We've selected three great North Carolina fishing locations for each month of the year — top fisheries each in their season. Add one of 'em to your list of favorites this year! (February 2007)
North Carolina has some of the best variety of fishing in the country. And here are few of those "bests."
One North Carolina fishery that is truly fantastic is the winter striped bass run off the Outer Banks. Fish can show up anywhere from the Virginia-North Carolina border south to Ocracoke and even to Cape Lookout.
But the biggest concentration of stripers in January is north of Cape Hatteras — within reach of the huge charter fleet that runs out of Oregon Inlet, but often also within reach of surf-fishermen flinging fish-finder or bottom rigs with fresh cut baits. When stripers are in the surf, bucktails or spoons are the ticket.
Most of the stripers are caught a few miles off the beach. A key to finding them and tracking their movements is locating the huge flocks of sea birds that dog them.
The "mojo rig" is a basic tool for fishermen trolling for stripers. Despite the name, it's basically just a huge jighead — often weighing 2 pounds — dressed with a Mylar skirt, often with a baitfish trailer.
But many fishermen also do well trolling long, slender plugs or drifting live eels. Casting to fish feeding at the surface is also very common.
A great source of information on surf-fishing is Frank Folb at Frank & Fran's tackle shop in Avon (252/995-4171). A large number of charter boats work out of marinas in the Manteo/Nags Head area, with Devin Cage (252/473-6108) on The Poacher out of Oregon Inlet Fishing Center (252/441-6301), the acknowledged master of striper fishing.
Badin Lake, which covers more than 5,600 acres on the Yadkin River near the town of Denton, gets plenty of notice for its fine stripers, but it's also probably one of the best lakes in North Carolina for cold-weather bass fishing.
"I've lived here nearly all of my life, and you can go and talk to just about anybody, and they'll tell you the same thing," said guide Kevin Chandler of New London (704/704-463-7265). "Badin is better than just about any other lake when the weather is cold. I mean, it can be real cold — you don't even have to have a warming trend."
One factor is Badin is a fairly deep lake, and it's extremely clear. Second, the lake is full of shad.
"There are a lot of places where you can sit in 30 feet of water and cast to the bank," Chandler said. "There are a lot of rocks on the banks, and the bass will get close to those rocks. You can catch 'em on a Speed Trap or a Shad Rap, but a jerkbait has almost dominated the fishing down here over the past couple of years."
Buggs Island Lake
Sprawling Buggs Island Lake (49,500 acres) is better known for its fantastic late-spring bass fishing, but it's no slouch as a crappie fishery, as many anglers will attest.
It's especially good in March, as slabs are preparing to make their big rush into the shallows to spawn. That's when fishing jigs or minnows around brushpiles near the mouth of main-lake or main-creek pockets becomes extremely effective.
And it's not difficult to find good brush. Just idle around the mouth of pockets, covering water from 6 to 12 feet deep, and wait for your depthfinder to light up.
Fishermen who have a handful of favorite brushpiles can quickly gauge the mood of springtime crappie by the locations and depths where they catch them.
On the upper end of the lake, guide Bud Haynes of Clarksville, Virginia (434-374-0348), is a top-notch slab hunter. Buggs Island Bait & Tackle (434/374-8934) is also a good source for up-to-date fishing information.
Jordan established itself years ago as one of North Carolina's great bass fisheries, and April is a top month both for numbers of fish and for the giants found in its shallows.
The key is the water level; if it's at full pool or above, look to flooded shoreline bushes back in the creeks. If it's below full, stick to rocky banks.
Phil Cable of Holly Springs set the lake record about 15 years ago when he caught a 14-pound, 6-ounce bruiser in a weekend tournament. He retired from competitive fishing a few years later and started guiding.
"You're looking for fish that are getting ready to spawn," Cable said (919/762-9697). "The fish will be moving back in the creeks, and they'll get on shallow laydowns or in the bushes if there's any water in them. You can have a real good spinnerbait bite or a flipping bite with a jig or a Senko.
"I like to fish riprap or rocky banks before the sun comes up, then move back in the creeks later."
Jordan is managed by the N.C. Wildlife Resources Commission with a 16-inch size minimum — a regulation that definitely helped the lake develop as a trophy fishery in the early 1990s.
Cape Lookout Offshore
The first really good run of offshore fish in the waters off Cape Lookout takes place in late April and through May as hordes of big dolphin show, along with yellowfin tuna and an occasional blue marlin.
Fishing really starts at the WR-14 buoy in about 20 fathoms of water, and big, gaffer-sized dolphin are commonly caught from there all the way to the "Big Rock" offshore. Grasslines formed by current are knockout spots to find dolphin. Most fishermen troll ballyhoo and chartreuse/green trolling feathers. Go with blue/crystal or blue/pink when farther offshore where the possibility of taking tuna is better
As the summer progresses, the big dolphin give way to the smaller, school-sized fish; May is definitely the month for those 20-pound and above specimens.
Dozens of charter boats run out of the Morehead City and Harkers Island areas. One accomplished captain is Glenn Loftin (252/247-7733), who captains the Frequent Flier.
High Rock Lake
From Mother's Day through the end of June, there may not be a better bass fishery in North Carolina than 15,900-acre High Rock Lake.
Most fish spawn on High Rock in early May, and their post-spawn blues are over in about two weeks. That sets up an absolutely phenomenal exodus from the shallows, with fish ganging up in huge schools on secondary points and "corners" as they leave spawning pockets.
Bass will usually start feeding again in 6 to 8 feet of water on those kinds of spots, and they're suckers for both medium-running crankbaits and Carolina-rigged lizards. It's not unusual to catch a half-dozen fish on a single spot once you find them, and those fish will range anywhere from 2 1/2 to 6 pounds.
The feeding frenzy will typically last until late June, when fish slowly back out of creeks toward the main body of the lake, easing down into deeper water as they go. But it will be July 4 before they're really broken up from their large schools.
Guide Maynard Edwards of Lexington (336/249-6782) has fished and guided on the lake for decades and loves to key on bass during June.
Flounder fishing around the mouth of the Cape Fear River and west along Brunswick County beaches can be fantastic in July. A two-pronged attack will work very well for most fishermen either working inshore reefs out of Southport or fishing the mouths of coastal creeks, rivers or ditches that empty into the Intracoastal Waterway.
Big flounder really get out on the Yaupon and McGlammery reefs in late June, and fishing is excellent throughout July. The reefs are marked with buoys and are easily locatable; almost every good chart map of the coast has coordinates. Another good thing about the reefs: They're only a couple of miles off the beach, west of the mouth of the river.
Fishermen looking to catch flounder should concentrate on the outside edges of the rubble, fishing live menhaden on Carolina rigs. Flounder typically settle on the bottom, using the rubble as an ambush point, then strike out at baitfish that swim within range.
Flounder fishing is also good around deep docks along the Southport waterfront and in coastal creeks and rivers (Lockwood Folly and Shallotte) from Southport to Little River Inlet at the South Carolina state line. Fish around the mouth of any ditch or creek on a falling tide, as flounder will position themselves in areas where they can feed on baitfish that are being sucked out of the marshes by the falling water.
Capt. Jimmy Price is one of the best-known flounder fishermen around. He hangs his hat in Southport at Wildlife Bait & Tackle (910/457-9903). For information about other areas along the Brunswick County coastline, call Hunter McCray at The Rod & Reel Shop in Supply (910/842-2034).
A fishery developed in the Neuse River about 10 years ago that still boggles the mind of fishermen across North Carolina.
Big channel bass, the huge fish more associated with surf-fishermen along the beaches of the Outer Banks, were found to be showing up around the mouth of the Neuse River late in the summer, moving up in the shallows to feed before spawning.
Most of the best fishing is after dark, as fishermen anchor up on shallow points or shoals in 5 to 10 feet of water, close to deeper water where the big drum spend most of their time.
Fresh cut baits fished on Carolina rigs or fish-finder rigs are cast out, but not until a bag of fresh ground chum has had a chance to leech out into the water to create a chum slick that will draw in any big fish that cuts across it on its way to feed.
Relatively heavy spinning tackle is commonly used, as are circle hooks, because it's illegal to keep a drum longer than 27 inches — and most of these brutes are 40 inches long or better.
A handful of guides target big drum out of the town of Aurora, including George Beckwith (252/249-3101) and Derrick Jordan (252/322-5356), while guide Chris Elliott (252/808-7067) accesses the Neuse through the ICW and Core Creek from his home in Beaufort.
King mackerel are one of North Carolina's most desired saltwater fish, in part because they can be caught extremely close to the beach — even from ocean piers — and because they can be caught up to tremendous sizes.
In September, big kings will pull in around the Carolina Beach and Wrightsville Beach areas, feeding around inshore reefs and rocks anywhere from two to 10 miles out. They tend to be closer to the beach early in the month; later on, they'll move out as October approaches.
Fishermen can use almost any good chart map to locate popular spots like the artificial reefs off Masonboro and Carolina Beach Inlets and Figure Eight Island.
Slow-trolling with live menhaden is a very popular tactic, especially for catching big kings. However, drifting or slow-trolling dead cigar minnows can be almost as effective.
Just about every charter captain who works out of Carolina Beach or Wrightsville Beach fishes for kings in the fall. A good source for information — and to find a charter captain — is Lloyd Eastlack at Bug 'Em Bait in Wilmington (800/242-2493).
Big kings will be just about everywhere around Cape Lookout in October, from the sea buoy at Beaufort Inlet all the way to good live bottom 10 or 12 miles off the beach on the east side of the Cape Lookout shoals.
Joe Shute of Capt. Joe's Bait & Tackle in Atlantic Beach (252/240-2744) runs charter trips for kings in the fall and keeps up with the whereabouts of the great majority of fish being caught.
He said that spots that hold fish are easily located on chart maps: 30-minute rock, 1700 rock, East rock, Northwest places, Big 10/Little 10.
"For most of October, you can do pretty good fishing just off the beach, but you tend to do better on the bigger fish a little farther offshore," Shute said. "There's a lot of really good hard bottom about 12 to 15 miles off the beach on the east side of the shoals; that's where I do a lot of my fishing."
Shute said that live menhaden or dead cigar minnows are the primary baits used
by fishermen, but anglers also catch plenty of kings trolling big plugs: Yo-Zuri deep-divers, Megabaits and Stretch 25s.
November is clearly the best month of the year to catch nice specks in the Wrightsville Beach area, with fish showing up everywhere.
With plenty of baitfish and shrimp in the water in a number of different places, fishermen can expect to catch fish around the jetties at Masonboro Inlet, in deep holes in Mason's Inlet, and along marsh banks everywhere else — behind Rich's Inlet, in creeks and in the Intracoastal Waterway.
Guide Rick Bennett of Rodman Charters (910/799-6120) said that he fishes live shrimp on a Carolina rig in the deep water around Mason's Inlet or the Masonboro Inlet jetties. When he fishes the skinny water around marsh banks, he uses a 1/4-ounce leadhead jig with a 3-inch Gulp Swimming Minnow. When he's in the 5- to 10-foot water, he likes to fish jerkbaits like a Rapala X-Rap or a series 2000 MirrOLure.
"What you fish depends on where you're fishing and when you're fishing," Bennett said. "You can catch 'em a number of different ways."
Fishing for early-winter stripers at Lake Hickory can be a blast, as the fish seem to sense that extremely cold weather is on the way, and they prepare for it by feeding heavily.
"The stripers at Hickory know when January gets here it will be so cold they'll just about go to sleep," said guide Jeff Tomlin of Statesville (704/902-7246). "When they feel the water temperature get down into the 50s, they know it's time to fatten up."
Hickory has been known in recent years as a good lake to find stripers between 10 and 20 pounds, with an occasional beast mixed in. December is a great month on the lower end of the lake, from the Route 127 bridge down to Oxford Dam, as fish move down the river channel and spread on main-lake flats to feed.
Tomlin likes to fish live gizzard shad or blueback herring on free lines or side-planer boards, almost slow-trolling them along using only his electric trolling motor for power. He probes areas with 15 to 20 feet of water on the deep ends of flats, often finding fish as shallow as 8 to 10 feet. Subtle underwater points, humps, sharp dropoffs or even stumpfields and brushpiles will hold stripers during the winter. They aren't really bunched up, but you can expect to find several fish in an area if you catch the first one.
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