Smokin’ Winter Smorgasbord

Toothy Neuse fish such as bowfins can tear up soft plastic lures, but Mike Taylor repairs his favorite lures.

The Neuse River holds a plethora of game fish at its feeder creeks.

Capt. Mike Taylor launched his boat at a nondescript boat ramp at a tiny creek that is one of many Neuse River tributaries. His gleaming new Ranger 2400 Bay boat passed a silent review of sunken pleasure craft and abandoned workboats, which had found their final resting places in a gum and cypress swamp that held little more than a trickle of tannin-stained water.

After passing through the trees, Taylor navigated into a yawning opening. The cove was a widening typical of the many creeks near Oriental and Havelock that have little flow or tidal range. The fishing destination would turn out to be more like fishing a lake than a coastal river, with the only change in water level caused by what Taylor called a wind tide.

“The water rises up on the windward side of the river and blows out of the creeks on the leeward side,” Taylor said. “That can make a difference in which creek you fish any given day. Low water levels make the fish more difficult to catch. The water along the banks is shallow enough already. But compound that with wind blowing the water down farther and makes the fishing tougher.”

Taylor operates Taylor-Made Charters out of Swansboro. He travels a wide area in pursuit of “whatever is biting.” In the creeks entering the Neuse River, he finds his angler’s Valhalla, with a literal smorgasbord of species.

“There are so many fish in these brackish water creeks, it’s amazing what you can catch,” he said. “We’ve really been smoking the fish and should catch several species of fish today. It’s a brackish water area, where the freshwater meets saltwater. In most of these creeks you’re going to need a saltwater and a freshwater fishing license.”

Some of the creek names are well known. Others are little known outside local fishing lore. Upper Broad Creek and Broad Creek are hard-fished creeks. But others such as Hancock Creek and Clubfoot Creek remain fairly obscure.

“You can access many of the creeks from the ramp at Oriental,” Taylor said. “The water is fairly well protected from all but the strongest winds.”

Along for the trip was Clint Collins of Smithfield. Collins works at a boat dealer and had finished rigging Taylor’s new Ranger. He was accompanying Taylor for a test ride, as well as for the fishing.

“I’ve fished this area since I was 12 years old,” the 19-year-old Collins said. “Right now my favorite lure is a jig head with a curly-tail Berkley Gulp. You need a lure that will attract multiple species of fish and scented soft plastics really work well.”

Taylor switched off the outboard and put down his trolling motor. He stayed well off the bank as he began casting with a Berkley Gulp Pogy rigged with a 1/16-ounce weighted hook.

“The shad tail lures work really well,” Taylor said. “But you have to fish them slowly. You make a cast, let ’em fall to the bottom, then twitch ’em up and let ’em fall again. The lightweight hook lets ’em settle to the bottom like a wounded mullet or shad and the fish usually strike during the fall.”

“Shad” (an eastern N.C. term) is the name Taylor uses for menhaden. Menhaden are a primary food species in the Neuse River and its tributaries so anything that resembles one of the shiny schooling baitfish is an excellent lure pattern. But he also uses hard lures.

“I like the MirrOlure suspending lure series, such as the 17MR,” he said. “I fish them by reeling and twitching. The pause is what makes them so effective. A fish will follow the lure until it stops. The sudden pause makes him decide to eat it right then, before it gets away.”

The day began with flounder bites. February may seem a strange month for catching flounder. But the conditions for flounder were obviously excellent since Taylor and Collins would wind up catching more than a dozen keeper flounder before the day was over.

“Flounder have the most subtle bite,” Collins said. “When the water is cold like this, and you’re anticipating a hard strike from a striped bass, speckled trout or red drum, the tiny tap of a cold flounder can catch you off guard.

“The best thing to do is set the hook every time you feel a hesitation in the retrieve because it may be a fish. You’re going to draw a lot of blanks when the lure is just hitting something on the bottom like a stick or stump. But you’re also going to increase your odds of catching a flounder.”

Taylor and Collins moved along under electric power, fishing shoreline cover. The fishing was no different from freshwater bass fishing. With each cast, they targeted pockets and projections in the shoreline, fallen trees extending into the water, stumps, cypress knees, grass lumps fallen away from the shoreline, old pilings and anything else that constituted a change in an otherwise monotonous shoreline. High banks were lined with pine and hardwood trees, while low banks were lined with marsh grasses and rushes.

Taylor watched his depth-finder for changes in bottom contour, with water depths dropping at some places to 8 feet. Most of the strikes came from near the shoreline or at the edges of steep declines in the bottom contours. Between the two anglers, they hooked and landed seven species of fish, including flounder, red drum, speckled trout, striped bass, largemouth bass, bowfin and chain pickerel.

Taylor hooked and landed an unusually large chain pickerel or “jackfish” and examined its bleeding tail. The fish had jumped a couple of times while putting up a very strong fight.

“Jackfish are spawning this time of year,” he said. “They fight during the spawn; that’s why this one is so cut up. All of the bigger jackfish look like this in February and March. This one weighs about 4 pounds.”

Taylor said changes in water salinity and temperature could move fish into any of the creeks. The only way an angler could know which one held the best fishing was to give each a try, hopping from one to another along the main channel of the Neuse River.

“One creek might hold more stripers, the next more trout and another more redfish,” Taylor said. “But most of them hold more than one species at the same time.”

When Taylor and Collins had several strikes at the same location, Taylor used a Power Pole to stop the boat. The Power Pole dug into the bottom silently and was effective in up to about 8 feet of water. It uses a hydraulic ram to raise and lower a fiberglass-composite spike into the bottom sediments and extracts and lifts up at the flip of a switch.

“It saves the time and noise of dropping and picking up an anchor,” he said. “I fish a lot of redfish tournaments and every tournament boat has a Power Pole. You don’t have to be a genius to figure out they must be efficient, saving lots of fishing time.”

At one place, using the Power Pole, Taylor stopped the boat the leeward side of a peninsula. A high bank lined with tall pines extended part way along the peninsula and a large tree had fallen into the water after having its roots undercut by wind erosion. The tree was missing its needles after having been in the water a long time.

“Finding a large tree like that in the water is like finding a gold mine,” Taylor said. “The high bank means the water is deep, and the drop-off from the bank is steep. It’s going to hold some fish. Let’s see what’s there.”

Taylor made a cast and hooked a large striped bass. While he was playing the fish, Collins set the hook into a monster fish. Taylor switched down the Power Pole and netted his striper, then netted a red drum for Collins. Before Collins hooked the tree top and the boat had to be moved near it to retrieve his lure, a jack, a largemouth bass and a speckled trout also were hooked near the same piece of structure.

“That’s the way it goes when you’re fishing the creeks off the Neuse,” Taylor said. “You may go along, catching a fish or two here and there, when suddenly, you find a concentration of fish.

“Anytime you get a strike, it pays to stick with that one spot until you’ve mined all the fish before you move along, looking for the next hot spot.”

About Mike Marsh 356 Articles
Mike Marsh is a freelance outdoor writer in Wilmington, N.C. His latest book, Fishing North Carolina, and other titles, are available at

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