These waters warm up quickly in spring
Brunswick County begins roughly where North Carolina’s coast turns west at Cape Fear and continues about 40 miles to the South Carolina border. The eastern end is influenced by the Cape Fear River, but once west of Lockwood Folly Inlet, any big-water influence disappears.
In this area, the creeks, canals and marsh ponds between the Intracoastal Waterway and the beaches are often a little warmer during the winter. That translates into more baitfish and crabs, followed by drum and trout, often active and feeding.
The Lockwood Folly River, Shallotte River and Calabash Creek are the larger streams in this area. None of these extend beyond Brunswick County, so their flow is minimal other than the tides. Numerous canals, marsh creeks and marsh flats with low water flow are on the beach side of the ICW.
The rivers and Calabash Creek have deeper channels and extensive, shallow flats. Trout often feed along the edges of the flats. Red and black drum ply the shallow pockets and flats foraging on baitfish and uprooting one-armed bandits and small crabs. The beach canals were dug to provide water access behind beach houses. They have natural bottoms at Holden and Sunset beaches, but many have concrete bottoms at Ocean Isle. This aids oyster and barnacle growth, which provides habitat for baitfish and crabs and fish follow them into the canals.
Live baits, artificial scents are big help
The marsh ponds are primarily between Ocean Isle and Little River Inlet. Reaching them requires some local knowledge, which comes from scraping bottom at low tide. The bottom is primarily dark mud, with scattered oyster rocks, and it is ideal late winter/early spring habitat for baitfish and crabs. Drum roam this area and home in on them.
While the water is usually a little warmer than farther north, it still isn’t warm. Many area guides use scented, live and natural baits to attract red and black drum, plus occasional speckled trout. The favorites are soft-plastic shrimp and crabs, either containing scent or with scent added. They are fished slowly and occasionally dead-sticked to allow the scent to spread. Mud minnows are the primary live baits and are fished either on Carolina rigs or under floats.
Pieces of shrimp, cut mullet and crab, a local favorite, can be fished on Carolina rigs; their scent, especially crab, will attract predator fish. Scent moves with the tide and attracts drum from surprising distances. Shrimp doesn’t have as much scent, but is rarely refused once a drum sees or smells it.