During the months of January and February there was some serious rubber-necking going on as drivers passed over the Highway 17 bridge just before Leland. At all times of the day a couple dozen boats were stacked in the river just south of the bridge, and some anglers even waded out through the muck to cast from the shore. But what were they catching? And why aren’t they still out there?

Although this section of river still draws a few weekend anglers, it clearly is not as popular as it was a couple months ago. All the action was due to the perfect culmination of conditions, which drew in some very healthy populations of speckled trout and a few striped bass. The area was a meeting place of big hungry fish. It just so happens that the area that was holding the fish had better real estate for advertising that any billboard ever will. It didn’t take long for the secret to get out, and before you knew it, everyone who owned a boat was out on the river with rod in hand.

According to Captain Brent Stanley of Current Adventure Charters, there used to be another bridge slightly downriver of the bridge that exists today. Left behind are the old pilings and other remnants of the bridge, which provide structure for fish, and an ambush for them to attack prey. This is the first element of a great fishing location. Game fish are naturally drawn to structure, especially structure that is large enough to hide their bodies, and that offers them cover through several levels of the water column.

Captain Matt Wirt of Reel Adventure Charters adds that in an attempt to reach warmer water, “the bait fish push up into the creeks as far as they can go before they run out of salt water.”

This past year was a relatively dry one for the state of North Carolina. As a result, less fresh water is flowing down the Cape Fear River system, which causes the saltwater influx from tide changes to push farther up the river and allows saltwater fish species like speckled trout the opportunity to travel farther up river in pursuit of food. With the few warm spells that we experienced over this past winter, speckled trout and striped bass alike kicked into gear and started eating. This “perfect storm” of conditions created an opportunity for North Brunswick anglers.

Outdoorsmen in this part of the state are very fortunate to have great fishing and hunting opportunities for the majority of the year. There are a myriad of species to be caught both inshore and offshore in the summer, from drum to mahi to bottom fish to cobia. In the spring, the big Spanish mackerel school through, accompanied by blitzing albacore. In the fall the kings come in close and the larger drum can be caught on their way to spawn. In winter, the striped bass turn on, and the fabled bluefin tuna make their grand appearance. In the very peak of winter, however, a waterfowl season (which many without access to private lands deem as mediocre) is about the best thing going on. This year, the schools of trout gave anglers a chance to scratch their itch for action with a rod and reel.

One to three pound trout are the norm, but Wirt says: “You know you are getting into some really nice trout when you catch them in the five-pound range. It’s not uncommon to see trout up to six to eight pounds.”

Both Wirt and Stanley agree that live bait cannot be beat for catching these fish. Live shrimp, mud minnows or killifish are irresistible to trout and stripers. However, as the water temperature cools, finding bait becomes increasingly difficult, so artificial lures usually have to do. Way back in the shallow creeks, it is possible to locate live bait, but during the winter, one must usually resort to plastics.

The captains both recommend using jigs like Berkley GULP! twister tails and shrimp. Any light color works well, as well as motor oil color and the new penny color. These soft plastics can be fished on a jig head, being bounced up and down off the bottom, or can also be fished underneath a popping cork, just like a live shrimp, and this technique works particularly well in especially cold water when the fish are lethargic and/or suspended in the water column.  Small crankbaits and jerkbaits like a MiroLure are great speck and striper catching artificial baits.

Wirt urges his clients to “K.I.S.S.” their retrieve. By that he means “keep it slow and simple.” Often anglers will fish a bait faster and more erratically than the fish care for. He suggests that anglers even let the lure hit the ground and rest there for a few seconds before continuing the retrieve. One other piece of advice that he offers regarding retrieve is to try to remember what you were doing when the fish hit.

“Whenever you catch a fish, take a moment and think, ‘What was I doing when I caught that fish?’,” Wirt says. Chances are, the fish hit it for a reason, and duplicating the speed and style of retrieve will likely produce more fish.

Don’t worry and think you have missed all the action. In fact, the best fishing of the year is upon us. Fish that have been hunkering down, conserving all their energy over the winter are snapping into action. The water temperature is ratcheting up and is triggering fish metabolism back into high gear. It’s time for fish to eat, and eat a lot. The warmer water and longer hours of daylight result in more food for shrimp and minnows, which in turn means more forage fish. The red drum are starting to move around and populate the lower Cape Fear and Intracoastal Waterway, and both Wirt and Stanley are pros at locating and catching them in this area. The time is now to get out on the water and to get a bend in your pole.

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