Guide Time – Rockin’ the Roanoke
Boat shows and fishing schools, and fishing schools and boat shows. While it may look like the staff of Fisherman’s Post doesn’t have much to do over the winter, this crew stays full tilt handing out papers and coordinating anglers and captains at convention centers from the coast to Greensboro over the first few months of the year.
In my case, the phrase “Sir/Ma’am, would you like a free saltwater fishing newspaper?” loses a good bit of its charm by the thousandth time I’ve repeated it in February, and then scheduling, cold water, and blustery weather makes the prospect of actually doing some of the saltwater fishing I’ve been talking about for months a difficult task to accomplish.
Everyone’s ready for spring by the time it’s finally sprung, but turning the talking and dreaming into actually getting out on the water makes this season doubly precious from my perspective.
Gary (Publisher) and Joshua (Sales Manager) have their own quibbles with the cool months, which made the decision to accept an invitation to get out fishing mid-month with one of the instructors from our Morehead City and Greenville schools beyond automatic.
Our host was Capt. Richard Andrews, who operates Tar-Pam Guide Service out of his home in Bath but targets inshore species throughout the Inner Banks, and his castle this day was the lower Roanoke River.
The Roanoke’s spring striped bass (rockfish in local parlance) fishery is legendary, with hundred-fish days not uncommon, but the upriver area around Weldon gets the most attention and, consequently, pressure. Our pre-dawn trip through Eastern NC led us to a dirt road leading to the Wildlife boat ramp in Jamesville, and the virtually empty parking lot by the time we made our 9:00 arrival made me realize we’d be fishing somewhat more remote waters.
After hurriedly stowing sandwiches and gear aboard Richard’s 22’ Pathfinder, we made a swift jaunt upriver from the ramp, getting a quick geography lesson from Richard as we ran.
“See how we’re headed up this way,” he explained as we followed a leftward fork in the brown water. “This isn’t actually the main river. It’s called the Devil’s Gut. It connects back to the river way up past here so all that area to the left is just one huge swamp island.”
We’d motored past several bends in the Gut when Richard eased back the throttle and swung in towards the cypress trees extending from the black water in the swamp.
“Yep, there’s some fish here,” he said, gesturing to a split-screen image on his Humminbird sonar that revealed a few low marks barely off the bottom. Swinging wide off the shoreline, the captain deployed his trolling motor and offered us some coaching on turning the marks on the screen into fish in the boat.
“There’s a drop-off 5-10’ off the trees here,” Richard explained as he grabbed a rod rigged with a Z-Man soft plastic and made an instructional cast. “The fish are lying off that drop, so you want to land about that far off the trees and give it a twitch every now and then while it’s sinking. Once you hit the bottom, just twitch it, pick up a little line, and let it sink back down. These fish are hugging the bottom.”
Richard had landed a striper on his coaching cast on a previous Roanoke trip with Gary and was hoping to repeat the feat, but his pink Z-Man paddletail returned to the boat unmolested. Gary confirmed the advice had been solid within a minute, however, as I watched his rod tip snap up more abruptly than it had on a previous twitch and fail to straighten back up. The graphite bowed and began to dance as the fish shook its head in the current, and the publisher’s mouth bent upward as the rod tip did the opposite.
“Nice, Gary!” Richard said, breaking into his own grin. “That might be a keeper so let me net him when he gets close.”
Swinging further downstream of the Pathfinder in the flow and using the current to bend Gary’s rod a bit more, the fish relented to the pressure after a few moments, and Richard was soon sliding a landing net under a spunky striper that pushed just past the 18” mark once it hit the aluminum ruler on the Pathfinder’s deck. With anglers allowed two fish per day in an 18-22” slot in the Roanoke management area, our first fish was also our first keeper.
“Let’s put him in the livewell,” Richard said after we’d snapped a few photos. “We might get some of the larger keepers later in the day, and there’s a lot more meat on a 20-22” fish than there is one of these smaller ones.”
Seeing that first fish must have made me jumpy, as I felt a bump on my next cast and answered with a firm hookset. My rod also took a mighty bend, but the pull lacked spirit and it became apparent I’d fooled a log.
“You’re going to get snagged a lot,” Richard assured me as I tried to yank the jig free. “I’ve probably got a couple hundred baits in this spot alone.”
Richard was handing me another rod rigged with a jighead and pink Z-Man Paddler by the time I’d broken off and reeled the line in, and I watched Gary set the hook on a second fish as my next cast sailed towards the cypress knees.
This time I felt a less subtle bump as the jig sank along the drop-off, and I raised my rod tip to a much livelier tug as Gary led another fish to Richard’s waiting net.
With a bucking headshake, my fish pulled away from the tree-lined drop off and out into the main flow of Devil’s Gut. The rod arched and Richard’s medium spinning outfit begrudgingly surrendered a bit of drag to the fish, much to my delight.
My adversary began to plane up in the current as Gary and Richard were unhooking our second striper and gave us a quick look at one of its lined flanks.
“That’s a good one, Max,” Richard exclaimed as the fish flipped its tail to dive back into the dark water. “Hang on, I’m coming with the net.”
The fish wallowed in the current a bit before again popping to the surface, this time a bit too close to Richard’s waiting net, and soon our third and thus far largest fish of the day was flopping on deck.
Three stripers in the boat inside of five minute fishing seemed worth a photo, so Gary and I took a quick knee on the bow while Richard clicked off a few shots on the Fish Post Nikon.
“That’s one of the better ones,” our captain said as he laid my fish on the ruler. “You can toss him right in the cooler.”
Joshua didn’t take long to answer with his own keeper rockfish, leading Richard to a quick observation.
“This is a different year-class of fish than we’ve been seeing up to yesterday,” he allowed after sliding the ad man’s fish into the transom well. “We’ve been catching a bunch of 15-17” fish with an occasional keeper and that’s three out of four keepers. Funny how it can change so quickly like that.”
The action at our first stop held up for another half-hour, with Richard making minute moves along the banks with the I-Pilot trolling motor’s remote and offering a quick tutorial on the riverbed at each move.
“Try casting into that pocket,” he said while gesturing at the water beside a cypress jutting further out towards the channel than its companions, “but stay tight on it—there’s a good snag just downcurrent.”
I’ve always learned better from my mistakes than others’, so most of the time Richard indicated a snag, I managed to plant a jig in it before truly figuring the lay of the bank. Fortunately, Gary and Josh were keeping up a pretty healthy snag regimen as well.
As the action finally slowed down and we’d all made a few biteless casts, we figured we’d conservatively caught 30 fish at the spot and lost about half as many of Richard’s jigs.
“Y’all aren’t anywhere near the worst I’ve had,” he reassured after an amusing moment where a fellow boater hauled up two of our lures along with a chunk of wood he’d snagged. “Let’s move up and try another spot.”
One particular area where a high bank dipped to allow black water flowing out of the swamp to mix with the browner water of the Gut in a swirling eddy produced a wide-open bite much like our first spot.
“Cast right into that eddy,” Richard explained after locking us on the spot with the I-Pilot. “These high banks are natural levies of heavy sediment that funnel the water out of the swamp into the channel and the fish usually sit right where that black water dumps in.”
Casts into the eddy were met with near-instant strikes, and Joshua, Gary, and I enjoyed a number of double and triple hookups before the bite slowed after 15-20 minutes. As the eddy bite waned, we discovered that drifting our jigs along the boundary between the black and brown water produced a handful of additional fish.
“They’ll sit along these current seams, too.” Richard explained as we landed our final fish of the flurry.
“Hey, I wanna show you guys something cool,” he added as we stowed the rods and got back under the Pathfinder’s outboard power.
We’d been watching flips and splashes back in the swamp at nearly every spot we cast to the stripers, and Richard had explained that they were shad and herring excitedly engaged in their spawning ritual amidst the flooded timber.
“This spot was black with herring yesterday,” Richard explained as he nosed the boat in with the trolling motor. “It’s hard to see them because the sun’s not out, but they’re still back here.”
It took several tries to line the boat and light up right, but at the third spot we slid in, all three of us got a look at hundreds of the black-backed baitfish knifing about above the leaf-lined bottom.
I’d noticed some ultra-light rods rigged with tiny spoons and grubs when we climbed aboard that morning and hoped we might have a chance to employ the diminutive gear to hook a shad, something I (and apparently neither Gary nor Josh) had ever caught before.
After backing back out into the creek, Richard told us they’d landed some shad there yesterday and asked if we’d like to try. The answer was, “Of course.” Ten minutes later Gary, Josh, and I had all had a chance to put a bend in the ultralights and knock hickory shad off our life lists. We slid the silvery shad back into the creek’s black water, but a pair of crappie that pounced on Josh’s tandem rig weren’t quite so lucky.
“Let’s go get some lunch, and then you guys want to run down and check out some spots in the main river?” Richard asked as we stowed the little gear. “I’ve got a feeling there are some fish down there, too.”
After our lunch break, we took a ride a few miles down the river towards Plymouth, and a freshening breeze forced us all to hunker into our hoods as the waterway widened and the wind gathered some fetch.
“Whoa, look at all those fish,” Richard exclaimed while gesturing at the sounder as we idled along a timber-strewn shoreline of the main Roanoke.
Gary again connected first, but Joshua and I were quick to follow. Our action at the final spot was the most frenzied of the day. I’m confident my fellow anglers went on similar runs, but I know for a fact I made seven casts resulting in seven fish on my hottest streak. Doubles, triples, and even one quadruple hookup kept us dancing around the boat and Richard busy netting, unhooking, releasing, and culling the fish we had swimming in the livewell.
“I’m getting striper thumb,” the captain joked, holding up an abraded digit after trading out one of our livewell fish for one an inch longer. “Believe me, that condition gets real by the end of the season up here.”
Another conservative estimate put us at 40+ fish at our final destination, as the bite once again slowed and Richard showed us some impending rain on the radar image he’d pulled up on his phone.
“We might be able to beat it home,” he said as we took stock of the situation. Though the red-hot rockfish bite had warmed us significantly after our chilly ride, no one aboard wanted to make the return trip in the rain (least of all the flip-flop clad Joshua).
We’d easily reached triple digits on our striper count for the day, had a limit of eight porky rockfish in the livewell and cooler, landed our first shad, seen our first herring spawn, and generally basked in the remote beauty of the lower Roanoke. Seeing no point in ending the day on a low (or wet) note, we all agreed it was time to race the rain to Jamesville and barely won.
Capt. Richard Andrews follows striped bass from the lower Roanoke up to their spawning grounds at Weldon and back again before focusing on his home waters of the Pamlico River from late spring to summer and turning his eye towards citation-class reds in the Pamlico Sound in August. His scientific approach means every trip is an education as well as a fervent effort to put clients on fish and fishing with him anywhere one can is an experience anglers won’t soon forget.
Get in touch with him to schedule a trip by calling (252) 945-9175 or check out www.tarpamguide.com for more information.