in coastal rivers and creeks can be "fabulous."

"There are resident fish that never leave these places; they're fat and happy and making a living," McCray said (910-842-2034). "The creeks and rivers around here are fabulous. You've got the Lockwood Folly and Shallotte rivers, Pound Creek, Davis Channel and several of those creeks behind Baldhead Island. Baldhead is a utopia of creeks."

McCray said that those creeks can hold puppy drum, flounder, speckled trout and sheepshead, depending on the makeup of the waterway and the time of year. Puppy drum and flounder spend most of the year in them; trout show up heavy in the fall, and sheepshead are around throughout the summer -- although their range is much more restricted than the others.

"I'll typically target one species, but there will be plenty of chance for by-catch, depending on the type of structure in the creek," McCray said. "Flounder like to be around oyster rocks, but they don't like to lie in them. They don't like to put that nice white belly on the oysters. Shells, yes; live oysters, no. Puppy drum, on the other hand, don't mind that at all.

"Sheepshead love all kinds of crustaceans, so pier posts, old dilapidated posts, will have more barnacles and hold them."

McCray's first targets are deep holes back in the two rivers closest to his home. "Obviously, deep holes are going to be your primary targets, because all the little critters that like to hide in the (marsh) grass at low tide have to come back out into the deeper water," he said.

"Lockwood Folly River is eaten up with little marsh creeks. If you can find a tributary creek that's big enough to be navigable at low water, you want to get in and fish it as the water is falling. Some of them will be big enough to fish early on the falling tide, and the mouth of those creeks will be very productive at low tide. With your smaller creeks, you need to fish the mouth of those creeks at low tide.

"What you have to understand is that you're in the flatlands, and the swamps and low-lying areas have to fill up and drain with the tidal changes."

McCray likes to fish both live bait and artificials. "That depends on the time of year," he said. "If you're competing with live bait, fishing with live bait is the easiest choice. If you're going to fish with artificials -- if you're good with artificials -- you can catch 'em, but it's difficult to use a plastic wiggly thing in the middle of the summer when you've got about 10 million shrimp per square inch. Later in the fall, they are better."

Whatever you prefer in the way of inshore fishing, there's likely to be some of it in these creeks, and plenty of holding water to congregate the fish you're after.

All you have to do is read between those little blue lines.

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