October 04, 2010
Bald Head holds some great trout and redfish hotspots. Here's the inside scoop on where the experts go to get bit.
By Mike Marsh
The tiny jig landed in an eddy swirling at the downcurrent side of an oyster bed. Its barely audible splashdown was overpowered by the click of a baitcasting reel as it was cranked into gear. Flirting with the razor-sharp shells, the line grew taut as a rod tip guided it across a sandbar. A sideways twitch of the line telegraphed a trout tasting the jig and brought an instant response.
"Got him!" Capt. Barry Phillips exclaimed.
The supple rod bent nearly double as he struck the hook home. Handling the fish with steady pressure until it splashed at the side of the boat, Phillips grabbed a landing net and slid it beneath a 16-inch speckled trout. The fish briefly struggled in the webbing until Phillips unhooked it and tossed it into a cooler.
We were fishing at Bald Head Island, a remarkable stretch of real estate that is 75 percent water. Located at the eastern side of the mouth of the Cape Fear River, the upland portions of the maritime forest and marsh complex were developed into an upscale town sprouting single family homes, condominiums, a golf course and a marina.
The surrounding tidal creeks and flats, however, maintain their primitive and alluring character. Of course, the scenic beauty of the marshes is not the only reason anglers brave crossing the Cape Fear River to enter them. The speckled trout and red drum fishing can be as hot as the weather during the summer months for anglers who know where to look for them and what they might bite.
"The trick to catching specks and reds is learning how the tides influence the fishing," Phillips said. "There are plenty of places where they are found on the higher tides and that is the best time to get around in the Bald Head marshes. The main problem is that the waterways are shallow, so the problem is getting to the fish."
Capt. Barry Phillips often fishes for speckled trout and red drum with live minnows cast to the Bald Head Island Marina entrance. Photo by Mike Marsh
Phillips fishes a center-console-style boat large enough for ocean duty that still only draws a foot of water. Before crossing the river to enter one of the many creeks between Bald Head Island and the mainland, he checks the tide stage.
"Anyone can get to Muddy Slough, Bay Creek, Cape Creek or Bald Head Creek on a high tide," Phillips said. "But the water rises and falls almost a foot an hour. That leaves only about half the tide stage to get across the bars to enter the creeks. With 12 hours between high and low tide, that leaves a six-hour window to get back into the bays with the fish. If you know where the deeper water is, and that means only a foot or so, you can add an hour either way to get in and out of the creek mouths where they enter the river."
Once Phillips enters a creek, he watches for signs of baitfish at the surface. Once he spots a school of menhaden or mullet, he uses a cast net to fill his livewell with fresh bait.
He uses two types of rigs to fish live baits for red drum and speckled trout. One is a Carolina or fish-finder rig consisting of a 1/2-ounce sliding sinker above a swivel, leader and wide-bend hook. The other is a float rig that suspends the bait a couple of feet below the surface.
"During summer, trout and red drum are up in the shallows during the high-tide stages," Phillips said. "You can see red drum working the grassbeds if you watch carefully. By casting a live bait ahead of the fish on a bottom rig, you will have an excellent chance for a strike."
Trout are more likely to hold at the edges of the grassbeds than they are to be among the grass stems. (Redfish, on the other hand, will often be in the grass.) Phillip watches for baitfish showering when trout are chasing them. Once he sees some activity, he uses a popping cork to drift a live minnow along the edge of the grassbed. He chugs the cork occasionally to draw attention to the bait.
"For trout and red drum, live shrimp are also good baits. But the pinfish can beat game fish to shrimp during the summer. A small croaker is probably the best bait because the sound it makes when in distress attracts predatory fish from a long distance."
Phillips anchors the boat in a likely place, setting out live baits on spinning or baitcasting rods. If fish do not immediately strike live offerings, he places the live-bait rods in rod holders and then begins casting lures to likely looking places. The artificials he uses are jigs tipped with plastic grub tails and minnow-imitating lures. He likes lures with pink, chartreuse and natural colors like gray or brown. He uses jigheads that imitate shrimp by sporting tiny antennae.
"Jigs are good because they are inexpensive and come in all sorts of colors," Phillips said. "You can also fish them at any water depth. Lures work well, especially for catching bigger fish. But they can get hung up in the grass and collect a lot of trash when you are fishing the oyster beds around Bald Head."
As the tide falls, the fish head for the deeper holes in the creeks. Some of the holes can be 10 feet deep. But most are much shallower. Once the tide falls out of a creek, an angler usually has a hole all to himself. Dozens of red drum and speckled trout can be concentrated in a stretch of creek a few yards wide and perhaps 100 yards long.
"You have to scout around during all tide stages," Phillips said. "You need to be very cautious until you learn the high spots and low spots of a particular creek. The tide can fall out and leave your boat stranded on an oyster bed if you aren't careful. Most anglers stick to the deeper water near the mouths of the creeks until they learn their way around."
A good bet on all tide stages is casting live baits and lures around the boat docks lining the southern edge of Bald Head Creek. In the shadow of Old Baldy, the island's historic lighthouse, the private boat docks offer the only available hard-structure habitat besides oyster beds in the creeks.
"Another great place to try if you are waiting for the tide to rise enough to cross the bar to get into Bald Head Creek is at the marina entrance on the west side of the island," Phillips said. "The rocks and bulkheads at the entrance create eddies and the marina channel itself can hold red drum in hot weather."
Anglers fishing at the marina entrance must be on constant lookout for the ferry that runs between the mainland and the island. They must not obstruct the ferry lane and should be aware that the ferryboats make big wakes and run fast.
"There is a lot of structure to hang up on near the marina," Phillips said. "But that's what makes it attractive to red drum and specks. Using superlines is a good idea when you are fishing near the rocks and seawalls at the marina entrance. But I use 10- or 12-pound-test monofilament for nearly all of my red and speck fishing."
Following the tide as it begins to rise, Phillips fishes the islands in the Cape Fear River. Shell Bed Island, Striking Island and Battery Island all hold fish.
On the rising tide, the best places to fish are the north sides of the islands, as well as the bars and oyster beds at the edges of the islands. During the rising tide, the north side is the down-current side of structure.
Phillips watches for signs of fish as he navigates creek channels. Since he knows the water, he planes the boat to keep the prop above the bottom. But anglers who do not know the area well often pole or wade while pushing their boats across shallow areas.
As the tide rises, Phillips heads up into the complex of creeks, watching for signs of fish. If no fish are evident, he casts to nooks along the edges of grassbeds and oyster beds. He enters the main creek channels with the tide, and then fishes at channel intersections as it begins to fall.
"Falling tide is a great time to fish a creek intersection," Phillips said. "I look for a hard bottom with a layer of old shells or sand creating a bar on the downstream side where a small creek enters a larger one. A good way to find hard bottom is with a jig. You bounce it along the bottom and tell whether it is hard or soft. Trout and drum will hold right on top of a hard bottom or just downstream of the structure."
While Phillips launches his boat at the NCWRC boating access area off Fish Factory Road near Southport, and then crosses the Cape Fear River, other anglers launch at the NCWRC ramp at Snow's Cut near Carolina Beach. Anglers heading downriver from Snow's Cut can stop off at "The Rocks" to try their luck.
The Rocks form a seawall that extends from Fort Fisher southward, nearly to Bald Head Island. They create an excellent hard-structure area that holds lots of red drum and speckled trout.
A favorite tactic for catching speckled trout along The Rocks is trolling with lures and jigs during the higher tide stages. Specks are likely to hold anywhere along the seawall and trolling is a good way to find them. Once a school is located, anglers anchor their boats and cast lures or live baits to the school. If they have no luck, they pick up their anchors and begin trolling again.
There are washouts in the seawall where the current flows through at high velocity. Anglers casting lures or live baits on float rigs near the washouts have a chance of catching both red drum and speckled trout. However, the current is strong and anglers can become frustrated after hanging their hooks on the rocks repeatedly.
Anglers launching at the Fort Fisher access area at the end of U.S. 421 can fish the eastern side of The Rocks in the same manner. But they must be aware that the ramp's entrance channel is badly shoaled and can only be used to launch a boat during the top half of the tide.
Most anglers launching at the Fort Fisher ramp use johnboats and other flat-bottomed craft to gain access to Buzzard Bay. There is a cut through a lateral wall off The Rocks locally called "The Cribbing" that must be navigated to get to Buzzard Bay and it can be a dangerous area during low tide. But it is an excellent place to try for specks and reds with live baits and lures.
Since Corncake Inlet was closed by hurricanes, the backwaters have become shallow in many places. Corncake Inlet created direct ocean access for the Bald Head marshes. However, that doesn't mean the fish aren't there.
Anglers use shallow-water tactics to fish the sand flats and grassbeds. Poling platforms are seen on many boats that navigate the tidal creeks and bays south of Fort Fisher. Electric trolling motors are popular as well. Some anglers just anchor their boat in a likely area and get out to wade through the shallows searching for fish.
A popular routine for catching red drum is poling a johnboat or skiff along while watching for telltale signs of fish. Muddied water, showering baitfish, waving grass stems or dorsal fins and spotted tails breaking above the surface are what anglers are looking for.
Once a school of red drum is spotted, the angler stops the boat by shoving the pole into the bottom or by dropping a mushroom anchor to the soft sand or mud. The mushroom is quieter than an anchor with moving flukes and it is not equipped with a chain to further prevent the risk of a spooky red drum detecting the sound of danger.
The angler then casts ahead of the fish with a fly or lure and waits for the fish to approach within about 4 feet. Twitching a fly, jig or in-line spinnerbait up from the bottom ahead of the fish usually attracts a strike.
One thing that is present in vast quantities in the upper reaches of Buzzard Bay is oyster beds. Anglers who worry about scratching the bottoms of their boats should stay away from the area. As the tide falls, water disappears from about 90 percent of the sloughs, creeks and bays. Boaters have three choices - find a deep hole and wait out the tide's return, alternate walking the boat across the beds and bars with running the motor to get back to the ramp, or get stuck on a shelly bottom.
An aluminum hull comes in handy during such decision-making times. The hull is lightweight for maneuvering and will not be harmed too badly with oyster shell scratches. The downside is that aluminum is noisy when the angler is trying to sneak up on red drum that are working the shallows.
By staying in the marsh as the water recedes, anglers have their best opportunity to identify deep holes that concentrate fish. While vast schools of red drum roam Buzzard Bay in the spring, by late summer they are usually broken up into singles or schools of a half-dozen fish. But that changes when the tide leaves few places for them to move around. Anglers can wade during low tide stages and look for the holes that hold fish.
Anyone using this tactic should be prepared for a long, hot stay. There is no shade in Buzzard Bay when the tide is out and there can be days with no wind. An ice chest full of water and soft drinks is priceless in August while waiting out a tide. A T-top or beach umbrella thrust into a rod holder can offer precious shade during a wait that can take six hours for the tide to rise enough to head back to the Fort Fisher ramp.
No-see-ums, locally called sand gnats, can be very troublesome in August, especially if there is no wind and the tide starts to rise, stirring them from the mud flats and grassbeds. Mosquitoes swarm the marshes at dawn and dusk. Repellent and sunscreen can keep an angler out in the marsh fishing a deep hole, instead of hurrying back to the ramp to beat the falling tide.
Anglers also h
ave the option of beaching their boats along the eastern side of the marshes and walking to the oceanfront of the Fort Fisher State Recreation Area. Surf-fishing around the former site of Corncake Inlet can be excellent at times and it has been the location of some of the largest red drum caught in the area. August is the beginning of the famed fall run.
For more information, contact Capt. Barry Phillips, Fish Stalker Guide Service at (910) 443-3575.
For Bald Head Island lodging, marina facilities and surf-fishing opportunities, call (800) 234-1666 or (910) 457-5000.
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