Track down Cape Fear River stripers on spawning run upriver

The fishing is all catch-and-release, but Cape Fear River stripers make plenty of February anglers happy. (Picture by Jot Owens)

There are striped bass in the waters of southeastern North Carolina, but they are typically overlooked by all but a few knowledgeable and dedicated locals.

Still, they are there. The primary areas to catch them are the Cape Fear, Northeast Cape Fear and Brunswick rivers around Wilmington, and the best times are from roughly December through April. However, there has been a moratorium on keeping stripers in the Cape Fear system for more than a decade, so if catch-and-release fishing suits you, there can be some good days on these waters.

Guide Jot Owens of Jot It Down Charters (910-233-4139) fishes these waters regularly and works with Cape Fear River Watch on striper restoration projects. He said the striper population is mixed and includes some larger fish from before Hurricane Florence in 2018, plus a lot of smaller fish since. Fishing is fun, but the catch ratio is down a little as the smaller fish hit hard but don’t always get hooked.

“I fish for stripers using swimbaits in shallow water along the banks and around creek mouths, then switch to big-lipped diving lures to fish deeper, like around bridges and for deeper structure,” Owens said. “I like the 5-inch, Berkley PowerBait Grass Pig on 1/4- or 3/8-ounce Trokar TK 170 hooks for fishing shallow; the current determines the weight.

“My go-to crankbaits for deeper water are the Rapala DT and Mann’s Stretch series.”

Stripers like vertical structure and the numerous bridges, docks, bulkheads, sunken vessels and such around Wilmington provide plenty. There are also many smaller creeks and ditches that feed baitfish into the rivers on falling tides.

Different parts of the Cape Fear River are listed as either Coastal, Joint or Inland  waters, so the correct license is required. A Coastal Recreational Fishing License is accepted for Coastal and Joint waters, while an Inland fishing license is required in Inland waters and also accepted in Joint waters. Check to know how where you plan to fish is classified. In general, the main bodies of the rivers are either Coastal or Joint waters and the smaller creeks are Inland Waters. This is important to know as the fish don’t recognize the boundaries and sometimes cross the lines.

Stripers have had a hard time in the Cape Fear River system, beginning with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers damming the Cape Fear River in the early 1900s to support commerce on the river, and most recently with all local waters dropping to almost zero dissolved oxygen in the flooding aftermath of Hurricane Florence in 2018. Still, a core group finds a way to survive and are supplemented by the stocking of fingerlings.

About Jerry Dilsaver 1163 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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