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The lore and names behind the Rocks of the Crystal Coast,

By Dr. Bogus and many thanks to Capt. Lee Manning.

There’s an old adage good fishing and structure go hand-in-hand. Food and shelter beget little fish, which beget bigger fish and so on to the biggest of fish. This goes for freshwater, saltwater, inshore, offshore and any shore you want to mention. North Carolina, appropriately known as the Graveyard of the Atlantic, is awash in structure with wrecks, reefs and rocks that dot our coast from north to south. The central Crystal Coast region of the Old North State is particularly notable due to the proximity of natural near shore rocks and reefs readily accessible to the weekend small boater. Near shore rocks like Lost Rock, Christmas Rock and Honeymoon Rock are local fish havens and popular and productive fishing locations, but did you ever wonder how they got their names? I certainly have!

To demystify this lore of the sea, I consulted Capt. Lee Manning; a former schoolteacher turned charter captain over 30 years ago. Capt. Manning currently operates the Nancy Lee Fishing Center in Swansboro and his experience not only holds the key to finding fish, but a long resident of the area, he has absorbed much of the local lore of the rocks and reefs as well.

Highlighting the accessibility of these fishing structures, Manning said, “Well, we’re fortunate, out of Bogue Inlet that we have a lot of rocks that are close to our inlet, probably more than most areas around here. We have probably six or seven that are within four, five, or six-miles of the inlet and most of them are rocky bottom and most of them have coral on them.”

When asked how close is close, Manning said “The closest rocks are probably Station Rock and Keypost within just two or three-miles from the Bogue Inlet. Super fishing, all kinds of fish like flounder, sea bass and a little bit of everything and of course in the spring and fall we have the king mackerel that come in along with other fish along the shoreline too.”

As fisherman, we’re always interested in what the bottom really looks like. In response, Manning said that “I’m not a diver, so I have my own imagination. I imagine what it looks like. Over the years, we catch pieces and it looks like rock. Some of it looks like shell rock, like it’s cemented together, when you pull it up, some is coral. Most all the ledges drop of five, six maybe seven-feet, at different points of the rock areas.”

So how did some of these rocks get their names? “First of all, Station Rock,” said Manning, “got its name years ago before we had the Lorans and GPSs and all the sophisticated equipment. You would use the Swansboro Coast Guard Station; it had a tower on it, a lookout tower. You lined the tower up with the Swansboro water tower and you go straight out. With your “paper machine” which we had then, you would mark the bottom, plus you could use the line up with Bogue Pier and one of the houses on the beach (there was not so many houses on the beach back at that time), and you could find Station Rock real easy. So it was named because of the station lookout on the Coast Guard Station.” Sure makes sense.

Speaking of making sense, how about 45-Minute Rock? “Forty five-Minute Rock”, said Manning, “ of course back years ago most of the boats that went out, with the speeds they ran, it took about 45-minutes to get there. They timed it and they would check the bottom with either wax or pitch from pine tree resin on a drop line and check the bottom and find it where it was shelly or bring up little pieces of rock on it, and of course they would start fishing in that area.”

Not all the names of the rocks are agreed upon by all. For example, “the Honey Hole and Sponge Rock,” said Manning, “are really the same rock.” “Over the years, it’s kind of changed. We always called it the Honey Hole. It’s the first section you get to when you go past 45-Minute Rock in a southerly direction. The divers started diving on it and found lots of sponge around the area and they started calling it Sponge Rock, and now the Honey Hole seems like it’s moved a little to the next set of rocks, and people started calling that the Honey Hole. But, Honey Hole and Sponge Rock were the same rock in the beginning,” said Manning.

“Farther out is the South East Bottoms, but it is the same thing,” said Manning, “it’s generally the first set of rocks to the southeast after you leave 45-Minute Rock.” When asked about the area, Manning responded, “Southeast Bottoms is a big area, a real big area with a lot of rocks, just to the east, southeast of Charlie (“C”) Buoy.” When asked about the fishing the bottoms, Manning smiled and said, “In the summertime you have all kinds of fish there. You have sailfish, dolphin (mahi), there’s even been wahoo caught out there. There is some of everything caught out in that area. It’s really a super good area and a super good king mackerel area too.” And it’s less than ten-miles out of Bogue Inlet, just set a southeasterly course.

With the rock locations well known, most people make the mistake to fish right on top of them, but as Manning was quick to point out, “Most of the rocks, if you go around them and fish them a lot, you’ll find little outcroppings all around the area in any direction and over the years, as I fish more, I fish were the ledges play out and the bottoms play out and the fish seem to congregate there more than the main part of the rocks. Maybe it’s because everybody fishes on the main part of the rock and the fish have moved out around the edges.”

Since it’s presumed that the rock locations were well know, how did Lost Rock get its name? “Well,” said Manning, “Lost Rock, is a rock that the biggest part of the rock runs perpendicular to the shore and was always very, very hard to find. You could be real close to it but ride right by it, and it was located in such a place that it was hard to look at the shoreline and find line-ups. We would fish on it once or twice a year when we would happen to stumble across it. And of course, once we got the Lorans and GPSs we finally got numbers on it, it wasn’t lost anymore. But we called it Lost Rock, because we couldn’t ever find it.”

One of the best close-in fishing rocks is Keypost, which is found directly out from the end of Bogue Inlet Fishing Pier in Emerald Isle. Describing the Keypost manning said, “It is really a long rock. They call it Inner Keypost, Outer Keypost, there’s a middle part of it too, and it’s a real long rock that probably runs a mile, mile and a half, maybe two miles offshore. We caught flounder on all the Keypost Rocks this past summer, sometimes as many as 30 flounder a day fishing there, and the biggest one was over 7-pounds.”

But to unearth the name, you’ll have to go all the way back to World War II (WWII) when our coast was threatened by German U-boats. “Back there in WWII,” said Manning, “the people that were watching the shoreline walked down the beach, and there was a post down there with a key in it and a lock box and they had to go down when they walked the beach, they had to unlock it and had to initial the card that was in there and lock it back up to verify that they had made the trip down the beach. That was the “keypost” and out from there was the Keypost Rock!”

Some of the rocks have a bit of a personal touch in the name. “Right down the beach, past the Keypost is Tom Smith’s Rock,” said Manning. “Tom Smith was a shrimper years ago and he stayed tangled up in the rocks all the time with his net, so they called it Tom Smith’s Rock.” Definitely a local joke.

“There are some other rocks, said Manning, “like East Rock, which is just the direction we have to go out of Bogue Inlet to get to it.”

With Valentine’s Day recently passed, with all the romance, there is one name that comes up, Honeymoon Rock. Yes it’s what you might guess,” said Manning, “Honeymoon Rock came from…well, one of our captains, many years ago got married and that’s where he spent his honeymoon. He took the boat out with his new wife, anchored up…and that was Honeymoon Rock.” One wonders if there is a Divorce Rock too!

As we can see, some of the rocks are named by direction, location, landmarks and even tongue and cheek after “notable” fisherman, others from use. That includes Christmas Rock, but it may not be what you might think. “Christmas Rock, “ said Manning, “you have to go back years ago. The boys out of Sneads Ferry, when it would start getting to Christmastime, they needed money for Christmas, they went out with their fish pots and catch some sea bass and sell them. There caught lots of sea bass out there, and they always called it Christmas Rock.” And now it’s on the charts and we all know it as Christmas Rock.

Another set of rocks just out of Bear Inlet is the Bear Inlet Rocks. No mystery what they were named for, but there are actually two sets of rocks. “There inshore Bear Inlet Rock, and there’s the offshore Bear Inlet Rock,” Manning pointed out, “and both of those rock areas are very, very good. Inshore Bear Inlet has a lot more rough bottom and there is one place with pretty steep ledges. The offshore Bear Inlet Rock has a really good ledge that runs right through the middle of it and is easy to find. Both areas are really good fishing.”

There are not only rocks out there that hold and sustain our local fishery, but the marked and maintained artificial reefs and the to numerous wrecks too. However, Manning mainly sticks to fishing the rocks. Why? Manning was emphatic and noted that, “I very seldom fish the wrecks unless I’m trolling because so many people know where the wrecks are and they troll on them. Usually the wrecks hold barracuda and so you catch lots of half-a-fish! “Mainly the divers like to go there and recreational folks go there,” he said. “There are so other many placers that I can go, but if I’m going by there I’ll troll across it,” said Manning.

Now that we have demystified some of the history and lore of some of your favorite nearshore fishing rocks of the Crystal Coast, and with spring fast approaching, can a great season of fishing be far behind? After the trials and tribulations of last season, I certainly hope that 2004 is a good one. Then there is the BIG ROCK! You’ve heard of it, it’s a ROCK and it’s very BIG, enough said.

   1)  45-Minute Rock: N 34 33.06      W 77 03.31
2)  Bear Inlet Rock: N 34 35.14      W 77 08.71
3) Christmas Rock: N 34 23.54     W 77 09.52
4)  East Rock (Bogue): N 34 35.33      W 76 56.75
5)  Honey Hole/Sponge Rock: N 34 26.30      W 77 01.30
6)  Honeymoon Rock: N 34 27.65      W 77 08.78
7)  Keypost Rock: KP1: N 34 38.18   W77 01.90, KP2: N 34 37.75   W 77 01.76
8)  Lost Rock: N 34 32.00      W 77 06.06
9) Southeast Bottoms: SEB1: N 34 29.42   W 77 01.62, SEB2: N 34 30.10   W76 59.74, SEB3: N 34 29.18   W76 58.34
10) Station Rock: N 34 35.27 W 77 04.11     

IMG_0183

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Alphabet Soup; Fishing by the Letters by Dr. Bogus

National security, the sounds of freedom Camp Lejeune, the Marines, and the “alphabet buoys”, what do they all have in common? The so-called alphabet buoys in Onslow Bay off the shores of Camp Lejeune run along an arc sector roughly from outside of Bogue Inlet to New River Inlet on a radius of approximately 12-miles. They provide a demarcation danger zone that subtends the military restricted area between Bear and Brown’s Inlets. Specifically they designate the Camp Lejeune firing range, an area that is restricted when live firing exercises are conducted or when the military requires access to that part of the ocean for carrying out maneuvers. Locally, we refer to the firing range maneuvers as the “sounds of freedom”, which has taken on even more significance since the tragedy of “9-11”. But then the question is what does all this have to do with fishing?

Well, as Capt. Bob Townsend (Sea Dancer, Swansboro) was quick to point out, “I think they’ve been here for about 12 years,” remarked Townsend, “and the thing is the presence of the buoy, the anchor chain and the adjoining weight that holds the buoy there. They attract the small fish, and of course the larger baitfish get there and the predators come after that.”

So basically we got ourselves attractors, and a food chain is established, in fact a stable food chain for each of the buoys “A, B, C, D, E, F, G and H” and an abundance of bait fishes.

How abundant? “Normally we could find cigar minnows, greenies, Spanish sardines, and chub mackerel there,” said Townsend, “in addition obviously to your pinfish and small black bass and that kind of thing too.”

With the great variety of baits available, everyone has their own favorites. When asked, Townsend said, “For me, the primo bait for king mackerel and most striking fish is what I call a chub mackerel. It’s a Boston mackerel, probably seven to eight inches long, and it’s very lively and pulls real well, it doesn’t weaken as bad as the cigar minnows do.”

For many others including Capt. Shane Brafford (Second to None, Swansboro), the cigar minnow is top of the bait food chain. Why? There are lots of cigar minnows out there,” said Brafford, “and they’re good for just about anything you want to catch.”

If you motor over the Charley Buoy for example and turn on your sounder, what you’ll often see is massive balls of bait, sometimes on the surface often somewhere there and the bottom, which for Charlie Buoy is around 60-feet give or take a few lumps and bumps. But seeing all those potential bait doesn’t make it your bait, it’s the Sabiki or bait catcher rigs that make them bait, a string of maybe six or so tiny gold, laser sharp hooks that are jigged up and down just looking for bait to bite! Typical gear for using the Sabiki rig is simple, as Brafford pointed out, “I use real light line spinning tackle, said Brafford, “that is eight to ten-pound test (line) so if I have to break it off I can do it without ruining a whole bunch and I have a heavy egg sinker on the bottom which I paint them black.” Why I asked? “Otherwise they get eaten off,” snickered Brafford.

Getting the weights eaten off isn’t the only problem however a Townsend quickly pointed out. “Quite often when we’re jigging, we’ll have our Sabiki rig cut off on the way up,” said Townsend. “It seems like the attraction of those baitfish hooked on the Sabiki attracts strikes from the kings as we’re bring them up. They’re eating the fish even before we can get them up and rigged.” “That’s not so bad of course,” Townsend explained, “we like to have that sign, because it means that there are kings present, so if we can get a couple of baits up and get them on the light line even while we are jigging, we’ll get a fish on while we’re still jigging bait.”

Getting those baits off the Sabiki rig is the next problem. Sharp hooks, squirming fish on a thin line, but not to worry as Brafford picked up a special tool. “I got a little a little de-hooker or two,” said Brafford, “or a long nose pliers works well too, and you just shake them off right into the live bait well.”

Obviously you have to be more considerate of live bait than dead bait, so how do you rig your live bait? “Like most live baiters,” said Townsend, “I try to go light; I use a small nose hook, where it doesn’t cause too much trauma to the bait when you hook him up. I hook him through the lips or sideways across the nostrils. Then normally I have a stinger hook with a little heavier wire that I put a treble hook and normally I imbed that stinger hook on the top of the back, up in front of the tail so it doesn’t interfere with the swimming of the bait.”

So you really want to keep it naturally looking and swimming in the water to be most successful I asked? “Absolutely,” exclaimed Townsend, “if you hook your treble hook or stinger hook too far to the stern of the fish, it interferes with his ability to swim in a natural way.”

Brafford goes light and short too. “I use a small number-six treble hook, noted Brafford, “and number-six solid steel wire, I personally prefer it over the stranded wire. Most time when I live-bait, I use only about a foot of wire, which is tied directly to my 20 or 30-pound mono fighting line. The less (wire) you set; the more you hook up with them.”

A natural looking bait is one key to successful live baiting, which includes trolling speed. So how slow do you go? “Just a very slow troll, just as slow as I can go,” said Brafford.

Just like baits, everyone has a favorite buoy to fish. Charley Buoy is by far the favorite of many anglers. Why? More bait? More fish? Why? Townsend speculated on one possibility. “I think one of the things, it’s a coincidental thing,” said Townsend, “there wasn’t an intention there but the Charlie Buoy, which is one of the most popular ones to fish because of the proximity to the inlet is right on the edge of Southeast Bottoms, and it’s a good live bottom area. So not only does it provide structure but it’s also on a good hard bottom also.”

Bait in the bucket, or the live well and rigs in hand, where is the best place to fish? Brafford prefers to stay close to the bait. “I do most of my fishing around the C-buoy,” said Brafford, “you’ve got Southeast Bottoms, and AR-345 very close, and there is just a lot of good bottom around C-buoy, it’s just a good hard uneven rocky bottom.”

Townsend uses plan “D”. “I normally don’t fish the “C” or Charlie Buoy that much,” explained Townsend, “if I get there and I’m jigging bait and we’re drifting, I’ll put some light lines out so I’ll fish there some, but unless there is a presence of fish I won’t fish there because it’s fairly crowded, it’s just hard to fish. Some people fish the “D” Buoy, and it’s just offshore of a really good out-cropping of rock, so it gives you the buoy to fish around and the rock just inshore of it maybe three-quarters of a mile.”

There are many other good locations nearby those buoys to fish too, that’s another reason that makes them popular fishing destinations. What are some of them, and which ones do you like to fish? When you get your bait, where do you go? The most popular place to fish of course to fish is Southeast Bottoms,” said Townsend, “and then to Honey Hole, the 50’s-Bottom and Sponge Rock area, which are all within two or three miles of the Charlie Buoy. So you have pretty much a real good choice on which way you want to go on that particular day. Get your bait at Charlie Buoy; you don’t have more that a mile or two run before you can start fishing pretty good structure.”

Good baiting and fishing are important, but another aspect is the convenience, closeness and accessibility of these inshore locations so how far out are some of those buoys? I know I can see Alpha buoy from the beach at Bogue Inlet. “Well the Charlie Buoy I think is only about eight-miles,” calculated Townsend, “and the Alpha Buoy and the Bravo Buoy are only within two or three miles of the beach. And of course, the Bravo Buoy is just offshore of the Keypost Rocks and AR 342, so that makes a convenient place where you normally can count on getting bait and go right on to fish on the structure you choose there.”

So this is really available to some not very big boats, boats that don’t or shouldn’t go very far offshore? “Absolutely,” Townsend remarked, “the inshore reefs and the artificial reefs that are in there, in conjunction with those alphabet buoys as you call them, are a real god-send for the 21-foot boats that really don’t care to go out of sight of land. There are certain days when they can go where they want to, but the average day here with the southwest wind two to three-foot sea, the 21-footer needs to stay fairly close to shore.”

Bait in hand, rigs made the night before and ready to go, now what kind of fish can you expect? “Well,” said Townsend, “I think in the early spring you would count on catching flounder and the bottom feeders there, but as the water warms up in the early summer the smaller kings are the first thing to show up there. And anytime during the summer or in the fall you are subject to catch a big king there. All those buoys are somewhat around an inlet, and my personal opinion is that most of the big female kings that are tournament grade fish are caught somewhere around an inlet as a rule, in 60-foot or less of water.”

But what other kinds of game fish do you find in the summer, some of the big stuff, dolphin, wahoo, sails? Townsend goes down the list. “I have caught dolphin, I have caught wahoo at the alphabet buoys, primarily the “C” and “D” buoy. In the years past, there’s been some days when the “C” and the “D” buoy both were excellent, where you had excellent catches of average kings, teenagers…in the teens as far as weight goes, and very large numbers of them too. I’ve even caught a dolphin or two in on the “A” or “B” buoy, and the “F” buoy way off of Sneads Ferry, is really more prevalent for dolphin, with the “E” and the “F” being the best for them. And you’re always going to have you share of amberjack and barracuda around those buoys too.”

Quite a list indeed, some for sport, some great on the dinner table, but are there even some surprises? “Well,” exclaimed Brafford, “I’ve caught sailfish at Charlie Buoy and I’ve caught them as close as the B-buoy before too!”

How much fun is that? “I’ll tell you,” said Brafford, “it’s a whole lot of fun on 20-pound test! They jump, and they put on a real good show. It can last 35 or 40-minutes trying to get him in.”

When you get him in, what do you do? How do you release a fish like that? “With a sailfish,” said Brafford in a serious voice, “we never put him in the boat, if I have to we’ll cut the wire, but we try to get the hook out first! We’ll take some pictures beside the boat, and we’ll put a hand on the bill and one on his tail and drag him and revive him until he’s good. When he’s good, you can tell when he is revived and you let him go. And we use bronzed hooks so they rust out fast, no stainless steel around here, just number-6 4X (4-strong) bronzed hooks, that’s all we use.”

So the next time you hear the sounds of freedom booming in the distance, think of Camp Lejeune and our Marines first and then how lucky we are to go fish by the letters of the alphabet buoys. Recite and hum after me: A-B-C-D-E-F-G, H…, you know the children’s alphabet song!

Specific information about the rules of Navigation in these restricted areas can be gotten from “Coast Pilot 4, Chapter 2, Navigation Regulations” (http://chartmaker.ncd.noaa.gov/nsd/coastpilot4.htm) and warnings of impending military use of the area will be contained in the weekly “Notice to Mariners-District 5” (http://www.navcen.uscg.gov/lnm/d5/).

 

Alphabet Buoys: GPS Coordinates and Water Depths.

    Buoy             Longitude                     Latitude               Depth
A- Buoy          N 34 36.348                W 077 05.508             46
B- Buoy          N 34 35.467                W 077 01.590             49
C- Buoy          N 34 30.056                W 077 02.086             60
D- Buoy          N 34 25.538                W 077 05.737             70
E- Buoy           N 34 22.601                W 077 10.951             68
F- Buoy           N 34 21.930                W 077 17.515             60
G- Buoy          N 34 23.656                W 077 23.645             51
H- Buoy          N 34 27.938                W 077 21.164             44

 

45-Minute Rock: N 34 33.06      W 77 03.31
Bear Inlet Rock: N 34 35.14      W 77 08.71
Christmas Rock: N 34 23.54    W 77 09.52
East Rock (Bogue): N 34 35.33      W 76 56.75
Honey Hole/Sponge Rock: N 34 26.30      W 77 01.30
Honeymoon Rock: N 34 27.65      W 77 08.78
Keypost Rocks: KP1: N 34 38.18   W77 01.90, KP2: N 34 37.75   W 77 01.76
Lost Rock: N 34 32.00      W 77 06.06
Southeast Bottoms: SEB1: N 34 29.42   W 77 01.62, SEB2: N 34 30.10     W76 59.74, SEB3: N 34 29.18   W76 58.34
Station Rock: N 34 35.27 W 77 04.11
AR342 N 34 36.320    W 77 02.110
AR340 N 34 34.210    W 76 58.180
AR345 N 34 32.180    W 76 58.280
AR350 N 34 29.900    W 77 21.300
AR355 N 34 21.110    W 77 20.000
Hutton N 34 39.461    W 76 48.434
Suloide N 34 32.694    W 76 53.729
Jerry’s Reef   N 34 28.970    W 76 53.190
Rock South of 13      N 34 28.510    W 76 54.260

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Emerald Isle Water Temperatures for February 2016

Surf at Bogue Pier ranged from high of 54-degrees to a low of 44-degrees with an average of 49.9-degrees (blue diamonds). Bogue Sound had a high of 60-degrees and a low of 35-degrees with an average of 49.6-degrees (red squares). Last Feb. average for the surf was 45.3, sound 42.0. Much more moderate this year.

Fullscreen capture 322016 15553 PM.bmpBelow is the comparison of surf temperatures for 2015 (blue)  and 2016 (red). Plots are 4th order polynomial fits to the data.

Fullscreen capture 322016 20330 PM.bmp

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Roanoke River Spring Shad and Stripers (5/10/01). Recorded, transcribed and slightly edited by Dr. Bogus with thanks to Fletcher Johnston and of course Capt. “Fly” Gordon Churchill. This was a chat while Capt. Gordon Churchill and I gently drifted down the Roanoke River looking for rockfish, a.k.a., stripers.

Dr. B: Good morning, this is Dr. Bogus and Capt. Gordon Churchill on another excellent fishing adventure here on the Roanoke River in Weldon, NC.

Capt G: Hi everybody, how are you doing today?

Dr. B: Hello Gordon, What I’d like to do today Gordon … this is May 10th, the top of the striped bass season here up on the Roanoke River and what I’d like to do is start off .. Oh, oh fish on, fish on. Fish alert (hahahaha). What I’d like to do is talk a little bit about the Roanoke River itself and about the shad and striped bass fishery in the spring here. Where does the Roanoke originate from … Do you need a net there Gordon?

Capt. G: Pretty big fish on here.

Dr. B: Pretty big fish on here.

Dr. B: I’ll get the net.

Capt. G: He’s not that big.

Dr. B: He’s a little big little bad fish! Hahahahah! (Net in the water sounds-gurgles) He’s one of
the smallest fish we’ve caught all day.

Capt. G: Thought he was big though.

Dr. B: I know, I know. Okay, release that critter.

Dr. B: All right, we’ve had fish up to about ten pounds today.

Capt. G: That’s right, ten-six.

Dr. B: Ten-six is the big one.

Capt. G: On scale.

Dr. B: On scale. Not guesstimated, but actually on scale. Give us a little information about the Roanoke River Gordon.

Capt. G: It originates up there in Virginia. Up there is small mouth bass and most people fish it at Smith Mountain Reservoir up there in Virginia, where they catch some big stripers trolling with live bait, just like you would king mackerel fish. And then the river continues on down. It’s
pretty heavily utilized for irrigation, and there are reservoirs the whole way down. You’ve got Kerr Lake, Gaston Lake and then as you get to Roanoke rapids you’ve got Roanoke Rapids Lake.

Dr. B: Now there’s a dam not too far up the river from us. What’s that all about?

Capt. G: That is the dam, the last dam on the river at Roanoke Rapids Lake, controlled by the (Army) Corp of Engineers. And that’s a power lake but it’s also a flow-controlled lake to keep the valley down here from flooding. Back in the bad old days they had some serious flooding
problems here. So they built those reservoirs. During hurricane Floyd, you didn’t hear of the Roanoke River flooding. Some of the creeks that run into it flooded, but the Roanoke River itself won’t flood because of all the flow controlled reservoirs.

Dr. B: When you fish the Roanoke River, there really are two areas, you fish up above the rocks, then down here where we are today. Right?

Capt. G: Right. From Weldon, which is where most people when they come up here, is where they fish. When you put the boat in at Weldon, you can look up stream and see lots of rocks visible pretty much at any water level. As you look downstream from Weldon there are a few
rocks but as you get down the river bottom turns to a muddy coastal river. Upstream from Weldon, it’s rocky there’s more gradient, that means it drops off more in less amount of time, the rocks are sticking out. Weldon is what they call the fall line, where it changes from a muddy bottom coastal river to a rocky bottom upland river.

Dr. B: Is that why people usually use aluminum hull boats up that way?

Capt. G: When you go up stream from Weldon, you’re going to want, unless the water is really high, like (a flow rate) above 15,000-cu. ft./sec., you really don’t want to go up there without an aluminum boat and a short shaft outboard if you have a prop, or there are a lot of guys that really specialize in that kind of fishing and have a jet-drive outboards.

Dr. B: We were up for a little bit yesterday near where the dam empties in that big deep slough area. What’s that? Did they actually cut that through for the river?

Capt. G: Right, if you ever put a boat in Gaston, at the town of Gaston, or if you ever drive
across the bridge on Highway-48 across the Roanoke River in Gaston, from Roanoke Rapids to Gaston, you look up stream and there’s a big gorge, and that was actually blasted and cut back when they built that dam … As we saw yesterday, we saw big piles of rubble up along the
shoreline up above. You’ll be riding there in 40-feet of water and there’s another 25 to 30-feet of rock above you over your head. It’s kind of cool.

Dr. B: It’s like a big cavern and reminds me of some of the western New York state deep cuts they have through there.

Capt. G: Gorgeous!

Dr. B: Exactly. Let’s talk a little bit about fishing now. Early in the spring, in March is it, is that when the hickory shad come up rivers.

Capt. G: Yes, March. This year they had a good blast of them in right from the first week in March, all the way up into the first or second week in April. A lot of people will go into Weldon and put their Jon boats in, and fish right there at Weldon. The last couple of years, they really
held the water back in March, because they have flow requirements we need to satisfy for the striped bass here in May. So they really hold the water back in March, so when you put your boat in at Weldon, there’s really not a lot of room for you to go. You can’t really go up stream
because there’s no water. And you can’t go down stream, because it really gets shallow there as well. There will be a big pool right below the falls at Weldon, and it actually looks like water falls. And the guys in the Jon boats really can’t go anywhere else. What I will do is I use an inflatable drift boat and launch my boat up above Gaston and we drift on down from Gaston to Weldon in the drift boat. We take two guys out and catch a lot of shad. Just like floating in a river for trout out west somewhere. You can use a fly rod. We use a 4-wt. fly rod, ultra-light spinning rod. Little shad darts work real well on them, any little streamer fly you can think of, you’ll catch them. When you hook them in that shallow water, looking at the bottom, they just come out of the water.

Dr. B: Little baby tarpon?

Capt G: Exactly what they look like, little tarpon. The mouth turns up, the eyes are on top and I pretty much figure out that if your fly is above their head, they’ll come up and hit it. If it’s below it, they won’t eat it, because their eyes are up high.

Dr. B: Does color matter at all?

Capt G: I usually tie my streamer flies with three different colors in them, because I have found a kind of a color preference. Pink is usually a good color here, for whatever odd reason and chartreuse and orange. Basically I tie my streamer flies that I use for shad, the same color
combinations they sell the shad darts with. Nungesser shad darts are the ones that I use and whatever color combinations those are in is what I tie my streamers in.

Dr. B: How big are those fish in general? What’s a standard size nice fish that you can catch here in the spring?

Capt G: Two feet long, they’re about 20-24 inches. They’re nice size fish, two to three pounds. They’re nice and slender, forked tail, they swim fast and jump high. You’ll hook then and they’ll come right out of the water. Like I said especially in the shallow water, fishing up river in a Jon boat.

Dr. B: Nowhere to go but up.

Capt G: That’s pretty much it.

Dr. B: We’re here in May, that fishery stops early April. Is that about when that cuts oft’?

Capt G: Exactly, and then beginning about of the first or second week of April the shad fishing will start to wear down and the striped bass run really hasn’t started yet and as the shad starts to really to run out the shad just vanish and all of a sudden you start to see more and more rockfish. By the middle of the second or third week in April you’re pretty much full up with striped bass all the way up to Weldon.

Dr. B: For both these fish, it’s not just a vacation trip up here; this is a spawning event for both the striped bass and shad as well.

Capt G: Right, we’ve actually watched shad spawn up the river, up near 1-95. It’s pretty impressive, they boil and thrash around on the surface and it’s pretty impressive. They’re fast and very strong fish for their size. It’s a lot of fun to watch.

Dr. B: We’ve seen some boiling surface action here, some of that is feeding, some spawning activity, some of it is fighting activity. How can you tell what’s going on with all the splashing?

Capt G: Well fighting and spawning are the same thing. The fighting is just what the local people around here call it. When the striped bass are spawning, really that’s a good name for it. Really what’s happening is that the male stripers are fighting with each other to be the closest to the female when she releases her eggs so they can fertilize them. It’s classic Darwin theory in its most visible. The very strongest male fish gets to be the one that fertilizes the eggs and passes his DNA on to the next generation.

Dr. B: This time of year, right now we’re in early May, we’re in the catch-and-release season, but there’s also actually a catch season for the stripers up here.

Capt G: Yes, up until around the end of April, the very beginning of May, there were four days (during the week) we could keep fish, Tuesday, Wednesday, Saturday and Sunday and they increased the limit from two to three this year and they increased the total poundage of fish that
could be kept before they closed the season. I’m not going to really get into what I feel about that right here. Suffice it to say … There goes an eagle; a young bald eagle flew out of a tree alongside of us. But the guys come out here, and you can keep them from 18 to 22 inches and then again above 27 inches. When you measure those fish, make sure you have an extremely accurate ruler and don’t keep any close.

Dr. B: No guesstimates!!

Capt G: So if it’s 18-22 I tell people they got to be between 19-21, because you don’t want to mess around. They check every single little boat that come out and measure every fish that’s in your live well, if you got one.

Dr. B: We’re in the catch-and-release season now. How is that different? What do we need to do? How specialized is that as far as equipment and the lures that we use?

Capt G: Well you can use all the same stuff that you would have used during the keeper season, however the guys that fish bait … the bait continues to be extremely effective, but during the catch-and-release days these fish eat a shad or herring extremely well and they will suck that hook all the way down and if you’re not using circle hooks, you need to. And if the fish does get hooked down in there, I would say just cut the line and leave the hook rather than trying to ditch it out of them.

Dr. B: Okay, we’re using a variety of artificials that I want to tell us about. Ours are single hooks, that’s the requirement with the barb crushed down. Right?

Capt G: Right, no barbs, just single hooks. If you come up here throwing swimming plugs like Rat-L-Traps and Redfins, you need to take all the hooks off and just have one single hook. We’ve found a long-shank hook that extends off the tail of the bait attached on the forward hook
holder of the lure seems to be the best option for us.

Dr. B: I like that with the little chartreuse bucktail on it. I think that added a little bit.

Capt G: Obviously that comes from my fly-fishing background. I can’t have a hook hanging off a lure without tying a little something on there. I tie … , I can’t even tell you how many flies I tie. I go through so many hooks in a year so I figure if I’m going to stick a single hook on a Zara
Spook I might as well tie a little calf tailor bucktail on it.

Dr. B: Depending on the time of day often, it really sort of dictates, if you are using artificials, if you’re fishing surface plugs or surface flies, or if you’re working it fairly deep. Why don’t you tell us about that?

Capt G: Ok, during the middle part of the day you’re going to have your lures or flies down near the bottom. For fly-fishing I prefer a 30-ft. shooting head of LC-13, Courtland lead core line, and a 100-ft. of braided monofilament running line. Or what also works is the Depth Charge or Teeny lines of 350 to 250-grain sinking lines that sink pretty fast and they work pretty well. What I like to tie is a bucktail streamer with a lot of flash in the tail. Count your fly down; count your line as it sinks …

Dr. B: How do you know, how long do you count to get it down near the bottom?

Capt G: There will usually be a sink rate, like if you buy an Orvis Depth Charge 250-grain sinking line, there will be a sink rate right on the package and you want to count down, it will be so many inches per second, usually it’s like 0.6 or 0.7-inches per second, say about a half-inch per second, you want to count it down until you think it’s just a bit above the bottom. You want your fly to be just scooting just above the bottom, that’s where the fish are going to hit it. For spin fishing, or gear fishing using a bait casting rod, middle part of the day, jigs, jigging spoons, things like that will get down to the bottom. Experiment with your retrieve. I’ve seen all kinds of things work for different people where sometimes we’re catching fish on jigs and other guys are not or other times other guys are catching fish on jigs and we’re not. Again my experience is mainly with a fly rod, so I’m not as good with a jig in my hand as a lot of other guys. But I find that I can catch them pretty good. Just keep the thing down near the bottom.

Dr. B: One of the things I like to do when fishing is to use all the senses. Right? Sight, sound, feel, hearing, everything and that’s why we like do some of the surface fishing. Can you describe that to us?

 Capt G: I’m using another sense right now, that’s the sense of smell. It’s May 10th and there’s honeysuckle on the vine all around us. It really fills the air and adds to the experience out here. We like to do a lot of top water fishing. In the evening you can come out here throw a Zara
Spook on a spinning rod or a popper on a fly rod with a floating line and really have a blast. As it gets later and darker the fish get more and more aggressive and they really come up and smack it. You talk about adding all the senses to it, the sound as they slap it with their tails and hit it with their dorsal spines; we caught one that was hooked right in the gill cover. They have very sharp gill covers; this fish came up and tried to kill the lure with his gill cover. You know he knows that he’s got a little switch blade there and he’s going to try to whack it on there.

Dr. B: Well one of the other things is when we see those poppers and the Zara Spooks corning in, can actually see sometimes a half a dozen or ten fish come and give it a whack.

Capt G: Right and that’s a lot of fun. The main thing that people don’t realize it that’s how I catch my biggest fish. All the biggest fish I’ve caught on this river have come on top-water lures in that nigh time period on Zara Spooks and Rebel Pop-R’s. I haven’t got any, because they’re really expensive for me and I don’t have anybody to get them for me, but the MirrOlure Top Dogs and the Storm Chug-Bugs with the saltwater series they have more durable hooks and hook holders and they’re probably a little better lures than the other two I just mentioned. And the Cotton Cordell Redfin as my buddy here Dr. Bogus found out is a very, very good lure to use.

Dr. B: Yes, that’s a nice one too, it’s a floater and stays right on the top and is very bright so you can see both the lure and the fish as they come up under it to take the lure. That’s really something special out here. Several times we had dual hook ups, two fish on and two fish in the net at the same time. Doesn’t get much better than that Gordon.

Capt G: I don’t think so; I love that stuff especially when it’s on top water.

Dr. B: Ok, just to finalize here, when does the striped bass fishery quiet down here? When is the spawn over?

Capt G: Well, the big thing is, what’s been told to me … right now the water temperature is about 63 to 62-degrees, the lead biologist for the North Carolina Wildlife Resources Commission told me when that water temperature starts to get touching 70 (degrees) the catch-and-release
mortality with bass is phenomenal, even if you hook them just in the side of the mouth with a single hook, chances are there’s a good chance that fish isn’t going to make it. So I don’t like to fish out here when the water gets too warm. So I’m not taking any charters after that third week
in May. I’m out of here; I’m not out here around Memorial Day, because I just don’t think it’s good for the fish.

Dr. B: I also see that you use one of these rubber nets, does that make a difference?

Capt G: Yes, I have a rubberized landing net with a real elastic net mesh and that I feel really contributes to the safe handling of the fish. I can put the fish in that net and he flips around in there and his slime doesn’t come off. The net doesn’t get slimy and it doesn’t smell like fish.

Dr. B: Handling is sort of a misnomer. One of the things you try to do is actually NOT handle the fish.

Capt G: Yes, I see people come out here with bass boats with carpeted decks, they have pretty heavy line and I see this all the time. They catch a striper, get him up near the side of the boat, they grab the line and just drop the fish on the deck and step on it or kneel on it or something. I’ll tell you what, that’s not too conducive to the fish keeping it’s slime coating. I’m sure you can explain it better that I can Richard, but those fish need that slime coating, because it keeps bacteria out of their body.

Dr. B: You’re absolutely right! Well this is our third year we have been up here Gordon. I’ve had three great trips with you. Thank you very much.

Capt G: Hey, if s my pleasure.

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Spring shad on the Roanoke River, By Dr. Bogus (March 8, 2006)

That ding, ding, ding, off in the distance is a clanging bell chiming in the start of the spring fishing season. To some, that sound rings in the wakening of the redfish up in the marshes, to others, early season blowfish and sea mullet from the surf and piers. For the big tackle angler it ushers in their first trips to Gulf Stream and The Big Rock for yellowfin tuna and for us light at heart, the visions of streaking hickory shad at our other “Big Rock” on the Roanoke River, on all but the lightest of tackle.

With this in mind, last week I met Capt. Dean Lamont (Raleigh) at the Wildlife boat ramp in Weldon, along the Roanoke River, to give these feisty fish, the poor man’s tarpon, a try. As a guide, Lamont has been making this yearly spring pilgrimage to the Roanoke for migrating shad and later in the spring, transient spawning stripers too.

“Of course the reason the shad come up the river,” Lamont reminded me, “is that they are one of these fish that spawn in freshwater even though they live in saltwater. The shad in the Roanoke River as an example, travel about 160-miles from the ocean all the way here to Weldon where they spawn.” “We’re really blessed in NC,” explained Lamont, “we have a number of rivers where shad come in. We have the Cape Fear River, Northeast Cape Fear River, the Neuse, the Cashie, actually they come up nearly every one of our rivers.”

Of these rivers, the Roanoke is special geographically speaking. “It’s at the fall line of the Piedmont and the coastal plain,” said Lamont, “and especially when it’s low water, you basically cannot go up river boat ramp at all, because the river is just filled with boulders and rocks, so you put your boat in and you go VERY carefully down river.”

Taking this hazard warning seriously, many anglers prefer inflatable boats or aluminum hull boats. “That way if you bounce off a rock,” said Lamont, “you don’t put a hole in your gel-coat, or worse, you just put a dent in your aluminum and you can pound it out!” “That’s the nice thing about the Neuse River, explained Lamont, the Neuse River can be a lot muddier, but at least you don’t have to worry about the rocks.”

We got on the river at about 10:00 AM with more spinning gear and fly rods darts, garishly colored flies and spoons than two shad fishermen should need. Lamont eased his 17-ft flats boat gingerly around the group of “bank” anglers and into the streaming river.

The shad are a small but real sporty fish and a lot of fun on lightweight rods. “You can either fly-fish or spin-fish,” explains Lamont, “normally what I use is a six-weight fly rod. Early in the season, the shad are down deep in the water column, so when you are fly fishing, you need to use a sinking line with about a 200 to 250- grain line.” “Of course it depends on the river flow, how fast the river is flowing and how deep the water is,” Lamont said perusing the river.

For us coastal anglers, Lamont suggests that a light-weight speckled trout rod would maximize our fun, so I pulled out the trout rod I had with me, actually a 6-weight fly rod at birth, now transformed into my favorite spin trout rod and equipped with a 2000-class spinning reel, 10-pound braided line and 8-pound test leader. Perfect, I was ready for shad.

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The river is still very cold, it would never get above 49-degrees today and the river level was very low as well. “I don’t think I’ve ever seen the river as low as this before during shad season,” observed Lamont. Although this means more rocks to contend with, it perfect for shad fishing. “The lower the river level normally, the better the shad fishing,” said Lamont, “because the shad are more concentrated in the river compared to being way up into the banks or the side creeks.”

Watching for submerged rocks, we eased across and a little down river not far from where we had launched. We were already marking fish on our fish-finder in about six to eight-feet of water, so we anchored up. Lamont rigged his fly rod with a tandem fly rig, consisting of two small brightly chartreuse flies and started to cast back and then forward finally letting his fly sink in the current. I rigged with a standard shad-rig, consisting of a shocking pink shad dart trailed by a very small silver spoon. Gold colored spoons are fine too.

“The best way to do it, either for fly or spin-fishing,” demonstrated Lamont “is to cast perpendicular (to the boat) across the river and current flow and let your line sink as it’s swinging around with the current. Normally by the time it gets straight out behind you or down along the bank a little bit if you are bank fishing, when you start reeling in that’s when the fish will hit.” That’s the theory anyway. We got hung on the bottom a couple times, and lost some gear, but didn’t entice any shad to eat our colorful baits.

Interestingly, shad are not supposed to feed during spawning season, but they clearly will take these artificial baits. So I asked Lamont, why to they eat (hit) them? “That’s a good question,” smirked Lamont, “what I hear from a lot of people is that you really need a lot of shad in the river to catch shad, and mainly because they aren’t really feeding.” “I think they just sort of strike out at the lure, maybe you are invading their space or something like that,” said Lamont. “So when we are talking about the lures and flies, I think it is important to mention that the gaudier and brighter, the better off you are,” emphasized Lamont, “you want that shad to be able to see these flies and for whatever reason for them to strike out and hit it.”

Well, they weren’t striking here, but just upstream of us, closer to the fall-line, on the seam of some white water and a back eddy current, we saw another angler, Chuck Laughridge, a longtime local from Roanoke Rapids, hauling in one shad after another on the fly. He waved us on, so we eased upstream of him, no more than two or three boat lengths away and anchored up front and back with a couple of mushroom anchors to stabilize the boat. With Laughridge still landing fish, we tried both flies and shad rigs to no avail, really pointing out the importance of location, location, location, and how critical just a small difference of position, missing the flow seam was in catching or not catching fussy, cold shad.

The shad bite slowed a bit even for Laughridge, so we all moved down stream only a mile or less from the ramp and anchored at what is known as “The Big Rock”. You can’t miss it, it’s pile of rocks and big to boot. There is also an aromatic discharge from a water treatment plant and the rocky granite remnants of an old bridge on each side of the bank as well as submerged mid river. The big rocks provide some calmer water, out of the fast moving current. As Laughridge would point out, resting places for cold, tired fish.

Again marking fish, we anchored again front and back to keep the boat from moving side-to-side. We could see Laughridge landing fish, as he held up his hand indicating he had already caught five shad. We could also see a fisherman along the muddy clay bank hauling two in quick succession, from along the shore. Encouraged, we started to work the pooled and protected areas near the rocks. Finally success, Lamont hooked and landed one on a fly, followed mere moments later by my first success of the day. We could actually see them rise up from the bottom and hit our lures and flies, then jump into the air, go back down and jump again. The poor man’s tarpon maybe, but at the very least the light-tackle angler’s dream for sure, jump and run, run and leap. What a blast!

By three o’clock the water temperature nudged to almost 49-degrees, the highest it would get today and the fish were biting as good as they had all day, and now we were finally having fun. We probably landed a dozen fish or more, mostly visual strikes…the best.DSC02397

It was getting late in the afternoon so we decided to work back up to near the fall-line to once more try our luck. Again we marked lots of fish, without any strikes. Too cold, too lazy, wrong seam, who knows. Lamont says, “one more cast and we have to get out of here.” He casts his fly into a nice seam along the eddy current and yells, “There’s one, get your camera, feels like a big one, a good one a real good one…it’s…it’s a catfish,” exclaimed Lamont, as it came up to the surface. A nice sized catfish indeed, and on the last cast of the day! “I guess you never know what you’re going to catch, even a catfish! I knew it was a big one!” I took the picture and we released the catfish.

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We pulled up the anchors, and as we approached the “bankers”, the bank fishing anglers, who numbered at least 10 by now, we could see each of them continue to pull in leaping shad from the shoreline. At the ramp, there is a nice current and eddy seam that holds the shad close to the bank, easily reachable from the shore and you don’t need a boat. It was undoubtedly the hot spot for the day. Although you don’t need a boat, like all of us who fish the Roanoke for shad, stripers, or whatever, you do need a fishing license, and be warned, the Weldon area is a frequent stop by NC Wildlife officers. Count your fish, and have your license ready.

Although we marked scads of shads today on our sounder today, the early season cold river water provided only a slow and sporadic hickory bite. Forecasts for the next week are more spring-like, with temperatures soaring into the 70 or even 80s. As spring takes hold, the warming water should get the shad to explode both figuratively and literally, since they are already there.

How long will the bite last? “It normally depends on the water temperature,” explains Lamont. “Once the water temperature gets to about 60-degrees, the fish will spawn and then they will immediately start heading back down river, back to the saltwater. One of the reasons I think they head back down river right away is because the striped bass will then be coming up the river and they don’t want the stripers to eat them,” smiled Lamont. The food chain in action.

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Another Dr. Bogus and Fly Gordon Excellent Fishing Adventure:

“The Awesome TRUTH about Roanoke River Stripers” 06 May 99

If stripers (Roccus saxatilis) are a special mystical fish, then fishing them in the spring run on the Roanoke River (NC) is a Zen experience, Nirvana as it were. The return of the Atlantic Coastal striped bass fishery, after near extinction by the late 1970’s and early 1980’s is truly the success story of fishery management and effective conservation measures. The payoff can be seen up and down the East Coast, the rugged and rocky New England shoreline, Cape Cod, Long Island
Sound and surf, the New York Bight, Sandy Hook, Delaware River and Bay, Assateague, the Chesapeake Bay, OBX and the Roanoke River here in the “Old North State”.

Each spring when the water is fixed between 53 and 60 degrees Fahrenheit, these anadromous fish turn their fancy not only to river herring and shad, but to opposite sex as well (see Striped Bass Fishing by Woolner and Lyman). It’s spawning time and all the leaves are green and the clouds of midge flies (Diptera nemocera) haze the sunset. This run of spawn fish is Albemarle Sound based, home of the largest striper on record, a 128-pounder netted at the mouth of the Chowan River near Edenton in 1891. The stripers leave the sound traveling more than 100 miles from the salt to the brackish and finally sweet water of the Roanoke to Roanoke Rapids and Weldon, NC.

Early in the week I got a desperate e-mail message from Capt. “Fly Gordo” inviting me to Weldon for a striper fest-he used the words “I’m serious” in his message. Sex crazed stripers, spring, the Roanoke, THE RUN was on. How could I turn this down?? You all know my striper
history, from my first childhood line-sider in Connecticut, my 10 years in the Long Island surf and Montauk, rockfish in Maryland and Delaware, my trip to Maine last summer in search of the northern stocks. I slipped off from work early and wound my way from Winston-Salem to
Weldon, just short of the Virginia boarder, exit 173 off ofI-95, take a right and follow the boats to the State Wildlife boat ramp.

I parked under the tall trees, got out of my Jeep, and looked down the hill high above the river and could see the bridge and a large line of boulders to my left, boats, and more boulders extended from just below the rapids downstream. I could also see Capt. Gordo’s boat directly
below me, pulled up along the bank. As I surveyed the territory, I heard a honk and saw the red truck. Perfect, Fly’s here and I could see stripers landed from the boats, and from the bank, temps in the 70’s, partly sunny, and some threatening clouds-but not to worry today.

We boarded the 174 Cobia-CC, and off we went. Couple of light weight spinning rods with Shimano 4000, and a small Penn reel and a 8 weight fly rod terminated with lead core line and a quickie “three-step” deceiver fly. Typical spinning tackle consists of a variety of soft plastic grubs-chartreuse, white etc. On a 1/2 oz. jig head, we also had a couple of mini-spooks, retooled with single hooks, mashed down barbs and all. Gordo had “enhanced” the retooled Spook (Zara Spook) hooks with a bit of glitzy gold-flash.

The Roanoke this spring is relatively low, unlike last year when the water was high and dirty and the current swift. This year it’s nice and fishable, almost leisurely. Above and up river of the ramp the river is loaded with jutting boat eating rocks and submerged boulders, but as you drift downstream the bottom become mostly mud and more boat friendly. There are rises and holes, flats, bends and rips and dead wood everywhere, but mostly friendly. Well, let’s go fishin’!!

There was a crowd anchored near and just down from the ramp, so we worked our way away from the madding crowd, down river, a little at first, later more and more, farther and farther. At first I tried a chartreuse laden jig, bingo fish on, then another pretty good size, 5 or 6-pounds or
so. Trying an easy release I broke him off, jig and all. Gordo suggested the mini Spook, this time with a 30# leader. Can you say Albright?? Well I don’t tie knots in the day that require three hands that I can’t do at night, so I went with my favorite shock leader knot–Surgeon’s knot.
Works for me, and I can do it in the dark even while being eaten by gnats.The river is full of life, the stripers splashing–feeding, stripers splashing–spawning, spirit and power. Turkeys, vultures circling, schools of river herring huddling for safety, red tail hawks and eagles preying, wood ducks, honking egrets, a muskrat, a beaver, the midges-yes the white clouds of midges. The incredible biomass at our finger tips.

“In and above the clear-muddy-brook, and it’s just Spring!”

For hours and hours we drifted down with the Roanoke current, motored back up and drifted again. Dozens of stripers caught and released, power and spirit. Free fish trying to “eat” the Spook or deceiver from the mouth of the hooked fish swarms and schools everywhere. I even caught one without hooking. The Spook lodged horizontally across the width of its mouth, and I brought it to the boat where it slipped harmlessly off.

Finally Gordo said, “are you ready”. I looked over and said, “yes it’s time”. He handed me his fly rod and off I went. I stood at the bow, couple of false casts, sink-sink-sink’ strip-strip-strip. No surface splashes, but fish attacking on nearly each cast. The line straightens a fish is on. Each fish on the fly feels like a monster as it pulls and bends the long slender rod to a “U” under the boat back to the other side. Strip the line into the bucket and bring him to the boat. A quick release and back to a cast-cast, strip-strip. Fish on!! Unbelievable!’ On this day shooting-head
with a deceiver, or a popping bug with a floating line were both effective. Fish were aggressive, fish were everywhere.

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 At dusk the wind laid down, the river became flat and the air a haze of midges. The stripers were still hungry, noisily rising to the surface at will. Some for sex some for food. We returned to ramp, pulled the boat and cleaned the day’s sandy grime and fishy slime off at a local coin
operated car wash. We supped simply, and tired we hit the sack early. Capt. Gordo set his alarm for 0500 hours to be ready and waiting for a group from West Virginia who I guarantee would have a day that they wouldn’t believe and will never forget. Me, I returned to Winston-Salem for another day in the lab, my expectations exceed and the realization that the exaggerated stories I heard about the Roanoke River and its stripers are grossly under exaggerated.

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Join us Saturday, March 19th at the Crystal Coast Civic Center for the Crystal Coast Chapter of CCA’s Annual Fundraising Banquet. Doors will open at 6pm. We have some exciting raffle prizes this year including sought after firearms and top-rated fishing gear to get you ready for spring fishing! You won’t want to miss the pinnacle of the evening, the always exhilarating Live Auction featuring local and destination guided hunting and fishing trips, exotic vacations to Belize, Costa Rica and Saint Thomas, beautifully hand-crafted mahogany and teak furniture, original artwork by local artists and much more. We will also be hosting a wine tasting this year along with tables dedicated to items exclusively for the ladies! Come have a ball and help us support the resource! Tickets are $65 per person or $100 a couple and include a mouth-watering catered meal, open bar and your annual CCA membership!

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Reflecting back on the past 2015/16 season, how did you do with speckled trout? Well if you didn’t do very well, join the club, it probably wasn’t your fault, because not only did you do poorly, but so most recreational anglers and ditto for the commercial catch as well. Commercial includes internal water strike-netters as well as the ocean stop-net (10/1-11/30 each year) “mullet” fishery as well. The commercial ocean mullet catch was excellent, but where were the “big” trout. I say “big” trout, because, if you were like me, our catches of 12 to almost 14-inch fish were epic up and down the beach, around the inlets and in the back sound tidal creeks.

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So that was the good news/bad news story of the fall migrating trout season. Lots of juvenile fish, but the most of the keepers were what I called measured keepers, that is you had to measure twice before you risked putting a fillet knife once to the trout, so the bad news was the lack of any fish from 18-icnhes and above.

So what are the possible reasons for the apparent lack of big speckled trout? According to recent research from trout tagging studies, natural mortality outstrips harvest, both commercial and recreational, mortality. Predominant avenues of natural mortality are predation (it’s dangerous to be a young trout), and environmental, particularly cold stun/kill events…“troutsicles”. Cold stun/kill events are not as rare as one might think, in fact we have had five such documented events since the winter of 2010, Polar Vortices included, and even devastating back-to-back events in the span of 13-months in January 2010 followed by a second kill in December, 2010 into January 2011. Even last winter there were documented kills in February 2015. We can readily document these events, but counting dead fish, to estimate the scope and breadth of the kill is difficult.

We know that since trout spawn early and often, and become reproductively mature after their first year when the fish have only reached 10 to 12-inches, their recovery from such natural disasters can be rapid. Thus the biological underpinning for recently increase of the minimum size limit to 14-inches. Just give the fish a chance and they will recover. Give fish a chance…

So the remarkable numbers of small spike trout can be attributed to a great recent spawn, but how about the keepers that you only measure because you want to and not because you need to? Of course one possibility is that the most recent trout kill in February 2015 was worse than thought. We may never know. The second are other weather related events, rain, rain in seemingly Biblical proportions. Okay no arks were built, but we in North Carolina did get tremendous quantities of rain in September and October, and South Carolina got 100-year flooding from the indirect effects of Hurricane Joaquin.

With this freshwater deluge, what did we see? We saw hardhead and finger mullet fleeing this freshwater influx, we saw a massive pulse of shrimp escaping the same, ditto for bay anchovies and behind this big southern flounder in the surf and at the local ocean fishing piers in numbers unseen in recent and even distant memories. So many that people were sight fishing flounder from Bogue Pier. And then there were the old drum bite from Bogue Banks to Topsail Island were dozens to hundreds were caught on some days. Even briefly, very briefly there were a few days when hardcore trout fishermen caught some 20-inchers. Then they disappeared. Bait was thick along the beach and we saw king mackerel, Spanish, blues, ladyfish too feeding on the shrimp and anchovies. There were shrimp popping at my ankles in the surf east of Bogue Pier and people were lining up along the bank with castnets netting many 10s of pounds of shrimp. Some old-timers have never seen this either.

The fresh water intrusion was so wide spread that our creeks that usually harbor big overwintering speckled trout were devoid of them. Even state Wildlife officials “shocking” Slocum Creek a great fall and winter trout hot-spot along the Neuse River, found no trout and not surprisingly, no salt, only fresh water. Interestingly, ocean shrimp trawls running along the beach in about 30-feet of water not only harvested great quantities of really big green-tail shrimp, but along with the usual expected by-catch, found large speckled trout, apparently feeding on the abundant shrimp, just off the beach. Fresh water is known to have adverse effects on many of our inshore species, forcing them to escape to more slat friendly waters.

So the most likely proximate causes from the lack of big trout may be recent killing cold stun events and an aversion to the lack of salt in the local creeks and rivers. We know that the trout rebound quickly from killing events and with the coast wide large number of juvenile fish seen, the prospects looks good for next year spotted trout. Trout growth curves indicate that these sub-14-inch fish will measure up into the mid to upper teens by next fall, with many in the nice eating 18-inch size and approaching the mid 20-inches in just another year or two of surviving predation, natural mortality and harvest. So long and thanks for all the trout, hoping next season with be a recovery year.

Finally, when all else fails, it’s time to blame El Niño!

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Surf at Bogue Pier ranged from high of 64-degrees (New Year’s Day) to a low of 47-degrees with an average of 54.0-degrees (blue diamonds). Bogue Sound had a high of 66-degrees and a low of 38-degrees with an average of 48.5-degrees (red squares). January temperatures started very warm on New Year’s Day and shortly plummeted by the end of the firs week. The warm temperatures extended the Surf (and Bogue Pier) Fishing season into mid-January, with puffers, sea mullet, bluefish and speckled trout.

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Blowfish, the bad the ugly and the tasty Dr. Bogus

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One of the first harbingers of spring for us fishermen along the Carolina Coast is the return of lowly puffer fish. Okay, they are not pretty, eat anything they can get their mouths on, average only a pound or less, don’t put up a good fight, or any fight for that matter, but they make up for all of that by providing some of the tastiest morsels that come out of the sea. Also known as blowfish, blow toad or swellfish and technically the northern puffer or scientifically Spheroides maculates, they return to us in the late winter or early spring, when we need them the most to recover us from the long winter doldrums. I recently ventured out onto the recently opened Bogue Inlet Fishing Pier in Emerald Isle, to hunt down some “puffer experts” to get the skinny on blowfish.

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It was the first day of spring and as luck would have it, I came across the only two hardy anglers there that day fishing for none other than the puffers, so I sat and talked to Bob Young (Hubert) and Bob Ludwig (Cape Carteret), both Yankees originally from the cold white north of New York City, both grizzled puffer fishermen from long ago and far away.

“They are the best eating fish you can catch,” volunteered Ludwig, “I’ve been catching them since 1955, up in Captree and in Center Moriches, right on Long Island.”

Not to be outdone, Young interrupted, “oh, I been catching them since I was about eight, nine-years old, and that’s quite many years back. My dad and me used to go out to Sheepshead Bay, right out there in Long Island Sound. We used to fish them all the time,” confirmed Young.

We know that they are an early spring fish, but how about the rest of the year. “Yes, you have a winter season too,” said Young, “in the wintertime or spring in the colder seasons, you catch them in closer to the beach, but during the summertime you catch them out in the deeper water.”

Ludwig noted that he was in puffer heaven late last fall. “I caught about 150 in three days right here on the pier in the cold, last December, exclaimed Ludwig.” By the way, the puffers freeze very well too, so that was a 150-tasty morsels for the winter.

Gear and bait are pretty straight-forward agreed Young and Ludwig. Just a simple hi-lo two hook rig and a three or four ounce sinker will do the trick. The only real trick on the gear is to use a long shank hook, as Ludwig explained, “I use a long shank No. 4 hook because it goes deep in their mouth and you can hook them better. I use a long shank for that reason, otherwise they will just chop it right off.”

Young agreed, “If you have a short-shank hook, they’ll cut your line right in half, and you won’t come back with a fish. You’ll come back with just an empty line. Use a long shank hook and you’ll come with more fish,” said Young.

Neither is the bait exotic. “I like shrimp like everybody else,” said Young, “you can also use this artificial bloodworms (Fishbites, Bag o’ Worms), they’ll work just as well. They are a bottom feeding fish and they will eat anything you throw at them, they’ll eat squid, shrimp or whatever, anything.”

Ludwig agreed, “they will bite just about anything, even artificials, said Ludwig, they’ll eat anything, the blowfish. They’ll tear up just about anything.” Reminding me that I even landed one jigging a green grub bait last fall, intended for a speckled trout.

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The blowfish are willingest of victims, one of the least fussy eaters, the gear is not rocket science, but this is where it gets interesting…cleaning the beast.

“It’s a tough, job,” sighed Ludwig, “they will take the skin right off your hands. I always wear a pair of gloves when I clean them. Their skin is about 10-times rougher than sandpaper!”

Young agreed, “Really, their skin is rough,” said young “you got to use gloves and good sharp knives. The easiest way to clean them that I found, and I’ve been fishing them for a long time and cleaning them, is to cut them (from the top) right behind the gills, and cut them right down to the bottom skin and then turn your knife away from you and run the knife right down the fish and the skin will peel right off.”

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“You just rotate your knife as you pull it to the back,” explained Young, “while holding the head, and the skin comes right off and you end up with what we call a chicken leg. It looks just like a chicken leg, all nice and clean.”

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Recently the desirability of the delectable puffer is spreading, and with the toxicity myth our northern puffer dissipating has lead to a dramatic change in attitude to the once feared puffer.

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“When I first came down here, which was six-years ago,” explained Young, “you used to be able to find them (discarded) all over the pier. People didn’t want them, they were scared of them, and they read all these newspapers from Florida that said that they were poisonous. They really aren’t poisonous. These are the northern puffer fish that come down this way and are very good eating. As far as I’m concerned, they are one of the better eating fish.”

Ludwig chimed in, “now when you just get them out of the water, people want them. Now they are asking if you want them, even before you get them off the hook!”

Now for the culinary. Both Young, and Ludwig and other blowfish coinsures confirm the great taste of the northern puffer fish. Chicken of the sea, sea squab are designed to hide the “puffer” heritage of the fish, but the taste is tops and the rule is the KISS proverb, “keep is simple stupid”, and simplicity is the best preparation.

Some just sauté in butter, I like to lightly coat in flour and sauté, in butter with a little lemon juice…simple. Young’s wife Alice keeps it simple too. According to Young, ‘my wife dips them in an egg-wash then coats them in some Italian flavored breadcrumbs and then browns them in butter and olive oil. When we put them out for guests with some other fish and don’t tell anyone what they are, they are always the first to disappear,” smiled Young, thinking of his next meal.

Oh the puffing, it’s for protection, they can suck in water and puff up to a large spheroid when threatened by a potential predators. On the pier they suck in air, I guess in response to human predators. “If you bring one up and you tickle its belly,” explains Young, “or rub its belly, it will blow-up like a basketball. As a matter of fact, it you drop it on the deck, it will bounce.”

As far as North Carolina regulations, unlike most fish, it’s quite easy; there are no size or bag limits.

And just to clarify the toxicity of puffer fish, according to US Food and Drug Administration, Center for Food Safety & Applied Nutrition (FDA-CFSAN, http://vm.cfsan.fda.gov/~mow/chap39.html) poisonings from the puffer toxin, a.k.a. tetrodotoxin, have been almost exclusively associated with the consumption of puffer fish from waters of the Indo-Pacific ocean regions, there have been no confirmed cases of poisoning from the Atlantic puffer fish. Other remote species of the family Tetradontidae which includes many species of puffers that are notably toxic, such as the Japanese torafugu (fugu rubripes), should be avoided (see article link below).

https://tableagent.com/article/fugu-a-mortiferous-morsel-sure-to-make-your-mouth-tingle/

Locally, there is one puffer family that should also avoided, it is the burrfish. “When fishing for puffers,” Young said, “about one of every ten will be a burrfish. You can tell them apart, they have a square nose, that’s how you recognize them, more square than oblong like the puffer. They also have spines, they’re really spiny. The thing is to watch out, and don’t go playing with them or eat them, they are not a thing you want to eat,” said Young.

Ludwig echoed the sentiment, “they really have sharp thorns on them,” said Ludwig, “I’ve gotten stuck by them, now I use pliers to get the hook out of them. I use a rag and pliers.”

So now is the time for tasty treats, chicken of the sea is on the menu, but if you come down to Bogue Pier looking for puffers, these days you’ll have catch your own, and don’t ask Bob Young or Bob Ludwig if they want to keep theirs, you already know the answer!