Many anglers head to the state’s reservoirs and lakes in spring to take advantage of the ravenous appetites of pre-spawn and spawning crappie. Indeed, they catch some nice fish, primarily white crappie and stunted black crappie.
While the white crappie is certainly a prolific fish and grows large, a growing number of anglers prefer catching black crappie in their native habitat. There is just something special about fishing in a coastal river that stirs an angler’s blood. It could be uncrowded conditions or the scenic views along a winding waterway. It could also be the size and abundance of native fish.
“I’ve caught more crappie from the Cape Fear River than ever,” said Basil Watts, a river pilot on the lower Cape Fear. “The floods seemed to have helped the fishing.”
Watts referred to three successive years of high water during spring, summer and fall. Where he fishes, between Fayetteville and Elizabethtown, the river is actually a little tamer than most coastal rivers because of a series of locks and dams built in the early 1900s.
“The river can still flow fast,” Watts said. “It all depends on how much rain we get. I guess the important thing is that the river channel between the locks is always deep enough to get the angler to the fish.”
While reservoir anglers may disagree with Watts’ assessment of abundance, in a typical half day of fishing he can catch four to 18 black crappie. Most of the fish will be 10 to 14 inches long, fat and tasty. Every now and then, a 2-pound fish may strike his lure.
“I fish mostly with Beetlespins,” Watts said. “I catch a variety of fish with them. Lime-green is a good color followed by bright yellow with a black streak and white with a red dot. Once I fish a stretch of bank, I mark a tree so I won’t fish the same stretch soon afterward. You seem to cull out the fish as you work the bank if you keep the big ones and release the small ones.”
Watts launches his 16-foot skiff at Elwell Ferry or Lock and Dam No. 1 at the end of Lock and Dam No. 1 Road near Elizabethtown. There is also a ramp near the William O. Huske lock near Fayetteville. It doesn’t seem to matter what stretch of river an angler fishes. The river has a homogenous depth of about 20 feet. The feeder streams were all blocked at the time the dams were built to keep the water at a constant level. In essence, the river between the locks is a hybrid between a lake and a river because of the constant level and high flows. That may be what creates the excellent fishing.
Despite the fact that the feeder creeks are blocked, there are still many creek mouths that create dips in the bank. These old creek mouths do create a small amount of inflow after rains and the inflow causes crappie to congregate.
Anglers cast beetle grub spinners or live minnows on float rigs to the old creek mouths with good success. While reservoir anglers can catch several dozen crappie from a single good spot, catching a half-dozen black crappie at one such location is about all that can be expected between the locks.
Anglers drift along the bank with the river flow, using trolling motors to navigate. While they may have to anchor to fish a creek mouth, they can cast to erosion-felled trees and logjams as they drift along.
“A crappie can be almost anywhere there’s a piece of structure,” Watts said. “The trick is to keep moving. You can cover several miles of river in a single day. You need to cast to every little stick-up or log lying on the bank. Sometimes they are on a sandy stretch with no cover in sight. It’s a casting game. The more casts you make to different places, the more fish you’re going to catch.”
Below Lock and Dam No. 1 the river is wild and free all the way to the Atlantic. However, salt water in the stretches near Wilmington inhibits the number of crappie. So the creeks offer excellent fishing for crappie.
Access is from the Lock and Dam No. 1 ramp or from the ramp at Kelly Road (which provides access to Black River). Many early-spring anglers ply these stretches of black water and never see another angler. Two things keep other anglers at home — work and bad weather. Fishing during a rainy day and during the week will often provide an angler total solitude.
Many creeks, named and unnamed, enter the Cape Fear and Black rivers. An angler can catch crappie in any of these creeks. The tactic is essentially the same: Cast to as much cover as possible.
However, the stretches below the locks and dams have high flows and shallower water. Anglers use clips or hooks to tie off to overhanging tree limbs to hold their boats in place while casting to likely structure. Anchoring is likely to disturb fish and an anchor may catch tree roots or logjams, becoming irretrievable.
Fishing with live shiners becomes a more frequently used tactic in the lower stretches because of the shallower water and number of potential snags. With the boat anchored, the angler casts minnows hooked on float rigs to likely spots. When the fish quit biting, he moves on.
The Northeast Cape Fear River joins the Cape Fear River at Wilmington. While both rivers can be accessed from the city ramp at Castle Street, most anglers begin fishing the Northeast Cape Fear by launching at the public ramp at Castle Hayne. From there, they fish the river itself or head up one of the creeks. Fishing Creek, Prince George Creek, Morgan Creek, Long Creek and Island Creek are some of the more popular creeks that hold lots of crappie. On the opposite side of N.C. 133 from the ramp is a park with a public fishing dock where anglers can catch crappie with no need for a boat.
Farther up the Northeast Cape Fear, anglers launch at Lane’s Ferry, Holly Shelter, White Stocking and Shelter Creek. These ramps provide access to the river and many large feeder creeks and oxbows that hold big black crappie.
While the fishing tactics remain the same, the number of islands in this stretch of river allow for another type of fishing once the crappie begin to spawn in late March or early April. The fish congregate on sand banks at the downstream tips of the islands. This is where the spawn takes place. Up to a dozen crappie can be caught from a single spot when the fish are at the sandbars. A
nglers who know the river anchor in areas free of fallen timber and fish the sandbars. If the river is flowing gently, a trolling motor is effective for fishing along the sand banks in the New Hanover and Pender County stretches. But it can be a torrent if it is rainy.
In that event, anglers head for the backwaters. Feeder streams, open swamps and oxbows line the river between the N.C. 53 and N.C. 133 bridges. Crappie congregate in them to spawn and feed out of the river current. The best way to find these waters is to search for them, because many of the best spots are not marked on any map.
All Cape Fear and Northeast Cape Fear fishing can be done from a 14-foot johnboat. Bass boats are often encountered, along with larger and smaller craft.
Still, the aluminum johnboat gets the nod for fishing the rivers: You’ll have no worries about banging the boat against a fallen tree or scraping the bottom across cypress knees to gain access to a hidden oxbow.
Some of the larger stretches can get rough if it’s windy. But in that case, it’s too rough to fish for crappie. High banks and tall trees keep the wind at bay along most of the river. But wind concentrates anglers in protected spots on weekends when they are more likely to be out.
When it’s calm, a canoe or kayak can be launched at any of the ramps with good chances for fishing success. Canoes and cabins can be rented at Holland’s Shelter Creek Outdoor Adventures on N.C. 53 east of Burgaw. Canoes can also be launched at Holland’s.
From the Holly Shelter boat ramp, there is a walking trail that runs south along the Northeast Cape Fear. Crappie can be caught from the bank along this stretch. Most bank-anglers fishing this area use cane poles or long fiberglass rods to keep their hooks from hanging up on the bank cover.
With miles of bank to fish and access by any means, the Cape Fear River system provides blue-collar fishing at its best. Access is by powerboat, paddleboat or walking. No one can complain about access to the native black crappie of the Cape Fear River system, unless they choose to stay home and miss out on the action.
For more information, contact Holland’s Shelter Creek Outdoor Adventures at (910) 259-3399.
Editor’s Note: Mike Marsh’s new book, Offshore Angler — Carolina’s Mackerel Boat Fishing Guide has artificial reef maps and 22 chapters on boats, rigging and game fish species caught from center-console boats. To order an autographed copy, send a $20 check or money order to 1502 Ebb Drive, Wilmington, NC 28409.