Thankfully there hasn't been a hard freeze or stretch of prolonged extremely cold weather along the coast, but we have seen just about everything else except snow during January and February. Wind and rain have been all too abundant and the temperatures have dipped below freezing several times, but they haven't been cold enough or lasted long enough to cause a fish kill. That's good news. More good news is we've just enjoyed a week of warm sunny weather and the water temperature has risen a little with the air temperature. This should continue as we have made it into March.
I'm looking forward to winter ending as we move into March. Even if we have another run of cooler weather, March is when we begin shaking off winter and moving into spring. The first official sign of spring comes on March 14, when Daylight Savings Time begins. There really isn't more daylight; we just shift our clocks to move an hour of daylight from morning to afternoon. I don't know about everyone else, but this works for me. I can make much better use of that hour of daylight in the afternoon - It just might make the afternoon long enough to get in a fishing trip after work.
Spring also officially arrives during March. The Vernal Equinox will be at 5:37 A.M. on Saturday, March 20. There will be 12 hours of daylight on this day with the amount of daylight continuing to increase until June 21. I look forward to those days with more daylight arriving. The combination of more daylight and Daylight Savings Time gives us more time in the afternoon to enjoy a variety of things.
The combination of wind and rain during February has severely limited fishing opportunities. Strong winds are never good and rain is aggravating in a couple of ways. The most obvious is it makes you wet and uncomfortable. Add in cold wind and uncomfortable can become life threatening. Don't push your limits. Rain also tends to drop the water temperature. It's falling from a cold sky and chills whatever it wets. Fishermen don't function the best when cold and wet and fish aren't typically active and feeding when cold either.
A check of the Coastal Ocean Research and Monitoring Program (CORMP, www.cormp.org) reporting stations in late February showed the inshore and nearshore ocean water temps had dipped into the upper 40's. They've risen 4-6 degrees now and should continue a slow climb.
The third thing the excessive rain does is raise the river levels into the flood plain where it picks up effluent and dirties the water downstream. This is worse in the Cape Fear River system as it is larger, travels farther and is fed by more rivers and large creeks. The Cape Fear was so high in late February that the dam and Rock Arch Fish Ladder at Cape Fear Lock and Dam Number 1 were totally covered and not visible. The Lockwood Folly River doesn't reach beyond Brunswick County, so it doesn't pick up as much effluent and cleans up much quicker.
The weather should continue to warm and that should also warm the water. This should stabilize the weather and reduce the days with strong winds and downpours and fishing should begin improving. Let's keep our fingers crossed.
Unfortunately, the most prominent thing over the past month has been weather that wasn't conducive to spending a lot of time on the water. There were some nice days, but many included cold wind, cold rain or both. While these days aren't the most inviting to be out, there are many options in technical clothing that helps keep fishermen, and any other fools wanting to be outside at the time, fairly warm and mostly dry while practicing their piscatorial pursuits. However, there were a few days with nice weather mixed in and we'll concentrate on them.
One winter fishing tip that works almost everywhere is that the farther up a marsh or creek from the stronger currents, the clearer the water will be. The water near the back of most coastal creeks is usually warmer too. Fish are much more likely to be active and feeding in warmer, clearer water. Also remember there is a big difference between water that is off color and dirty. All the rain will give the water a red tint, but if it isn't also muddy, the fish may be there and feeding.
Starting with inshore fishing, the primary targets are speckled trout, red drum and black drum. Fishermen in the Wilmington area can add stripers and a few fishermen have caught whiting in the channels near the Cape Fear River and Lockwood Folly Inlets.
Stripers handle the colder water temperatures better than any of the other fish around during the winter. There is a moratorium on keeping stripers in any of the Cape Fear River system and that covers from its beginning near Raleigh to the coast between Carolina Beach and the South Carolina state line. However there are stripers to be caught if you release them. The prime area for stripers is the Cape Fear River from Snows Cut upriver and they are also in the Brunswick and Northeast Cape Fear Rivers and the creeks off all of them.
Stripers generally prefer vertical structure such as bridge and dock pilings and stumps. They will move into shallower water to feed around creek mouths and along banks, but are often found along drop-offs and channel edges. Large soft plastics typically catch well in the shallower waters, while big lipped diving lures are a good option when the fish are deeper.
Don't be surprised to find red drum or speckled trout mixed with stripers. This usually happens when all are feeding around creek mouths on falling tides. Capt. Stu Caulder and I had a trip where reds mixed with the stripers and it was epic. The fish were biting so hard for several hours we lost count. After a while we realized if a fish ran up or down the bank it was a red and if it headed out to deeper water it was a striper.
In the cold water, many specks, reds and black drum have moved well back in the creeks off the Cape Fear River and Intracoastal Waterway. The Lockwood Folly River isn't usually as cold as the Cape fear, so they may be out in the main body there, but in places where a oyster rock, sand bar or point blocks the current. The water usually warms towards the back of creeks and the fish seek shelter there. So does the bait, so it's a good choice for fishing.
Trout and reds will hit lures fished slowly, but black drum usually hold out for bait. Scented lures or lures with scent added often work better when the water is cold. When fishing the lure slow, it gives more time for the fish to catch its scent and sometimes smelling good is what seals the deal. Like black drum, reds will pick up live baits and pieces of shrimp or mullet pretty well. Trout will hit live baits, but rarely hit cut baits.
They aren't there yet, but in the next few weeks shad should begin to arrive at Cape Fear River Lock and Dam Number 1, near Riegelwood. There is a ramp at the locks and also a fishing pier for those without boats. This is fun light tackle fishing as the shad resemble and often jump and run like miniature tarpon. Shad darts and shad spoons will usually produce strikes and a local favorite is a tandem rig using 2 inch green curltail grubs.
Whiting have been along the edges of the channels leading to the Cape Fear River and Lockwood Folly Inlet for a while. In the Cape Fear, they have been holding in between 12 and 18 feet of water on the slope into the channel. At Lockwood Folly, the water isn't as deep and they have been where the slope begins flattening out as it reaches the channel. There hasn't been a report yet, but there are often some winter whiting in the Southport-Fort Fisher Ferry Channel on the Fort Fisher side. Don't anchor in the channel, but just out of it and cast into it. Small pieces of shrimp or Fishbites synthetic bloodworms should get them to bite.
There is a little action from the piers and in the surf zone. Oak Island Pier is open and Ocean Crest Pier will reopen on March 12. The main catch from the pier and surf has been small whiting and croakers. Several fishermen caught a few blowfish beginning the last week of February and that's a good sign. Most of the catch is small, but a dedicated fisherman might get a mess for dinner if he stays at it for more than a few hours. The bait of choice has been pieces of shrimp.
There had been some sheepshead, tautog and mostly undersize black sea bass caught at the nearshore artificial reefs earlier in the month, but there haven't been any recent reports. There hasn't been a lot of recent fishing activity at these reefs. Metal jigs and pieces of cut bait will catch the black sea bass, while sheepshead and tautog may hold out for small crabs, pieces of crabs or clams. This is a option to fish close to shore and all three of these fish taste excellent.
Black sea bass fishing gets a little better on the rocks about 20 miles off the beach. The action might really not be any more hectic, but there are more keepers in the mix. Just like on the nearshore reefs, they will hit metal jigs and bottom rigs baited with squid and cut bait.
Running to approximately 100 feet of water and deeper opens the offshore bottom catch to beeliners, triggerfish, porgys, grunts and more in addition to the black sea bass. There will also be a few amberjack, African pompano and hog snapper. Shallow water grouper season is closed for spawning, so those gag, red, scamp and other shallow water grouper must be released. Check the regulations at www.ncdmf.net to verify which grouper are included in the spawning closure.
Typically there are schools of smaller king mackerel in the general area of Frying Pan Tower most of the winter, but colder water has pushed them a little farther offshore. This area is influenced by the Gulf Stream and the warmer water may return at any time. You can look for 65 degree water or wait for the warmer water to make its way back to around the tower. Current water temperature readings are available online at www.cormp.org for the NDBC 41013 Buoy, which is near Frying Pan Tower.
These smaller kings are eating machines and are usually feeding. The action can be non-stop once a school is located. The commercial fishermen target these kings trolling 3 1/2 size drone spoons and sea witches sweetened with strips of fish or squid. They will also hit larger swimming plugs, frozen cigar minnows and live baits. Remember the recreational king limit is 4 fish per person per day through March 16 and will decrease to 3 fish per person per day on March 17.
There haven't been many offshore reports in the past month and the weather is the big culprit. The run to the Gulf Stream is long and is tough unless the sea conditions are pretty good. Add rain and cold to rough seas and most folks stay at home. There have been a few reports of mainly wahoo and blackfin tuna.
Gulf Stream fishing should begin gradually improving with the improving weather. Primary catches will be wahoo and blackfin for a while, but occasional schools of other tuna, dolphin and maybe a few billfish will be wandering the temperature breaks and grass lines at the edge of the Gulf Stream.
NOTE: Size and number regulations for all coastal species may be found in the Hot Topic links at the top right of the Division of Marine Fisheries home page at www.ncdmf.net. This page also has links to DMF news releases and fishery proclamations. There are provisions on each of these pages to register to receive e-mail notification of fishery management issues and changes.