At the Rock Hop

Anglers can drift with cut bait but a trolling motor attached to a remote control device is really handy to avoid rocks and blowdowns — and chase the largest hooked fish.

Danny and the Juniors never had as many teens dancin’ to their music as anglers have striped bass cavorting at the Roanoke River this month.

If you’re fishing for striped bass at the Roanoke River, April 30 is the last day you can keep any fish for the frying pan or freezer.

Somehow, that doesn’t faze guides George Beckwith and Rod Thomas.

“Typically, the peak of the striper run is from the third week of April through the second week of May,” said Beckwith, of Down East Guide Service, “May is catch-and-release only, so there is only a fraction of the people on the river.”

May is when topwater action is at its best.

“A lot of people forget that after the keeper season is over, the fishing doesn’t stop — the crowds do,” said Thomas of Captain Ponytail’s Guide Service. “The meat guys are gone, and it’s left more to the fly-rod guys and the sportsmen.

“The fish get a lot less pressure with all those boats, and you’ve got a better chance at a big fish.“

Beckwith and Thomas are two of literally dozens of fishing guides who flock to the Roanoke each April and May to take advantage of one of the East Coast’s greatest striper runs. Fish move out of the Albemarle Sound into the Roanoke River near Plymouth and make the 100-miles-plus swim upstream to Weldon, where they’re stymied most years by shoals that keep them from negotiating even farther upstream.

The spawn takes place during three to four weeks, somewhere downstream of the Weldon rocks — except in years of extremely high water, when fish can get as far upstream as Roanoke Rapids Dam. And fishermen by the hundreds arrive to take advantage of stripers that literally number in the hundreds of thousands.

In previous seasons, the N.C. Wildlife Resources Commission set overlapping harvest seasons for the lower and upper portions of the river, but this spring, the “keeper” season was March 1-April 30 along the entire length of the river. The daily creel limit is two fish, with an 18-inch size minimum, a 22- to 27-inch slot limit, and only one fish allowed longer than 27 inches. Fishermen can use only single, barbless hooks, and live river herring longer than 6 inches in length is prohibited bait.

For the purposes of fishermen who use the town of Weldon as a starting point, the “real” striper fishing doesn’t kick into full swing until about the middle of April. It lasts a month, but fishing can be productive all the way to June 1.

“It’s all a water-temperature thing,” said Thomas, an independent TV cameraman and producer of outdoors shows who guides on the Roanoke in the spring and out of Georgetown, S.C., in the summer. “It changes from year to year, but typically, I want to fish from the 15th of April to the 15th of May. And the very best fishing starts the last week of April.

“At the first of the season, you have to move down the river some; I’ve got as far as 10 miles below Weldon, but as the season progresses and the fish really approach the peak of the spawn, wave after wave of fish will wind up in the first mile or so below the Weldon (boat) ramp. By the end of the season, you hardly have to go anywhere,” said Thomas (336-240-5649).

So, another plus for the May fisherman? Without a doubt. If really good fishing, a short boat ride and lower fishing pressure isn’t enough to get you interested, Beckwith (910-249-3101) has one more little fact to add to the infomercial.

“In May the water is warmer, and they’ll really eat a topwater bait or fly,” he said. “In April to have a great big day, one of those 100-fish days, you almost have to fish with (live) bait. In May the topwater fishing can be fantastic.“

With that evidence in place, it should be reduced to a matter of how, where and why for most fishermen.

“You’re basically concentrating in the 3 to 5 miles of river below Weldon,” Beckwith said. “When the water temperature gets right, the fish will make a run into the first set of rapids or rocks; they’ll move in a day. If you’re fishing that day, you’ll find different patches of fish moving up, and when you finish one drift and start another, you’ve got to go 500 yards farther upstream to stay ahead of those fish.

“But your depth-finder might be blacked out with tens of thousands of fish.“

Thomas often starts his fishing trips a bit farther downstream than he intends to fish, just to get fishing parties used to the casting and drifting that will take place. After he’s got instruction taken care of, he’ll often run back upstream as far as the river is navigable and begin drifting back downstream.

“The all spawn at Weldon in a normal year,” he said. “You’ll see some spawning in that nice, wide-open river downstream, but mostly, it happens right up here. In a good year, what brings the fish in is the force of the current. They love swimming against that current. Last year, we didn’t have as much current; it was a low-water year, and that stretched ’em out.“

There’s no real science behind finding and catching stripers, known locally as “rockfish.” About half of the anglers anchor, and the other half drifts downstream. When the water is high, people fish against the banks of the river — if there are any visible. If the water is normal to low, they just pick a section of river and drift. A school of stripers may extend all the way across the river and be 400 yards wide — downstream. In those instances, anglers may hook up every cast.

As the spawn progresses, the topwater bite gets better and better.

Beckwith said it’s not unusual to see a single female striper spawning at the surface, belly up, with dozens of males crowding around her, trying to be the one who gets to fertilize her eggs. The rest of them, well, they can be easily duped into striking a lure.

“They’re gonna be a lot more active when they feed,” Beckwith said. “At some point during the day, they’ll feed, and you’ll see a female with 50 or 100, 200 males all around her, waiting for her to spawn. Those males that can’t get close to her will investigate any lure.

“One of the tricks is when they’re spawning, they’re coming up to investigate any surface activity, so you take a big popper or something like a Zara Spook and chug the heck out of it. A lot of fish will come up to investigate; they may slap at it with their tails. You catch ’em by tying about a foot of monofilament to the Spook and putting a dropper fly or a curlytail grub on a circle hook on the other end.

“What makes it such a good time to fly fish is a lot of times when you find them moving up to spawn, they’ll be suspended, and an intermediate or sink-tip line will sink down to their level more naturally, and you’ll get more bites.”

Beckwith advises using 6- or 7-weight rods and popular streamer patterns such as Deceivers and Clousers in a variety of sizes and colors.

“The Roanoke River is the place to take your fly box and use all the flies you’ve never caught a fish on — and it’s the same thing with all of a bass fisherman’s grubs and jigs,” he said.

“The big key is to be on the water at daylight. The best bites are the first two or three hours, then the last few hours of the afternoon. That’s when you get more topwater action.”

While doing television filming and production, Thomas has worked a lot with Chad Thomas, a fisheries biologist with the N.C. Wildlife Resources Commission. Rod Thomas said both of them believe as the peak of the spawn approaches, stripers school by gender early in the morning — then everything goes crazy.

“I’ve learned from Chad Thomas, and fishing so much, that early in the morning, when the spawn is about to start, the females are on one side of the river, and the males are on the other,” Rod Thomas said. “It’s about like a junior-high dance; as the band starts to play, everybody gets mixed, and by the end of the day, they’re everywhere.”

Thomas fishes a lot of with live bait, and this year, gizzard shad will be his bait of choice.

He fishes a live bait with a No. 1 or 1/0 circle hook, so stripers can be me easily released alive. He ties an 18-inch leader to a barrel swivel, above which he has crimped on a split shot or two to keep his bait down.

“Normally, you just drift down through the fish — and you don’t have to go far,” he said. “When the river’s crowded, I couldn’t drift without using a Minnkota ‘co-pilot’ — the little remote-control device I use to work my trolling motor. I wear it around my neck, and I’ve got an extra one, because without it, it would get too crazy, drifting down through boats that are anchored up and staying out of everybody’s way.

“Of course, it’s more fun to fish in a crowd on the Roanoke than anywhere else. You’re fishing in a good bit of current, and you’ll be around more people than you’ll ever fish around. It’s like the tarpon run at Boca (on Florida’s Gulf coast).”

Thomas doesn’t do as much fly-fishing as Beckwith, but when the peak of the spawn hits and the topwater bite takes off, he uses a rig like Beckwith’s, with one exception — the ‘extra’ hook is in front of the big topwater plug.

“As you get to the last week of April and the first two weeks of May, the topwater bite becomes awesome, and all kinds of baits work like Pop-Rs and Redfins and Spooks,” Thomas said. “I put a Front Runner in front of everything I fish. I’ll replace the little treble with a single, barbless hook, and it works so well that it’s easy to have two on at one time — one on the Front Runner and one on the big plug.

“A big bait like a Spook comes with three sets of trebles, and I’ve found that I catch a lot more fish when I take the front and rear hooks off, then put a single hook on the split ring where the middle treble used to be.

“What’s really fun is that you expect to hook so many fish, and you expect a lot of them to get off. You don’t fish with light tackle without knowing you’re going to lose some, because the next bite is right away. I’ve had two on, and one gets off, then you get a second one on before you get the first one to the boat — that kind of thing.

“A hundred-fish day is not unusual in May. My worst (half-day) last year was 28 fish, and last year was a below-average year.”

Beckwith said water clarity will dictate color choices for some lures or flies, and the water level will move anglers from side to side at the river.

“If the water’s high, you’re on the bank; in fact, you can be flipping a jig behind bushes or casting a Rebel or Redfin to the shoreline,” he said. “They might be spawning up in the bushes or the trees.”

Even when the peak of the spawn passes, fishing will remain productive for several weeks. Thomas said stripers will stay in the river near Weldon.

“The fishing can still be good all the way into June,” he said. “Last year, a friend of mine called me over Memorial Day weekend after I’d left, and he’d had a hundred-fish day.”

Beckwith said most fish will be in the 3- to 5-pound class, with enough 10-pound fish caught that they’re not considered uncommon.

Bigger fish, however, are unusual.

About Dan Kibler 887 Articles
Dan Kibler is the former managing editor of Carolina Sportsman Magazine. If every fish were a redfish and every big-game animal a wild turkey, he wouldn’t ever complain. His writing and photography skills have earned him numerous awards throughout his career.

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