Most sportsmen hunt and fish hard when fall arrives. But they tend to stay indoors when cold weather hits. Here are some suggestions for topnotch opportunities you may not have considered that will generate enough excitement to keep you warm in the coldest conditions.
WILD BOAR — NANTAHALA GAME LAND
In the Western Region, the counties of Cherokee, Clay, Graham, Jackson, Macon and Swain have the state’s only dedicated wild boar season. In all the other counties, feral pigs are considered nuisance species and can be hunted at any time. It’s mostly tradition, with a nod to true wild boar that were accidentally released in the area many years ago.
The Nantahala Game Land covers vast acreage in those counties that have the dedicated wild boar season and it hosts excellent hunting. Hounds can be used to hunt wild boar during the bear season. Wild boar are considered dangerous big-game animals in that corner of the state and can be quite exciting to hunt.
Boarhounds trail the animals and the catch dogs hold them, either by bringing them to bay, or by actually holding them. They grab them by the snout or ear and subdue the animal until the hunter arrives to grab a hind leg, roll the boar over and hog-tie it before killing it with a knife or pistol. Another method invovles shooting the boar with a rifle or shotgun as it runs ahead of the hounds. And, of course, hogs can be hunted without dogs by still hunters.
To participate in a hound hunt for wild boar, a hunter should be in excellent physical shape for climbing some of the most rugged mountain terrain in the world. However, opportunities to hunt feral pigs by still-hunting also occur all across the mountain region, including at Pisgah Game Land, which is not in the dedicated wild boar season area.
It is legal to still-hunt wild boar during the open season in the specified six-county area, as well as anywhere else. But when hunting on game lands, only those firearms and bows and arrows allowed for other open game seasons may be used for hunting feral pigs.
Still-hunting feral pigs or wild boar is essentially the same as still-hunting deer. Hunters scout for sign, such as mud wallows, rubbing trees and rocks, and rooted-up areas where pigs are feeding then hunters either set up a tree stand or stalk through the area slowly. While their eyesight isn’t keen, wild pigs can certainly spot moving hunters. They also have good hearing and an excellent, even unsurpassed, sense of smell. Hunters can also use their noses to sniff out a good area for still-hunting feral pigs because their scent is as strong as that of domestic swine.
SNIPE AND RING-NECKED PHEASANT — CORE BANKS
Common snipe are the most under-hunted and unrecognized upland game birds in the state. When most hunters take snipe they are usually hunting for other game.
Snipe, which offer a sporting target anytime and anywhere they are found, are actually fairly predictable in their habits and habitat. But the places where they concentrate are often far-removed from those frequented by other game. Some notable exceptions occur with their proximity to dove and waterfowl haunts.
I’ve hunted snipe along the margins of piedmont lakes drawn down for the winter, during ring-necked pheasant hunts at Cape Lookout National Seashore on the Outer Banks and in low depressions of the coastal plain such as wet spots in power line rights-of-way, harvested corn and soybean fields, and small borrow pits and pocket waters of several game lands. Croatan and Holly Shelter game lands host some snipe hunting, especially during drier periods when the margins of ponds, lakes and bays are exposed.
Pointing dogs can be used to hunt snipe. Snipe actually hold fairly well and the hunter can often see the bird in open areas ahead of the dog. When snipe flush, they circle and return to the same spot from where they were flushed. If the hunter simply stands still, the flock will usually offer a shot as they pass overhead, uttering their raucous cries of “escape, escape, escape!”
Heavy loads of No. 8 or 9 shot fired through open-choked guns are the best snipe medicine. Their flight is very erratic and a dense, open pattern helps compensate for their zigzagging flight.
I encountered some of the biggest concentrations of snipe I’ve ever seen while hunting ring-necked pheasants on Core Banks. This part of the Cape Lookout National Seashore is only accessible by boat, so it can be quite an adventure. If you go, take your walking boots and plenty of water and food for you and your dog. Also take a radio and GPS unit and make certain you have a contact on the mainland in the event a wind tide strands your boat.
The gray squirrel is North Carolina’s State Mammal. Although many other species grow larger, no game animal is more abundant or widespread. Gray squirrels can be hunted in every county in the state.
December is one of the best times for hunting gray squirrels because the leaves have fallen from the trees in all of the regions, making the squirrels easier to see. The piedmont forests are among the best places to hunt gray squirrels because they have extensive stands of mature oak-hickory forests, with lots of hollow trees to serve as winter den sites. An excellent place for hunting gray squirrels is the Uwharrie Game Land. The national forest property has many places with high populations of gray squirrels.
Some hunters use squirrel dogs to sniff out squirrels and tree them. It is an excellent tactic, if you have a trained dog, or know someone who owns a trained dog.
If not, “signing them out” works well. The hunter looks for freshly gnawed acorn husks, hickory nuts, or places where squirrels have dug nuts they have buried from beneath the leaves. Obviously well maintained leaf nests — tight, with compacted leaves and twigs — are another good sign. But, in December, an even better sign is a den tree with fresh gnawing marks around the entrances showing a squirrel has recently marked its territory. The best way to determine whether a hollow tree den is occupied is by checking out the tooth marks through a binocular.
A hunter can stalk slowly through good squirrel habitat, using a logging trail or dry wash to quiet his footsteps. The best times for stalking are at dawn
following heavy dew, thawing frost, fog, or rain. When leaves are too dry for effective stalking, the best tactic is to sneak into a place with lots of sign before dawn or at mid-afternoon, sit patiently on a stump or rock, and wait for the squirrels to become active.
A .22- or .17-caliber rimfire rifle is a better option than a shotgun for hunting late-season gray squirrels because shots can occur at long ranges in the open forests of winter. But a full-choked shotgun loaded with No. 6 shot will certainly take gray squirrels anytime.
STRIPED BASS — OREGON INLET
The recovery of Roanoke-Albemarle complex striped bass is one of the top fish restoration success stories of the century. The big fish, which are in the sound and river in warmer months, head for the Atlantic in winter.
Huge stripers that can top 40 pounds swim in the waters within sight of the beaches in winter. There are plenty of smaller fish, too.
The way to find the fish is to spot the gannets. Other birds, including gulls, terns and pelicans, dive bomb schools of baitfish. But if you see gannets, the baitfish school most likely will also be attracting stripers down below.
Anglers tow their own boats and launch them from the ramp at Oregon Inlet. But there are also many charter boats open for the striped bass business during the winter months.
Another good bet is striper fishing from the beach. Angling from the sand can result in a highly successful day. When the fish move into the surf zone, the word gets around fast and 4-wheel drive vehicles descend upon the riots of fish and birds.
A long surf rod casting cut baits such as frozen mullet and fresh menhaden fillets, guarantees success when the stripers are in the breakers. Offshore, jigging, trolling with spoons and lures, or trolling rigged frozen baits or squid will work. Striped bass are not very choosy about what they will eat. The trick is to find the fish and get something in front of them.
Anglers may find the fish inside the inlet beneath the Bonner Bridge, or out a mile or so and within a few miles north or south of the bridge.
WALLEYE — LAKE FONTANA
Many mountain lakes have been stocked with walleye, but not many anglers know how and where to catch them. Lake Fontana is one of the best lakes for catching the tasty fish and winter is the best time to catch them.
There are a couple of techniques that work well for Fontana walleye. The first is trolling with lures. The best lures mimic small baitfish. Big-lipped, deep diving stickbaits are among the best lures. But inline spinners trolled with the aid of planers or downriggers to get them deep also work well.
Walleye are typically scattered, so the angler must move around to find the fish. Sometimes the baitfish on which walleye are feeding show up on the depthfinder with a few large marks among them indicating the predatory fish are there. However, many walleye are caught in areas that don’t show much of anything down in the water column.
Slow-trolling with a live bait in a worm gang-rig or minnow harness is a classic way of catching walleye in their northern range. The method works just as well at Fontana. The angler simply picks a bank with a moderate slope and trolls or drifts slowly along, waiting for a strike. Once a fish strikes, other baits or lures are adjusted to the same depth. Trolling along the contour of the slope at the same depth will usually result in multiple hook-ups.
One of the most under-fished winter bass fishing lakes in the state is Sutton Lake. The lake produces unusually good fishing in December for two reasons.
First, it is documented to have Florida strain largemouth bass, meaning the bass grow large and fast. Second, it is a closed-circulation cooling reservoir for Progress Energy, Carolinas L.V. Sutton Steam-Electric generating facility. The long growing and feeding season also helps bass grow large and fast.
The 850-lake has lots of logs, stumps, bars and deep holes that were excavated to form the dikes that serve as baffles to increase flow length for cooling.
When other lakes across the state are cold, the first two or three compartments or “ponds” in Sutton Lake have water temperatures in the 70s — they are so warm steam issues from the surface of the lake. Anglers can therefore experience action as good as in the spring at other lakes, with 20 fish caught and released per day not unusual.
Best lures for December fishing are soft plastics and crankbaits. Anglers should start fishing in Pond 1, which is the compartment accessed by the boat ramp.
CRAPPIE, WHITE PERCH, STRIPED BASS — LAKE NORMAN
Lake Norman is a great lake for catching crappie and white perch. These schooling fish take advantage of the hot water discharges at the McGuire Nuclear Plant near Charlotte and the Marshall Steam Plant near Mooresville. The influence of these “hot holes” attracts baitfish and the schooling predatory fish. The warm temperature impacts the winter fishing in a positive way within approximately a 2-mile radius of each discharge.
Trolling is a great way to get in on the action, with inline spinners and small crankbaits among the best choices. On days when casting won’t freeze the angler’s fingers, curly-tailed jigs, hair jigs and small tube jigs work well. Live crappie-sized shiners are great choices for live baits and can be fished with float rigs or drifted on weighted lines.