Gary Dubiel hunkered down behind his boat's windshield to avoid a biting facial assault on the Trent River one cold winter's day last year. At daylight, the mercury hovered around 25 degrees at Lawson Creek Park in New Bern.

We were lucky - or perhaps crazier than anyone else - because when Dubiel, a veteran guide from Oriental, guided his truck and trailer back up the ramp, no one else had been there before us.

fog crept across the surface of the Trent, giving the gunpowder-colored water a spooky look. If one of 18th-century explorer John Lawson's boats - with five English soldiers and four Tuscaroras at the oars - had come paddling out of the mist, it wouldn't have been too surprising.

"You need to take up writing chick books," Dubiel said as we cruised, perhaps a half-mile from New Bern.

"Look up there," he said, pointing to a huge white house on a bluff overlooking the river, a building that looked like Tom Sawyer had taken a whitewash brush to a mini-Biltmore House.

"Who lives there?" I asked.

"You heard of Nicholas Sparks, the guy who writes stories for women?" Dubiel said.

"Oh," I said.

That the multi-room mansion of a multi-millionaire novelist would sit on the banks of a minor North Carolina river was a perfect metaphor for the Trent and this story - anglers are liable to catch something big from this nondescript coastal stream.

"You really can catch a bunch of different fish here," said Dubiel, who operates Spec Fever Guide Service (252-249-1520).

First, of course, are striped bass. They mostly are native stock that remain in the Pamlico Sound, the Neuse and Trent rivers all year. Stripers swim up the Neuse and Trent each spring to spawn, but for some reason, many stay in the rivers year-round and never retreat to the sound or ocean.

Second, count on finding red drum in the Trent, although most of the "old" drum prefer the big waters of the lower Neuse and Pamlico Sound most of the year. The Trent has plenty of smaller reds, usually of the "puppy drum" size - in the 18- to 27-inch slot limit or smaller.

In addition, winter fishermen may land spotted sea trout, yellow or "raccoon" perch, white perch and gar from the dark waters of the Trent.

"The odd thing is, all those fish will hit the same lures," Dubiel said.

Probably the best winter period for fishing is during December, when the water temperature isn't so low that their metabolism slow to a halt. Mild temperatures are easier on anglers, too.

"The best conditions for striped bass occur during December when the water temperature on the surface is around 50 degrees," Dubiel said. "I've also caught specks, reds, flounder and raccoon (yellow) perch during December in those conditions."

Dubiel has an uncomplicated tackle approach. He prefers 7-foot TFO Signature Series topwater rods. He marries them to either Penn and Pflueger reels spooled with Berkley 14-pound-test braided line and 2½ feet of 20-pound fluorocarbon leader.

He likes a handful of lures: 2-inch DOA paddletails or Gulp! minnows to match the color of local baitfish - mostly small menhaden - or a chrome Rat-L-Trap in chrome. He sometimes throws Top Dogs, She Dogs and Zara Spooks.

He keeps several rods with different lures tied on so he can make a change at an instant's notice.

"Stripers will hit hard baits, and the bite won't be temperature-dependent in this river," he said. "Sub-surface stick baits will work, too, when it's a little higher than (50 degrees), like when we have a warm front come through for a couple days and the water temperature rises," Dubiel said.

In extremely cold water, 44 degrees or less, when fish aren't aggressive at all, he recommends casting and retrieving Rattlin' Rogue crankbaits.

"The best way to work a lure is to vary your retrieve, keep you rod tip from level to about 2 o'clock and make three or four quick reel cranks, then let it sit, like you were fishing for specks," Dubiel said.

Best weather conditions also include "an east wind that's steady to stable, clear water, and water that's not falling," he said. "But when we have a change in the weather, such as a west wind after a rain and the water muddies up, that sets things up for a tough bite."

ubiel acknowledged when the water temperature is low along with the air temperature, the best bite may be last only for 1 to 1½ hours.

"Some days, I'll have a 5-hour trip but only have a 1-hour window in the middle of the afternoon to catch fish," he said. "I'll start about 2:30 p.m. to see if the (bite) has started. It'll usually be associated with a 2- to 3-degree rise in temperature - if the sun's been out all day."

He said Rat-L-Traps typically works best on such days.

The best places to fish when it's teeth-rattlin' cold are similar to summer fishing spots.

"You gotta be on the ledges," Dubiel said, referring to the edges of the river channel.

"That's where the stripers are when it's cold weather," he said. "You find a drop-off in the channel that's 10 to 14 feet deep, then throw up at the edges in six feet of water where the flats start. That's where they hang out, because that's where the baitfish will be."

Striped bass hit lures with a notoriously light bite during winter, especially soft plastics. A rockfish bite will resemble a slight "tick" of the line, similar to a bream nibbling at a piece of live red wiggler.

Then again, a speck, red, perch or big ol' nasty gar might jump a bait.

 

Trent can be tricky when winds blow

The Trent River joins the Neuse River at New Bern's Union Point Park and flows from southwest to northeast, as tides and winds dictate.

When the water level is moderate to high, the river is navigable about eight miles upstream to Pollocksville. The channel, at its deepest only 11 feet, follows the course that the current scoured out of the sandy Carolina loam eons ago, "The things you've got to watch out for are wind and tide changes," Gary Dubiel said.

Sometimes a west-to-southwest wind of 25 mph or more, paired with a falling tide, can drop water levels dramatically, so much an incoming fishing boat or pleasure craft can't reach the end of Lawson Creek public boat ramp.

"The problem with the Trent is it's so wide and pretty shallow, and the channel goes all over the place, from one side of the river to the other," said Bob Bartram, a New Bern realtor. "It doesn't happen often, but with the right conditions it can uncover the end of the ramp (at Union Park). And I've got caught on the sand bars out there, too."

Conversely an east wind will raise the river's level.

 

A fish, my kingdom for a fish

During the early 1700s, settlers discovered the Trent River, a place the Tuscarora Indians had named "Chattoka" - "the place where the fish are taken out".

The name remains appropriate some 400 years later. The river supplies an almost endless variety of saltwater and brackish water fish.

Too bad Col. John Lawson, the region's first English explorer, didn't have the equipment to catch enough fish to save his life. In Dec. 1700, he ended a 600-mile walking journey of exploration in the New Bern area after starting in Charleston, S.C.

He settled near the Pamlico River and earned a living as a land surveyor. In 1705, the Lords Proprietor of Carolina appointed him deputy surveyor. In 1708, he became surveyor-general. Lawson also played a major role in the founding of Bath, North Carolina's oldest town.

He published an account of his adventures in 1709 - A New Voyage to Carolina - and returned to London to oversee its publication. While there, he organized a group of Palatine Germans to return to North Carolina and found the town of New Bern in 1710.

Unfortunately, the Tuscaroras captured Lawson in 1711 near the Trent River, tortured and killed him. His death, at age 37, ignited the bloody Tuscarora War, which wiped out that tribe.

Too bad Lawson didn't have some Rat-L-Traps or Fin-S soft-plastic lures to trade.

 

DESTINATION INFORMATION

HOW TO GET THERE/WHEN TO GO - Follow US 70 east from anywhere in central North Carolina to New Bern. The Trent and Neuse rivers converge there. From the north or south, use US 17 to reach New Bern. The peak fishing times are November through January.

TACKLE/TECHNIQUES - Use medium-action 7-foot rods fitted with 10- to 15-pound monofilament and two feet of fluorocarbon leader; baitcasting and spinning tackle are equally effective. Rat-L-Trips, Speed Shad, Sonics or other sub-surface lures or  jigheads fitted with 2-inch Gulp! or DOA soft-plastic minnow imitators are all productive. Fish ledges in 10 to 15 feet of water and cast to channel breaks, working baits down the dropoffs.

GUIDES - Gary Dubiel, Spec Fever Guide Service, www.specfever.com, 252-249-1520; Mark Hoff, Sweetwater Charters, 252-249-2811;  George Beckwith, Down East Guide Service, 252-671-3474, www.pamlicoguide.com; Sportsman's Toy Store, New Bern, 252-638-5600, www.sportsmanstoystore.com; Custom Marine Fabricators, New Bern, 252-638-5422. See also GUIDES & CHARTERS in Classifieds. 

ACCOMMODATIONS - New Bern Chamber of Commerce, 252-637-3111, www.newbernchamber.com.

MAPS - GMCO's Chartbook of North Carolina, 888-420-6277; www.gmcomaps.com.