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.