The water temperature reaches a magical mark in May in the waters around Swansboro, N.C., and the neighboring barrier islands, igniting a previously sleepy red drum bite. But June is when marsh coves and creeks really become great venues for redfish.
“Reds mostly go out Bogue, Bear and Browns inlets into the ocean in winter,” said guide Rick Patterson of Cape Carteret, N.C. “They get in big ocean schools in January and February. When (it) starts to warm up a little in March, they start to filter back through the inlets. I think they’re following mostly (menhaden), but in April the bite still isn’t right because the water temperature still is low.”
“They’ll be spooky,” he said. “A few reds might blow up on a topwater lure — a Top Dog or Zara Spook — real early in the morning. But if you’re using a trolling motor, even on slow speed, that sound often scares ’em. You’ll see the mud boils on the bottom. They’ll let you get right up to them. They’ll freeze on the bottom, like a covey of quail, then break up. All you’ll see are boils and wakes in the water. They like to sit in 1 to 3 feet of water.”
Things change in late May or early June when red drum become feisty as water temperatures climb further.
“When it gets to 68 degrees, redfish become aggressive,” Patterson said. “They’ll eat just about anything and go for just about any lure or bait, alive or dead, you put in front of ’em.”
Reds may sense the late-summer spawn on the horizon. Similar to largemouth bass, they’ll go into a pre-August feeding frenzy to build up energy.
Although spawning fish are old, adult fish that may live 50 years, year-old “rat reds,” 2-, 3- and 4-year-old upper-slot and over-slot redfish also eat heavily, starting in late May.
The equipment needed for inshore red drum in June is pretty basic. The only specialized item most anglers may not use is braided line, which has a smaller diameter, is nearly unbreakable and has no stretch. Patterson uses braid main line and an Albright knot to marry fluoro leaders to braid (to prevent swivel-nicked line guides).
“I prefer Shimano 2500 or 3000 (spinning) reels on 7-foot Star rods that are medium-light to medium action,” Patterson said. “The braid is 15- to 20-pound test with 3 or 4 feet of fluorocarbon as a leader to tie on lures or hooks.”
He likes to fish with topwater lures.
“I like seeing a redfish blow up on a topwater lure,” he said. “I guess that’s the bass fisherman in me.”
Originally from Burlington, Patterson has always enjoyed bass fishing on larger reservoirs.
“I fished Jordan Lake a lot back in the day, especially in spring when you could get bass to hit topwater lures,” said Patterson, who picks TopDogs, Top Dog Jrs., Zara Spooks and Spook Jrs. to cast early in the morning for reds. Favorite lure colors include black back/gold sides with chartreuse/orange bellies. He also uses Rapala Skitterwalks with gold sides.
“Top Dogs have pretty good hooks, but I often change out factory hooks for No. 2 or No. 4 Gamakatsu or Owner trebles,” he said. “It’s like sight-fishing for bass when they’re bedding, but you have to know red drum are in an area you’re fishing. It’s no good to go into a bay or a creek and start casting and retrieving. You might get lucky and get a hookup, but that’s all it’d be — luck.”
Marsh islands that form shallow bays appeal to red drum because they offer safety. Red drum have little to fear from avian predators, so shallow water keeps them safe — for the most part — from their No. 1 predator, porpoises, which can work on slot-sized reds in a hurry.
“In late May, the big schools break into small groups of 10 to 20 fish,” Patterson said. “I’d rather fish for them than when they’re in huge schools, because you might have a dozen small schools in a marsh cove rather than one big school. If you can’t find the big school, you can fish all day and not get a bite. You have a better chance with scattered fish.”
The marsh bays and creeks behind Bear and Browns inlets cover several square miles of territory.
“In June, you can put the trolling motor down and find school after school in bays,” Patterson said. “Unless somebody’s messing with them, they’ll stay in a particular bay for days, sometimes a week.
“You can go back and find them pretty easy. If they’ve been pressured, they might move to another bay or into a creek, but they’ll be close to where you first found them.”
Patterson uses search baits, including Chatterbaits and spinnerbaits, to cover water when he’s looking for pods of reds.
“Boats with fishing towers on the sterns have a real advantage,” he said.
After the topwater bite ends several hours after daylight, Patterson’s sub-surface lures are mainly scented Gulp Ripple Mullets or Gulp Ripple Shrimp on 1/8- to 3/8-ounce jigheads.
“Actually, any kind of scented soft-plastic saltwater lure will catch reds in late May and June,” he said. “They just have to look like shrimp or mullets and have scent in their bodies. Sometimes I put scent on my lures; it helps.”
When he takes novice anglers on guide trips, Patterson often switches to Carolina rigs with 2-foot leaders of 25-pound test. He’ll use live finger mullet hooked through the nose or mullet fillets on small circle hooks.
“I don’t use popping corks in April or early May because I think the noise spooks fish,” he said. “But when the temperature gets to 68 and reds get aggressive, I sometimes put a soft-plastic lure on a 4-foot leader behind a popping cork. Or I’ll put a finger mullet or bait chunk on a hook with a popping cork above it.”
In March and April, plastic jigs bounced off the bottom can get “slimed” by decaying algae — and reds won’t bite them.
“By June, that stuff will be gone, so you can hop a jig along the bottom without getting it covered,” Patterson said. “Oyster beds also are good places. Reds like to eat the small black mole crabs that live in oyster beds.”
As with most coastal locations, fishing inside is best near Swansboro during falling-water periods that begin after high tides turn.
“You have to watch carefully,” Patterson said. “You can get on a hot bite and not notice the water’s falling out and get stranded in a creek or bay, and you’ll have to sit there six hours or more before the tide rises.”
The White Oak River’s delta near Hammocks Beach State Park and islands, marshes and creeks behind Bogue, Bear and Browns inlets contain such places.
“The falling tides pull baitfish out of the flooded marsh grass,” he said. “Reds go into that grass during high tides, so when it falls out, good places to cast lures or baits are just off the marsh edges.”
HOW TO GET THERE — US 70, I-40 and NC 24 lead anglers east from most areas in North Carolina to the Cape Carteret/Swansboro area. Popular public boat ramps include Cedar Point at NC 24 on the ICW, Emerald Isle off NC 58 and Willis Boat Landing on Saltwater Lane in Hubert. Dudley’s Marina at the Swansboro Causeway and Casper’s on Water Street in Swansboro are private ramps.
WHEN TO GO — Red drum are in North Carolina waters year- round, but the best inshore fishing begins in late May and continues through fall.
BEST TECHNIQUES — Topwater fishing for reds can be good in June using Top Dogs and Top Pups early in the morning. Go with scented soft plastics the rest of the day; Gulp ripple mullets and ripple shrimp are good choices. Reds will also hit live shrimp, finger mullet and menhaden. Popping-cork rigs are very productive. Preferred tackle includes light- to medium-action 7- to 7½-foot spinning rods fitted with 2500 to 3000 class reels spooled with 15- to 20-pound braid, with a 3- to 4-food fluorocarbon or monofilament leaders.
FISHING INFO/GUIDES — Rick Patterson, Cape Crusader Charters, 252-342-1513, www.capecrusadercharters.com; Robbie Hall, Hall-Em-In-Charters, 910-330-6999; Dale Collins, Fish or Die Charters, 252-422-4326; Jeff Cronk, Mike Taylor, Fishing4Life Charters, 910-325-8194, 336-558-5697. See also Guides and Charters in Classifieds.
ACCOMMODATIONS — Crystal Coast Visitors Bureau, 252-726-8148, www.crystalcoastnc.org.
MAPS — Capt. Segull’s Nautical Charts, 888-473-4855, www.captainsegullcharts.com; Sealake Fishing Guides, 800-411-0185, www.thegoodspots.com; Grease Chart, 800-326-3567, www.greasechart.com, GMCO’s Chartbook of North Carolina, 888-420-6277, www.gmcomaps.com.