Catch winter reds off beaches on North Carolina’s central coast

Beaches along North Carolina’s central coast fill with huge schools of redfish in cold months. Use these lessons for plenty of action.

The ride from Wrightsville Beach to Rich Inlet was cold but expected. Once there, Stu Caulder slowed to near idle to make his way through the shallow, unmarked path to the ocean that features shifting sands and a blockade runner wreck. Proceeding with caution is the only way to proceed.

Idling through the inlet, Caulder, who runs Gold Leader Guide Service, searched the sandbars and shallow sloughs on each side for a dark or reddish tinted spot that would indicate a school of redfish. By the end of the winter, reds will be a rich, copper color, but would still probably look only like a shadow in the water unless lifted up in a swell.

Shortly, Caulder spotted a dark spot, but he couldn’t go directly to it because of sand bars between the sloughs. He continued to idle toward casting range to keep from spooking the shallow fish. He passed out spinning outfits with DOA C.A.L. plastics threaded on 3/8-ounce jigheads tied on with loop knots.

Unfortunately, a school of bottlenose dolphins also spotted the reds and moved in, turning predators into prey.

Plenty of action on winter drum will be in the ocean, but most of the time, almost within a long cast from the beach, just beyond the breakers.
Plenty of action on winter drum will be in the ocean, but most of the time, almost within a long cast from the beach, just beyond the breakers.

“From all the TV shows, people think Flipper is your friend,” Caulder said. “He may be if you’re swimming or something like that, but he’s not when you’re fishing for drum and trout. Both are high on their preferred foods list, and they can put a hurting on a school quickly. What they don’t eat, they scare away. You saw how fast those drum disappeared.”

Caulder moved up the beach along Lea Island, and about halfway up, roughly where an old inlet used to separate Lea and Hutaff islands, the water changed from clear to murky, and he turned around. He didn’t spot any drum before reaching Rich Inlet, and the pod of hungry dolphin were still patrolling it.

“There were a couple of schools around Mason Inlet earlier in the week, so we’re heading there,” Caulder said. “We’ll run along the beach barely on plane and look for a school, but I don’t think we’ll see any until we get real close to the inlet. We’ve got to get away from these dolphin. They scattered that one school and probably spooked any others close by.”

There were no drum along the Figure Eight Island beach, but Caulder spotted a shadow between a couple of bars in Mason Inlet.

Once in casting range, his anglers lobbed soft plastics to the dark spot in the water. Caulder was coaching not to move the lures too quickly when his rod bent and began pulsing. The red sped across a shallow bar to the slough on the other side and played tug of war until tiring enough that he could lead it to the landing net.

Red drum are regularly caught in the winter from upper-slot to over-slot sizes.
Red drum are regularly caught in the winter from upper-slot to over-slot sizes.

The fleeing drum startled the school, and fish ran in many directions. Once the hooked drum was released, Caulder positioned the boat close to where the school had been feeding, hoping they would return. The drum slowly returned, and Caulder’s crew caught several, but the fishing ended when the drum were spooked and the school didn’t reform.

Caulder said many factors affect schools of drum along the beach. Dolphin are just one, and about the only thing fishermen can do is move away from them — at least a couple of miles. Weather is also a big factor. Caulder temperatures can be near freezing for several days and then warm to 70 overnight. Sunny days warm the water, and baitfish may move back inside the inlets — and the redfish follow. However, fish don’t show well on cloudy days, and sunny days are necessary to see them in the water. Onshore winds are bad, too, as they create waves and stir up the water.

“This is fun fishing when you find a school of hungry redfish that haven’t been spooked by dolphins,” he said. “All you have to do is cast into the school and twitch the rod tip to make the lure wiggle and vibrate. It doesn’t have to move much. The drum are in full-on feeding mode, and they’ll find it if you get it close. They fight good too. They won’t be as wild as when the water is warmer, but they use the waves and typically fight pretty strong in the surf.”

Caulder said drum begin to show in the surf as the water cools in the fall and will be there until it warms in the spring. He said they typically school tighter and in larger schools when the water and air is coolest in January and February. They are easiest to locate when the sun is out and the wind is light from the west. They tend to be lighter in color when the water is warmer and the schools spread out, then darken as the water cools and the schools tighten.

Spotting schools, working to within casting range and then catching them combines stalking, from hunting, with fishing. When a school is spotted and dolphins don’t break up the party, they often bite long and hard enough to tire fishermen. It’s a fun experience on a bright, sunny, winter day.

Reds in the suds

Bottlenose dolphin prey heavily on redfish during the winter; reds will clear out of an area if dolphin show up.
Bottlenose dolphin prey heavily on redfish during the winter; reds will clear out of an area if dolphin show up.

Red drum tend to gather in schools in the surf and around inlets once the water begins cooling late in the fall. As long as the food holds out, they may stay in the same general area for weeks, maybe months.

Some schools are smaller, maybe a hundred fish or so, but others may approach 1,000 fish, typically a mixture of upper-slot to slightly over-slot fish, reds ranging from 3 to 4 years old.

Lee Paramore, the lead red drum biologist for the N.C. Division of Marine Fisheries, said red drum prefer some beaches and inlets, and most of these are places that haven’t been developed.

The southern beaches known for holding drum are Lea-Hutaff islands, Figure Eight Island, Topsail Beach and Emerald Isle. The east beach of Bald Head Island, Fort Fisher State Recreation Area and Masonboro Island also hold schools of red drum at times, but rarely the huge schools of other areas.

Paramore said that schooling is a feeding behavior, a way to deter predators, and typically, the water right along ocean beaches is a little warmer than the open water inside the inlets, and it holds more food.

Drum of this size don’t have many predators; other than fishermen, the two worst are sharks and dolphins/porpoises. Sharks tend to stay in deeper water, but occasionally will venture close to the beaches. Bottlenose dolphins are a major predator, and the shallow surf and inlet sloughs offer protection from marauding dolphins.

Paramore said schooling in the surf and inlets makes red drum a good target for fishermen. There isn’t a bunch of food around in the winter, and drum become even more-opportunistic feeders than at other times.

The surf confuses baitfish and stirs up the bottom, sometimes revealing crabs, worms and shrimp. With their low-slung mouths, drum can grub crabs and worms out of the bottom before they get too deep. They are also less picky about lures and will hit lures they may pass up when food is plentiful.

Natural vs. renourished beaches

Anglers can catch multiple fish from a school, but the action will end, at least momentarily when fish are spooked.
Anglers can catch multiple fish from a school, but the action will end, at least momentarily when fish are spooked.

Renourishing beaches after hurricanes and other erosion has become prevalent along North Carolina’s coast on inhabited beaches. The beaches and islands that aren’t developed are left to erode and shift as the forces of nature dictate.

This may provide insight into why more fish, especially red drum, are found off underdeveloped beaches. For years, it was thought lights after dark spooked them, but more anglers believe renourishment projects are the primary cause.

Renourishment projects save beaches and beach homes but give beaches an unnatural texture. The sand packs harder, and it is more difficult for animals like mole crabs to dig their burrows and for small shellfish and clams to get a foothold, so they move to an area with softer sand — natural beaches. Harder sand also makes it difficult for fish like drum, whiting, and more to feed.

Renourishment projects require moving sand from somewhere to the beaches, and the sand is usually gathered just offshore or from nearby inlets. The dredging process removes sand fleas, sand dollars and other crustaceans and redeposits them elsewhere. They rarely survive the dredging process.

Dr. Fred Scharf of UNC-Wilmington said field studies show mole crabs and other crustaceans are more prevalent on natural beaches. One of nature’s simple premises is that fish and animals live near their food, and if the food is gone, they move. Scharf said that over time, renourished beaches will return to a near-natural state, and fish and animals often return.

Guide Stu Caulder said he occasionally finds schools of redfish along developed beaches and when he does, they are usually close to the inlets. Far more often, reds prefer natural beaches with bare dunes.

Destination Information

  • HOW TO GET THERE — Wilmington is the jumping-off point for anglers looking to fish for winter reds from boats in the surf. I-40, US 74/76 and US 421 are the main highways of access. Carolina Beach, Masonboro, Mason and Topsail are marked inlets leading to the ocean; many locals use Rich Inlet, which is not marked and not considered navigable, even by small boats on calm days. Barrier islands are (south to north): Carolina Beach, Masonboro, Wrightsville Beach, Figure Eight Island, Lea-Hutaff Island, Topsail Beach. Public ramps are on the ICW at Carolina Beach, Wrightsville Beach, Hampstead and Surf City.
  • WHEN TO GO — Reds can be caught in the surf year-round, but the biggest numbers are in the fall and winter when fish move out of inside waters and head for the ocean. A day with offshore (west or northwest) winds or no wind and a small swell is perfect for catching reds in the surf.
  • TACKLE/TECHNIQUES — Use medium-light to medium-action baitcasting, spinning or fly tackle. Rods should be 61/2 to 71/2 feet, with 2000 to 3000 class spinning reels spooled with 10- to 17-pound mono and a 1- to 2-foot fluorocarbon leader. A variety of baits and lures will work, including soft plastics, hard plastics and gold spoons, plus chunks of menhaden or mullet. Go with a slightly heavier jighead to help with casting distance and to help hold the bait in place on the bottom.
  • FISHING INFO/GUIDES — Capt. Stu Caulder, Gold Leader Fishing, 910-264-2674; Tex’s Tackle and Bait, Wilmington, 910-791-1763,; Island Tackle and Hardware, Carolina Beach, 910- 458-3049.; Intracoastal Angler, Wilmington, 910-392-3500,; Eastern Outfitters, Hampstead, 910-270-2823,; East Coast Sports, Surf City, 910-328-1887, See also Guides & Charters in Classifieds.
  • ACCOMMODATIONS — MainStay Suites, Wilmington, 910-392-1741, and Sleep Inn, Wilmington, 910-313-6665,; Cape Fear Convention and Visitors Bureau, WIlmington, 877-406-2356, at
  • MAPS — Capt. Segull’s Nautical Charts, 888-473-4855,; Sealake Fishing Guides, 800-411-0185,; Maps Unique, 910-458-9923,; Grease Chart, 800-326-3567,, GMCO’s Chartbook of North Carolina, 888-420-6277,
About Jerry Dilsaver 1172 Articles
Jerry Dilsaver of Oak Island, N.C., a full-time freelance writer, is a columnist for Carolina Sportsman. He is a former SKA National Champion and USAA Angler of the Year.