There's more to do than closing out the deer season for Tar Heel hunters and anglers in December. Here are some of the best non-deer hunting and fishing available for December sportsman in North Carolina.
The Atlantic striped bass fishing is hottest at Cape Hatteras, with the fish sometimes moving southward to Cape Lookout. Anglers catch them by trolling lures or casting jigs and spoons. Seabirds dive-bombing baitfish show anglers the location of striper schools.
The Cape Fear River has come on strong due to a moratorium against keeping stripers. Fish of 20 pounds or more are common in the catch-and-release fishery. Anglers use cast or troll jigs, crankbaits and deep-running lures to catch the fish.
Traditional rivers like the Neuse River and Alligator River continue to host exceptional numbers of striped bass. Anglers catch them at bridges using jigs and topwater lures.
In the piedmont, striped bass anglers should look to Lake Jordan, High Rock Lake, and Kerr Lake for the best striper action. Slow-trolling with live shad is the key to catching stripers at these lakes.
Rabbits are abundant statewide, but interest in rabbit hunting has waned. For those who keep packs of beagles, there are many excellent game lands for hunting this fleet-footed small game mammal.
In the mountain region, options for public land hunting are more limited than in the piedmont and coastal plain. But hunters will find cottontail rabbits in clear-cuts and timber regeneration areas in the lower elevations of Pisgah National Forest. Sandy Mush Game Land has some openings that offer good rabbit hunting and hunters should not overlook South Mountains, which has been the site of extensive early succession habitat work for upland birds — work that also that produces excellent rabbit habitat.
In the piedmont, Sandhill and R. Wayne Bailey-Caswell game lands have also been the sites for extensive upland habitat projects that benefit rabbits.
Coastal game lands that have good rabbit hunting include Juniper Creek, which has extensive controlled burn areas and Stone's Creek, which an early successional management program. Another good place to try is Sampson County Game Land because it has good access and a fair rabbit population.
There are plenty of hardcore 'coon hunters in North Carolina, a state where hunting with treeing hounds is a longstanding tradition. Some night hunters have participated in the sport their entire lives, while others may have moved in and out of raccoon hunting as family and shift-work obligations alter their schedules.
The joy of raccoon hunting results from listening to hounds cold trail a raccoon until they catch up with it, then take off howling in hot pursuit. A raccoon is a cunning critter and wise old raccoons are often nicknamed for their abilities to throw a pack of hounds off their scent.
Once a raccoon has been treed, the tempo and volume of the hounds' barking and howling increases. Once the raccoon is treed, the hunters may or may not take a raccoon with a rimfire rifle or shotgun. He may not be able to see the raccoon in the spotlight beam if it is hiding in a hollow or fork or he may simply enjoy hearing and watching good dog work and leave the raccoon alone so it can be hunted again in the future.
The great thing about raccoon hunting is that an entire family can participate despite the diminished hours of winter daylight. Raccoon hunting fits into tight schedules that eat up all available daytime hours with necessities like jobs and school.
There are raccoon field trial and hobby hunting clubs all across the state where those who want to know more about the sport can gain some knowledge before plunking down hundreds of dollars for a tree dog with solid bloodline.
Raccoon hunting goes begging for participants on game lands in all regions of the state. Nantahala, Pisgah and South Mountains have excellent raccoon hunting in the mountains. Uwharrie, Sandhills, Caswell and Butner are good piedmont game lands for raccoons. While most coastal game lands have an abundance of raccoons, Juniper Creek, Holly Shelter, Bladen Lakes and Croatan offer some of the best hunter access.
Gray squirrels are abundant all across the state. The best places to hunt them are hardwood or mixed pine-hardwood forests of the mountains and piedmont and the hardwood forests of coastal swamp floodplains. In the mountains, Pisgah, Nantahala, Thurmond Chatham, Three Top and South Mountains game lands offer excellent squirrel hunting.
In the northern piedmont, although they are rather small compared to other game lands, Hyco and Mayo offer some exceptional squirrel hunting opportunities. Using a boat to get around the edges of the Hyco After Bay is a great way to easily access mature hardwood forests along the shoreline. Central piedmont game lands that have excellent squirrel hunting include Butner-Falls, Jordan and Harris.
There is also very good gray squirrel hunting at the Roanoke River Game Land, which is divided into upper (piedmont) and lower (coastal) sections. Hunting each section requires a $5 point-of-sale small game permit. The small hassle of obtaining a permit likely discourages some hunters from participating in what may be the top gray squirrel hunting in northeastern section of the state.
Despite the introduction of Eurasian wild boar in the mountains many years ago, feral swine now share the same genetics statewide. Prior to this year, several mountain counties (Cherokee, Clay, Graham, Jackson, Macon and Swain) had a wild boar season from mid September until the end of February. An act of the 2011 legislature, however, ended the season and bag limits in those counties so now hogs can be hunted at any time statewide, with the exception of some public lands, where specific hunting rules may vary from the statewide regulations.
Nevertheless, pigs are on many public lands in North Carolina and are worth hunting during legal openings. Nantahala Game Land, for example, hosts exceptional wild swine numbers, and hunting them with hounds is a long-standing tradition.
Feral swine continue expanding their territory in the coastal plain. Pocosin Lake NWR has a good population of swine. The Columbus County Game Land also has plenty of swine.
Traditionally, hunters who kill swine on game lands have typically taken them during deer hunts. However, recent regulations changes removed firearms and ammunition limitations, so centerfire rifles and buckshot can be used for taking swine as long as any hunting season is open on a game land. On private property, hunters often have the opportunity to take feral swine at bait piles and feeders intended to attract deer.
For the Pocosin Lake NWR hunting brochure, which includes regulations regarding feral swine, visit http://www.fws.gov/southeast/pubs/pochnt.pdf.
While many wouldn't recognize a Wilson's snipe, a snipe hunt can be exciting — a far from the "snipe hunts" conducted as jokes for fictional birds during kids' campouts. Winter freezes send snipe south, where they launch like feathered rockets from bogs and flooded agricultural fields crying "'scape, 'scape!"
While its escape call is one clue for identifying the small brown shorebird with the long, straight bill, it's the swift, zigzagging flight and orange band along the rear edge of the tail that are dead giveaways.
Few hunters pursue snipe intentionally; most birds are taken only as targets of opportunity while the hunter is after rabbits or quail. But a few upland hunters know where the birds traditionally hopscotch during a migration. The birds prefer open, wet areas with very shallow water.
Snipe are pointing dog fare, holding reasonably well even when caught in the open by a cautious dog. They offer sporting shooting, especially if a hunter learns their habit of flying in a circle before landing at the same place where they were flushed.
Cape Lookout National Seashore offers some of the best snipe hunting in the state, but is accessible only by boat. Wild ringneck pheasants provide an added incentive for a snipe hunt on the barrier islands of Core Banks.
Coastal agricultural fields host good numbers of snipe. The Yadkin and Pee Dee river lakes also attract snipe along their margins during winter drawdowns.
Walleye bite best during cold weather, giving mountain anglers an incentive to go fishing. Trolling methods are used to find the fish, which are typically scattered throughout a lake. The fish feed in baitfish schools, so anglers should watch their depthfinder screens and adjust their lure depths accordingly. Once a walleye concentration is located by trolling lures the fish can be caught by drifting or trolling with worms or minnows.
The best mountain lakes for catching walleye are Glenville, Fontana and Hiwassee. Lake Gaston is an anomaly, because it is located in the northeastern piedmont but still has an excellent Walleye population due to cold water discharging from the bottom of an upstream dam.
Harris Lake is one of the best places to catch bass in December. The lake benefits from a power plant's warm-water discharge. In cold weather, anglers catch big largemouth bass by using Carolina rigged lizards along the 15-foot creek channels near the dam.
Another excellent lake for December largemouth is Lake Mayo, which also benefits from hot water discharges that keep the water temperature above 50. Anglers also use Carolina rigged soft plastics to catch Mayo largemouth.
Sutton Lake has excellent bass fishing, where anglers can catch 20 or more largemouth bass on a winter day. Hot water discharges from a power plant are key to catching winter bass, which are most active where the canal channeling water from the power plant enters the lake. Soft plastics and crankbaits work best for Sutton's bass in December.
Smallmouth bass are abundant in waters at the higher elevations of the state. When the water chills, they become more aggressive even as largemouth bass go dormant in waters the two specie share.
One of the best places to fish for smallmouth bass is the Tuckasegee River. Anglers fish with live worms and minnows in cold weather to experience the best luck. However, the fish will also strike inline spinners and soft plastics such as Yum Dingers or Senkos cast to pockets and rocks in the river.
Other good places for winter smallmouth fishing include Fontana, Santeetlah and Lake James. The fish move higher in the water column that in the warmer months, making a jig more effective at catching them. Anglers should cast to the long points, where the bottom slopes less keeping the fish within easy reach. In winter, smallmouth bass move up in the water column to five feet or less, but anglers can expect strikes down to 20 feet. Another good tactic is to explore the upper reaches of the larger reservoirs where there is increased fertility and shallower water areas that can concentrate the fish.
Small crankbaits and spinnerbaits also work well for smallmouth fishing in the reservoirs. The best tactic is to allow plenty of time for the lure to go deep and reel it in very slowly.
Spotted seatrout, or speckled trout as they are more commonly known among fishermen, inhabit the coastal rivers, sounds and beach areas. They can be caught almost anywhere and offer some exciting fishing because the biggest fish typically bite best in cold weather.
New River in Onslow County is one of the top speckled trout fishing areas in the state. In winter, specks move into the creeks lining the edge of the river, such as Southwest Creek, French Creek and Northeast Creek, where anglers catch them by casting hard plastic lures and jigs with soft plastic trailers.
Another excellent fishing area is the extensive Neuse River System, which also has many creeks that hold specks. Anglers should find specks at Slocum, Adams, Upper Broad, Lower Broad creeks, as well as South River, Turnagain Bay and West Bay.
Speckled trout feed on baitfish and shrimp that are attracted to structure such as oyster shells, grass bed edges, piers, marina basins, sea walls and jetties. They are therefore suckers for hard plastic suspension lures, which are retrieved a slow reel, stopped then twitched. This action imitates an injured baitfish or flipping shrimp. In winter, speckled trout can be dormant except during the warmest periods of the day. From midday until mid-afternoon is typically the best time to catch them in the coastal rivers.
Last winter, severe cold weather took its toll on the trout population, prompting a change in regulations. Anglers should consult the regulations before keeping any fish.
(Editor's Note: Mike's new book, Fishing North Carolina, details the fishing opportunities at 100 lakes, rivers, parks, sounds, beaches and piers. To order, send a $26.60 check or MO to Mike Marsh, 1502 Ebb Drive, Wilmington, NC 28409. To order online or for more information on hunting and fishing, visit www.mikemarshoutdoors.com.)