Red Drum Walking

Angler Marshall Hardin decided to use a boat to cruise a little deeper water, but he worked the edges to land this just-under-slot red drum.

Lower Brunswick creeks and marshes offer great places to stalk and cast to puppy drum during the spring

Capt. Mark Dickson reared back to set the hook and his rod bowed deeply.

The whirring sound of a spinning reel grudgingly giving up braided line broke the silence just before he spoke.“There you are, gotcha,” he said, smiling.

The line zipped a few feet off the bank in the small creek, as a startled redfish made a frantic dash for freedom. However, as it neared the downstream end of the pool, it quickly reversed direction, choosing to continue the battle in deeper water rather than breaking across the shallow end of the bar.

Upon nearing the upstream end of the pool, the frantic fish reversed direction again and returned to the deepest water directly in front of Dickson and began a final tug-of-war. The water was a little too deep and too dark to see the struggling fish, but Dickson was convinced it was a red drum.

“Did you see how it made those boils in the water when it turned?” Dickson said. “Those come from the sweep of a drum’s tail as it turns sharply. A big speck might occasionally make a boil like that, but I believe this one is a decent red. We should get to see in just another minute or so.”

A few seconds later, the tiring fish rolled again. This time its movement was slow enough to recognize it as a nice red drum. Dickson led the tiring fish to the creek side, and we admired it for a few seconds.

It was indeed a nice red, at least upper slot size and maybe just slightly more than the 18-inch minimum.

Letting the red rest in shallow water at the creek’s edge, Dickson deftly removed the hook then posed for a quick picture or two before easing the tired fish back into the creek. Showing it was none the worse for wear, the fish sprinted off to the depths of the pool to rest a while before attacking another potential meal in the pristine Brunswick County marsh.

This trip with Capt. Mark Dickson (Shallow Minded Inshore Charters, (843) 280-7099,, had been planned for several weeks when a freak spring cold front materialized and locked in across southeastern North Carolina. But Dickson wasn’t about to let the odd weather postpone the trip, although he warned it might take a little time to find where the drum had relocated to hide from the cold.

The temperature had dropped several degrees farther than usual the previous night and we were working under a cloudy sky and about 10 degrees colder than the previous day. From his years of experience in the area, Dickson knew the redfish hadn’t abandoned the creeks. We adapted our approach for locating them.

Our trip began at the unimproved roadside launch area at the island side of the Sunset Beach Bridge. The original plan had been to visit the Shallotte River, approximately 10 miles to the north, but with the weather change, Dickson said we’d probably have better opportunities in this area.

We were working through several of the smaller creeks off the Intracoastal Waterway and Bonaparte Creek, behind Sunset Beach and Bird Island at the extreme southern end of the N.C. coastline. Several times we ventured within sight of the channel to Little River Inlet, which is barely across the state line in South Carolina.

Dickson, a native of Cherry Grove, S.C., who charters from Myrtle Beach, S.C., to Holden Beach, said the new regulations forced him to buy duplicate licenses to fish in both states (he’s also licensed as a guide in North and South Carolina).

In more open water, Dickson uses a Mercury-powered 24-foot Triton LTS Bay Boat, but when dealing with the shallow tidal waters behind the coastal islands, his N.C. adventures are conducted from an oversize 17-foot Triton john boat that poles easily and floats in inches of water.

Dickson’s N.C. trips vary by season, but he pursues speckled trouts, flounders and puppy drums in the inshore waters and flounders, puppy drum, mackerels, spadefish, Atlantic bonitos and false albacores in nearshore waters.

We targeted puppy drums this day and, at one point, were in water so shallow Dickson staked out the boat and we waded to productive pools. Thankfully, most of the creeks in this area have a pretty stable sand bottom and walking is fairly easy.

“Ordinarily these fish would be spread throughout the marsh and creeks and out on the flats a little more by now,” Dickson said an hour earlier. “That’s where they were up until yesterday.

“Unfortunately this cold front swooped down, and they’ve gone back to a little more of a late-winter or early-spring cooler weather and water pattern. I’d planned to take advantage of the extra low tide and to help us locate them. Unfortunately this weather change probably has given them a little case of lockjaw. It may take us a while to find out what they’re biting — if they’re biting at all.”

Being fortunate enough to have fished with Dickson several times, it was obvious he had a plan for these conditions. That first fish was a strong endorsement and numerous hookups throughout the afternoon cemented his reputation.

Beginning our trip about halfway through the falling tide, Dickson targeted small creeks and other drains where water and baitfish flowed out of the marsh into the creeks.

Although we cast a variety of soft plastics at the junctions of these drains, interested fish were few and far between.

“I was afraid the front would affect the bite and it appears it has,” Dickson said. “For the past several days we’ve been doing very well fishing these drains. The reds had been hungry and aggressive and we found a few at almost every spot.

“The wind switched last night when this front rolled in, and the barometer and temperature dropped. The air took a big temperature drop, but the drop in water temperature and the falling barometer have affected them the most.

“Low tide is in the middle of the afternoon and we should find a few then — if we don’t find them before. It’ll be as warm as it’ll get today at low tide, which should warm them up — they should move around a little and feed some.”

Dickson said the predicted low tide was for an extreme low because of the moon phase and an unusual spring northeasterly wind would help make sure that happened. Sure enough, about an hour before the forecast low tide, we began bumping bottom at some places he said we would usually float through during a normal low tide.

Reaching a wide area where a smaller creek, entered the creek we were drifting, Dickson suggested we tether the boat and get out and wade.

“If it is already this low here, we’ll get in some really shallow water a little farther back in here and may have to wait longer than we want to get back out,” Dickson said. “I have a Cajun anchor and we’ll tether it out here in the middle of the creek so we can get out easily if we need to. I’m glad I told you to bring your waders. Go ahead and put them on and let’s hike back in here a little.”

After sinking the anchor pole in the creek bottom and making sure the boat was tied securely, Dickson began stuffing his pockets with several shapes, sizes and colors of soft plastics, some different weight jig heads, a spool of fluorocarbon leader and a pair of long-nose pliers.

“Sometimes we can fish in here all day and not lose a jig or a bait, but just as soon as I count on it, we’ll break them off immediately,” he said. “I’m going to rig this 2-inch, natural color, plastic crab on a weighted hook.

“Why don’t you rig this 3-inch, new penny shrimp on yours? It has been a hot bait back here for a few weeks and worked well at times during the winter. They’ve liked it for a while; maybe they will again today.”

After a hike of several hundred yards, we approached the first pool. It was obvious the water was significantly deeper at this section of the creek. An exposed oyster rock trailed down into it at one main point and two smaller ones. A small eddy at one end, with a small scalloped-out area between the oyster rock and the bank, didn’t have any current.

“Earlier in the year, they were holding right where those fingers from the oyster rock go down into the water,” Dickson said. “I’m guessing they’ll be acting the same today, so cast right up to about a foot off them and let your bait fall all the way to the bottom.”

Later we’d admit we thought we had felt a lethargic pickup after our first casts but were afraid to jinx the trip by saying so. After about his third cast, Dickson set the hook on a fish, but it was a poor hook set and the fish pulled free after its initial run.

“There are some fish here, but they are biting real light,” Dickson said. “You might want to concentrate hard to feel even the lightest bite and then try to set the hook.”

After lightly landing another cast to the same spot, Dickson hoarsely whispered he was having another bite. Bowing the rod to the nibbling fish, he allowed it to move enough to tighten the line before reacting to set the hook. This time he struck pay dirt and the hook held while the fish surged up and down the little pocket in the creek.

While snapping pictures of his catch, the sensation of something chewing on my bait shot up the line and rocked the rod cradled in my arms. A quick look showed the line moving upstream rather than down. Excitedly I excused myself from the photo shoot, quickly shoved the camera into a pocket and set the hook.

Upon feeling the sting of the hook, this drum boiled the cool water again. It made a couple of runs for the length of the pool, then struggled for a minute or two to avoid being led to the bank.

“Hey, that’s not a bad one either,” Dickson said with a growing smile, as he cast to the upstream finger of oyster rocks. “I won’t tell you I wasn’t concerned with the weather change, but I’ve been catching these drum out where we started for almost a month, and they were back in here before that. They’re biting a little weak, but we should be able to catch some and have a decent afternoon.”

After catching a few more drum from that small pool, the bite slowed. We hiked another couple of hundred yards up the creek and found a similar situation. This pool didn’t give up any red drums, but several others farther up the small creek did.

Once we realized the tide was rising again, we began working our way back to the boat but stopped for a few casts at each pool. Several gave up a fish or two more, but most didn’t.

However, back at the first pool, Dickson tied into the top fish of the day.

This last fish hit hard and fought hard for more than 5 minutes before allowing itself to be beached and photographed. It was at the upper limit of the slot and maybe slightly larger.

Dickson said it fought harder from being in the sun a little longer and being a little warmer. Whatever the reason, it represented itself well before giving in, then swam off with an attitude after being released.

The rising tide had the water a foot or more deeper when we reached the boat, so heading back wasn’t going to be a problem. As we motored back through the creeks to where we’d launched, we noticed the wind had fallen out almost completely.

It was almost eerie as the temperature began to rise once the wind died.

“The front must be moving on,” Dickson said as he pulled off the sweatshirt he had been wearing all afternoon.

He’d just loaded the boat back on the trailer and was breaking into a light sweat.

“It wasn’t too bad today, but I bet the drum will bite real well tomorrow,” he said. “I had a charter, but they cancelled this morning. Would you like to come back and give it another shot tomorrow?”

While every bit of me except my sense of duty was screaming “yes,” I forced myself to respond in the negative. It had been a great time today and would probably be even better tomorrow.

Telling him I needed to spend the next day in the office with other matters, I turned to leave. As I turned, a drum busted a small pod of bait across the narrow creek from the ramp. The reds already were responding to the distant front, and they’d definitely be biting better tomorrow.

Dickson also saw the drum break up the bait school but was polite enough not to point it out.

I wouldn’t be there in person tomorrow, but my mind was already up that creek — and Dickson knew it.

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.

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