Try the bays north of Bald Head Island for spotted seatrout and redfish action.
The wide expanse of the bays near the Cape Fear River's mouth offer islands whose leeward sides often hold speckled trout and red drum. Photo by Ron Sinfelt.
Here's a simple pop quiz for anglers: name two species of saltwater inshore fish that often bite identical lures.
Hint: If you fish the southeastern coast of the United States, you probably know the answer.
Answer: red drum and speckled trout.
(Editor's Note: Shortly before this article went to press, the N.C. Division of Marine Fisheries closed recreational spotted sea trout fishing until June 15. The closure and late opening is an effort to reduce harvest in response to an unusually high mortality rate among speckled trout during last winter's severe cold weather. In mid-June, speckled trout will still be in the areas mentioned in this article, but keep in mind that until June 15, the fishery is closed.)
In North Carolina, specks (spotted sea trout) and redfish are the most active species along the Cape Fear River region, particularly in the bays and saltwater flats east of the historic tourist town of Southport.
During the winter and early spring, conditions usually are too cold for much activity by saltwater inshore fish, although red drum can be caught year round.
But no two species of fish hit the same lures as specks and reds.
"Sometimes we'll pick up a flounder or two, as well with those lures," said Jeff Wolfe of Wilmington, a local guide. A former commercial fisherman who once set nets for flounder and other species in the bays near Bald Head Island, Wolfe (Seahawk Inshore Charters, 910-619-9580, www.seahawkinshorefishingcharters.com) knows the region so well he probably could navigate its shallow waters in his sleep.
During May 2010, he and a former high-school classmate, Johnny Odom, eased into a creek north of Bald Head in Buzzard's Bay for a day of fishing for red drum and specks. Odom, 50, was visiting relatives in Wilmington and preparing to make a move back to the South from Maui, Hawaii, where he has been a charter-boat captain the last few years.
Wolfe used his 30 years of experience in these waters to maneuver his 23-foot Kenner v-hull through a maze of creeks, avoiding oyster rock mounds just underneath the surface, to find a flat he knew should contain reds and specks.
He slowed near an island about 50 yards off the boat's port side and anchored with a power pole.
"That island has oyster rocks that come several feet underwater toward us," Wolfe said. "It's a good place for speckled trout and drum; we caught about a dozen specks the last time I was here a couple of days ago."
Before the fifth month, the water is generally in the 50-degree range, and that cold water prevents hot bites for most species of inshore fish.
"The water temperature needs to be about the mid-60s for specks and reds to really start chasing lures," Wolfe said.
No place in the state may hold a better mixture of speckled trout and redfish than the bays, marsh islands and winding creeks between Fort Fisher's Wildlife Resources boat ramp and Bald Head Island.
"During the winter the specks either go into the ocean or up the (Cape Fear) river into deeper holes," Wolfe said. "The reds stay in the bays."
Not many anglers venture into that upstream portion of the river because they're not familiar with it, preferring instead to wait until the fish move south in the spring.
"The specks move back south down the river toward Southport then," Wolfe said.
Red drum will remain in the southern bays all year but can be difficult to find and catch during winter.
North Carolina protects reds with a recreational one-fish-per-day maximum creel limit and a slot size limit of 18 to 27 inches along with recent net-size and attendance restrictions for commercial fishermen. The N.C. Division of Marine Fisheries also protects spotted sea with a 14-inch minimum-size limit.
On Wolfe's first cast toward the oyster bar island, his rod tip doubled over, and he set the hook on a 4-pound speck.
The fish hit a MR27 MirrOlure in electric-chicken color while Odom cast a Gulp!Alive shrimp.
After a short battle, Wolfe landed the hefty seatrout.
Pairs of formidable incisors protruded from the fish's upper and lower jaws. From the look of its mouth, this fish easily could shred a finger: thus the nickname "gator" trout.
Although the electric chicken-colored MirrOlure provided a good clue as to what lure and hue the specks wanted that morning, Wolfe said he wasn't shy about trying other artificials, because reds will hit them as well.
"I like to use different lures, especially when I start fishing, to see what they like," Wolfe said. "For some reason, early morning is the best time to catch specks with a topwater lure or a suspending jerkbait that moves just underneath the surface. Later when the sun gets up, specks and reds will move a little deeper and the soft-plastics on a jig head will work well on both."
As an early-morning lure, Wolfe said he also may throw Catch 2000 20MR lures.
"The Catch 2000 looks like a mullet in the water, and you work it like a twitch bait," Wolfe said. "It's a natural color and moves back and forth, just underneath the water like a wounded mullet. It'll catch reds and specks."
His rods and reels are medium-action 6 1/2- to 7-foot-long Shimanos mated to Shimano Stradic 2500 spinning reels.
"I like my main lines to be 10-pound-test braid for good casting distance," Wolfe said. "I'll also use 2- to 2 1/2-foot of fluorocarbon leader for both hard baits and soft-plastics."
Within a few minutes, Odom set the hook on a pole-bending fish that turned out to be a 7-pound red drum that nabbed his mud minnow.
got youngsters in the boat or people who can't handle a casting reel that well, live shrimp under a popping cork are almost guaranteed to catch specks, and you might catch a red, too," Wolfe said. "You also can use artificial lures with popping corks."
Lures used in tandem with poppers include DOA, Billy Bay Halo and Storm shrimp.
"You don't need a jighead with them," Wolfe said. "You're more likely to catch a speck with a shrimp lure, and if you put a mullet imitation on with a popping cork, you may catch specks or reds."
Colors of soft-plastic artificial lures are somewhat important but not always crucial.
"You try to match the hatch, so to speak," he said. "Shrimp will tend to take on the color of the water they're in, so sometimes a perfectly clear lure body works well. But if you let me use only one shrimp lure, I'd take pink and white."
The bays above Bald Head are filled with oyster rocks and mounds and are favorite places to try a popping cork.
"There are two reasons I use popping corks," Wolfe said. "One is that kids and women often are used to fishing that way so when a fish bites, they can see the cork go down and know it's time to set the hook. The other reason is if you set your cork and leader the right depth, you can keep it off the bottom, so you don't get hung up as much.
"Of course, they'll gonna get hung up some, but not as much with a popping cork.
"Somebody who knows how to cast and uses a jig can cover more water and put lures in better places than a popping cork. They'll get hung up some, too, but if you know what you're doing, usually you can work loose a hung-up lure."
Wolfe said he almost always tries to fish falling tides in the bays above Bald Head.
"When you get current on a falling tide, it moves baits around, and you'll find specks especially hiding out in holes and eddies, just out of the current, waiting for a minnow or shrimp to come by," he said. "Back (down-current) sides of oyster rock mounds are good places, along with the back sides of the small islands, especially at their corners where current is sweeping around them."
Although red drum and specks will hit the same lures, reds are more likely to be found in schools that follow the contour of the marsh islands and creeks.
"April can be awfully tough for red drum fishing, but it really starts to pick up in May," Wolfe said. "Because reds love shrimp so much, I like throwing Gulp! shrimp soft plastics. But they'll also hit spinnerbaits."
His favorite spinnerbait is a Bayou buck with a DOA paddletail lure.
He'll search for red drum schools on the "flats" inside the bays instead of areas with current.
"That's when you'll likely find big schools at low tide," he said. "If you see baitfish and fish blowing through them, it's likely to be reds. They'll run the marsh banks when the tide's high, and when it's low, you'll find them around shell beds and oyster rocks."
Redfish schools inside the bays also are creatures of habit.
"That's one of the nice things about fishing for reds," Wolfe said. "If you find them in a certain place one day, they're likely to be at the same place the next day or even several days in a row."