Although there is a moratorium on possessing striped bass anywhere in the Cape Fear River system, a surprisingly good catch-and-release striper fishery exists this month around downtown Wilmington, N.C.
These are migratory stripers that disappear after the spring spawn and begin showing back up around Thanksgiving when the water cools to below 60 degrees. January is the peak of striper activity around Wilmington, but fish will be occasionally caught through April.
Three rivers serve the Wilmington area — the Cape Fear, Northeast Cape Fear and Brunswick — and all hold stripers. There are also numerous creeks that flow into these rivers. All are tidal, with several feet of rise and fall on a regular daily timetable.
While the primary current in the rivers is always downstream, the tide moves baitfish up and down the rivers, plus into and out of the creeks. Stripers have robust appetites and can usually be found near anything that is holding bait, and there is an abundance of structure in the area. This begins with dock pilings and includes bridge pilings and abutments, fallen trees, stumps, sunken boats, debris piles and more.
The water in the area is brackish, with higher salinity in times of low rain and almost fresh in periods of high rainfall. Catfish and red drum are in the same areas, and some stripers are caught on live baits and cut bait targeting them.
Jot Owens of Jot It Down Fishing Charters (910-233-4139) said stripers also hit lures and two primary tactics are involved. First — and easiest to master — is casting soft plastics around creek mouths and structure on the shallow areas between the channel and the banks. Larger jerkbaits are popular, and some fishermen use basic jigheads, but rigging weedless with swimbait hooks is growing in popularity.
Stripers also feed along the edges where the shallows drop into the channel.
A ship channel runs up the Cape Fear River to Wilmington and barge channels continue up it and the Northeast Cape Fear for miles above Wilmington. Owens uses hard, diving baits to reach stripers that are feeding along this drop. They can be trolled slowly to locate fish and cast to known productive locations.