January 16, 2018
North Carolina's cold weather has killed thousands of coastal sport fish, but the frigid temps haven't impacted stripers. Here are some tips to get bit in the cold.
When temperatures dove into single digits during late December 2017 and early January 2018 across North Carolina and hovered in the teens and 20-degree marks for nearly two straight weeks, the cold stunned and killed thousands of coastal sports fish from Surf City to Manteo.
It was the most-devastating cold-stun fish kill in recorded state history.
Anglers discovered massive numbers of floating, sunken, stunned and stone-cold dead spotted sea trout, red drum and flounders at river shallows, in marsh creeks and at the backs of feeder creeks. Commercial netters had a field day, using dip nets and pitchforks to collect fish and toss them into their boats.
"Any flounder gigger knows these shallow bays are usually peppered with small southern flounder all winter and they were dead all over the place," said Swansboro guide Jeff Cronk of Fishn4life Charters.
After a cruise of shallow marsh lands near Bogue Inlet, he said: "I didn't see one living flounder. On a positive note, most of our big schools of reds made it [out of inland waters] to the surf. But I guarantee there's not a trout, red or black drum that survived in all the creeks off the [Bogue] sound and lower rivers."
The N.C. Division of Marine Fisheries declared a January 5-June 15 moratorium for recreational fishing for spotted seatrout (specks) and allowed commercial fishermen to sell unfrozen trout until Jan. 12. The commercial gill- and strike-netting seasons for specks also remains closed until June 15.
However, one inshore fish species wasn't affected by cold water temperatures -- striped bass. Stripers, or "rockfish" as most eastern N.C. anglers call them, prefer cold water and the state's three main central-coast rivers — the Neuse, Pamlico and Roanoke — feature active bites of resident stripers the entire winter. The only restricting factor is an angler's ability to withstand frigid air temps.
More on Striper Fishing
Perhaps the most unique place to fish for striped bass is the Neuse and Trent rivers at New Bern. If the fish aren't biting, it's 5 minutes to a warm hotel room, restaurant or hot toddy.
Capt. Joe Ward of Pollocksville (FlyDaddy Charters, 252-229-4656) is the region's senior guide and almost exclusively chases striped bass dring January, February and March at the two coastal rivers. He's learned favorite rockfish haunts, from Oriental to the U.S. 70/17/N.C. 55 bridge supports across the Neuse and in the nearby Trent.
"[Stripers] like to hang out at the concrete bridge supports," he said. "They're called 'rockfish' because they like to be near rocks and bridge pilings are the nearest things we've got to rocks around here."
Anglers from New Jersey to Maine fish for nearshore stripers in winter by standing on rocky shorelines and casting lures or live eels to them behind Atlantic Ocean breakers.
Tar Heel state boat anglers also fish in Albemarle and Pamlico sounds by using depth-finders to locate feeding stripers or watch for birds diving on surface baitfish (herring and menhaden).
Stripers like to hang at the concrete bridge pilings near the confluence of the Neuse and Trent rivers at New Bern or anglers fish ledge drop-offs at the two rivers' channels and feeder creeks.
Rockfish don't hunt near bridge supports because they like to eat barnacles. Bridge supports and pilings constrict river currents and force baitfish through their underwater gaps. Concrete bridges offer excellent ambush spots — in this case, rockfish target menhaden and "shad" (herrings, hickory or white shad).
Power Reeling for Stripers
The hickory and American (white) shad begin their spawning migrations up the Neuse and Trent rivers during February, and stripers follow them. Anglers quickly learned to use soft-plastic artificial lures, live shad or herring, cut bait, jigged spoons or soaked live eels with Carolina rigs on the bottom near bridge supports.
Neuse and Trent stripers mostly range from 2 to 8 pounds, but some come in magnum sizes, as much as 20 pounds.
"I fish with 1/8- to 3/8-ounce jigheads," Ward said, "and I like to thread the hooks on smoke-color Bass Assassin curlytail soft-plastic grubs or Jerk Shads in light-green baby bass, also smoke (gray-and-white) colors. I also jig Super Flukes and lipless crankbaits (Spots, Rat-L-Traps, Strike King Red-Eyed Shad or silver-with-blue-back Yamamoto lipless shad) off the bottom near pilings."
Fishing for stripers at bridge abutments is a waiting game because winter "rocks" don't often actively chase lures. They'd rather have baits come to them; it's why they set up ambushes at bridge pilings.
"It's also why I want a lure or bait to fall slow," Ward said. "Sometimes I use a split shot a foot or so above a fluke or other soft plastic -- to make it fall a little faster than with no weight at all."
The slow-falling lure tactic is the main reason Ward doesn't burn deep-diving crankbaits in winter.
"I think [a fast-moving lure] is unnatural for 'rocks' to see that time of year," he said. "Baitfish don't move fast in winter."
Ward usually casts a lure or jig on the up-current side of a piling and lefts it fall slowly toward the bottom. If he doesn't get a bite on the fall, he'll jig it toward the surface, cranking his reel handle a few times, then lets it drop again. Falling lures mimic injured baitfish, eliciting a strike response.
"You can't say anything is 100 percent, but I wouldn't be afraid to say about that many rocks hit bridge baits on the fall," he said.
Ward prefers 15- to 16-pound-test monofilament line with an 18-inch fluorocarbon leader on 6- or 6 1/2-foot-long bass rods or 7-0 spinning rods and 2500 or 3000 series reels.
He said if Neuse bridge stripers don't hit a lure or bait near a piling, they'll often bite 7 to 12 feet from the surface.
"Fish usually are deeper and look up to see baitfish," Ward said. "If they're deeper and see a falling bait, they come up to meet it."
A striper's eyes easily rotate toward the surface to detect baitfish.
Practice has taught Ward to feel when jig-and-plastic-grub lures or lipless crankbaits reach about 7 feet from the surface as he cranks them toward his boat.
"When they get to 7 feet, I'll turn the [reel] handle slow enough to keep the bait at that depth and crank it back to me," he said. "I don't know why it happens, but I get more striper bites 7 feet down than at any other depth."
An angler friend, James Barnes, uses a different approach and slow trolls Shad Raps up and down the Neuse and Trent river channels, sticking close to ledge drop-offs and channels while maintainig his lures at the 7-foot depth. Another buddy, Tommy Hall, uses live eels attached to Carolina rigs he lets fall to the bottom near the bases of bridge supports and slowly works them toward the surface.
"He uses a Carolina rig [1-ounce barrel weight] and drops a live eel [hooked through the nostrils --> beside his boat next to a bridge support," Ward said. "He reels up two cranks from the bottom and eases around the support with his trolling motor. He learned the technique fishing at the Chesapeake Bay. The eels go crazy, wigglin' and tryin' to hide behind the pilings and that movement attacts rockfish. Plus rocks love to eat eels."
Eels seem to catch bigger stripers, sometimes weighing 20 pounds or larger, Ward said.
"The only problem is finding a bait-and-tackle shop that carries live eels," he said.
When N.C.'s coastal brackish-water creeks have skim ice for days and weeks, cold stuns usually occur.
"It seems to affect bigger fish more than smaller trout," said New River guide Ricky Kellum, "but the most-recent cold snap stunned fish of all sizes. You usually don't see stunned flounder because they live on the bottom, but we had lots of stunned fish of all kinds everywhere this time."
Forecasters predict another round of extremely low temperatures during early-January, which likely will trigger another fish stun event. Sub-freezing weather usually extends from January into early March but rarely lasts more than a few consecutive days.
Fishermen should report cold stun fish kills to the N.C. Division of Marine Fisheries (http://portal.ncdenr.org/web/mf/.