While winter bears down on North Carolina, the Albemarle and Pamlico sounds play host to a combination of fins and feathers that’s sure to light a fire under any sportsman. Taking advantage of the coincidence are two guides looking to sample the best duck hunting and striper fishing available during frostbitten January.
“Here they come, right behind us,” said Kent Vaughan of Tailfeathers Guide Service in regard to the low-flying fowl headed at breakneck speed across the Pamlico Sound. Amidst a flurry of calls and whistles from he and guide Ashley Grandy, Vaughn commanded, “Shoot’em! Shoot’em!”
After shots ring out and ducks fall to the water, the next sound is the splash of Vaughan’s retriever, Tide, hard at work bringing home the spoils.
Due to the likelihood of ducks moving at first light, most cast-and-blasts outings like the ones Vaughan and Grandy offer their clients will begin with hunters heading to productive areas where birds have been seen.
“What it boils down to is hunting every day possible and networking with other guides to stay on top of the ducks,” said Vaughan (252-339-6694). “But their patterns change so fast, if we sit for 30 minutes and don’t see anything, we’ll pack up our scissor-rig blind and ride until we see something.”
Vaughan’s tendency is to pick up birds trading from where they’re roosting at night to where they will feed.
“Ocracoke, Pea Island and Pamlico Point all hold a lot of ducks,” said Vaughn, who also hunts the Albemarle Sound from Batchelor Bay to the mouth of the Alligator River when he’s hunting on the northern end of his territory. “Most of these are going to Lake Mattamuskeet or the private impoundments that surround it to feed during the day.”
While January contains the last segment of North Carolina’s duck season, it will also give witness to the largest showing of ducks. However, these heavily pressured birds have seen their fair share of flying steel shot. While trading between their roosting and feeding areas, wary ducks attempt to avoid detection by traversing the sounds, sometimes “day roosting” in the open water to gain a quick respite from barking shotguns on the shoreline.
Vaughan’s ability to push out into the sound where the ducks are or retreat inshore when the wind is howling makes a scissor-rig the perfect set up on the sprawling sounds of the inner banks region, where shifting migration patterns and stiff winds make flexibility a non negotiable.
“Wind is the biggest factor in where I set up. We try to stay in the lee, but still in the flight path,” said Vaughan, who said ducks will fly the same basic patterns until the wind changes direction.
“When you’re hunting a scissor-rig, it doesn’t matter so much how you place your decoys; just make sure they’re on all sides of the boat,” Vaughan said. “You’re hunting in something that looks unnatural to them: a big pine bush in the middle of the water. You want them to focus on the decoys no matter where they are when circling the blind. We may only use 50 to 75 decoys, but we use the biggest ones we can find.”
According to Vaughan, the best occurs during unstable weather and low barometric pressure; snow days can be epic.
“The ducks get nervous; they’re afraid they won’t be able to feed, so they fly back and forth between roosting areas and feeding areas, making sure their food is secure,” said Vaughn, who expects his hunters to take home a nice, mixed bag of ducks on a good hunt. “We’re mainly shooting teal, pintail and widgeon, sometimes bluebill.”
Most of the ducks his parties kill are dabbling or puddle ducks, but he does encounter more diving ducks that feed in the open water in January.
Due to the difficulty in fishing out of a boat outfitted with a scissor-rig and the strain of one captain keeping up with duck and fish patterns, cast-and-blast trips are often continued with a second guide, who is either met at a rendezvous point on the water, at the dock, or a short drive to another launching point.
“I feel confident that I can put clients on fish wherever the ducks are,” said Mitchell Blake of Fish IBX Charters. “It’s almost impossible for one person to run a productive cast-and-blast charter, but I’ve got ties to some of the best waterfowl guides available.”
“Kent Vaughan and I started talking about this as a way to give clients an option if they shoot their limit early in the day or if they want to stretch it out to a two-day event,” said Blake (252-495-1803), who has chartered many duck hunts himself. “By working together, we can offer a much-better experience than one captain alone.”
When he’s fishing, Blake is mostly looking for packs of striped bass that overwinter in the western Pamlico and Albemarle sounds.
“We’re going to be targeting migratory stripers. They don’t behave the same as resident fish and will need to be approached differently,” said Blake, who said the stripers won’t be relating to structure, but following depth contours.
“The Albemarle Sound is the most well-known staging area for striped bass before they begin the spawning run in the Roanoke River,” Blake said. “But there are studies showing that some stripers spawn in the Neuse and Pamlico rivers, also.”
Those fish stage in the Pamlico Sound and Neuse and Tar Rivers, running about the same pattern and timeline.
Blake, a native of Jamesville who lives in Chocowinity, has grown up on this fishery.
“I’ve been fishing this system for so long that I know the migration routes. Fish will get locked into a depth, and they will follow that depth contour,” Blake said. “There may not be any structure or a sharp drop, but once you determine at what depth those fish are running, you can really hammer them.”
Blake said stripers are moving in from Virginia, the ocean, and all over the sounds to stage until the spawning run begins in March. He plans to intercept many of them in the the western portion of the Albemarle Sound, targeting waters from Bachelor and Swan bays to the Albemarle Sound Bridge and into the Chowan River if necessary.
Blake’s wandering quarry is uncovered by a keen eye peeled on his marine electronics.
“I’m using my electronics a lot, looking for the fish and bait,” he said. “My starting point is where I caught fish at the day before, and then I go from there. If they’ve moved, I ask myself what has changed. Has the water warmed up? Has it cooled down? Has the bait moved? These factors play the foremost role in the location and depth of the fish, which usually range from 6 to 12 feet.
Once in the crosshairs, Blake backs off to within casting distance and fires in his bait of choice.
“I love soft plastics and use the Yee-Haw swimbaits a lot now; it just hands-down catches bigger fish. My jigheads will vary in size depending on the depth of the fish, ranging from a 1/8- ounce to a ½-once,” said Blake, who also fishes soft plastics on an Alabama rig. “I prefer natural colors, but I will also throw a wild card color in there like chartreuse.”
Although many fishermen are hunkered down and waiting for spring, Blake said that’s unnecessary.
“I feel like a lot of people just don’t know about this fishery; it’s possible to have 100-fish, half-day charters in January,” he said.
Whether your preference is to cast or blast, January is a fine time to do both. In fact, you will be hard pressed to find a better date on your calendar to take part in two premier sporting activities in the same area.
HOW TO GET THERE — The western Albemarle Sound is most-easily accessed via the Roanoke River at Plymouth at a public ramp on NC 45. Plymouth is on US 64, about 130 miles east of Raleigh. US 17 crosses US 64 in Williamston and offers the best north-south access. Engelhard is the best starting spot for the Pamlico Sound. Take NC 93 south from Columbia to Fairfield and on to US 264, where public ramps abound.
WHEN TO GO — The last leg of duck season runs from Dec. 13 to Jan. 24. Climate will dictate the waterfowl migration along the Atlantic Flyway; numbers are best as cold weather pushes more ducks into the area. Striped bass will begin staging in the western portion of the sounds as early as December, but the best action is in January. Typically stripers will start pushing into the rivers by February.
TECHNIQUES/WEAPONS/TACKLE — Find a travel corridor ducks are using between roosting and feeding areas and arrange a mixed spread of decoys around your blind. Steel or non-toxic shot is best delivered in 3-inch, 12-gauge loads of BB, No. 1 or No. 2 shot. The heavier shot shoots straighter when the wind is howling. For striped bass in the sounds, target migration routes in January. Both sounds have contour lines that twist and turn from the big waters to the tributary rivers, and fish follow them at a certain depth. Locate stripers on a depth finder, note the depth and follow that contour line, fishing soft-plastic swimbaits on jigheads or an Alabama rig. Medium to medium-heavy spinning tackle spooled with 20-pound braid will get the job done.
GUIDES/INFO — Capt. Kent Vaughan, Tailfeathers Guide Service, 252-339-6694, www.nctailfeathers.com; Capt. Mitchell Blake, Fish IBX Charters, 252-495-1803, www.fishibx.com. See also Guides and Charters in Classifieds.
ACCOMMODATIONS — Holiday Inn Express, Plymouth, 800-315-2605; Hotel Englehard, Englehard, 252-925-2001.
MAPS — Sealake, 800-411-0185, www.thegoodspots.com; Captain Segull’s Nautical Sportfishing Charts, 252-288-5918, www.captainsegullcharts.com; GMCO’s Chartbook of North Carolina, 888-420-6277, www.gmcomaps.com.