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Where To Catch North Carolina Redfish

Where To Catch North Carolina Redfish
Photo by Ron Sinfelt

North Carolina coastal anglers often see schools of 100 to 1,000 redfish in the breaker zone each winter.

The bad news is that doesn't happen during June. But the good news is summer schools of reds may range from 10 to 200 fish — plus these fish are inshore, so boaters don't need to worry about getting swamped by ocean swells.

The Tar Heel state is a sight-caster's dream in summer because its reds are so shallow they're easily visible to bait, lure and fly casters. No other state can make a claim to the most sight-casting opportunities for saltwater fish (well, maybe Florida, but Sunshine State anglers get to count bonefish, permit, tarpon and snook as well as reds).


As for sizes, if North Carolinians could enter its inshore reds in other states' record books, they'd own 'em. The 51-pound and 58-pound record reds from Florida and Texas are surpassed every few summer nights at Pamlico Sound, sometimes three or four times in the same boat by the same angler, who might catch a brace of 60-pound "old" drum, take pictures and release 'em.


That happens from June through October. During the fall, bull reds become targets for Ocracoke-to-Oregon Inlet surf anglers wielding Hatteras Heavers, Lupton rigs and cut bait.

Not only that, but off Wilmington and Southport, winter anglers regularly hook up with 50- and 60-pound reds at reefs and wrecks while fishing for kings or bluefins.

The piece de resistance, of course, is the world all-tackle red drum, documented by the International Game Fish Association. It came to shore at Avon, Nov. 7, 1984, landed by the late David G. Deuel, and weighed 94 pounds 2 ounces. Deuel's giant would make two of many record reds from other states.

N.C. redfish anglers talk of seeing bigger reds than Deuel's, and stories of stripped reels and broken lines are normal as seagulls behind shrimp boats.


So here's a look at four of the best areas in the state to find red drum. An angler may not set a world record this year in N.C. waters, but if it happens, nobody will be surprised.

EASTERN PAMLICO RIVER

Most red drum chasers focus on the lower Neuse River, from Oriental east to the mouth of the river where it joins massive Pamlico Sound. There's no doubt the Neuse is really good.


But that just leaves more reds to chase near Little Washington on the Pamlico River. After all, the Pamlico is the other major feeder stream for the sound, and reds found their way into that stream before the Tuscarora Indians migrated into North Carolina.

"We might not have the old drum they have in the Neuse, but we've got plenty of reds," said Washington guide Richard Andrews (Tar-Pam Guide Service, 252-945-9715, www.tarpamguide.com).

During June, Andrews fishes for reds as if he were tackling spotted seatrout (specks), and that's no accident. Both species like the same baits and lures.

His standard weaponry is a 7-foot medium-soft to medium Shimano Clarus rod mated to a Shimano Symmetry 3000 Series spinning reel with 10- to 15-pound-test braid and 2 feet of 20-pound fluorocarbon leader.

"I use the same kind of light tackle (for reds)," he said. "I fish the Pungo River and the feeder streams; they're just 30 minutes from Washington."

His clients determine his baits or lures.

"If I've got kids, I'll use cut mullet fished on the bottom with Carolina rigs," he said. "I'll anchor off sandy points and (for novice adults) I'll use live finger mullet, shrimp or 3- to 6-inch-long pogies (menhaden) or sometimes mud minnows. Reds really like mud minnows."

The reds he catches range from 15 to 30 inches in length, which is enough size (2 to 15 pounds) and fighting power to capture the interest of any angler.

"My personal favorite way to fish for reds is to use a Gulp! artificial lure, usually a shrimp, or a Z-Man paddletail grub underneath a popping cork," he said. "We cast right up on the banks of Slades or Fortesque creeks. Wades and Currituck (points off the lower Pungo) have got good areas just off the beach."

Best habitats are oyster shell beds in 2 to 6 feet of water because of the drum's proclivity to search such places for small stone crabs, a favorite food.

"I like to throw jigheads and grubs in those places," he said. "My lures are 3- to 4-inches long, depending on the size of the reds. ProCure Inshore Formula, rubbed on the body of a soft-plastic bait, helps draw strikes. It lasts about 25 to 30 casts."

During June, Andrews said he sometimes sees schools of reds, 10 to 100 fish.

"The first thing I usually see is 'nervous' baitfish schools, showering over the surface," he said. "Then you'll see schools of fish pushing water — not tailing and feeding — just pushing water."

These schools usually work the shoreline, looking for juvenile blue crabs. Best places include stump flats.

"That's when I throw a Crab-Z (lure) underneath a DOA popping cork," Andrews said. "A lot of times reds will be tight to the bank, and the first time you throw a bait in there and twitch it, one will nail it."

Just after daylight during slick calm June mornings, Pamlico River reds will hit topwater lures — sometimes.

"I'll throw a Top Dog Jr., a Skitterwalk or a Lucky Craft Sammy," he said, "but only if it's calm. The walk-the-dog (retrieve technique) doesn't work too good if there's a chop on the water. If there's a little chop, I'll throw a Storm Chug Bug (spit bait)."

LOWER NEUSE

To the south of the Pamlico lies the huge Neuse River drainage that empties a large portion of eastern N.C. into Pamlico Sound.

Calm June mornings are rare, but when they occur, anglers cruising slowly may spot "V" wakes of over-slot (18-to-27 inches) reds at the lower Neuse.

The best tactic is to quietly position in front of a school and cast to them with 2-ounce bucktails with a 6-inch-long chartreuse ribbon-tail soft-plastic trailer. These reds, although not the genuine "old" boys, may range from 25 to 35 pounds.

"The lower part of the Neuse will hold a lot of top-of-the-slot and occasional over-slot fish," said Oriental guide Gary Dubiel (Spec Fever Guide Service, 252-249-1520, www.specfever.com).

Best places to find these red schools will be West Bay, Long Bay, Turnagain Bay, Point of Marsh, Raccoon and Swan Islands and along the marshy shorelines.

"It's fairly common to see schools with 500 to 1,000 reds," Dubiel said.

If the water is too choppy to detect redfish signs, blind casting to points and oyster beds often produces hookups. Points with oyster beds can be especially generous.

"(Seeing) bait also will help, if you can locate it," he said. "But that works only on light wind days. I mainly look for oil slicks on the water — that's usually a big group of reds; it's always worth casting into a large slick."

Dubiel said the possibility exists of encountering a giant red drum.

"Out of every 15 or 20 fishing days, maybe four or five days you'll have old drum in the same areas we fish," he said. "But you can't target them with (cut) bait until late July and early August."

Dubiel mostly uses soft-plastic lures (Gulp! or DOAs) with leadhead jigs under popping corks or scented soft plastics on jigs without corks; typically he uses Gulp! Shrimp.

"Occasionally we get a topwater bite, and I like a Redfish Magic (lure) then," he said.

However, he said most of his fish will be slot or slightly over-slot reds that hit popping corks that feature a light jighead or a Gulp! Shrimp tied to a 2 1/2-foot leader.

"You can fish a small version of the Owen Lupton (6-inch leaders) with a 4-0 circle hook and 1/2-ounce weight and use cut mullet for bait and catch drum, too," Dubiel said.

When "popping" a cork with a smaller scented soft-plastic jig, he said his clients often attract sea trout.

"We even land a few flounder," he said.

MOREHEAD, SWANSBORO AND BOGUE INLET

South of Pamlico Sound — from Morehead City to South Carolina — anglers get into true inshore marsh fishing for red drum.

The Intracoastal Waterway flows behind many small islands while, on the mainland side, creeks and tidal marshes spread across much of the landscape and join the ICW.

"All the marshes behind Swansboro have reds, plus near Bear Island, Browns Inlet, Emerald Isle — basically between Bogue, Bear and Browns you'll find reds in June," said guide Robbie Hall of Swansboro's Hall Em In Charters (910-330-6999). "They'll also be in the White Oak River and Queen's Creek."

Although red drum will be scattered, almost all fish will be visible.

"It's 90 percent a sight-casting game in June," Hall said.

That's because he mainly fishes the mouths of bays and creeks and shallow marshes where reds are easy to spot as they "tail" for food or spook baitfish.

"You'll see 'em pushin' wakes," he said. "June's also the best month for topwater fishing at these places."

He throws TopDog Juniors, plus the MR80 by MirrOLure (black back, orange belly, gold sides) along with the MR21 ("it's the same as a mullet — black back, silver sides, white belly").

"The best time to fish is a high falling tide," he said. 'I can get my 20-foot Pathfinder back in (the marshes). A high falling tide is the best time to go because it pulls all the baitfish out of the marshes, and the reds know it and start to feed."

He'll ease around the marshes and cast a weedless 1/8-ounce Strike King Redfish Magic in a 3-inch glass-minnow pattern.

"I'll also use a Gulp! Ripple Mullet (paddle tail)," he said. "It has good action and can cover water, and I can stop and jig it like a soft-plastic jighead."

Most of the reds will be 24 to 30 inches (10 pounds) with an occasional fish up to 35 inches.

"I'm fishing in 2 to 4 feet," Hall said. "I don't fish the creeks much; mainly I use them to get to the bays because that's where the food is. Ninety percent of the time you'll find reds along the shoreline. They'll stay in the bays the whole summer as long as you don't put too much pressure on them."

For reds Hall likes a 7-foot medium-action Fenwick Eagle GT rod with a Quantum Boca 30 spinning reel spooled with 20-pound-test PowerPro braid and 2 1/2 feet of 20- to 30-pound-test fluoro leader.

BALD HEAD BAYS

No place in the state holds active red drum as long as the bays north of Bald Head, just east of where the state's main artery, the Cape Fear River, connects to the Atlantic Ocean.

The reasons are simple — the southeastern corner of the state experiences mild winters, its waters usually remain warmer than any other saltwater spot, and the river brings food from the ocean and from upstream.

The region's bays are shallow, some have easily-warmed mud bottoms, and oyster shell mounds are home to tiny black crabs that red drum love. Plus, creeks teeming with baitfish crisscross the bays.

Seahawk Inshore Charters guide Jeff Wolfe (910) 619-9580, www.seahawkinshorefishingcharters.com) out of Wilmington has explored this special place for years and knows the drums' haunts and habits.

"In June you find them around the shell beds and points," he said. "Just look for shelly bottoms. They'll be in shallow water."

Wolfe said reds school in big and small pods, usually moving along the banks of creeks, looking for mud minnows, stone crabs and other baits.

"Early in the morning they'll hit topwater lures," he said. "You can see 'em crashing (baitfish) on the flats, and they'll chase (finger) mullets all day long."

He throws Zara Spooks and Skitterwalks early, then DOA and Gulp! paddle-tail soft-plastic minnows on leadhead jigs.

"I like the Gulp! Shrimp in natural color and white," he said. "For DOAs, the color depends on water clarity."

In murkier water, he likes chartreuse lures; in clearer water he chooses a Golden Shiner or Rainbow Trout hue.

"A good day you'll catch 30 fish, but you can have 50-fish days," he said. "Most of 'em will be 32 to 34 inches."

With younger clients or novices, he chooses mud minnows on Carolina rigs or underneath float rigs.

"I use 7-foot Fenwick rods with Abu Garcia or Penn reels," he said, "with Spiderwire Ultracast Invisibraid in 10-pound-test with 2 1/2 feet of 20-pound-test fluorocarbon leader."

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