As you budget your vacation time for the coming year, check out these Carolina classics. Some of these trips are world-class fishing experiences that you should fit into your lifetime bucket list.
JANUARY - Lake Hickory Stripers
Hickory is one of the most productive lakes in the Catawba Chain. Anglers who want hot striper action should head for this 4,223-acre lake, even if the boat cuts through skim ice at dawn.
Shannon Lyndon of Riverview Sports said the seagulls often show anglers the locations of schooling stripers. The best place to begin searching for them is in the lower half of the lake.
"The main lake points are where you need to look for the stripers," he said. "If you can catch them on top early in the morning or late in the afternoon, you should cast a Zara Spook right on top of them. Later in the day when the sun is up, you should fish the same points, but you need to dig deeper to find them."
When the fish go deep, anglers catch them by jigging or trolling white bucktail jigs with chartreuse trailers or a Storm swimbaits in pearl color.
OTHER OPTIONS: Chain pickerel will hit Shad Raps at White Lake. White perch will attack Sabiki rigs weighted with Hopkins spoons in 50 feet of water at Lake Norman.
FEBRUARY - Tar River Reservoir White Crappie
While you may take a few black crappie home from Tar River Reservoir, white crappie are far more abundant. The lake produced two white crappie state records in 2010. However, the fishing declined following a drought. Now that the water levels have normalized for several years, the white crappie action is returning.
Anglers should fish minnows or shoot jigs at the boat docks. In February, sediment-laden runoff often stains the water, so anglers should look for areas with the clearest water at the upper ends of the creeks.
If the fish are not at the boat docks, anglers should search for crappie schools with their depthfinders. The best places are along the edges of main river channel and around any islands.
In the creeks, crappie may be on the flats. Anglers can find them by trolling or spider rigging with jigs and minnows.
OTHER OPTIONS: Northeast Cape Fear River black crappie will hit minnows and jigs cast around the cypress knees. Hiwassee Lake striped bass will blast live herring.
MARCH - Cape Fear River Shad
The Cape Fear River shad run is a rite of spring for many anglers, and biologists are hoping that the new rock arch rapid has enabled the fish to swim over Dam No. 1 to increase the strength of the spawn. Most of the fish are American shad and a few are hickory shad. With the bag limit 10 fish in combination with only five of them American shad, anglers should learn to identify the two species. At Lock and Dam No. 1 Park at Kings Bluff, anglers can catch them from boats or the new fishing pier.
The best way to catch shad is casting small Reflecto spoons, darts or crappie jigs from an anchored boat. The fish usually concentrate along the edges of the river in the seams and eddies just downstream of the dam.
Now that the fish are able to swim father upstream, the action is getting better at Lock and Dam No. 2 at Elizabethtown. In fact, the fish move upstream so fast — they do not linger nearly as long at Lock No. 1 as they did in the past, so anglers who miss the fish at the lower dam should move upstream.
OTHER OPTIONS: Largemouth bass at Lake Tillery will strike crankbaits cast along grass beds. Crappie will move to the brush piles at Lake Jordan.
APRIL - Roanoke River Striped Bass
The restoration of the striped bass fishing at Weldon has reclaimed its fame as the "Rockfish Capital of the World." Such braggadocio is hard to refute when anglers are catching dozens of fish in a single day. To prevent injury to released fish, anglers are required to use single barbless hooks whether fishing with bait or lures.
As the fish migrate, they school in eddies below the boulders and islands. Fly-fishermen use Clousers and streamers to catch them, fishing them on sinking or intermediate lines.
Due to the hook restrictions, the standby lure is a white bucktail jig with a white or chartreuse soft plastic trailer — either a twisty-tail or a plastic worm. However, the fish are likely to strike anything that looks like a baitfish. Jigs with shad-body trailers and soft plastic swimbaits have become increasingly popular because they also provide easy compliance with hook rules.
If you see a guide boat roaring above the U.S. 158 Bridge, it probably has a jet drive so don't try to follow if your engine has a standard propeller. The rapids begin at the bridge so be cautious and stay downstream.
OTHER OPTIONS: Crappie will hit jigs in the timber and brush at Falls Lake. Atlantic bonito will be hitting spoons and jigs off Topsail Beach.
MAY - Harris Lake Largemouth Bass
At 4,100 acres, Harris may not be the largest largemouth lake in the state, but it has the biggest reputation. Its production of trophy fish weighing more than 5 pounds just keeps on going, year after year.
The lake provides cooling water for a nuclear power plant and the process keeps the lake warm in winter, which helps bass grow fat fast. However, anglers who fish the lake for the first time are often baffled as to where to cast if they have come from other piedmont waters that have lots of shoreline development. They will not find boat docks, sea walls, riprap and other manmade structure.
The lakeshore grows lily pads, buttonbush and other perennial vegetation in the coves. However, Hydrilla beds attract the most bass and therefore the most attention from anglers. Carolina-rigged lizards, hollow frogs, floating worms and other soft plastic lures rigged to be snag-free are the best bets for fishing the live vegetation.
OTHER OPTIONS: Shellcrackers will be biting worms in the grass beds at Lake Waccamaw during the full moon. Spanish mackerel will be hitting Clarkspoons at Wrightsville Beach.
JUNE - Sutton Lake Largemouth Bass
After two years of decline, perhaps caused by replacement of a former coal-fired power plant with a gas-fired plant, big largemouth bass are back at Sutton Lake. The fish are once again exhibiting some of the fastest growth rates and best condition ratings in the coastal plain.
The 1,100-acre lake has a series of dikes that allow water to cool before re-entering the L.V. Sutton steam-electric plant, which means that all of the various "ponds" formed by the dikes have different water temperatures. The coolest water is closest to power plant's intake in Pond 7 and the warmest water is in Pond 1, which receives the plant's hot discharge water. In June, the water gets very hot, so anglers should start at Pond 7 and work back toward the ramp. As the sun climbs, the fish head to the deep canals along the dikes where soft plastics on Carolina rigs are go-to lures.
OTHER OPTIONS: Sheepshead will bite fiddler crabs fished at Swansboro bridges. Flounder will eat menhaden and mullet fished along the Intracoastal Waterway at Carolina Beach.
JULY - Roanoke River System Panfish
Even in the hottest summer weather, the swampy floodplain where the Cashie, Broad, Eastmost and Middle Rivers combine with Roanoke River just upstream of Albemarle Sound has some of the best panfish action in the world. Bob Smithwick lives in Windsor and catches bluegill, warmouth, redbreast and redear sunfish with fly tackle.
"I have fished for bream in nearly every state and can tell you that there is no better fishing, anywhere," he said. "I can catch 50 to 100 fish any morning."
Smithwick fishes floating flies — foam-body sliders and traditional poppers — before the sun comes up. When the shadows are gone, he uses sinking flies, especially a spider-like fly of his own creation called a "Tail-end Charlie" by suspending it 18 to 24 inches below a foam strike indicator. The use of a sinking fly is the key to catching summer panfish.
"I just pick a cove and ease the boat along with the trolling motor," he said. "You will find fish nearly everywhere."
OTHER OPTIONS: Speckled trout will hit topwater lures at New River near Snead's Ferry. Huge red drum will eat cut croakers in the Neuse River near Oriental.
AUGUST - High Rock Channel Catfish
Anglers at High Rock Lake know all about the excellent bass and crappie fishing. But few of them take advantage of the abundant channel catfish. Maynard Edwards is a fishing guide and tackle manufacturer who specializes in catching them.
"August is one of our best months for catching channel catfish," he said. "You can't beat them if you want to fill your cooler with some good-eating fish."
Edwards fishes the flats, which are the more gently sloping areas where the creeks enter the main river channel. He fishes from a pontoon boat, spreading his baits like an offshore captain. His specially made planer boards move the baits far out to either side. He also trolls live baits on the bottom. He catches shad in a cast net to use as bait, keeping them in a live well.
"Everybody thinks you need to fish at night to catch catfish," he said. "But nothing could be farther from the truth. I can catch 20 or 30 channel catfish in a morning and some of them weigh 10 pounds or more."
OTHER OPTIONS: Tarpon will be biting live or dead baitfish at Pamlico Sound. Offshore bottom fish action will be on fire on the head boats fishing out of Calabash.
SEPTEMBER - Lake Wylie Blue Catfish
Blue catfish really turn on autumn, according to Jerry Neeley. Lake Wylie catfish grow big because the lake receives less pressure than other Catawba River lakes.
"The catfish action is fantastic," he said. "I start fishing early in the morning on the main lake flats in 20 of water then move out to 40 feet as the day warms."
Neeley trolls with cut white perch as bait, pulling them along the bottom with sliding sinker rigs. The blue cats he catches typically weigh 20 to 30 pounds, with much larger fish that can top 50 pounds occasional catches.
For bait, he catches white perch by using Sabiki rigs with tiny pieces of cut white perch on the hooks. He spots the perch with his depthfinder and once he begins catching them, he trolls for catfish and white perch at the same time because catfish will be feeding in the perch schools.
OTHER OPTIONS: King mackerel will strike live baits at Oak Island's fishing piers. Spotted bass will hit topwater poppers at Lake Norman.
OCTOBER - Cape Lookout False Albacore
October is the peak of the false albacore run at Cape Lookout. Anglers flock to Harkers Island to get in on the action. False albacore, which are small members of the tuna family, fight hard, with blistering multiple runs.
The fish are easy to find by watching for sea birds that track their movements as they chase tiny baitfish to the surface. The fish boil the top for a moment before taking off again. When the run is in full swing, birds and fish are working everywhere.
The fish strike flies, spoons, jigs and lures, whether cast or trolled behind a boat. Anglers in small boats have the best luck with heavy casting spoons they can toss long distances to surfacing schools before they can sound.
OTHER OPTIONS: The spot run is on at the ocean piers. Badin Lake bass will be striking spoons and poppers.
NOVEMBER - Cape Hatteras Red Drum
No finer surf fishing occurs on the planet than when the red drum are migrating at Cape Hatteras. The big redfish, which can top 50 pounds, are in the surf and anglers may be hooked up and fighting them, shoulder to shoulder.
The way to catch the fish is by casting a menhaden chunk into the surf with a long surf rod. Anglers must wear waders and prepare for cold, wet, windy weather. The worse the weather, the better the fishing can be.
OTHER OPTIONS: Bluefish will be schooling in the same waters. Stripers will bite at Oregon Inlet.
DECEMBER - Lake Waccamaw Yellow Perch
In December, yellow perch will move up the Waccamaw River. The best way to catch them is by using worms and minnows for bait.
Local anglers also call them "redfin perch" because they exhibit their most striking colors when they run upriver to the lake, crossing the dam during high water conditions.
Anglers can park at the parking lot at the dam and walk downstream along a path that runs for a mile or more. They can also fish from the bank, from the dam, or launch a small boat from the parking lot. Some anglers launch power boats at the N.C. Wildlife Resources Commission Lake Waccamaw Boating Access Area and make the run to the dam to catch them.
OTHER OPTIONS: Stripers will hit live shad at Kerr Lake. Brown trout will strike deep diving lures at Apalachia Lake Dam.
EDITOR'S NOTE: If you'd like to contact Mike Marsh — or place a credit card order for his books on fishing in North Carolina — just go online to www.mikemarshoutdoors.com.
— Lyndon's Riverview Sports (Lake Hickory), 828-632-7889
— Capt. Gus Gustafson (Lake Norman), 704-617-6812
— Cape Fear River Lockmaster (shad run and water levels), 910-884-0883
— Roanoke River (striper updates), www.ncwildlife.org
— Capt. Jot Owens (Sutton Lake), 910-233-4139
— Capt. Jeff Cronk (Swansboro), 336-558-5697
— Capt. Dennis Barbour (Carolina Beach), 910-470-5041
— Bob Smithwick (Roanoke River), 252-794-9364
— Capt. Ricky Kellum (Snead's Ferry), 910-330-2745
— Capt. Jerry Neeley (lakes Wylie and Norman), 704-678-1043
— Oak Island Pier, oakislandpier.com
— Capt. Lee Parsons (Harker's Island false albacore and Wrightsville Beach Spanish mackerel), 910-540-2464
— Maynard Edwards (Yadkin Lakes Guide and Extreme Fishing Concepts), 336-249-6782
— Cape Hatteras National Seashore information, www.nps.gov/caha/planyourvisit/permitsandreservations.htm
— Oregon Inlet Fishing Center, oregon-inlet.com
— Voyager Deep Sea Fishing, voyagerfishing.com
— Capt. Gary Dubiel (Oriental tarpon and red drum), 252-514-3484