“You might want to ride behind the console,” Capt. Mike Pedersen said, turning his 22’ Pathfinder south, “It’ll be warmer back there since it blocks the wind.”
Five minutes into the ride, I realized the value in his words and shuffled from his forward-mounted leaning post to the edge of the rear deck and the lee of the console.
Gary Hurley and I had joined Mike, of No Excuses Charters, for a lower Cape Fear River redfishing trip that coincided with a strong fall cold front, and per usual I was underdressed for the conditions, as I’d been fishing in a t-shirt the day before and hadn’t anticipated the mercury drop.
The morning fog had yet to burn off in Snow’s Cut, as the high bluff banks resisted the early light, but it grew substantially warmer as we entered the river and the sun’s rays took the bite out of the air. Mike was soon pulling back the Pathfinder’s throttle on a sandy flat extending from a creek mouth behind Bald Head Island, but he had to stop short of the mouth itself.
“The tide’s not quite there yet,” Mike explained, extending his Power Pole to hold us off the opening. “Close, though. That’s okay. It gives us a little time to rig up.”
Mike busied himself re-tying leaders on a trio of his hand built Riley Rod spinning outfits, attaching a topwater plug and a pair of weighted, screw-lock soft plastic hooks to the business ends.
Just as he’d said, the water quickly rose, and Mike was able to motor the bay boat over the bar at the creek’s mouth a few minutes later. After easing around a pair of anglers casting popping cork rigs from a johnboat beached on the creek bank, Mike lowered the trolling motor and hung a left, following a slight trough as it turned into a smaller creek.
“We’ll start fishing along this bank,” he explained, the remote-operated trolling motor whirring as he turned us parallel to the shore.
The captain quickly rigged a Gulp Ripple Mullet soft bait on the weedless hook and handed it to me. Gary had grabbed the topwater rod, and I watched the bright pink/orange Skitterwalk arc toward the bank and land with a gentle splash. I sent the Gulp on a similar trajectory as Gary began zig-zagging the plug back toward the boat.
Asked about his beliefs on topwater colors, Mike gave a simple answer. “I don’t think it matters at all to the fish,” he explained. “They’re looking at the plug against the sky, so I doubt they can tell what color it is, but I can see that bright plug really well when I’m working it.”
Both topwater and Gulp made it back to the boat unmolested, and we continued casting while Mike slid us down the bank with the trolling motor, tossing another Ripple Mullet himself. The conversation quickly turned to how much all three of us love fishing the area, with its huge and isolated system of marshes, bays, and creeks that make the ICW look like an interstate highway.
“I really like catching fish,” Gary said, firing another cast off, “but I could spend a day down here and not catch a thing and still have a great time.”
His words had truth, but fortunately these backwaters off the lower river are as productive as they are isolated, as they’d soon prove.
Less than 100 yards from where we’d started working the bank, we came along a small, V-shaped pocket in the marsh grass defining the creek’s bank, and Gary’s plug walked only a few feet after landing before it disappeared in a boil.
I immediately fired another cast off into the cut, hoping the fish wasn’t traveling alone.
Watching Gary’s rod double over and the line sizzle through the water in a bow towards the middle of the creek, my hopes were realized as the Gulp bait met a violent stop.
The rod bent hard towards the water as I set the hook, and my fish took the opposite path, pushing a hard wake back into the shallow pocket. It soon realized it was out of room, and shot hard back towards the boat before running with the current down the creek bank.
Mike, who is a die-hard redfish tournament angler, likes to fish a heavy drag on his rods, and the pressure from the Daiwa spinners took its toll. After the initial runs, the fish turned sideways, protesting their predicament with wallowing surface boils and quick side-to-side bursts that had Gary and I passing rods over each other more than once.
The battles kept heading in our favor, however, and Mike was soon able to net both fish within moments of each other.
The pair of reds in the rubber-mesh net was a beautiful sight, and after a few quick photos, we sent the 22 and 23” fish back to making life tough for the creek’s crabs and finger mullet.
Putting down his Power Pole to prospect the area further, Mike gave us a little insight on redfish feeding habits.
“See how there’s a creek feeding in here up there?” he asked, gesturing to a mouth 10 yards up from where we’d hooked the fish. “I call these little pockets in the bank niches. The reds stage in the ones close to creek mouths when the tide’s coming in, waiting until there’s enough water to work their way up into the creeks.”
A few more casts into the pocket produced another blow-up on Gary’s topwater, but one that failed to connect, and we were soon riding the tide past the creek mouth. We fired a few casts in, but Mike was keen to try the next pocket down and we kept moving.
En route, I landed a small flounder that tried its best to inhale the entire Gulp bait, but fortunately it was hooked in the roof of the mouth and easily released.
“We catch a lot of flounder doing this,” Mike said. “A lot of the time you end up having a pretty good day of flounder fishing throwing Gulp for the reds.”
Gary had picked up a Gulp rod and echoed Mike’s words by putting a flatfish just shy of legal in the boat on his next cast.
Moments later, the captain Power-Poled down as we slid in front of the next “niche.” This one was a larger, roughly rectangular pocket with a pair of oyster bars at each end—it was beautiful looking water.
It didn’t just look beautiful, as Mike was quick to hook a red himself, battling another 23” fish to the boat for a quick photo/release session.
Mike’s fish also fell for a Gulp, but Gary grabbed the topwater, and I got to witness another fish mistake it for a crippled mullet, only to be surprised by hard plastic and a treble hook when Gary raised the Riley Rod.
Mike was soon sliding the net under Gary’s fish, another cookie-cutter 23-incher.
“There have been an absolute ton of those 22-24-inch fish around this year,” he explained after liberating the red’s mistaken meal from its jaw and sliding it back in the water. “These would be absolutely perfect fish in the South Carolina tournaments, since their slot limit goes up to 23-inches, but it’s been harder to find the big upper-slots for NC this year.”
Another Gulp-hungry flounder distracted me from Mike’s words, this one a 16” fish that wasn’t as lucky as the reds we’d caught and was soon in Mike’s livewell awaiting a date with a filet knife.
We continued working our way up the creek with the tide, finding more undersized flounder and a few reds at random along the banks, but also plenty of fish waiting to prove Mike’s “niche” theory in the pockets and cuts in the grass.
I’ve always paid a lot of attention to creekmouths when prospecting for fish in the marshes, so I had to admit that the fish and Mike were teaming up to teach me quite a lesson.
“Reds really tend to conserve their energy,” Mike explained as I marveled at yet another mid-slot fish we pulled from one of the pockets. “They’re going to sit outside the current in the niche above or below a mouth until it’s just right for them to move into it, right in the cuts and out of the fast water.”
The tide also plays a key role in Mike’s redfishing strategy.
“These fish are moving with the tide,” he said, firing up the trolling motor to cover a little more ground, “so we’re doing the same thing. If we go the other way, we’re fighting the tide, and today, the wind, with the trolling motor which makes it that much harder.”
The creek opened up as we got close enough to the beach to hear the surf crashing, and a series of grass clumps and oysters along one side looked particularly inviting. An osprey circling the area seemed to think so, too, although our presence apparently made it decide to fish somewhere else. The seahawk flew back by with a large mullet in its talons a few minutes later, so I didn’t feel too bad for stealing the spot.
Another keeper flounder rewarded one of my first casts to a grass clump, and joined its brethren in the livewell.
Gary, who’d yet to catch a keeper flounder, was quick to hang up the topwater and grab a Gulp after seeing my fish hit the net. Another 22” red beat a flatfish to his bait, but he wasn’t complaining.
A few more reds and one flounder confirmed that the osprey had definitely been a good omen, and rounding another corner, I realized we were out of room, as the creek dead-ended onto the backside of the beach strand.
“Sometimes you get lucky and a whole school of fish will just be milling around back here,” Mike said, positioning the boat across the again-narrow creek. “You can put the boat sideways and pretty much trap them.”
There’s no way I could call us unlucky after the fishing we’d already had that morning, but the big school wasn’t to be found.
“Alright, I’ve got one more area I want to try and then we’ll look for them up in the grass if the tide gets high enough,” Mike said, hoisting the Power Pole and firing up his outboard.
The day had warmed substantially, and Gary and I were able to enjoy the ride on the leaning post Mike has mounted in front of the Pathfinder’s console for his passengers’ comfort.
We wound our way back down the creek, turning up another one and making a short run across one of the small bays in the area before pulling up on another bank. As Mike dropped the trolling motor back in the water, Gary verbally echoed a question I was silently asking.
“Mike, how do you decide what to fish and what to pass by?” he queried, grabbing the topwater rod again. “We just passed so much water that all looks good.”
“Honestly, experience,” he replied. “I’ve come through here and worked everything in here, and we’ve been fishing where I’ve had success before. That’s not to say they’re the only productive areas, but they’re where I’ve got confidence.”
We began casting in a shallow bowl feature in the marsh grass, perhaps 100’ wide and semicircular with a long point extending off one side. Isolated clumps of oysters interspersed with free-standing grass looked terribly inviting, and Gary got a blow-up on his topwater quickly, but the fish failed to connect with the plug. As it pushed headwater back into the pocket, we saw several more wakes raise up and the fish go into a slight channel leading back into the grass.
“That’s one of the spots I fish them up in the grass when we have the flood tides,” Mike said, pointing out how the ditch led far up into what appeared to be solid marsh. “I don’t think the water’s high enough today to do it, though.”
One attempt proved that indeed the bay boat would need a few more inches of tide to follow those fish, but we were all satisfied to let them go rooting for fiddler crabs undisturbed. The incredible morning we’d had in the unspoiled watershed off the lower Cape Fear was plenty for the memory bank, and we made the call to head upriver towards home.
Always trying to help people catch more fish, Mike stopped at a few more spots along the way to identify some productive areas for Gary and I to try in our own fishing adventures.
Mike targets a wide variety of inshore and nearshore species as part of No Excuses Charters, but reds are his favorite and make up the majority of his business. The lower Cape Fear red drum action we took part in is solid all year long and can be outstanding in midwinter when cold temperatures force the fish into tight schools and reduce anglers other options; however, the maze of shallow creeks and backwaters make it virtually mandatory for unfamiliar anglers to go with a professional.
To learn more or talk to Mike about a trip, give him a call at (910) 352-2715 or check out www.noexcusescharters.com for more information.