Find coastal creeks when the winds blow cold and catch your share of Cape Fear crappie.
When February rolls around, many anglers are antsy for action. A few warm days make them long for April when rising water temperatures bring out the best in panfishing at the state’s coastal rivers.But some hardy anglers are too impatient to wait. They find great action, even during wintertime weather. All it takes is will power, a set of warm coveralls or a flannel shirt and heavy coat, and the desire to catch some nice fish. With those requirements, anyone to have great action with the native black crappie of the Cape Fear River system in southeastern North Carolina.
One such angler is Basil Watts. At 57, he goes fishing more often than anglers half his age. In spite of having heart surgery 11 years ago, he hauls his skiff to the sweet waters within a couple of hours drive from his home in Southport to get in on panfish action.
“I need the exercise, so I go fishing,” he said. “I’d rather eat a crappie than a lot of other fish. It’s just a bonus that they’re fun to catch, and you can catch them when other fish aren’t biting.”
Still, like most anglers who fish coastal rivers, Watts goes for whatever is biting and his creel is usually a mixed catch. There may be a few bluegill, redbreast, largemouth bass, warmouth catfish or chain pickerel in his cooler along with crappie.
“All the river fish eat basically the same things,” he said. “I use small spinners like Rooster Tails and Beetlespins that look like minnows. Every predatory fish in the rivers eat minnows or fry of some kind.”
Watts is a Cape Fear River pilot and that leaves him with times when he has several days off in a row, followed by other times when he works a couple of weeks at a stretch. He also has times when he’s on standby, in the event a ship comes into port and there’s no other pilot available.
“When I’m on standby, I have to stay close to Southport he said. “But I can usually get in a couple of hours of fishing even if I get called in. There’s plenty of water near home for catching a few panfish.”
Watts fishes the Black River in South Carolina, the Waccamaw River in North Carolina and many other small rivers and stream. But he really likes fishing the Cape Fear River from the Lock and Dam No. 1 landing.
“The river bluffs are high and break the wind,” he said. “That makes that stretch warm up faster in spring. It helps if you fish along the leeward banks and stay out of the wind. At times, it can almost feel warm if you find a place where the sun is hitting the bank.”
Watts cast a green Beetlespin against a cypress trunk at the mouth of a tiny creek. A crappie nailed the tiny spinner before he could even reel the slack from his line.
“Lime green, chartreuse, yellow, black-with-a-yellow stripe and white are all good colors,” he said. “Sometimes I use a gold in-line spinner, but a lot of the other colors work, too. When you’re using spinners, you need to buy the better quality ones. They may cost more, but you have to have a spinner that will spin easily at low retrieve speeds.
“Once I bought an entire card full of a name brand of beetle-grub spinners and they wouldn’t spin right. I threw them all away and got some more that did. I think in the muddy waters of the Cape Fear River in spring, the vibration attracts more fish than the color.”
While lake crappie that most anglers are accustomed to catching may form large, suspended schools near brush piles and other woody structure such as piers, anglers who fish coastal rivers should not expect to catch a lot of crappie from a single location. Mobility is important for success.
“I find a stretch of bank that looks promising,” Watts said. “I want little ditches and creek mouths, cypress tree trunks and knees, live vegetation, sunken logs, log jams, dips in the bank and bars. Anything that breaks the current flow or looks different than the straight cut shoreline may hold a fish. One piece of structure may hold a fish or up to half a dozen or so. The trick to catching a bunch of fish is to cover a lot of water.”
The Cape Fear River in Bladen County has three dams. Built for navigation, the locks and dams stabilize the water level at about 20 feet. The feeder streams that once flowed into the river between the dams have been dammed to stop water from exiting the navigation channel. Therefore, the streams offer little extra territory for crappie. Still, whenever an angler sees one of the tamed stream beds, a small trickle of water issuing from the mouth may attract some fish.
“You use a trolling motor and cast in a pattern that covers every inch of the bank,” Watts said. “Lots of times there’s a stump or root that holds a fish or two you can’t see from the boat. After you catch a fish or hook a snag, you can see why the fish was there.”
While Watts launches his 16-foot center-console skiff into the Cape Fear River most of the time, he also fishes the Northeast Cape Fear River in New Hanover and Pender Counties. He launches at the Wildlife Resources ramps at Castle Hayne, Holly Shelter, Sawpit Landing, and Holly Shelter Creek. He also uses a private ramp at Lane’s Ferry.
“All of the ramps are good and the fishing near each ramp is about the same,” he said. “You’re dealing with more water level changes along the Northeast Cape Fear River since it’s not dammed.
“A hard rain makes the water rise and the fishing isn’t as good on the rising water. What you want is a water falling out of the swamps and into the main rivers and creeks if you want to have the best luck with crappie in the natural rivers that haven’t been dammed.”
Watts fishes essentially the same way, using the same baits. There are more stumps and snags in the smaller rivers and creeks than in the Cape Fear River. So he uses superbraid lines to make sure he can always get his spinners back with a minimum of effort.
“The fishing is tight, with lots of overhanging trees in the creeks,” he said. “If you get hung in a tree and have to go get your lure, you can disturb a lot of fish in the shallow water. I use a 2-pound diameter, 20-pound test braided line. You can straighten a snagged hook and get your lure back without going after it with the boat or breaking the line like you would if you used monofilament.
“You don’t want to leave monofilament tangled up around a good log jam because you had to break it off trying to get your lure. That will only snag you lure even more on the next trip to the same spot.
“The no-stretch lines also help you set the hook. They keep the belly out of the line that’s made by the current because of their low drag in the water. They also are so sensitive you can feel a fish looking at the lure. The bite of a cold weather crappie can be just a peck. You might miss setting the hook with a monofilament line that you wouldn’t with a braided line.”
Ned Connelly of Wilmington is another angler who catches crappie from the Northeast Cape Fear River in Pender County. He fishes mostly on the weekends.
“I usually fish in saltwater,” he said. “But February is such a down month along the coast. The wind is blowing, the water’s cold, the air is cold. It’s a whole lot more comfortable fishing in the rivers and creeks and there are some crappie biting there.
“You might catch a bowfin or a jack fish or a bass if you go after them. But the good thing about winter crappie is that they are biting.”
Connelly launches from the same ramps as Watts. He fishes from a canoe with an electric trolling motor. Sometimes he fishes from a borrowed john boat.
“The john boat is more comfortable, and you can cover more water,” he said. “But a lot of the times, there are more fish in the backwaters and oxbows where only a canoe can go.
“In Holly Shelter Creek, sometimes the trees are all across the run of the creek and you can’t get through them with a john boat. If you can get to the places where most anglers can’t you can find concentrations of fish.”
Like Watts, Connelly fishes for multiple species. Crappie are the best tasting and most likely catch in February.
He also uses spinnerbaits and inline spinners. But he also likes 2- or 3-inch stickbaits.
“I like to use the floating models,” he said. “I use bright colors like red and yellow so the fish can see them in the coffee-colored water. I think any extra incentive for them to strike is good when the water is cold.”
The floating-lure models run less than a couple of feet deep. Crappie come up from deeper structure to strike them.
“There’s not a great forage base in the rivers and steams,” Connelly said. “Every tiny fish is in harm’s way. There aren’t any big schools of threadfin shad like there are in the big reservoirs.
“River crappie have to compete with other predators and are also prey for those other fish. I think that makes them strike faster and harder than lake crappie when the opportunity is presented and also why they seem to strike bigger baits.”
If his floating lure gets snagged, Connelly usually can free it with a pull. He uses light monofilament line, and if it appears the line will break, he eases close enough to poke the lure free by winding the lure up to the rod tip.
“The smaller lures have light wire hooks that bend easily,” he said. “It’s usually not much trouble to un-snag them.”
Connelly finds places where he can walk the bank so he can stretch his legs after an hour or two in a canoe. There are some places where Holly Shelter Game Land touches the Northeast Cape Fear where he parks his canoe and walks.
“I like bank fishing,” he said. “But you have to watch out for slippery spots. There are steep places where if you slide in, all that will be floating is your hat. You should always wear a PFD when you are canoeing or walking the bank for fish.
“You need to watch out for snakes, too. Even in February you can find a cottonmouth sunning on the bank.”