While the spring spawning run up the Roanoke put the river on the map, the late-winter action downstream may soon surpass the popularity of the April action near Weldon.
Albemarle Sound's finned flock of stripers congregates at the entrance to the river looking for a super-sized meal to satisfy their hearty appetites. Huge schools gang up as they stage, waiting for the weather and calendar to push them upstream, leaving them in a perfect position for fishermen who don't mind the cold.
.Weldon is the stopping point for many river-running striped bass, just downstream from Roanoke Rapids Lake, the first of many dams on the Roanoke River system. This famed spawning run draws anglers from across the eastern seaboard to the skinny section of river. But every one of those fish pass through Roanoke's gateway near the small communities of Edenton and Plymouth. Huge congregations of stripers rendezvous in the lower reaches of the river, crushing all available baitfish before making their way up the river in early spring.
The lower Roanoke is one of the most pristine wilderness areas in the state. The series of swollen river courses bisect ancient swampland, forming islands and shoals ideal for staging striped bass. The Roanoke and its sister watercourses converge along the western Albemarle Sound at Bachelor and Swan Bay, directly across the sound from the Edenton, a town historically known as the Port of Roanoke.
The sound supports a year-round resident striper fishery, with the exception of the few months the fish leave to spawn. Additionally, migratory schools travel through Oregon Inlet and pass through the sound to travel into the interior of the state to spawn. The heavy flows of the Roanoke River and its tributaries invite spawning fish into its waters, however, most will not embark on their spawning mission until early March. They spend the winter months on the lower reaches of these rivers staging for their upcoming journey.
As waters cool significantly in early winter, baitfish and crabs begin to feel the effects and make their move. Capt. Mitchell Blake of FishIBX.com Charters believes diminishing food availability and prespawn staging behavior congregates stripers within the western Albemarle in the winter. He said stripers are scattered across the sound during the summer and early fall but will shift to the western part of the sound when the water gets chilly and food becomes scarce.
"The two chief food sources for stripers in the Albemarle are menhaden and blue crabs. Most menhaden schools will evacuate into the ocean, and blue crabs will bury themselves deep in the mud for the winter. The stripers move to the western part of the sound to find food."
With the spring spawning run on the horizon, stripers must feed regularly. Food becomes very important, even when water temperatures plummet to the upper 30s and lower 40s in January and February. Even though menhaden and crabs will be unavailable, the rivers that pour into the sound - lower Roanoke, Cashie, Eastmost, and Middle - support generous forage resources for over-wintering stripers.
"Our wintering stripers on the lower Roanoke and the western Albemarle feast on raccoon perch (yellow perch), white perch and gizzard shad mostly, but will shift to river herring, alewife, and American and hickory shad when they arrive later in the season," Blake said.
The lower Roanoke and the western edge of the Albemarle Sound will hold huge numbers of stripers in winter, but their location will change frequently. As a cold-tolerant species with a large appetite, stripers have sheer advantage over the perch and shad in the river system. Winter conditions directly impact the water temperature and the comfort zone of these smaller fish. Generally, the forage fishes will resort to deeper areas where warmer temperatures occur. Even though striped bass are cold tolerant, they will seek out similar areas to feed and seek refuge.
Capt. Richard Andrews of Tar-Pam Guide Service specializes in the winter striper fishery on the lower Roanoke and the western part of the sound. He targets striped bass on the margins of the deepest locales in the system for most of the winter season.
"Basically, I am looking for the deeper parts of the channel and into the pools to find warmer water below the thermocline," he said. "These depths can range from 12 to 24 feet in the main channel to 25 to 50 plus feet in the pools."
While some forage fish hold in deep areas, the current and sluggish behavior will carry them downstream. Andrews will fish the upstream end of pools and deep runs in the main-river channel where the depth change occurs.
"Fish (stripers) will congregate below this ledge and wait for baitfish to get washed over the ledge by the current," he said. "I also will fish the ledges on the landward sides of the deep holes. Both of these places will hold fish during cold weather."
Andrews targets fish either close to the bottom or suspended in the lower half of the water column along the channel breaks.
Even though winter stripers prefer deeper waters, some tributaries offer anglers better opportunities than others. Finding striped bass at the mouth of rivers can be predictable to a degree. The lower Roanoke and its sister tributaries will hold stripers throughout the winter, but not always at the same time. Water flow determines which tributary holds the most fish.
"Stripers are flow-oriented fish," said Blake, who said fish will move around as the current flow changes. He'll target certain sections of rivers based on how the prevailing wind affects the current. "Stripers prefer moving water, and the tributary with the swiftest current will be the place I target stripers on that day."
The moon phase and tides will affect river currents to a small degree, but prevailing winds are a bigger factor; anywind from the north, northeast or northwest is preferable.
"These northern winds create a turntable flow around these islands and the river courses, creating a constant back and forth motion," he said.
The northern winds provide the best wind tides and move the most water. A consistent wind will cause wind tides, increasing or decreasing water depths in these rivers. Blake prefers to fish any particular river with rising water, but moving water is what he keys in on the most.
"When the water is flowing, stripers bite, and when the current slacks off, stripers just stop biting," he said.
It takes very little time for stripers to move from the lower Roanoke to the Cashie, Eastmost or Middle to take advantage of changing water conditions.
Andrews also prefers fishing areas with heavy current, but he will key on areas where different water types converge. Beyond the main-river courses, he locates smaller blackwater tributaries entering and dumping water into the main-river channels. The small channels and adjacent swamp overflow produces strong flows that stripers like. He specifically targets the blackwater tributaries and will fish the color change where the incoming blackwater and the brown waters of the bigger river meet.
"The water coming in will be blacker than the water out from the bank in the main river channel," he said. "Forage fishes will be abundant in these places, and the stripers will key in on these areas."
Stripers move around the system following baitfish and changes in river flows, but weather can also be a factor. Periods of unseasonably warm weather will heat up shallow areas, invigorating forage fish and drawing huge schools of stripers out of hiding in deeper areas. The sun will heat up the surface and shift stripers into a feeding frenzy in shallow areas. After a 3- to 4-day warming trend, that's where Blake targets stripers.
"Period of warm weather will push fish into three or four feet of water along shoals and shallow banks," he said.
In addition to shorelines and points on the rivers, stripers will hold along the western margin of the sound. Andrews fishes the woody shorelines, submerged stump fields, points and irregularities between the river mouths, including Bachelor Bay to the north and Swan Bay to the south.
Anglers should use lures that mimic the forage. Blake prefers lures that can be worked slowly and still produce a lot of action.
"When targeting two to three feet of water, I prefer lures that have a wide wobble pattern and dart side to side. I work the lure at a medium pace with frequent pauses. On colder days, fish are in deeper areas, and I use heavy, 1-ounce jigheads and work the lure very slow," he said.
Andrews concentrates on the deeper channels and pools, using jigheads up to a half-ounce, fishing them in the bottom third of the water column and working them slowly.
"I will cast my bait as far as possible, and then bring it back to the boat while giving the rod a short snap. The rockfish will almost always hit it while the bait if falling," said Andrews, who will even utilize a dead-sticking technique when the water temperatures drop into the 30s. "When dead-sticking, I make my cast and just keep the lure within the strike zone and wait for a strike,"
Preferred lures include 4- to 7-inch soft-plastic Fluke and paddletail bodies. While striped bass are not too color selective, Andrews and Blake choose colors with high contrast that will be readily visible to fish. Lures in natural and bright colors that produce low-frequency vibrations will produce strikes. Andrews prefers white and natural hues in clean water, but he will resort to chartreuse, gold and pink bodies and jigheads of contrasting colors in murky waters.
"As a general rule, softer, natural colors work better in clearer water, and brighter, contrasting colors work better in murkier water," he said.
Today, the striped bass is heavily regulated throughout the year and regulations are set by river basin throughout their natural range. The small town of Weldon is home to the first dam along the Roanoke River and is also known as the striped bass spawning grounds. Weldon and the Roanoke River is considered the rockfish capital of the world for the enormous volume of spawning striped bass visiting the rocky waters in spring.
Recreational harvest regulations and gear restrictions continue to promote the sustainability of this spawning population of fish. Once labeled as a disappearing fishery, the Roanoke River striped bass is well known as one of the best places to catch striped bass in the world.
HOW TO GET THERE - Explosive winter striper fishing is centered on the western side of Albemarle Sound and the fivers that feed it: the lower Roanoke, Cashie, Middle and Eastmost. Jamestown, Plymouth and Edenton are prime jumping off spots for fishermen. Four public boat ramps serve the area: Conaby Creek off NC 45/308, Water Street Landing in downtown Plymouth, NC 45/NC 308 at Roanoke River crossing, and the new ramp on the south shore of the Roanoke at Jamesville.
WHEN TO GO - Stripers begin staging in the lower Roanoke River and western Albemarle Sound when the water cools below the 50-degree mark, typically in December. Peak months are January and February. The upstream spawning run win begin in March.
LURES/TECHNIQUES - Baitfish imitations are the usual choice for stripers, and bright or natural colors are preferred, including, white, chartreuse, and pink. Large, soft-plastic Fluke and paddletail styles fished on heavy jigheads are preferred. Capt. Richard Andrews' go-to lure is a Z-Man Zminnow swimbait, but Gulp! jerkshad in 5- and 7-inch sizes and Yum Money Minnow, Shadalicious and Wild Eye swimbaits are productive.
Fly casters should concentrate on dredging flies down deep. Large, colorful flies four to six inches long tied on 1/0 to 4/0 hooks. Deceiver and Clouser minnows n combinations of white, chartreuse, pink, red, green, and silver should be used. Small strips of Flashabou should be added to each fly to add a little extra flash, as well as, the addition of glass rattles will increase strikes.
TACKLE/GEAR - Medium-heavy, 7-foot spinning or baitcasting combos spooled with 20-pound braid are preferred. An 18-inch section of 20-pound fluorocarbon leader is preferred. For fly casters, 350- to 400-grain sinking line fished on 8- to 9-weight rod is recommended. Strong, tapered tippets of 20-pound fluorocarbon, at least six feet long are needed, with 9-foot tippets preferred.
GUIDES/FISHING INFO: Capt. Richard Andrews, Tar-Pam Guide Service, 252-945-9715 or http://www.tarpamguide.com
Capt. Mitchell Blake, FishIBX.com Charters, 252-495-1803 or http://www.fishibx.com/
ACCOMMODATIONS - Visit North Carolina Tourism, http://www.visitnc.com/.
MAPS - GMCO's Chartbook of Nort Carolina, http://www.gmcomaps.com/, 888-420-6277; N.C. Coastal Boating Guide, http://www.ncwildlife.org/Boating_Waterways/documents/NCCoastaBoatingGuideMap.pdf.