Once the water and weather cools, striped bass become the primary target of fishermen in the Cape Fear, Northeast Cape Fear and Brunswick rivers around Wilmington, N.C. They are a January favorite even with a moratorium on possessing them throughout the Cape Fear system, where it’s still early in the process of rebuilding stocks. But growing numbers in the three rivers and tributaries around Wilmington find fishermen playing catch-and-release.

Stripers have two primary requirements; cover and food. There is plenty of cover in the rivers, including dock pilings, fallen trees, stumps, sunken boats, bridge pilings and abutments and more. The rivers around Wilmington are tidal, and this moves baitfish up and down the rivers, in and out of the creeks.

Jot Owens of Jot it Down Fishing Charters (910-233-4139) specializes in catching winter stripers. Owens’ favorite way to catch them is to cast lures into the many creek mouths on the falling tide. He concentrates on the water from the creek mouth out to where it drops into the channel. He primarily fishes soft-plastic Gulp jerkbaits with light weights and works them slowly, with occasional twitches, to imitate injured baitfish.

Owens also works diving crankbaits along deeper structure such as rows of pilings, bridge pilings and bulkheads, and in the deep water at the edge of channels. This can be by trolling or casting. Fishing live and cut baits on heavier Carolina rigs will also catch stripers, but you may hook a fish too deeply unless you use circle hooks. This is a brackish-water area and fishermen also sometimes catch red drum and catfish.

 The prime area for Wilmington stripers extends from the power line crossing below the N.C. State Port up the Cape Fear and Northeast Cape Fear rivers to the US 17/I-140 bridges. The entire Brunswick River, which splits off from the Cape Fear River at Navassa and rejoins it across from the N.C. State Port, has structure that holds stripers.

Cape Fear River Watch, the N.C. Wildlife Resources Commission, the N.C. Division of Marine Fisheries, and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers are working together to rebuild striper stocks in the Cape Fear system. In the early to mid-1900s, the Cape Fear was considered one of the top five striper waters on the East Coast. However, a series of three locks and dams installed between 1915 and 1935 to allow shipping upriver to Fayetteville prevented stripers from reaching their spawning grounds, and numbers plummeted. A stocking program is in place, plus a rock-arch fish ladder at Lock and Dam No. 1, and discussion regarding the need for similar fish ladders at the other two dams.

Cape Fear River Watch holds Striperfest each January (Jan. 13-14 this year) to raise awareness and funds to support their restoration. It includes a fund-raising banquet, followed by an all release fishing tournament and Striper Expo.