A few hours of sunshine in winter can make redfish and specks bite at Beaufort.
Capt. Dave Dietzler was almost nonchalant as his MirrOlure landed beside the small oyster rock protruding from the point of marsh.He closed the bail on the Penn spinning reel and reeled in the slack but appeared in no big hurry to retrieve the lure.
After letting the lure sit for a few seconds, he began to slowly and methodically crank the handle and creep the lure back to the boat. About every third or fourth turn of the handle, he gave the lure a light twitch, using only his wrist.
“I know they’re in here,” he said. “There’s a decent-size school of drum that’s been living between this point and that one up there since the water began to cool back in the fall. Usually, once the tide begins rising, they start feeding along the edges of these oyster rocks that run along the marsh.”
That cast came up empty, but several casts later a small- but-legal speckled trout couldn’t resist the methodical twitching of Dietzler’s MirrOLure. The fight wasn’t particularly spirited or long and shortly the hungry speck joined us in the boat.
“This guy is legal, but I usually don’t keep them this small,” Dietzler said. “If neither of you wants him, I going to let him go and hope he’s bigger next spring.”
No one wanted the fish so Dietzler slipped the little speck over the side. It swam away slowly.
“Look at him,” Dietzler said. “He isn’t even in a hurry to get out of here. If this was the fall, all we would have seen of that little guy after he hit the water was one splash of his tail. With all this cold water, he was slow enough he wasn’t even in a hurry to get away once he was released.
“That’s probably why so many trout are found floating or frozen in the ice after a heavy freeze. They aren’t real active to begin with and don’t swim away fast enough to escape the ice.”
Doug Leister commented on the clarity of the water and how easily we could see the little guy swim away.
“Yep, it gets gin clear in here once the water cools,” Dietzler said. “The cold water doesn’t hold all the algae, microorganisms, plankton, and such the warmer water does during the summer.
“Without all that stuff — which we really can’t see anyway except as cloudy water — the water is amazingly clearer. It holds a lot more oxygen too. That probably helps these fish survive without being very active.”
Our crew that chilly afternoon included Dietzler of Cape Lookout Charters, Doug Leister, of Fort Macon Marine Sales, and me. The trip came out of a brain-storming session we had lamenting the lack of winter fishing.
Dietzler said there were usually some fish available near Morehead City during winter, so Leister and I quickly maneuvered his statement into a challenge and quest.
As the planning progressed, Leister offered the use of what he described as a “very unique little boat that does a lot of things well and not many people know about. We have a rigged demo at the (Fort Macon) marina we can use, and you guys can tell me what you like or don’t like about it.”
He was talking about the Caracal 18-foot catamaran skiff, which is sold exclusively in this state by Fort Macon Boat Sales.
For several reasons, we waited until the middle of the day to leave Ft. Macon Marina to fish. Two of them were warmth; yep, that’s right, two reasons.
Depending on whom you talk to, the more important warmth could be for the fishermen or the fish, but it was a cold winter day and both of us needed to warm up.
While most times during the spring, summer and fall, it’s advantageous to be out on the water at first light, and sometimes even before first light, that isn’t always the case during winter. Sometimes it’s better to let the sun climb into the sky and spread some warming rays on fish and fishermen for a few hours.
When the water temperatures drop into the lower 50s-and-below in the marsh, creatures great and small become a bit sluggish. In the shallow waters, such as we were trying this day, a few hours of sunlight can raise the temperature several degrees, often making the difference between a fish watching your lure go past or darting over to grab it.
When the fishing isn’t great, most successful anglers combine the odds to insure the best possibility of success. Allowing the fish to warm up a few degrees is a positive move.
Warming up the fishermen doesn’t hurt either. In the words of Toby Keith: “I ain’t as good as I once was. My how the years have flown. There was a time, back in my prime …”
There was a time in my prime when I would have been on the water at daylight, regardless of the temperature. Unfortunately, I was often back at the dock by mid-day, chilled to the bone with few or no fish to show for my effort.
More experienced fishermen, who I initially laughed at for getting a start just as I was returning, often outfished me. Eventually the light came on.
Sometimes merely stopping beating your head against a wall is enough to make it feel better. Call it old age or maturity — I’m enjoying it.
It took a while, but eventually the lessons of catching more fish by adapting to their schedules, rather than expecting them to adapt to mine, finally sank into my consciousness. One of those lessons was allowing them to warm up a few hours on cold mornings.
Tide is another primary factor during winter fishing. Much of the better winter fishing for specks and reds occurs in shallow water. The first tide factor is having enough water to get there. Some spots you just can’t reach at low tide.
Another inherent factor in the tides is the water usually warms some during low tide and stays warm for a few hours. It’s especially true when low tide is near mid-day to early afternoon during a bright sunny day. In this scenario, the temperatures in shallow inland water can rise several degrees.
The color and consistency of the bottom also influence the daily warming of the water. Generally, the darker the bottom, the better it absorbs the sun’s warmth and heats the surrounding water a little. Mud also appears to absorb more of the sun’s energy than sand or rock and helps warm the water.
On this day we had many factors on our side. The low tide had been at roughly 1 p.m. and the sun had been shining all day. There was a little wind — and it was definitely cold — but the sky was clear and the sun shone brightly.
As we left Fort Macon Marina, Dietzler suggested trying a slough east of Beaufort Inlet.
“The tide has just started back in,” he said. “It’ll be a while before the tide turns back in the (Newport) river and adding a little new water might just help get the fish in a feeding mood.”
Dietzler is a local expert, so we followed his advice. To cover more water, they dropped me off behind Shackleford Banks to walk across and fish from the surf, while Dietzler and Leister motored through the inlet and fished by casting back towards shore.
A rising southwest wind had muddied the water at the slough, so we soon decided to try another location. Being in Beaufort Inlet, we quickly eased down to Middle Marsh. The tide was just starting to move there, and we eased across the outer sand bar and near the marsh.
A couple of long drifts along the edge of the marsh proved fruitless. Soon Dietzler announced it was time to move to the Newport River.
“The tide will be flooding in there by now, so we should be able to get to any of my favorite places,” he said. “This is enough of this fooling around, let’s go find some fish. This sunshine and the rising tide should have them moving a little and feeding.”
The wind had blown up a little chop inside the inlet and crossing the Turning Basin, but the little skiff handled it effortlessly. Soon we were entering the Newport River Marshes and Leister turned the helm over to Dietzler to navigate through the shallow waters.
We made several stops as we worked our way into the marsh riding the rising tide. The first few proved unrewarding, but then we located Dietzler’s school of pet drum along that one marsh line.
The drum weren’t feeding aggressively and required slowly finessing lures, but they did cooperate. A few trout were mixed in, but while most of them were of legal size, we weren’t looking for dinner.
It wasn’t the pace of a hot fall bite by any means, but there was enough action to keep us casting. In the clear water, we occasionally saw a fish react to our lures, positively or not. There’s no doubt we left there better fishermen than earlier in the day.
“As you know, I really like fishing MirrOLures, and they have become my ‘go-to’ lures during winter,” Dietzler said. “In the deeper creeks, say 4- to 8-feet deep, the 52M and 52MR are the ones.
“The only difference is the ‘R’means the lure has a rattle. The rattle sometimes makes the difference in a bite with the slow presentation that’s necessary in the cold water.”
MirrOLure colors are designated by numbers. Dietzler recommended the 18 (green back, white belly, silver scale), 19 (green back, yellow belly, gold scale), 21 (black back, white belly, silver scale), 51 (white back and belly, silver scale) and 52 (green back, white belly, pink scale).
He suggested using the MirrOLure Catch 2000 and Catch Jr. for fishing at shallow bars and oyster rocks. He said the same colors as noted above also work great for the Catch series.
For those folks who prefer to fish soft plastics, Dietzler had several recommendations.
“The new Berkley Gulp baits work great in the winter,” he said. “Once the blues and pinfish are gone, you don’t have to worry about the constant bite offs. The 3-inch shrimp is my favorite.
“Another line of good soft plastic baits is Fin-S. I like the 3-inch and 4-inch versions rigged on a 1/16- to 1/4-ounce head or rigged weedless with a bass worm hook and a split shot or two in front of the hook. The split shot is easy to rig and can be changed quickly as the tide rises or falls.”
Dietzler said in clear water he varied the color of his baits between brighter and darker days.
“If it’s sunny out and the water is very clear I like using lighter color baits, while I find darker baits often work better on cloudy and overcast days,” he said.
“The one thing you must remember when fishing during the cold months of the winter is to fish the baits very slow. I can’t emphasize it enough.”
We didn’t fill the boat with fish that day, but we did catch enough to realize they were there and could be coaxed into biting.
If you get land sick during the winter as many of us do, I recommend a trip into the backwaters after some resident specks and spots. They are around in many places.
Just wait until the day warms up some before you head out. You’ll appreciate it before and after catching a few fish.
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