"That's a little too far to cast," Jernigan told the members of his fishing party. "Let me ease us a little closer so you can reach them and not spook them by splashing down a few feet short. Y'all get ready and I'll let you know when to cast."
Moving closer in stealth mode, Jernigan finally decided he was as close as he dared get without spooking the drum, which were already acting a little nervous, and he told his fishermen to cast.
A pair of soft-plastic baits landed perfectly along the edge of the school, about 15 feet apart. One of the fishermen, Jeff Saunders, twitched his bait and felt a solid thump resonate up the braided line. He set the hook, his rod bent deeply and his small reel began squealing as it gave up line.
A second fish bit moments later, and redfish began to flee everywhere - including under the boat. Jernigan (910-467-1482) dropped the Power Pole to stabilize the boat and began coaching.
"Don't let that one get all the way to the bank," Jernigan said as one fish turned toward shore. "There is an oyster rock up there, and he might nick the line or leader and break it. Hold your rod tip high to keep the line up in the water and see if you can turn him."
In the cold water, the fish tired pretty quickly and allowed themselves to be led to the boat. With quick dips of the landing net, Jernigan corralled them and lifted them onto the boat.
Both were pretty in their winter, copper color enhanced by the tannic coloration of the water. After admiring the fish for a minute and taking a few pictures, both were slipped back over the side to rejoin their friends in the school.
Even in February, fishermen can expect to have similar experiences in the creeks and marshes off the New River between Sneads Ferry and Jacksonville.
A slow-flowing coastal river, the New's headwaters are near Richlands, and almost all of its 40-mile length is in Onslow County. It is narrow upstream from Jacksonville, then widens into a broad waterway lined with bays. It narrows back down when it reaches the Atlantic Intracoastal Waterway near Jacksonville, and the current increases noticeably before flushing into the ocean through New River Inlet.
Jernigan does much of his fishing in creeks that feed the river. He said there are a handful of creeks between Jacksonville and Sneads Ferry that hold schools red drum during the winter, and he can normally find one or two every day that are active enough to feed and hit lures presented properly.
It takes a shallow-draft boat to get into many of the creeks, especially those that run into Camp Lejeune or the New River Air Station. A single foot of tide is often the difference between getting into the creek without having to get out and push your vessel across the sandbar at the creek mouth.
In addition, there is very little tidal difference in most of the river. The wind pushes more water than the moon pulls, and some days with strong winds may see exaggerated tides. With little tidal variation, there isn't much current to push bait around.
Jernigan, who operates Breadman Ventures Charters, said reds live in the bays and creeks off the New River and ICW year-round, and although fall and early winter are considered prime times, fishing in the winter can be exception, as fish gather in schools in the shallow bays. Locating a school typically provides opportunities to catch multiple fish.
Because fish are moving a little slower during the winter, Jernigan's tackle tends to be a little on the lighter side: medium-light to medium-action spinning or baitcasting outfits are ideal. He spools his reels with 10-pound Power Pro braid and ties in an 18-inch section of fluorocarbon leader. His favorite winter baits are soft-plastic paddletails and Fluke-shaped baits from Texas Tackle Factory, fished on TTF H2O Express jigheads. A 1/8-ounce jighead is usually enough, but he'll go to ¼- when the tidal flow is stronger.
The slower nature of winter puppy drum allows guides like Jernigan to stay on a school after initial contact leads to hookups and spooked fish. Once they settle down, they will often re-gather not far away, and the process and be repeated.
After his anglers' first hookups, Jernigan watched for several minutes before spotting the fish again, about a hundred yards down same bank.
"I'm going to circle behind them with the trolling motor and then let this little breeze push us the final bit into casting range," he said. "They shouldn't be too spooky after just approaching them once, but we don't know how hard they have been pushed in the last few days. I'd rather take a little more time and be safe rather than sorry."
Once in place, Saunders hooked up on his first cast, and the drum ran away from the school without spooking any other fish. Jernigan picked up his rod, lofted a cast to just beyond the fish and slowly crept his lure back to them. He twitched the bait at the edge of the school and got an immediate strike, but his fish ran through the middle of the school, sending red drum scurrying in every direction.
After the two fish had been netted and released, Jernigan figured they had been bothered enough, and that it was probably time to try another area. Plus, the tide was trickling out enough that he needed to get out of the area before it left him high and dry -not particularly fun, even on a warm, February day.
Jernigan next fished a creek off the river, bumping the sandbar slightly before sliding in.
"It's really not all that deep in this creek, but there is enough water to move around," Jernigan said. "I like to give this creek a few hours of sunlight to warm up. It's deeper than that bay we started in, but it has a black, mucky bottom and (it) warms up pretty well once the sun shines on it for a few hours. These pups might not be as large as the ones in that other school, but they don't seem to spook easily here, and they should be hungry and ready to bite."
Saunders' fishing buddy, Levi Cunningham, caught small reds on his first two casts.
"Sometimes it gets like that in here," Jernigan said. "The bite here can get unreal at times. Most of the fish in here are right there at the short/barely keeper length, but occasionally some big ones come in here that almost seem too big for here."
The bite lasted two hours, with Jernigan moving up and down the creek and the puppy drum acting as if they hadn't eaten in weeks. He wanted to try another creek but mentioned that at a young age, his father had impressed on him that it wasn't wise to leave fish that were biting to find more fish, so as long as the fish were biting in the creek, they were going to stay there.
HOW TO GET THERE: Sneads Ferry may seem a little out-of-the-way to some folks, but the bottom line is, it can be accessed from US 17 via NC 210 or NC 172. The N.C. Wildlife Resources Commission has recently renovated its boating-access area at Fulcher's Landing on SR 1557 off NC 172 in Sneads Ferry near the back entrance to Camp Lejeune. Another public ramp is at the NC 210 bridge across the ICW onto North Topsail Beach. Fee ramps in Sneads Ferry include New River Marina, Swan Point Marina and Sea Haven Marina and RV.
TACKLE/TECHNIQUE: Capt. Allen Jernigan likes medium-light to medium action tackle, 10-pound braid with a heavier fluorocarbon leader for winter reds, which are less active and easier to control. He fishes mostly Texas Tackle Factory soft plastics on jigsheads, preferring paddletail or Fluke-type shapes, but he'll go with scented Gulp! Pogies.
ACCOMODATIONS: Onslow County Tourism, Jacksonville, 800-932-2144 or www.onslowcountytourism.com.
FISHING INFO/GUIDES: Capt. Allen Jernigan, Breadman Ventures Charters, 910-467-1482 or www.breadmanventures.com; East Coast Sports, 910-328-1887 or www.eastcoastsports.com; New River Marina, 910-327-2106. Also, see Guides & Charters in the Classifieds section of this magazine.
MAPS/CHARTS: Capt. Segull's Nautical Charts, 888-473-4855, www.captainsegullcharts.com; Sealake Fishing Guides, 800-411-0185, www.thegoodspots.com; GMCO's Chartbook of North Carolina, 888-420-6277, www.gmcomaps.com.