Striped bass come alive in December, and one of the largest gatherings occurs in North Carolina’s Albemarle Sound as they huddle up for the coming winter. Guide Jeff Onley of Elizabeth City hopes for schooling fish, but he can also find action on structure with a variety of hard and soft baits.

According to Onley (252-333-6524), who runs Albemarle Fishing Charters, the best days involve stripers cutting up big schools of menhaden in the open water.

“If they’re schooling, you look for birds,” Onley said. “The birds will be diving and feeding; you’ll know it. You just run to them and cast, that’s when it’s pretty easy. Metal baits work good in the schools, like a 1-ounce Hopkins Spoon or a Stingsilver. You basically just drop the bait to the bottom and jig it up. But they could be anywhere in the sound when they’re schooling.”

Finding schooling stripers can result in 50 to 100 fish in a day, but since it requires fish or birds to give them away, it makes it logical to have a strong Plan B. Often, Onley will start the day riding with his eyes peeled and hammer shoreline structure afterward.

“When they’re not schooling, I usually hang in between the mouths of the Pasquotank River and Little River,” he said. “Channel markers and the pilings from the old trade piers that go way offshore will hold fish really well; so will the old lighthouses. There’s a place at the mouth of the Pasquotank we call the ‘light tower’ that’s usually pretty good.”

When Onley looks for a concentration of fish near structure in 3 to 8 feet of water, he prefers to throw a ¾-ounce, blue/silver Rat-L-Trap, using either a steady retrieve or a yo-yoing the bait if he thinks fish are deep. He’ll also use a white, Gulp swimming mullet on a ¼-ounce jighead in a similar fashion.

Another technique Onley uses is trolling. He pulls the same baits that he casts in addition to X-Raps, broke-back Rebels and Husky Jerks. Running just above idle speed, he skirts the structure and often goes into the rivers to fish similar structure, as well as stump fields along the shorelines.

“Of course, you’ve got the Albemarle Sound Bridge off Edenton,” he said. “You can troll for them there year-round.  t’s a little deeper, 15 to 20 feet off the drop-offs, so I’ll run Mann’s Stretch 20s and Stretch 15s as well as some 1-ounce bucktails.”