Like Shearon Harris Lake and its magnum-size largemouth bass, the New River in Onslow County continues to hold the top rating as North Carolina’s mecca for “gator” spotted seatrout.
Guide Ricky Kellum, 51, of Jacksonville, N.C., has been fishing the river since his father first put him in an aluminum john boat more than four decades ago. And his dad knew plenty; in 1973 Rendel Kellum caught an 11-pound, 10-ounce speck that’s the second-largest ever caught in North Carolina waters.
In the 1970s, cold-stun kills in shallow, inland waters were largely unknown. Weather patterns obviously have changed; these days, instead of being rare, cold stuns are fairly common along North Carolina’s coast, including two over the past winter that caused the N.C. Division of Marine Fisheries to close speckled trout fishing from Jan. 5 to June 15.
But Ricky Kellum said New River specks were largely spared this time.
“We didn’t lose any trout in the river,” Kellum said. “(It) didn’t have a sudden snowfall run-off of oxygenless water in shallow creeks where trout go in the winter. It just started out cold but gradually got colder. So (trout) had plenty of time to move to deeper, warmer spots.”
Another reason for the New River’s apparent force-field shield again extremely cold-weather events is that its shallow shorelines warm quickly and its deep, escape routes to the main-river channel.
“We got tons of baitfish and shrimp in the river, even in winter,” Kellum said. “I think the baits draw specks. There’s a lot of stuff for them to eat all year-long. It’s what fattens up our trout.
“I tell people — they don’t believe it — but I can’t remember a bad (trout) season since I started fishing the New River, and I’m 51 years old. We’ve had some outstanding years. As far as bad years after cold stuns? Nah.”
When the trout ban is lifted, anglers expect a return to regulations that allowed them four fish per day, at least 14 inches long.
Depending on whether his guide parties include novice or experienced fishermen, Kellum will go with different sets of tactics. When he takes novice anglers, he uses live shrimp, but when he has experienced anglers — or is fishing alone — he prefers artificial lures because he can cover more ground.
“You can go into a creek, and the bite may not be on, but if you wait, it’ll turn on at some point,” Kellum said. “I’ve pulled up on a guy who had two or three fish, and it turned to prime time. It’ll be like wildfire for 45 minutes.”
If he’s in a major tributary or the main section of the New River, Kellum looks for specific signs of “trouty” water.
“I look for ‘breaks,’ places where the channel drops off into deeper water,” he said. “The easiest way to spot them is to fish crab-pot lines. The pots are set at the edges of deep and shallow water.
“In June, I fish right on the crab-pot lines by throwing (lures) into shallow water and bringing them out and letting them drop over the edge.”
His favorite lure is the Betts Perfect Sinker Shrimp, clear with metal flakes, on a 1/4-ounce jighead.
“It spirals when it falls,” Kellum said. “It also has little legs that wiggle, and trout can’t stand it. Trout don’t care if it’s a real shrimp or not. If you throw a realistic, fake shrimp, they’ll eat it.”
Kellum’s other top lure is the Betts Halo Shrimp. If a creek, large feeder stream or the main river still has what locals call “turd grass” on the bottom, he said, “You always can use a Perfect Sinker, Halo Shrimp or Halo Shad under a popping cork. With young kids, I’ll put a live shrimp on a popping cork and tell ’em just to watch until it gets jerked down.”
Menhaden comprise a large portion of the New River’s baitfish community, so if a creek has fish showing interest in menhaden, Kellum throws a Betts Halo Shad.
“I like to fish Southwest and Frenchs creeks in the spring,” he said. “Northeast (Creek) is good, but I don’t think it has as many fish as the other two.”
June is topwater time, and Kellum, like most anglers, likes nothing better than fishing when trout go crazy for surface lures.
“Southwest Creek has good topwater fishing early in the morning,” he said. “It’s not a long bite, maybe an hour, but it’ll be longer on cloudy days.
“There’s nothing like catching one on a topwater bait. He might smack it two or three times before he hooks up. That’s exciting and I love it.”
Prime times to fish for specks include the hours before or after high or low tides when water forces baits into or sucks them out of backwaters.
When trout are feeding at the surface, Kellum likes to throw Zara Spook Juniors, Rapalas and MirrOlure MR 17s in mullet colors. He replaces the trebles that come on the lures with No. 4 4X king mackerel hooks.
“Most lures have cheap chrome hooks a 4-pound trout can break,” he said. “I like Gamakatsu hooks.”
Kellum fishes for trout with a 7-foot, medium-light Cashion spinning rod and Shimano Stradic 2500 reel spooled with 10-pound Power Pro braid and a 2-foot leader of 20-pound fluorocarbon.
HOW TO GET THERE — Jacksonville is easily accessed from sites along the coast via US 17, and from inland via I-40, NC 24 and US 258.
WHEN TO GO — Speckled trout season opens June 15 at 3 p.m. after being closed since Jan. 5.
BEST TECHNIQUES — Drift live shrimp or soft-plastic artificial shrimp under a popping cork around dropoffs from shallow flats to channels. Northeast, Southwest and Frenchs creeks are very productive. Topwater fishing can be excellent for the first hour after dawn.
FISHING INFO/GUIDES — Ricky Kellum Speckled Specialist Chatres, 910-330-2745. See also Guides & Charters in Classifieds.
ACCOMMODATIONS — Jacksonville Tourism Development Authority, 910-938-5200, www.visitjacksonvillenc.com.