Light ice had crunched under shoes on the dock earlier that morning, but later in the day, when the fish started biting, it was suddenly warm - enough to unzip jackets and peel off layers of clothing.

An atypical, cold-front morning on the Cape Fear and Northeast Cape Fear rivers was one of the keys to a day of exceptional fishing that began when Capt. Stuart Caulder pushed away from the ramp at Dram Tree Park in downtown Wilmington.

He headed a few miles downriver to one of his favorite striped-bass spots near the state ports facility, but a lack of action caused a change of location and target species.

"I knew it was a little early, but I thought we would see some stripers working around that bend in the bulkhead," Caulder said through chattering teeth. "I haven't been up here yet this year, but we caught some nice specks here last year. One of the better spots is only about a half-mile from here. Let's ease over there and see if the specks will bite before it warms up today. Once it warms up a little and we can handle the wind in our faces, we'll take a ride upriver and look for some stripers."

Caulder, of Gold Leader Fishing, pulled anchor and began to ease down and across the Cape Fear. Watching the fishfinder and the bank, Caulder crept into an area and eased the anchor over.

"I would prefer to use the Power Pole, but we are just off the edge of the ship channel and it's too deep," Caulder said. "We'll need to fish a little deeper here, so let's switch to some jig head and soft baits."

Caulder changed lures and gave instructions to cast slightly upcurrent and let the current bump the lure slowly along the bottom. On his first cast, Caulder reared back to set the hook. A pulsing rod tip gave away the head shake of the struggling trout below. Before he could lead that fish to the landing net, another fisherman had duplicated his cast and drift and was also holding a bouncing rod.

The frigid conditions had slowed the trout's metabolism, and their bite was merely a bump that stopped the lure and sent a sensation up the braided line. Fortunately, even though they were cold, the trout were hungry and those bumps came frequently.

After catching trout for a while, Caulder said, "As cold as this water is, the stripers may have already pushed up the river beyond town. Now that the air has warmed a little and we shouldn't freeze making the move, let's run up the river and see if we can find them."

Caulder's move was actually up the Northeast Cape Fear, not the Cape Fear. Above the railroad bridge, Caulder slowed and began getting out some rods rigged with diving lures so he could troll, cover more water and hopefully locate a concentration of stripers.

Trolling wasn't the answer, either, so it was obviously time to try a different approach.

Moving a little farther upriver, Caulder said, "We're going to try casting and retrieving like for reds or specks or a while. The edge of the channel drops off pretty quickly right up here, and I'll take us down it with the trolling motor. We want to fish that edge and the first few feet of the drop. I'll rig some of us with hard lures and some with soft baits so we can see if they have a preference today. Hopefully we'll find them here."

Easing toward the bank, Caulder watched the fishfinder until the bottom rose quickly. Once at the edge of the drop, he backed off a few yards and instructed his fishermen to cast along the drop and retrieve slowly.

"Some of you have the new suspending MirrOlure, and you can fish it in a variety of ways," Caulder said. "This water is brackish, so it will sink to about 18 inches and hold there. The falling tide is almost stopped, so you can move it slowly and steady or pause and twitch. Those of you with the jerkbaits should fish them just like you did for the trout, except you'll be bumping it down the drop."

After a few casts, Caulder reared back and set the hook again. His lure disappeared in a big swirl, and the startled fish rushed past the boat into deeper water. With a growing smile, Caulder announced he was pretty sure he was hooked into a striper.

In a minute or so, the fish's back broke the surface, and a set of stripes flashed. After another set of tiring surges, Caulder led the fish to the side of the boat and clamped his Boga Grip to its jaw.

Removing the MirrOlure from the striper's jaw, Caulder said, "I've been real impressed with these new suspending MirrOlures. They only sink a foot or two and then hover there. Twitch-bait is indeed the right name, too. All you have to do is let them drift along with the tide and twitch them occasionally. They are already shaped just like little pogies, and the twitch makes them dart just like startled pogies. I knew trout and reds liked them, and now I know stripers like them too."

The stripers bit pretty well for the remainder of the tide. When the bite stopped, it was almost as quick as if someone had flipped a switch.

"I can't believe those fish turned off so quick, especially after as hard as they were biting," said a puzzled Caulder. "Something with this tide has triggered them. Let's see if they have moved somewhere close.

"Cast up there as close to the bank as you can," Caulder said. "There's a flat between the edge of this channel and the grass. It's about two to three feet deep and has a dark bottom. It may be just a little warmer up there, and that could be key now the tide has switched and is coming in."

Bingo! The first cast brought a violent strike, but the fish surged down the bank, not out toward deeper water. A couple of minutes later, as a tired over-slot red drum was being led to the net, everyone understood the game had just changed.

The next cast produced another striper, and before before anyone could speculate whether the large puppy drum had been a fluke, another was hooked and surging down the bank. For two hours, Caulder and his crew caught a mixture of mid- to over-slot red drum and stripers from four to 15 pounds. It was a fisherman's paradise, and the cold morning, with the chilly ride up the river, was forgotten.

Heading back to the ramp, Caulder said, "I felt pretty good about being able to catch some trout and stripers. Even the cold morning didn't put me off on that. I was sure they would bite, but we might have to wait until it warmed a little.

"However, those drum being up here was a real surprise," he added. "I've caught them down the river a ways and in the Brunswick River, but I never expected to see them up this far. It's a long ways down to the ocean, and to be mixed with the stripers like that was something special. I've never seen that before. We had a special trip today."

Specks, stripers and red drum. A "Wilmington Slam" was
special.