by Craig Holt*
About 20 years ago, North Carolina’s winter and early spring inshore fishing was a losing proposition. Cold weather chased sportfish from sounds, bays and rivers to the warmer ocean waters, leaving inshore anglers to oil and respool reels, remove rust and repair rods while waiting for spring.
But today, because of strict restrictions on recreational catches, red drum flourish in North Carolina waters year-round. Because reds take lures and bait from January through March, they’re available, even when water temperatures sink low enough to stun spotted seatrout.
No other saltwater sportfish rivals the size and strength of red drum during the winter, except for striped bass, but they aren’t available for many fishermen, especially those south of Hatteras.
Here’s some advice from some of North Carolina’s top guides that should help anglers beat cabin fever.
January is one of the best months for inside and nearshore red drum fishing in the Cape Lookout area.
Joe Shute, a long-time guide who runs the Cape Lookout Fly Shop on the Atlantic Beach causeway (252-240-1427), hunts for reds mostly with a fly rod, but he takes clients unfamiliar with fly fishing and offers them spinning outfits and soft-plastic lures.
“I fish for them all day long in winter,” Shute said, “and the tides don’t make much difference, although sunny days when tides are low in afternoon are best, when the sun warms mud bottoms.”
In the shallow bays and marshes behind Beaufort and Morehead City, Shute often finds redfish stacked up, sometimes in schools of 50 to 200 fish. He anchors his skiff with a Power Pole and waits for schools to get within casting distance.
“You can see them in clear water,” he said. “I let them swim past me and lay a cast in front of a school and work the fly toward them. If you cast when they’re swimming toward you, you’ll spook them because they can see you.”
On calm days, Shute often takes fly- and lure-casters to Shark Island on the east side at the Cape Lookout shoals.
“If we find them in the ocean, they’ll eat anything,” Shute said. “There’s not much natural bait out there except a few glass minnows. It makes ’em aggressive.
“Sometimes they’re at the Cape Lookout rock jetty or in the breakers at Shackleford Banks,” Shute said. “We get a lot of northeast winds, so it lays down the protected Shackleford beach. A lot of times there’s not even a ripple.”
Big schools of red drum may be in 1 to 20 feet of water off the beach at Shackleford, he said.
“They’ll be the (surf) slots and sloughs, looking for something to eat,” he said. “When it gets brutally cold, they go deeper.”
Shute said when the water temperature in inside waters drops below 50 degrees, reds get lethargic.
Favorite spinning reel lures for ocean reds include soft plastics such as scented Berkley Gulps.
“I often take people with that tackle into the ocean,” he said. “I upsize to ¼-to 3/8-ounce jigheads with a 4-inch Edge paddletail minnow in light green with a single hook. They’ll also hit a Mr. Twister ribbon-tail grub and sometimes even MirrOlures, but I change out the trebles for single hooks.”
When he fly-fishes inside, Shute uses a 7- or 8-weight rod with floating line, and in the ocean, he uses an 8- or 9-weight rod with intermediate line. His favorite red drum fly is a Clouser in black with gold flash.
“Sometimes they want brown-and-orange, black-orange-and-gold or gray-and-white,” he said. “When they’re on oyster rocks inside, you can use a small crab pattern with No. 2 hooks. The main thing is to cast a fly or lure from behind a school.”
Jeff Cronk of Fish4Life Charters (336-558-5697) and partner Mike Taylor of Taylor-Made Charters (252-725-2623) are two of North Carolina’s most-knowledgeable inshore anglers, with 25 years of tournament experience and plenty of years guiding under their belts.
From January through March, Cronk said redfish influenced by weather conditions follow two patterns.
“Cold-water fishing for reds behind Bogue Banks is affected by the preceding November and December,” he said. “The majority of red drum follow baitfish to the surf zone those months because of northeast winds. Going into winter, you can see schools of several hundred to several thousand redfish in the surf. But they don’t stay there.
“When the weather gets really cold in January, the reds move back inside, along with baitfish — small menhaden, glass minnows and mullet minnows. You can’t find any reds at the beaches, but they do stay close to the surf zone.
“It’s shallower in the bays, so the water (temperature) moderates, pushing them onto flats in the bays. Reds go there and to creeks behind the beaches to find bait. In places with muddy bottoms, reds collect around oyster beds to eat little crabs and mud minnows.”
Although temperatures may drop overnight, redfish become active during sunny afternoons behind Bogue Banks.
“They might be slow to bite in the morning, but let the sun hit (the water) and they turn on,” Cronk said. “I’ve seen schools of 2,000 fish in a 50-yard-wide bay.
Cronk said scented lures attract red drum that may range from 18 to 31 inches in length.
“I’ll use 1/16-ounce (jigheads) or Zoom Super Flukes with a weightless worm hook,” he said. “I also like 3-inch Gulp split-tail minnows.”
Cronk avoids splashy, summertime lures that may spook fish in 1 to 2 feet of gin-clear water. He says small lures moved slowly are best.
“There’s a lot of green slime on the bottom, and you want to keep lures out of that stuff,” Cronk said.
Better yet, clear water makes sight-fishing possible.
“If I know a school is in a bay, I might anchor up and wait for them to come by, and then cast in front of them after they pass my boat,” he said. “I cast when the entire school’s moving away. If I can see them, they can see me.”
One of his top lure presentations is “dead-sticking.”
“I use scented lures,” Cronk said. “I drop a lure 10 to 15 feet in front of a school then barely twitch it.”
A few miles south of Bogue Banks, guide Robbie Hall said red drum follow the same winter patterns.
“Redfish schools gather in the big bays, marshes and marsh creeks behind inlets at Bear and Browns islands,” said Hall (910-330-6999).
But Swansboro reds go inside for a different reason.
“I think they move into 1 to 2 feet of water to get away from porpoises,” he said.
With menhaden long gone from inshore waters, porpoises target reds and can strip the flesh from a 30-incher in minutes.
Hall likes to fish soft-plastic lures, including Gulp minnows or Zoom Flukes in goldfish or gold bream colors on 1/8-ounce jigheads ,adding ProCure paste.
“You’ll see schools of 20 to 500 redfish behind Bear and Browns,” Hall said. “You can sight-cast in nice weather. I use light weights so lures slowly drop to the bottom.”
Sometimes, he uses mud minnows because red drum eat them like popcorn.
“Mud minnows are their primary live-bait food in winter,” Hall said. “One key is having a trolling motor to get near a school to throw a lure or bait in front of them.”
The New River offers a different winter fishery for red drum than other areas of North Carolina’s central coast.
Most reds are “puppy” size, but they cluster in the backs of small creeks, making 20- to 60-fish days common. In creeks north of Jacksonville, they also mix with large spotted seatrout and largemouth bass and will hit the same lures. Winter days when anglers catch all three species aren’t unusual.
“The drum I fish for are 100 percent in the backwaters of creeks 8- to 12-foot deep,” said guide Ricky Kellum (910-330-2745). “I fish treetops and stumps. It’s a lot like bass fishing. The best thing might be you’re protected from the northeast wind in those creeks. It’s about the only place on the river you can stand it on freezing, windy days.”
Kellum’s favorite winter lures are the Betts Halo Shad and Betts Perfect Sinker Shrimp. They fall slowly with an attractive wiggle.
“I’ve caught reds and trout sometimes with skim ice in those creeks,” he said. “The only time the red bite really slows in winter is when the water temperature drops to 38 or 40 degrees. Reds won’t chase lures in winter, and neither will trout. They want a slow-moving lure, a lot of times dropped right in their faces.”
Winter redfish bites are light, Kellum, said, just a little tick, “not a summer thump.”
For hardier anglers, the New River has shallow marshes near its inlet mouth good to fish during high flood tides on mild days. If it’s windy and cold, fishing can be brutal.
“A kayak is a good thing to have if you want to fish those marshes,” he said. “I throw a 4-ounce Gulp shrimp. I let it sit. You can see them, but you have to wait for them to put it in their mouth.”
The shallow flats near Eason Creek hold mud minnows, glass minnows and finger mullet during the winter.
During the winter, guide Jot Owens of Wilmington fishes muddy bottoms and dark, oyster-rock areas.
“You want dark bottoms with oyster rocks going up estuary creeks or in deep channels,” said Owens (910-233-4139). “Reds stay away from currents unless they’re in the ocean.”
Frigid inside waters push red drum into the Atlantic Ocean.
“I don’t think the temperature hurts them, even if it drops 4 or 5 degrees overnight,” Owens said. “I think it’s the change in temperature they don’t like. So they go to the ocean where the water temperature is more stable.”
Owens’ favorite winter lures are 3-inch Gulp shrimp in natural, sugar spice/glow or molting colors.
“They’re not bright colors,” Owens said. “I also throw a 5-inch Gulp jerk shad in the same colors.”
His rods are 7 1/2 feet, mated with reels spooled with 10- or 15-pound Ultracast Spiderwire for long casts.
When Owens fishes inside, he uses 1/8- to 1/4-ounce jigheads. In surf zones he likes 1/4-, 3/8- or 1/2-ounce jigheads
“You have to throw long casts,” Owens said, “to reach schooling fish. You don’t want to get too close and spook them.”
He prefers light Carolina rigs with fluorocarbon leaders when he uses natural cut bait in the ocean.
“I use cut mullet or peeled shrimp,” he said. “I don’t use live baits because reds aren’t used to wintertime live bait. They find food mostly by scent on the bottom anyway.”
Winter red drum fishing near Southport is different — and at the same time similar — to inside venues north of Bald Head Island’s marshes.
Although reds may hunker down in mainland marshes and creeks west of the Cape Fear River, no other area has such a singular red drum habitat. A 10,000-acre series of bays, creeks and salt marshes north of Bald Head are protected from the Atlantic Ocean’s swells by a beach to the east and walled off on the west from the Cape Fear by a 3-mile rock jetty, completed in 1881.
Red drum live in the marsh complex year-round because of its southerly location. Only a few people, including guide Jeff Wolfe of Carolina Beach, know its creek channels to fish the massive marsh with fear of grounding.
“It’s tough to catch red drum in winter at open bay flats because the water’s too clear and fish are spooky,” said Wolfe (910-619-9580), “but if you go into creeks on rising afternoon mid-tides with (holes) and muddy bottoms with oyster beds or shell bottoms where drum can stay protected in warm water, or at deep creek bends, they’ll bite mud minnows on Carolina rigs or soft plastics.”
His favorite places are the dead ends of marsh creeks north of Bald Head Island.
“They lay in deep pockets back there,” Wolfe said. “You can reach them in real shallow-draft boats, if you know how to run. That’s why people don’t run it. You can get stuck in there on falling tides. Some places will be 8 to 10 feet deep, and it’ll be 1 to 2 feet in front and back.”
He often drops mud minnows or 1-inch shrimp pieces into holes.
“One bite sets off a chain reaction,” Wolfe said. “Reds from 14 to 31 inches are back there. I caught 90 drum out of the smallest hole you can imagine one Jan. 31.”
* First published in Carolina Sportsman Magazine