Lake Jordan & Neuse River Stripers

May is the month that really kicks off striper fishing on B. Everett Jordan Lake and on the lower section of the Neuse River. Here's how experts track the fish.

Photo by Terry Jacobs

By Dan Kibler

Phil Cable didn't really know what he was getting into that May morning seven or eight years ago.

A fishing guide from Cary (919-636-3929), Cable just knew that he was "tired" after a month or so of "beating the banks" with a spinnerbait for largemouth bass. He admitted that when he headed to some of his better offshore spots on B. Everett Jordan Lake near the Raleigh-Durham area, he "was trying to push" those big largemouths out on the humps and points where he's deadly with a deep-diving crankbait and a Carolina rig - even if they weren't ready to be pushed out.

So that day, when he pulled up on one of favorite spots, he chunked out a crankbait - chartreuse with a green back, of course - reeled it down and banged it across the bottom in about 10 feet of water. Within an hour, he had put six fish weighing between 6 and 10 pounds in his boat.

Only one of them was a largemouth. The others were all hybrids. Ever since that morning, Cable has made repeated trips back to those spots, only now he's catching about three or four striped bass for every hybrid, since the North Carolina Wildlife Commission quit stocking hybrids and started stocking stripers in the late 1990s.

For Cable, the month of May is the only month when he really targets stripers on Jordan - he rarely makes a trip without trying them on a few different places - but it's the month that really kicks off striper fishing there, according to another guide, striper expert Jerry Hill of Denton (336-461-5843). It plays the same role on the lower end of Neuse River, around New Bern, according to Danny Joe Humphrey of Carolina Fish 'n' Fur in Kinston (800-527-0918), organizer of a popular series of bass tournaments, a past national champion and a tackle broker who knows the river intimately.

In their words, May on Jordan and the Neuse is the fishing equivalent of opening day in baseball, when the president throws out the first ball and everybody gets serious.

Cable spends a lot of time on Jordan cranking for stripers in May, then Hill takes over around Memorial Day, trolling bucktails and spoons. The bite stays good through the entire summer - the same way it does on the Neuse, where Humphrey said that when Memorial Day approaches, the stripers that have been upriver, where most fishermen can't get to them, return to the wide-open waters around New Bern.

"I ran into those fish several years ago," said Cable. "I found hybrids on several places in 8 to 10 feet of water - most of the times they were on sandbar-type places, flats and ridges. Stripers are more predominant now, but you can catch stripers, hybrids and white bass up to 2 or 3 pounds."

The commission originally stocked Jordan with hybrid bass only, but eventually, stripers replaced hybrids totally in the stockings because biologists were afraid that hybrids getting over the spillway or through Jordan Dam might get way down the Cape Fear River and cross with the pure, sea-run stripers there.

Cable's strategy is simple. He fishes main-lake areas on either side of the Route 64 bridge, cranking most of the points, ridges and humps where largemouths go when they move out after recovering from the spawn. In other words, all of the spots where he catches largemouths during the summer. He tries to cast into water between 8 and 10 feet deep. Because hybrids and stripers roam so much, it might take him four or five stops before he pulls up on a spot where they're feeding.

"A lot of times, I'll fish points, and I'll start about 40 or 50 feet deep and just zigzag back and forth over them. When I get over 15 to 20 feet deep, if I see them on the depthfinder, I know I'll catch 'em. If I don't see 'em on my depthfinder, there's no need to stop."

Hill really sees fish until around Memorial Day, when he gets cranked up. He trolls bucktails that he manufactures and spoons in 12 to 20 feet of water on the main lake between the Ebenezer Church boat landing and the Route 64 causeway, running into schools of stripers and hybrids that are ganging up on schools of baitfish.

"They're mostly on points and humps, in schools chasing bait," said Hill. "Jordan is already better than Badin Lake; it's like Badin used to be 10 years ago. It's the best striper lake in this part of state, and it's getting better."

Hill usually puts out a spread of four to six rods, using lead-core line, downriggers or planers to get his lures into the strike-zone depth. He likes to have his boat in 20 to 25 feet of water, putting down double-rigged lures on each rod.

"I like to fish three colors of lead core in the water, set my planers at 10 to 12 feet and my downriggers at 12 feet, and troll at about 600 rpm - just a little faster than barely bumping it into gear," said Hill, who has guided for stripers on Badin, High Rock and Buggs Island lakes for years. "With bucktails, you'll get about a 5-foot drop on your leader, so that puts them down closer to the bottom."

Hill's main weapons are spoons or the bucktails he pours and sells himself around tackle shops that service the Yadkin River system reservoirs. He likes 3/4-ounce bucktails with plastic worm trailers - white with green, green with green and chartreuse with lemon-lime.

"I've caught a lot of fish from 7 or 8 pounds up to 10 or 11 pounds, but I know guys in my (striper) club who've caught 15- and 17-pounders," Hill said.

Humphrey said that stripers spend much of May on their spawning run up the Neuse, past New Bern, where navigation can often be touchy because of water depth and obstructions. Fishing doesn't usually heat up in the Craven County area until close to Memorial Day, but when it finally does, it stays hot for three or four months.

Stripers are reasonably easy to locate and catch, Humphrey said, even though finding them may take a little time.

"It seems like they go up the river behind the shad, and most of the time, when they're going up, there's so much water that not many of them are caught. They come back down in late May to the New Bern area, where they stay for the summer," Humphrey said. "When they get back, the easiest place to catch one is on bridge pilings."

Humphrey said that stripers use the bridge pilings as current breaks, setting up on the downcurrent side - which will vary, based on which way the tide is moving. The section of the Neuse around New Bern is more subject to "wind" tides rather than moon tides

, but either way, the moving water positions stripers.

The "best" bridge in the New Bern area is the Route 17/55 high-rise bridge over the Neuse. Actually, the bridge has two distinct spans. Another productive one is the Route 17 bridge over the Trent River, which dumps into the Neuse at New Bern.

"This is one time that anybody can find fish with a depthfinder," Humphrey said. "All you have to do is drive your boat down the side of the bridge, and they'll light up the screen if they're there."

Humphrey said that fishermen can use live bait such as shad or eels on Carolina rigs, with a 1-ounce sinker ahead of a barrel swivel and 18-inch leader. Eels are often sold in tackle shops around the area, and they're deadly.

However, Humphrey prefers to fish artificial baits, either topwater plugs, bucktail jigs or lipless rattling crankbaits.

"You can catch 'em on a topwater early and late, then with a Rat-L-Trap or a bucktail later in the day. You can use walking baits like a Spook Jr., Top Dog or Sammy 100, or poppers like a Bug-Eye Popper or a Pop-R," he said. "A lot of the time, you'll get some schooling action when they'll be feeding on small shad.

"I like to catch 'em on a topwater or on a Rat-L-Trap. I'll throw a trap up to one of the pilings and let it go all the way to the bottom. When it hits, I'll lift it up about 3 feet, then let it fall - yo-yoing it. They'll slam it."

Humphrey said that stripers in the Neuse will often get on sets of wooden pilings around the Route 17 bridge over the Trent, sets that fishermen call "teepees" due to their shape. Occasionally, they can be found three or four miles up the Neuse from New Bern, where the river spreads out into a shallow, delta-like area. "There are a lot of points, banks, little cuts and marsh grass," he said. "There's always a pretty good amount of current, and you fish it with topwater plugs . . . fishing little points of grass and deeper cuts."

Humphrey said that despite the fact that most fish are just returning from their spawning run free of eggs, they're still hardy, strong fish. Rarely does he catch a striper that's not a keeper (the daily creel limit is three fish, with an 18-inch size minimum).

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