Stripers form huge schools off North Carolina's beaches in winter and make spawning runs up coastal rivers in spring. But they also mill about during the "in-between" months, with December a prime time to catch them in the lower stretches of the larger coastal rivers and sounds.
Two of the state's top guides target winter stripers in the New Bern area. The confluence of the Trent and Neuse rivers has become a hot striper destination even in coldest weather, and Capt. Gary Dubiel and Capt. Mark Hoff have discovered some of the secrets to catching them consistently.
"I launch at Lawson Creek Park on the Trent River," Dubiel said. "The striper fishing is excellent anywhere from the park a considerable distance up the Neuse River and far upstream in the Trent River. Brice Creek and Wilson Creek are other places for stripers."
After launching, Dubiel and Hoff began fishing where the Trent meets the Neuse. If there's one thing that anyone who visits or merely passes through New Bern notices, it's the bridges. They wind across the water in all directions. Dubiel said they offer some of the best structure around for stripers, but he passed beneath them on his way to better daytime spots.
"The bridges offer the best fishing during low-light conditions," he said. "I usually begin fishing farther up in the Trent or Neuse. The fish may show on the surface all day if it's overcast, but usually, they only show on top early and late in the day. They can surprise you at any time, so I always keep a surface lure handy to cast to surfacing fish, because I don't want to miss the opportunity if it arises.
Dubiel said the best water temperature for catching stripers is between 49 and 55 degrees, but he has caught stripers in water temperature as low as 42.
The first place Dubiel stopped was a drop-off he scanned with his depthfinder. Baitfish were flipping across the surface, as well as showing along the edge of the drop-off on the depthfinder screen.
"The larger marks are stripers or some other predatory fish," Dubiel said. "Sometimes the stripers are there, but they won't eat. I think sometimes the fish are full because there's so much bait in the water, and lures just don't turn them on."
Dubiel cast a small, soft-plastic lures that resembled a baitfish, rigged with an internal, weighted hook, rather than the exposed jighead most anglers use with trailers. He said the lures were great for catching striped bass at any depth.
"I fish around stumps and shoreline structure where the water is shallow and along the drop-offs and ledges where the water is deeper. If a striper breaks the surface chasing bait, a weighted soft-plastic lure also gives you a relatively long casting distance."
The fish didn't bite at Dubiel's first spot, but he said that was not unusual and moved on after 20 minutes.
"We have a tremendous striper population in the Trent and Neuse," he said, "but we also have a tremendous baitfish population. The forage fish are menhaden and juvenile hickory shad, so I look for the baitfish concentrations. I fish certain spots where I've caught fish in the past, but I never get tied down to any particular spot. Stripers are mobile fish, and they go wherever the baitfish go."
Dubiel headed for a nearby shoreline that featured a steep drop-off and several private boat docks. dropping his trolling motor for the approach.
"I like fishing ledges that drop from five to 18 feet," he said, "but the fish may also be along the shoreline or the break just off the shoreline. I also find them on the 4- to 6-foot flats out in the main river channel where there's lots of woody cover."
A few smaller fish struck and stuck, but the fishing was too slow for the guides' tastes, so they picked up and headed upriver. Where the shoreline development stopped, they resumed fishing.
"Sometimes, these natural banks are the best bet," Hoff said. "You troll along, casting to any dip in the bank or any structure such as cypress trees and stumps. Stripers are structure-oriented fish when they're in shallow water. But, at the same time, you have to be watching behind you. If you see gulls and terns working, you'd better leave the shoreline in a hurry to investigate."
Dubiel and Hoff caught a few flounder and red drum, but no striped bass. Hoff said it isn't unusual to catch several species in a day just fishing the shoreline.
"You can catch freshwater and saltwater fish," he said. "We have some big white perch, bowfin, chain pickerel, largemouth bass, gar, speckled trout, striped bass, red drum, flounder and just about any other fish you can think of. That's part of the beauty of fishing near New Bern. Another wonderful thing is you can always find a place out of the wind.
"It might be 50 degrees with a strong wind blowing on the bigger water of the sound, but back in here, it feels like springtime."
Cold water has an affect on fishing lines, Hoff said, so he uses a monofilament that is suited to the conditions.
"I use a very limp line," he said. "Some lines get stiff and impair the action of the lure or limit casting distance in cold water. The water can also be very clear, so I use a small-diameter monofilament line that has low visibility."
Like Dubiel, Hoff keeps several rods rigged and ready: one with a Berkley Gulp Shrimp on a jighead, another with a topwater popper and another with a 17MR MirrOlure suspending twitch-bait.
"If you get some strikes and the fish stop biting, you should always switch to a different lure before you leave the area," Hoff said. "The fish may still be there. Also, as I'm fishing along the bank, I constantly switch rods until I find out what the fish are biting best on that particular day. If my partner is using a soft-plastic lure, I'm going to be casting a topwater lure or suspending lure."
As the day wound down, Dubiel and Hoff kept moving closer to the bridges. Their final stop was at a marina within sight of the bridges. Flocks of gulls were resting on the water, and whitewash stains showed where they had spent the day on nearby docks.
"If the gulls are here, they're waiting for the stripers to run baitfish to the surface," Hoff said. "They know they're down below. Some days, the stripers are as far down as 20 feet, but 12 feet seems to be the best depth."
The depthfinder marked baitfish and larger v-shaped echo returns from larger fish at the magic depth. Dubiel and Hoff dropped soft-plastic lures and bucktail jigs beside the boat, jigging them up and down as they drifted just off of the pilings.
After boating a couple of small stripers, they decided it was time to head for the bridges. Both picked up rods with soft plastic, shad-tail lures in shades of yellow or chartreuse and cast to the pilings.
Dubiel retrieved his lure with a twitch-and-reel action, while Hoff allowed his lure to sink a few feet then used a steady retrieve. Both boated a couple of red drum as they moved the boat from one set of pilings to another.
"The fish may hold at any of the pilings," Dubiel said, "but I try to pick some other feature that makes a certain set of pilings stand out from the others. There's a marked navigation channel here, which indicates deeper water than surrounding areas. There's a nearby shoreline with some wooden pilings and a bulkhead, which gives us a lot of different structure to cast to that might hold fish."
The first striper struck at sunset. After that, the darker it grew, the better the fish bit. Every time the action tapered off slightly, either Hoff or Dubiel switched to another style or color of soft-plastic lure or repositioned the boat at a different type of structure. They caught more than 50 stripers, with the last of them landed and released under the glow of automobile headlights from the overhead bridges. The fish had moved to the shallowest water, striking up against the riverbank.
Toward the end, the stripers had shown a particular affinity for one brand and color, but when they were gone from cut-offs and break-offs around the pilings, that signalled the end of the trip.
"One of the best things about fishing the bridges is the timing," Dubiel said. "If you to work a day job, you can always come home from work, launch at Lawson Creek Park and motor a short distance to one of the bridges. You can boat a few stripers and still be home in time for supper."