Specks such as these should be commonplace in the creeks of the Neuse River during June. With five straight mild winters, N.C.’s inshore trout should be growing to some prodigious sizes.

Fishing for speckled trout at the lower Neuse should be good this month, no thanks to some strange N.C. netting policies.

Good and bad news exists for speckled trout — and anglers — in the creeks near Oriental and perhaps at other tributaries of the lower Neuse River.

The good news is fish can be found in shallow water during March and April, which should mean good fishing in June.

The bad news is that by being in such a relatively concentrated area, specks offer easy targets for netters.

“The specks run up into the creeks (from the Neuse River) during the winter and stay until the water in the creeks gets too warm,” said Mark Hoff, a guide and native of Wildwood, N.J., who learned his saltwater fishing lessons from his grandfather and father at Cape May. “When it warms up, usually by June, they head back into the Neuse where they’re more comfortable,

“It’s usually too cold for specks in the Neuse until June, then it’s too hot in the creeks after June.”

Hoff uses a 20-foot Sea Pro center-console boat for speckled trout and red drum fishing (he has a 25 Cutty for tarpons).

“I had a dad and three kids on board last week, and we had plenty of room,” he said during April. “It’s a kick for me to have someone catch their first speckled trout or first red fish. They might have hooked the fish, but the fish usually ends up hooking them on the sport.”

Hoff uses 6-foot-long Shakespeare Sigma IM7 or IM8 graphite rods and Quantum Catalyst spinning reels spooled with 8-pound-test Ande line.

“If you’re fishing for specks and get a slot drum on, you want to have tough 8-pound-test line,” Hoff said. “I use 8-pound Ande because there’s a lot of snags in these waters. I want to be able to break off a jig if a fish wraps me. All you have to do is tie on another jig; you can’t (break off) braided line — it won’t break.”

An engineer by education (industrial arts degree from Millersville State, Pa.), Hoff, 45, works for Kendall Medical Group in Greenville but also is a fishing guide (Sweet Water Charters, 252-249-2811, http://www.sweetcharters.com, e-mail: letsfishatsweetwatercharters.com).

His favorite inshore lures include Saltwater Assassin curly-tail soft grubs, Gulp shrimps or M17 MirrOlures when he wants to fish topwater.

“The (Yo-Zuri) Crystal Minnow seems to work better in Adams Creek,” he said. “It’s more of a tannic-colored water, and that lure works better than a MirrOlure there for some reason.”

Hoff said it’s always been his dream to be a fishing guide.

“It’s all I ever wanted to do,” he said, “even when I was a little kid.”

However, his job today is made more difficult by netting (commercial and recreational) that North Carolina allows in the creeks near Oriental. Four creeks — Smith, Green, Morris and Kershaw — that merge just behind the N.C. 55 bridge and flow into the Neuse are blockaded day and night by nets each spring.

Speckled trout aren’t the only species that are caught in this web of nets, although because of N.C.’s recent streak of mild winters, the region has grown some gators.

“We had a fabulous fall (fishing for big trout), but the spring (of 2007) has been really tough,” Hoff said. “It’ll get better in June as the specks go into the river.

“In the spring, it’d be a pretty short trip for local guides such as myself and Gary Dubiel (Spec Fever Guide Service, 252-249-1520, e-mail: captgary@specfever.com, http://www.specfever.com) if we could take people fishing in these creeks and have a decent chance to catch specks. But it’s just about useless to try it because there are so many nets in the water in March and April.”

Hoff said the specks and puppy-drum-size redfish prefer creeks because they have mud bottoms and hold heat better than the colder river during March and April.

“When the water temperature gets up 55 or 60 degrees, the baitfish get active in the creeks and that attracts specks and reds, too,” he said. “When it gets to 60 degrees in the river, that’s when we start looking for baits coming in from the (Pamlico) Sound.”

During an April fishing trip with Hoff, which included a short visit to the creeks behind Oriental, it was evident these waters were “wrapped up” by netters.

Gill nets stretched from the shorelines of many of the creeks at various places — usually at the narrowest spots. Nets stretched toward the middle of creeks, some anchored directly against the banks on either side, creating an almost impenetrable gauntlet for fish.

At a 200-yard-wide place in Smith Creek, gill nets stretched from the shoreline at both banks, leaving a 75-yard-wide boat passageway in the middle of the creek.

“What happens is these nets not only snare speckled trout, but they also catch red drum moving along the shorelines,” Hoff said. Near the middle of the creeks the nets usually entangle specks.

Netters legally can target trout, but redfish aren’t supposed to be snared.

Recreational hook-and-line anglers may keep only one red drum from 18 to 27 inches in length. Commercial netters, who try to catch other species legally, may sell seven “slot” redfish they catch “incidentally” in their nets. A commercial netter who accidentally catches red drum also has to have more fish by weight of other species — for example, specks or flounder — than the total weight of his red drum. But if a netter has more than seven redfish or too much by weight, dead reds often get dumped over the side.

“You can tell that’s happened at night because we’ll go into the creeks in the morning and find dead drum floating,” Hoff said.

What’s the incentive to place nets in these creeks? Cash profits for netters, especially for speckled trout.

“I’ve heard 25,000 pounds of specks went out of these four creeks in the last three months in little white boxes,” Hoff said during April.

“Little white boxes” contain saltwater fish transported by refrigerated trucks to wholesale fish dealers and restaurants.

Hoff insisted he has no problem with commercial fishing — when it’s done in a way and at places where it can’t wipe out fish stocks.

“There’s a place for netters here,” he said. “I want to make that clear.”

What Hoff — and many other hook-and-line anglers don’t understand — are N.C. Division of Marine Fisheries rules that allow small-mesh nets to be used and be placed at what Hoff calls “nursery areas.”

Hoff said netters used 2 1/4-inch mesh in Oriental’s creeks, but the DMF’s Tricia Smith compiled information for this story and noted only 2 1/2-inch mesh nets are legal in these creeks. But that 1/4-inch difference is of little consequence to specks and redfish; nets of
2 1/2-inch mesh are just as deadly as 2 1/4-inch mesh.

The creeks behind Oriental are nursery areas for speckled trout, red drum and other species of fish. Otherwise small reds and specks wouldn’t be found at these shallow creeks during winter and early spring.

Large “old” red drum head to sea through N.C.’s inlets during the fall and remain offshore each winter, then return to spawn in the river each summer. Their fry survive by going into the shallow creeks to seek food and cover. Meanwhile, speckled trout spawn in the creeks from April through October, an obvious indication the creeks are nursery areas.

However, nursery areas aren’t, by N.C. law, off limits to netting.

DMF information noted “waters that meet certain physical characteristics are designated as a primary nursery area after three consecutive years of sampling data indicates a significant presence of very young finfish, shrimp and crab that use the area for food and cover.”

But even with that designation, “you almost can’t catch a slot drum in these creeks these days,” Hoff said.

During the 1990s, Hoff said he and his clients regularly caught “four or five” slot drum (18 to 27 inches in length) in the creeks during one-day flounder-fishing excursions (redfish often bite soft-plastic lures or baitfish used by hook-and-line flounder anglers).

“In the 2000-01 season, we caught 470 slot red drum here,” he said. “Last year we caught four.”

Hoff said recreational anglers often catch pre-slot drum in the creeks during the fall “that should be in the slot (keeper-size fish) by the spring. But you never see them in the spring; we just don’t catch them.”

The only time he sees slot redfish occurs when he or another angling party comes across an unattended net that’s wrapped up in drowned drum.

Why aren’t reds able to escape the nets? Because, even though legal, the mesh of the nets is too small to allow specks and slot-size reds to escape.

During March, DMF director Louis Daniel issued a proclamation that prohibited the use of 2 1/4-inch mesh drift nets in the Neuse River upstream from the Southern Railway Bridge in New Bern to prevent incidental catches of protected river herrings.

River herrings, that weigh on average about 1 pound, are much smaller than speckled trout or red drum and require at least a 3 1/4-inch mesh net to escape. Daniel’s regulation was written with an even greater leeway, requiring no less than 3 1/2-inch mesh.

But few reds or specks trapped by a legal 2 1/2-inch mesh net will escape.

“In the sound in the fall, when we have a good YOY (Young of the Year) index, it’s easy to catch 60 to 70 redfish in a single day,” Hoff said. “Those fish will be 12 to 14 inches in length.

“By the next spring, they should be slot size — 18 inches. But you don’t see them or catch them. It’s obvious they’re being killed or taken out somehow.”

In 1994 North Carolina placed a moratorium on the sale of new saltwater commercial fishing licenses because so many netters were coming to North Carolina as their states — such as Florida, South Carolina, Georgia and Louisiana — banned inshore gill netting.

“I think that’s the real problem, the influx of out-of-state netters,” Hoff said. “Everybody, particularly the Florida guys, discovered they could get netting licenses here after they were banned down there.”

North Carolina has a cap of 8,896 commercial (netting) licenses, but only 6,171 were sold or transferred by new owners last year. So anyone wanting to buy a commercial fishing license can obtain one from the DMF — or a N.C. netter willing to sell his license — until the cap is reached.

The DMF has no way of knowing how many new applicants are from other states, unless they write an out-of-state address on their sign-up forms. But N.C. owners of commercial netting licenses may sell or transfer them to anyone, no questions asked by DMF.

Katie West of the DMF’s Washington office confirmed there’s no restrictions on gill netting at nursery areas. The only restrictions at nursery areas, which could be any qualified coastal creek, have to do with gear types.

“Bottom-disturbing gear (shrimp trawls and long-haul gear) isn’t allowed in primary and secondary nursery areas,” West said. “There’s a special secondary nursery area where trawling is allowed for shrimp later in the fall, but that primarily happens in the Core Sound area (not Oriental’s creeks).”

West said when the Fisheries Reform Act was approved (in 1997), nursery areas were defined by what types and sizes of fish were caught in sample nets during designated periods.

The DMF, which must sample a creek three consecutive years to determine if it will classify as a nursery area, uses small-mesh nets to catch juvenile fish “sometimes 60 to 90 millimeters long,” West said. “They’re tiny.”

If DMF biologists find small fish, crabs and shrimp in a creek, it can be declared a nursery area. But that doesn’t help pre-slot drum and trout that still must face 2 1/2-inch mesh nets that don’t ensnared tiny gamefish or shellfish.

If consideration was given to stopping the use of such nets that would catch larger fish in nursery areas during the walk-up to the ‘97 FRA, the idea was scrapped — for some reason. So 2 1/2-inch mesh gill nets were approved for use at nursery areas. And they’ve been catching tons of specks and killing thousands of “incidental” red drum ever since.

So Hoff, and other recreational anglers, must try creeks other than those behind Oriental.

“If the weather’s nice, we usually can find some fish in creeks such as Dawson’s,” he said. “Or we can go across the river to the (south) side; the netters won’t go that far. But if the wind’s up or from the wrong direction, most small-boat anglers won’t chance going out on the river. It can get really rough out there.”

A big offshore sportfisherman headed to Miami sank with two crewmen a couple of years ago within sight of Oriental during a blow.

“A good area across the (Neuse) River is Garbacon Bay, and good June creeks for specks and reds are Slocum, Hancock, Beard’s and Upper Goose Creek.”

What worries Hoff, Dubiel and other recreational anglers is if the specks and reds are depleted in Oriental’s creeks, how long will it take netters to turn to other creeks that currently are overlooked?

And, in case that happens, will specks, reds and anglers get help from the DMF?

About Craig Holt 1382 Articles
Craig Holt of Snow Camp has been an outdoor writer for almost 40 years, working for several newspapers, then serving as managing editor for North Carolina Sportsman and South Carolina Sportsman before becoming a full-time free-lancer in 2009.

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