Most North Carolina anglers know about the striped bass migration in the Roanoke River. The “rockfish run” draws thousands of fishermen each March, April and May. These “linesiders” spawn each spring, moving out of the Pamlico Sound and Atlantic Ocean, traveling 130 miles up the river to the Weldon area. But most people don’t know winter also offers one of the best times to find stripers in the state’s inland coastal streams and other eastern rivers. Striped bass also live in the Pamlico River and Pamlico Sound. They spawn in the river’s upper reaches each spring, but after their mating season ends, many remain in the river and feeder streams the rest of the year.
"They’re resident fish," said Richard Andrews, a Washington-based guide who fishes for stripers almost 50 miles from the sound from November through January.
"They never totally leave the river," Andrews said. "You can catch stripers in the Pamlico River just about any month of the year."
What makes winter striper fishing in this river — located between the Roanoke and Neuse rivers — so much fun is that fishing techniques mimic those used for largemouth bass in a large reservoir. Bass anglers call the tactic "target fishing."
"Stripers orient themselves on wood, rocks or cement structures," Andrews said. "That’s where we cast to them in the winter."
Striped bass earned the nickname "rockfish" because they prefer to hang around rocks, possibly because rocks warm up quickly on sunny, winter days and that warmth attracts the baitfish stripers like to eat, while also provides hiding places from predators.
The problem for eastern North Carolina is a lack of actual rocks. The land is mostly sandy or black loam deposited over millions of years by topsoil washing down from upstream. Few rocks are apparent, although cement bridge supports that cross rivers often serve the same purpose. For example, the "old" and "new" U.S. Highway 17 bridges at Washington are favorite striper haunts.
In any case, rockfish apparently seek out substitutes for absent rocks and find them where woody structure is prominent.
At Washington and feeder creeks downstream, that means piers, docks and dilapidated pilings — which makes fishing for stripers almost the same as largemouth bass. Spring bass are often oriented on wood, and fishermen sometimes catch bass in the Pamlico River while fishing for stripers.
Two bass-fishing techniques also work for Pamlico stripers: live/cut bait or artificial lures.
"I really like to cast artificials for stripers, although if I’ve got young anglers or people new to striper fishing on the boat, I’ll use live bait or cut bait — if it’s available," the 33-year-old Andrews said.
But most winter striper lures are artificial, and there are other reasons to use man-made lures. Andrews prefers artificials because he can cover more water than he can with a Carolina-rigged minnow or piece of cut bait.
"If you’re fishing baits, most of the time you have to anchor and cast," he said. "You can’t move a lot."
But during winter, most baitfish have disappeared, so striper fishing is mostly relegated to artificial lures.
"I like to move a lot when I’m fishing," he said. "If stripers are biting at one place, you can cast and retrieve an artificial lure quicker than slowly working a Carolina-rigged live or dead bait off the bottom. That’s not to mention how much farther you can cast artificial lures, so you cover more water — and you’re not so likely to lose an artificial as you are a live bait when you cast it, plus you don’t have to worry about keeping baits alive. Casting is so much quicker (than bait fishing), so it just works out better for me and the type of fishing I like to do."
One of Andrews’ favorite striper spots is the shoreline immediately southeast of the U.S. 17 bridge at Washington. Plenty of visible wooden stick-ups (old dock supports) remain to attract baitfish schools and stripers.
However, that’s not the only local target-rich environment.
After passing through the town of Chocowinity on U.S. 17 headed toward Washington, anglers can turn southeast and travel to the end of the peninsula that ends at Wichard’s Beach. To the south of the four-mile peninsula is Chocowinity Bay, and stripers often chase baitfish at this area. The southeastern edge of the point also is covered by boat docks that hold fish.
Just to the south of Chocowinity Bay lies Blounts Creek, another excellent winter striper stop. The creosote-wooden support bridge at Mouth of the Creek Road about two miles from the Pamlico River holds stripers in winter when other places aren’t producing strikes.
"The best idea here is to take note of the wind direction, then get on the opposite side of the bridge and cast directly at the bridge, but parallel and as close as you can to the supports," Andrews said. "You just have to try and not get hung up in the pilings or let a fish wrap you up in them."
Directly across from Blounts Creek on the Pamlico’s north side, Broad Creek also has good striper fishing along the river shoreline near its mouth. Farther southeast from Blounts Creek are Durham, South and Goose creeks, while across the river are Bath Creek, then North Creek.
The entire stretch of the Pamlico River’s shoreline from the huge sound’s mouth to Washington contains stumps and docks that hold stripers.
Andrews’ favorite winter lures are 3-inch paddletail grubs threaded onto 1/8- or 1/4-ounce leadhead jigs. He particularly prefers white 3-inch Z-Man MinnowZ paddletails.
"I like to put ProCure scent on them, and that (scent) will last 20 to 30 casts," he said. "Z-Man lures are durable and stretch, so they’ll last a long time. Pinfish don’t nibble them to pieces after a few casts like they will some other soft-plastic grubs.
"For stripers on the Pamlico, I like to use 10-pound braided line with a 2-foot length of 15-pound fluorocarbon leader," said Andrews, who uses 7-foot Shimano Clarus rods in medium- to medium-light actions mated to Shimano 3000 Symmetry Series spinning reels.
Last November, Andrews adapted the new Alabama Rig for striper fishing and had success, especially on days when bites were light.
Using an Alabama Rig that featured three paddletails, he caught four stripers within 10 minutes near the Blounts Creek bridge pilings. His largest weighed about 8 pounds, a good size for a Pamlico winter rockfish.
Topwater lures also work well for stripers early in the morning and just before dark.
"If there’s not much wind, and the water’s calm or it’s a cloudy day, I’ll sometimes throw a Chug Bug or a walk-the-dog lure such as a Zara Spook," Andrews said. "But if it’s windy, the Spooks don’t work as well in choppy water."
Tides also affect where Andrews fishes. High tides push stripers closer to the shoreline, while low tides pull them out into toward deeper water.
"We’re so far inland, we don’t get normal (moon) tides," Andrews said. "Instead, we have wind tides. If the wind’s blowing toward the sound, the water level drops and fish will be off the banks on structure and ledges. You have to pay a lot of attention to the wind at Washington. The current will be flowing around those deeper structures when the wind’s blowing from the west."
With a west wind, Andrews jigs his soft-plastic lures, letting them sink before starting retrieves with a bump-and-fall action. The Pamlico near Washington isn’t very deep, and stripers usually orient themselves at drop-offs and ledges in 10- to 15-foot depths.
"But if the wind blows from the east, the water level will rise, and that’s when you find stripers along shoreline stuff, such as stumps and docks," Andrews said.
Wind direction and water levels are especially crucial in the shallower creeks.
"I look at water color and wind direction in the creeks," Andrews said. "They’re the first things I consider. Especially in the creeks, the wind will help you decide whether to throw lures on the banks or back off some."
When he’s fishing deeper water, Andrews likes gold or chartreuse colors for his Z-Man MinnowZ or Finesse Shads.
"There’s a newer MinnowZ called a ‘space guppy’ that’s got a chartreuse back with a gold-fleck belly that works well," he said.
Other colors that imitate baitfish include white, gray/red flakes and redbone (red/red flakes).
But, Andrews said, a key to winter striper fishing is to start simple when considering lure color choices, then change colors or fishing tactics if the bite is slow.
"I like chartreuse in slightly stained water and white in clearer water," he said. "Those are the two basic colors for Z-Man paddletails I use."
Andrews said what determines his choice of colors for artificial-lure striper fishing in the river is to mimic river herring colors.
"River herring used to be thick in this river and a lot of coastal rivers," he said. "That’s not true so much anymore, but stripers still like to eat herring above all other baitfish.... You want to throw lures that, to stripers, look like herring," Andrews said.
Andrews said winter stripers in the Pamlico usually weigh between two and seven pounds.
"You aren’t going to catch any real giants," Andrews said. "Lots of times when you get a hot bite, most of the fish you catch will be around the same size. They’ll run from 18 to 22 inches for the most part, but every once in a while you’ll catch a bigger fish, sometimes up to 30 inches
"During really hot days in winter when the bite’s going good, you catch as many as 40 stripers in one trip. If they’re feeding on top and you find them, you can catch one nearly every cast, and I think topwater fishing when they’re really biting is the most fun you can have. I’d say during an average trip, 10 to 15 stripers is about what you can expect."
HOW TO GET THERE: To reach Washington, take US 64 and US 264 east from Raleigh or US 17 from either the north or the south.
BEST TIMES: November through January are top striper months in the Pamlico River and Pamlico Sound.
EQUIPMENT/TACKLE: Spinning or baitcasting outfits featuring 7-foot medium- or medium-light rods; reels should be spooled with 10- to 15-pound braided line with a 2-foot leader of 15- to 20-pound fluorocarbon.
GUIDES: Richard Andrews, Tar-Pam Guide Service, 252-945-9715, www.tarpamguide.com. See also Guides & Charters in Classifieds.
ACCOMMODATIONS: Washington/Beaufort County Chamber of Commerce, 252-946-9168 or www.wbcchamber.com/lodging.htm.
MAPS: Capt. Segull’s Nautical Charts, 888-473-4855; DeLorme’s North Carolina Atlas & Gazeteer, PO Box 298, Yarmouth, ME 04096, 207-846-7000, www.delorme.com; GMCO’s Chartbook of North Carolina, 1-888-420-6277, www.gmcomaps.com.