Roanoke River full of striped bass in the springtime
Photo courtesy of the N.C. Wildlife Resources Commission
Kevin Dockendorf, fisheries
biologist with the Wildlife Resources
Commission, holds up a 28-pound striped
bass collected during a sampling trip on
the Roanoke River. These fish move
upriver in spring to spawn.
When fishing's good on the Roanoke River, it doesn't get much better anywhere.
Guide Bobby Phillips has seen days when he believes he could have tied a shoe on his line and the stripers would have hit it.
"I've seen people throw their rod down in the boat and say they were tired of catching fish," Phillips said of the river's big bite. It can spoil a fisherman. "After you've been on the Roanoke, you'll always expect more."
Part of the N.C. Wildlife Resources Commission's efforts to protect the Roanoke's striped bass fishery includes the establishment of a hook-and-line season, which begins Monday and runs through April 30.
The Commission also requires use of a single, barbless hook in inland waters of the Roanoke upstream of the U.S. 258 bridge. You can either buy barbless hooks, or use pliers to straighten the barbs on hooks you already own.
Phillips targets a three-week window beginning in late March as the best time for fishing on the Roanoke.
Stripers usually move into the lower part of the river, near the N.C. 45 bridge, halfway through March. As the anadromous fish, who spend parts of their lives in saltwater and freshwater, move upriver to spawn, their size and numbers grow.
The Plymouth area of the river will be busy with anglers targeting the move in a couple of weeks. The lower Cashie and Middle rivers - also crossed by N.C. 45 - are additional favorites for fishermen.
By the middle of April, stripers, or rockfish, have reached the upper regions of the Roanoke in great numbers. Areas such as Scotland Neck, Halifax, Weldon and Gaston become destinations as fish near the Virginia border.
Phillips, a former Airborne Ranger who spent nine years in Fayetteville, thinks the upcoming striper season won't disappoint.
"We have a lot of water this year, which means we'll have an abundance of fish coming up the river. They usually come up in several schools. I have heard of schools 6 or 8 miles long moving up the river at times," Phillips said.
Bait and tackle
As for bait, some prefer live golden shiner minnows. "They're pretty easy to take care of and keep alive if you're traveling from out of town," Phillips said, adding that if you would rather gear up closer to the river, there are a number of bait and tackle shops nearby.
The most common hooking procedure used for shiners is to run the hook through the lip. Phillips prefers to use a No. 4 hook so that his bait has more movement. It's a small hook and a lot of anglers would rather use a 1/0 or 2/0, but to the guide, bait movement takes priority.
"Your bait tends to have more swimming action if it doesn't have a lot of weight hanging in its face," Phillips said.
When hooking the minnow through the mouth, the point of the hook goes through the lower lip and comes out of an air hole on the top of the fish's head. When done correctly, the hook should stay in place. Stripers eat shiners head first, and lip-hooking increases hook set ratio.
Shiners may also be hooked under the dorsal fin, allowing for more action, but a reduced hook set to hook up ratio. Shiners also get action with an anal fin hook, but, again, hook up success is reduced.
"Put the hook on the end of the line and give yourself 18 to 24 inches of leader with a little shot weight on top of that - whatever you feel comfortable with. There are certain times of the year when you'll need to go down a little deeper and there are times when, as soon as you throw it in the water they'll hit it," Phillips said.
Stripers tend to feed on the bottom during spring. A 1- to 3-ounce egg sinker on a slip-sinker rig may also be effective.
Cut herring is another popular bait. As for artificial baits, Phillips says stripers seem to prefer soft plastics, such as flukes.
"A lot of people take an 8-, 10- or 12-pound test line - it's not a good idea to use any type of Fireline or something that's very strong because you're going to get hung up and you're going to have to snatch it loose," Phillips said. "When you're drifting down river you don't have enough time to back up and pull it loose."
People seem to prefer spinning reels to baitcasters, according to Phillips.
Don't get touchy
The Commission has set a daily creel limit of two stripers per day, with only one larger than 27 inches. While this regulation protects the species, it is nullified when anglers continuously swap out smaller fish that they have already held in a well. Those landed fish have a much smaller chance of survival after being fought, handled and kept.
"If you've already got something - keep it. Don't put it back in the water. That fish that you're putting back in the water's not going to have half the chance of living like the one you just caught," Phillips said.
If you want a trophy, just have your camera charged and ready. Use a lip-gripper scale. Handling wears off the fish's protective coating and can cause sores.
Also, the Commission reports that stress-related mortality in stripers is much higher when water temperature is greater than 70 degrees. So, if you want to catch and release, do it while temps are below 70.
If you can manage to keep them in the water while removing the hook, do it. Use landing nets made of knotless nylon or rubber, and use them only when you absolutely have to. Try not to let the fish thrash around. Put a rag over its eyes to calm it.
Keeping the resource healthy is paramount to folks like Phillips who have come to love the spring run.
"If you teach conservation to younger people, then when they get older it will carry on to the next generation. That's what we've been trying to do here. People are more conservation-minded than ever now," Phillips said.