Striper numbers appear to be growing in the Cape Fear River near Wilmington, but rapid-fire cold fronts passing through the area have driven them into deeper water than usual.

Capt. Stuart Caulder of Gold Leader Fishing in Wrightsville Beach said this has definitely been an unusual winter so far, with speckled trout and redfish finally settling in for a slow winter compared to the past two mild winters. He said striper numbers were improving until the past couple of weeks, and there is enough rainwater runoff in the Cape Fear and Northeast Cape Fear rivers that it is pushing the stripers deep. He doesn’t think they have gone anywhere, but they have gotten more difficult to find and catch.

“We had a lot of things going against us last week as far as fishing goes,” Caulder said. “There was rainwater runoff headed downriver from unseasonable rains in the Piedmont, and it was raising water levels and keeping the rivers muddy.”

On top of that, the full moon hit last week, bringing higher tides than usual. Combined with the runoff, currents really ran strong, especially during the falling tides. When you add in the cold front that swept through Friday night, complete with a nasty thunderstorm, the odds were really stacked against fishermen last week.

“Thankfully, this has been a strong year for stripers in the Cape Fear River, and while all this slowed the action, it was still there,” Caulder said. “We tried to find some fish in shallower places for a while, but worked through several ways of fishing until we found them deep. Once we located them, we stuck with it and caught them. The fishing was better Sunday than Saturday and should continue to improve every day the weather is stable.”

Caulder (910-264-2674) said cold weather by itself isn’t a negative for striper fishing in the rivers around Wilmington, and at times it actually fires up the action. He said the negative is when the temperature drops rapidly with a passing cold front and the barometer drops, too. That drives the fish deep and puts them off the bite until the barometer stabilizes or begins rising again.

Caulder is catching some deep stripers by fishing soft plastics more slowly and on heavier jigheads, but deep-diving crankbaits have been producing really well lately. He said the crankbaits can be cast and retrieved or trolled. He sometimes trolls to locate fish he believes are in a certain area, and then anchors and casts to them.

“Pay close attention to your fish finder when striper fishing,” Caulder said. “Stripers really like to feed on suspended bait and will often mark as arches hovering around a bait pod. When you see that, you are over stripers that are feeding. You just need to get a bait or lure down to their depth.”