A series of muffled explosions and the staccato hiccup of automatic weapons replaced the sound of Capt. Allen Jernigan’s Mercury outboard as he eased the throttle back and we slid into a timber-strewn creek off the New River. For those who haven’t fished the area, the sounds of war may take a little getting used to, but like the fish in this teeming estuary, the captain has been listening to soldiers training at Camp Lejeune his whole life.
Allen, who operates the charter business Breadman Ventures, grew up on the outskirts of the base in Sneads Ferry, and still makes his home and living along the shore of the New River. With word of a hot puppy drum and speckled trout bite taking place in the area, Gary Hurley and I had made the drive up from Wilmington to meet Allen at New River Marina and get in on a little action of our own.
With the outboard now silent, Allen eased by a pair of pelicans occupying a half-submerged log and positioned us just off one of the creek’s stumpy banks. The chorus of ordnance continued, creating a stark contrast to our idyllic setting as Allen handed us each a light spinning rod bearing a 1/8 oz. jighead and an unusual soft plastic bait.
“Cast towards the shoreline but not too close,” he cautioned for obvious reasons as the fallen trees apparent above the surface belied some serious snag potential below. “And work those baits fast—it’s only a foot and a half deep through here.”
The captain picked up a rod rigged with an MR17 MirrOlure sporting a pair of treble hooks that I’d have thought twice about casting if I wanted to see it come back to the boat.
“That doesn’t get snagged up in here?” I asked.
“I work it really fast so it stays off the bottom,” he explained, jerking the lure like a Gotcha plug after a long cast. “Most people work MirrOlures really slowly, but I rip ‘em.”
It was a bit hard to get used to retrieving the soft plastics at spanish mackerel speeds, but I adapted after a few casts, and began to get bumps that felt decidedly more fishy than the logs and moss my first efforts found.
“Was that a tap?” Allen asked after watching me again set the hook to no avail.
I allowed that it was but hadn’t felt substantial, and that it hadn’t been alone.
“Those are trout,” he continued. “We were catching them right here on Monday. I don’t know why, but some days they just bite like that.”
I swung and missed on a few more of the light taps before Gary connected, snapping his rod tip back against something that pulled back.
“Trout?” Allen asked, then re-evaluated. “Probably a puppy drum since he was right there near the bank. The trout tend to be out off the shore a little bit.”
As if bent on confirming his prediction, a spunky puppy drum boiled the surface halfway between boat and bank. Several more brief charges interrupted Gary’s attempt to work it to the boat, but it soon showed up in the shallow water a yard off the Key West’s gunnel.
“Yep, puppy drum,” Allen said after firing the MirrOlure on another long shot down the creek.
“You don’t get the net,” he added with a grin.
While it wasn’t a trophy, the 17” red was a fine icebreaker, and Gary quickly freed his jig from its lip and sent the pup on its way.
He didn’t have to wait long to find one of the fish’s friends, as a near-identical drum found his bait a few cranks into his next cast. Allen again denied Gary the net, and as the Publisher was releasing his second drum, I hooked up as well.
“Well I guess they just don’t want the MirrOlure this morning,” Allen said, swapping the MR17 for another rod rigged with a jighead and the interesting plastic bait.
Looking like some hybrid of a soft shrimp, jerkbait, and paddletail grub, I soon learned this was the Hackberry Hustler, one style out of large line of soft plastics made by Texas Tackle Factory. Allen selected a purple/chartreuse Hustler out of a huge collection of TTF baits and threaded it onto another 1/8 oz. jighead while explaining his affinity for the Gulf Coast lures.
“They’re a lot tougher than most other plastics,” he said, “but they’ve still got great action. If you were using something else, you’d be changing it every couple of fish.”
Indeed, the Hustlers did have a very subtle swimming action that made a remarkably good counterfeit of a fleeing baitfish with the fast retrieve that Allen employs in shallow water.
Additionally, the plastics’ name provided plenty of ammo for boat banter as each fish that hit the boat had now been “Hustled” instead of hooked.
Aside from the Shiney Hiney, a tinsel covered jighead the captain had rigged under a popping cork on another rod, most of the other TTF baits have more everyday names like Trout Killer and Red Killer. According to Allen, however, they’re no less effective at fooling fish in a variety of situations and settings, and the brand is soon to be in more widespread distribution in North Carolina.
We continued to cover ground on the trolling motor, releasing around a dozen reds with several above the 18” slot limit, but Allen decided to check out some fresh real estate after the better part of an hour.
“I know these trout are in here, but they aren’t biting,” he explained. “I think the water’s high enough for us to hit our next spot.”
Allen’s spent his life commercially and recreationally fishing the waters from Swansboro to Wilmington, and he decided to ditch his day job (driving a bread truck, of course) for the charter fishing game several years ago. Consequently, he’s got no shortage of spots to hit in the area, and we were soon cruising through a light chop to a new creek snaking off the other side of the river.
As we approached the estuary’s western bank, Allen eased back on the throttle momentarily.
“The tide’s staying really low today even though it’s high at the inlet right now,” he explained. “You guys hang on in case we bump bottom going in here.”
Gary and I exchanged a grinning glance while securing our grip on the grab rails around the console, and watched the dark water grow lighter until we saw sand bottom on the shy side of a foot under the boat skimming beneath us.
“That’s why I got this 17’ Key West,” Allen explained after we’d made in past the creekmouth incident-free. “A lot of guys in Florida are using them. It’ll run about as shallow as a flats boat, but it rides better and the high gunnels keep you from getting soaked when it’s choppy.”
We eased our way well back into the creek on the electric motor, and Allen sank his Power-Pole to hold us at the beginning of a short straightaway just 18” deep in the center.
“They were stacked up in this shallow water earlier in the week,” he explained. “You could actually pick what you wanted to catch—drum if you cast to the banks, and trout if you threw in the middle.”
We resumed casting the Hustlers, with Allen switching it up to a TTF Trout Killer, but we’d only fished about a quarter-hour when he grew weary of the spot.
“I did see a netter in here Monday,” he said after another strikeless cast. “He may have gotten these fish.”
We probed a few other likely areas in the creek, but found no hungry fish aside from a short flounder that spit Allen’s jig boatside.
“I’m just disgruntled now,” he said, turning the boat back towards the creekmouth. “I was thinking this would be our spot. It’s alright. Let’s go try a bay we saw some trout in while gigging last night.”
Along with his hook-and-line fishing, Allen offers popular nighttime flounder gigging charters that not only put tasty flatfish fillets on his client’s tables, they give him added insight into the movements of trout, drum, and other fish he targets in the daytime.
We passed a large group of Marine and Coast Guard fast response vessels performing some sort of exercise in the New River before Allen brought us back to the ICW at Sneads Ferry and headed south, pulling into a mainland bay a few minutes down the waterway.
“A guy was netting in here too recently,” he reported while plunging the trolling motor back in the water, “but I don’t think he could’ve gotten all the fish. This is a great trout bay not too many people know about.”
Within a half-dozen casts to a shell bank at the mouth of the bay, all three of us had gotten the same subtle bumps I’d found early in the morning.
“They’re here,” he said after I exclaimed at another missed bite. “They’re definitely here, but they’re biting funny.”
We continued working our way into the bay on the trolling motor and, again, Gary struck first, his Hustler stopped in its wake next to a set of stakes marking a shellfish lease.
“Trout?” Allen asked, and the headshakes telegraphed through Gary’s rod seemed to offer confirmation at first.
Gary was in the process of agreeing when we got our first look at the fish, another 18”-class puppy drum that had played a convincing speck imitation for a moment.
“No net for you,” he reminded the angler.
Still the activity was a good sign, and Allen planted the Power-Pole to give us an opportunity to work the area over.
It wasn’t long before Gary’s rod again arched and before any speculation could take place, a trout head broke the still water, thrashing and splashing for a moment before it plunged back out of sight.
The word trout had an exclamation point instead of a question mark the next time it came out of Allen’s mouth, and he was quick to lay down his rod and go for the net.
The 17” speck was soon the star subject of some photographs before it was dispatched to friendly confines of the livewell, and we began casting with renewed excitement.
My number was next up, and this time a larger fish pushing 20” was hosting the Hackberry Hustler as a lip ornament. It did its best to throw the lure, shaking its head violently on the surface, but soon Allen slid the landing net under another speck, and the fish quickly joined its companion in the livewell.
We had a few more taps from the finicky trout, but hadn’t put any more in the boat when Allen took a look at the sky.
“See those clouds?” he asked, gesturing at a low and gray line forming over Sneads Ferry. “The weather’s changing.”
Indeed, the breeze had picked up and the winter sun’s descent into the sky had sent the unseasonable mid 60’s temperatures packing, and I was putting a heavy flannel shirt on as he continued.
“Let’s get out of here,” Allen said. “There’s one more bay I want to hit while we’ve still got some light.”
We clocked a few more miles south on the ICW before Allen put the Key West into an arc down a narrow channel in the mouth of a bay, winding through the open water before entering a much smaller cove surrounded by marsh grass.
“There’s usually a school of reds in here, and there are usually a few sitting right along this bank,” he explained, gesturing with a rod tip at the shoreline we were headed for.
“It’s really shallow in here and the winter moss is starting to show up, so you’ve really got to work them fast.”
Very co-operative, the reds happily inhaled our jigs on our first few casts, and at least one of us was bowed up with a fish for the next five minutes.
“The school moved,” Allen explained after we’d made several strikeless casts. “We just have to figure out where they went.”
Repositioning us slightly, the captain grabbed a popping cork rigged with another TTF plastic and began fan-casting into the open water opposite the bank. The chartreuse float vanished on his third toss, and we had our answer about the whereabouts of the reds.
Subsequent casts by Gary and I also hit home, and again double and triple hookups reigned for a few moments. The fish were also averaging a bit larger than the willing pups we’d found in the morning, with more breaking into the 18” slot limit than not.
Each time the action would slow, we’d get on the move again, fan-casting to the banks and open water until we found a bite, which rarely came alone, as subsequent casts to the immediate vicinity of the action usually went rewarded.
Within a half-hour, we easily lost count of the reds we landed and were halfway around the rim of the cove when Allen’s float sank yet again.
“That’s a bigger fish,” he exclaimed over the sound of the reel’s peeling drag. “Maybe foul-hooked, but I think that’s a better fish.”
Indeed, it had a bit more tenacity than the 16-20” fish we’d been catching, and the wakes and boils it left on the surface were much more substantial. After a few moments of back and forth, the battle turned in the captain’s favor, and Allen soon worked a drum that did require the net to the boat. It taped out at only 23”, but had clearly not been missing any meals, as it had the head, belly, and attitude of a larger fish.
The action didn’t slow down any after the big fish bit, and, at times, I had fish try to inhale my jig as I burnt it back to the boat on the surface. Guess there’s something to Allen’s fast retrieve theory.
Every slight move we made came with a new set of instructions from the captain, and it became apparent he’d spent considerable time in the area.
“Be careful casting between that white stake and the next mouth,” he cautioned as we approached some new shoreline. “Somebody dumps his old crab pots there.”
Surely enough, a toss too close to the bank produced a crab pot hookup every time.
“You’re okay here,” he said after we past the hazard, and sure enough, rods bent for fish and not snags.
When I did hook another immovable object on the bottom, Allen motored over to free the jig.
“You found a new one, Max,” he laughed as we shook the jig from a metal beam that appeared to be part of an automobile frame.
The sunlight faded before the wild drum bite did, and we caught several more before resolving to leave the fish to their evening routines. The dipping mercury made for a brisk run back to New River Marina, but our blood was still flowing from the fishing action and I barely noticed the cold.
Allen fishes for speckled trout and red drum year-round, adding flounder to his list of targets in the warmer months and gigging them through the winter. He’s on the water daily and combines that current intel with a lifetime of local experience, utilizing varying techniques and covering as much ground as necessary to put his clients on the best bite.
Call him to discuss a charter at (910) 467-1482 or check out www.breadmanventures.com for more information.