Late last January, the North Carolina coast was in the throes of the coldest winter of the decade. Quick temperature drops had already triggered trout kills, and the water temperature in the Cape Fear River had plunged into the high 30s.

That didn't stop Capt. Jeff Wolfe from being confident when he greeted a party of fishermen at the Southport Yacht Basin.

"It was a little colder crossing the river than I thought, but these fish have been biting even in this cold, and I expect we'll warm up pretty quickly once we get there," he said. "I did some exploring last week, and this cold spell has them huddled up. Once we find them, we should find a lot of them. "

Wolfe, a commercial fisherman for many years before opening his Seahawk Inshore Fishing Charters guide service, knows all of the nooks and crannies in the creeks and bays behind Bald Head Island and had found several places where schools of red drum and a few speckled trout were holding in water that was a few degrees warmer than in other areas.

After a trip from Southport to Bald Head in an open flats skiff that was "a bit airish" - to use a term popular among older area watermen - Wolfe scooted behind Battery Island, then skirted Striking and Shellbed islands before ducking into a creek that wound its way into the island.

He zipped past many creek mouths he said would be excellent places to fish during warmer months, heading for the upper reaches of a small creek the water wouldn't completely leave during an exchange of the tide. There, the water would warm a little every day as the sun shone on the shallow water and dark mud bottom, much of which was exposed at low tide.

"I believe we'll go in silent mode from here in," he said as he cut the engine and began to glide in.

After deftly maneuvering the boat around a couple of turns and into a slightly deeper pool between two oyster bars, Wolfe pushed it to the side of the creek, pulled out a spinning outfit with a 4-inch Saltwater Assassin paddletail grub in motor oil/chartreuse tail.

"This is what they were biting the last time I was in here. One of you can throw this, and the other can throw the shrimp shape on this other rod," he said. "As soon as we see what they like today, we'll switch the second rod to that and have some fun."

Wolfe pointed out a target, reminded the anglers that the fish would be cold and moving slowly, and to work the baits slowly, then picked up a rod and joined in the fun. On his fourth cast, he leaned back and jerked the rod to set the hook. The reaction from the other end of the braided line was immediate, and a boil rolled on the surface as the fish surged away. Wolfe's rod bent deeply and his reel whined as it grudgingly surrendered line.

The fish surged across the small creek a couple of times and then darted out into the pool beside the boat. To everyone's amazement, Wolfe reached for the net even though the sizeable redfish had only been struggling about a minute. Sure enough, after bursting out into the larger pool, the fish's energy seemed to wane, and Wolfe easily led it to the net. Scooping it up, he set it lightly onto the deck of the boat to remove the hook.

"When the water is this cold, they don't have quite the endurance and energy they do in warm water," Wolfe said as he removed the hook from an upper-slot sized puppy drum. "They will usually feed whenever the opportunity presents itself, but they won't chase down anything that is moving very fast. These fish are cold and moving real slow. I believe if y'all slow down your retrieves to just a creep, you'll start hooking up."

After one of his fishermen battled a solid, upper-slot redfish to the boat, Wolfe switched out the artificial shrimp at the end of the other angler's rod for the paddletail grubs, figuring those baits' vibrating tails might make a difference. Amazingly enough, that fishermen was rewarded with a solid strike and his first fish on his first cast with the new bait.

After a while, the bite slowed, and Wolfe decided to try some other areas, eventually cranking up and heading for Buzzard's Bay.

"Buzzard Bay is a unique place," Wolfe said. "It is extremely shallow, and many fishermen do not go there for concerns of running aground. However, it is a lot of open water, with a black bottom and some outcroppings of oyster rocks, and the red drum and flounder love it. As we move into the bay, I'll be looking for any sign of fish milling or moving."

Before he could get another word out, wakes erupted in the water around the boat as a small school of redfish spooked.

"Wow, this water must be even colder than I thought," Wolfe said. "Those fish were cold and laying right on the bottom. In this muddy water, I couldn't see them sitting still. and they weren't going to move until we were in them. If they are that cold, they might not bite. We'll see soon. They only went right up there about halfway to that big oyster rock straight off the bow."

Approaching cautiously, Wolfe instructed the fishermen where to cast. On the second cast, one was rewarded with a solid thump and a deeply bent rod. The fish ran to its right and startled the school, with spooked fish darting in every direction through the shallow water. Just like the other reds, this fish quickly tired and allowed itself to be led to the waiting net.

With the tide rising, the school never reassembled and the fishermen picked a few random fish as Wolfe poled around the bay, but the big excitement was over and the sun was sliding downward in the sky.

The wind had fallen out, and the river crossing was like a lake. Along the way, someone pointed out a sliver of the winter moon starting to rise. Somewhere, someone was looking at the same moon and sipping a vintage red, but the fishermen agreed that tasting some wintertime Bald Head reds had made for a vintage
afternoon.