Fishing for Striped Bass on the Roanoke River
By James W. Kornegay
Restoration of the Albemarle Sound/Roanoke River striped bass population has resulted in a world-class fishery enjoyed by thousands of anglers each year. Each spring, beginning in March, striped bass in Albemarle Sound begin their spawning migration up the Roanoke River. The N.C. Wildlife Resources Commission opens a limited striped bass harvest season on the Roanoke River for anglers who enjoy turning their catches into delicious table fare. Timing of the striped bass harvest season, along with protective size limits, ensure that most of the harvest consists of three- to five-year-old male striped bass.
Good numbers of striped bass first move into the lower Roanoke River during mid-March. Catches at that time are best around the Plymouth area near the Highway 45 bridge. The lower Cashie and Middle rivers, also crossed by the Highway 45 bridge, can be productive as well. As springtime progresses into April, stripers make their way up the river and by the first week in April, the action really picks up at Jamesville, Williamston and Hamilton. Also by the first of April, the first stripers are beginning to appear in the upper reaches of Roanoke River near Scotland Neck, Halifax and Weldon. By mid-April, striped bass fishing in the upper areas is in full swing and it seems as though the entire length of the river is shoulder-to-shoulder stripers. Anglers should note that river flows and weather conditions dictate the arrival and upstream movement of striped bass from year to year so the exact timing of striped bass movements can vary a few weeks either way.
The following is a list of boating access areas on Roanoke River open to the public. The designation "NCWRC" indicates a free access area built and maintained by the N.C. Wildlife Resources Commission using your fishing license dollars. These boating access areas are listed in order from downstream areas of Roanoke River to upstream areas:
At times, particularly on weekends, these access areas may become crowded. If there is a waiting line to launch or retrieve your boat, we highly recommend that you rig your gear well before entering the ramp area or tie down your boat and store your equipment only after you have cleared the ramp. Due to swift river currents and steep terrain, launching and retrieving a boat by yourself on Roanoke River can be quite challenging. A two-man crew will greatly expedite managing your boat. Please be patient and courteous to fellow anglers.
Lower river area - There are numerous motels, restaurants and fueling facilities located in Plymouth and Williamston. Contact the Washington County Chamber of Commerce at (252) 793-5823 or the Martin County Chamber of Commerce at (252) 792-4131 for specific information.
Upper river area - There are numerous motels, restaurants and fueling facilities located in Weldon and Roanoke Rapids. The Halifax County Tourism Development Authority, http://www.visithalifax.com/, has a package of useful information for anglers concerning accommodations and fishing guide services in this area. Visit the Web site or call 1-800-522-4282.
Rods, reels and terminal tackle used for striped bass fishing on the Roanoke River are as variable as the individuals who use them. In general, medium to medium-heavy action rods are recommended so that stripers can be landed quickly, improving their chances for survival if released. The combination of swift river currents, heavy terminal tackle, and four- to five-pound fish can easily break light-action rigs and their use is not recommended. Because of underwater obstructions likely to be encountered, heavier line (12-20 lb. test) should be used.
Many anglers in the lower Roanoke River prefer to use cut herring as bait but it must be fresh. The difference between a successful trip and being skunked is sometimes determined by the freshness of your bait. When herring begin their spawning run up the Roanoke River, local commercial fishermen frequently have fresh herring for sale. In addition, anglers returning from a successful trip are often willing to part with their unused bait. In the upper reaches of the Roanoke, anglers use cut bait with good success but some anglers prefer large, live minnows purchased from bait shops. Small live herring (locally called "shad") caught with a cast net at the base of Lake Gaston or Roanoke Rapids dams are a favorite. (See the N.C. Wildlife Resources Commission Inland Fishing, Hunting, and Trapping Regulations Digest for rules pertaining to taking and possession of bait fish.)
Terminal tackle for using live or natural baits should consist of a rig that places the bait on the river bottom. The "slip-sinker" rig is commonly used and is made by slipping the end of the fishing line through a one- to three-ounce egg sinker (depending on river flows), then tying a good quality swivel to the end of the line. An 18- to 24-inch leader is then tied to the other end of the swivel and finally the fishhook is attached to the terminal end of the leader. As the fish takes the bait, line slips through the egg sinker, triggering a strike readily felt by the angler.
Alternatively, some anglers use a three-way swivel rig consisting of the line being attached to one swivel, a short leader with sinker attached to another swivel and a longer leader with fishhook attached to the third swivel. Because of all of the woody debris in the river, be prepared to lose and replace your terminal tackle many times during your trip. Remember, it is critical that the bait is on the river bottom.
When using live or natural bait for striped bass fishing, the Commission strongly recommends the use of circle hooks. Studies we have conducted on Roanoke River striped bass as well as studies done elsewhere have shown that most striped bass caught on small, barbless circle hooks are usually hooked in the jaw. A jaw-hooked striped bass has a much greater chance of survival after being released than a striper that has been hooked in the throat or gut. Use the smallest circle hook that you can; one with a minimal distance between the hook point and shank. Unfortunately, circle hook sizes are not standard among hook manufacturers but we found circle hooks the size of the Wright-McGill Eagle Claw 4/0 circle hook to be effective for catching striped bass and reducing the incidence of deep hooking. Hooks of this size and shape made by other manufacturers would likely be just as effective. Our research also showed that larger circle hooks or circle hooks with offset points (hook points offset from the axis of the hook shank) were not effective in reducing the incidence of deep hooking.
Note that circle hooks have to be fished differently than regular "J" hooks. When you feel the fish take the bait, don't set the hook, just start reeling in your line. Remember: "Crank, don't yank." As the fish swims away, your line will tighten, the circle hook will begin to be pulled out of the fish's gut and throat and as the hook begins to exit the mouth cavity, the perpendicular hook point catches the bony jaw structure. In the beginning, you may lose a few fish because all of us have learned to "set the hook" when a fish bites. Setting the hook with circle hooks, however, usually results in pulling the bait and hook out of the fish's mouth. So when you feel a good bite, "Crank, don't yank." Let the circle hook do the work. Many stripers caught on circle hooks can be released to fight another day.
Keep in mind that whether you use circle hooks or regular "J" hooks, regulations only permit the use of a single barbless hook in Roanoke River upstream of the U.S. Highway 258 bridge each year from April 1 through June 30. Many experienced anglers use barbless hooks throughout the season because fish can be released very easily.
Ask 10 striper fishermen on Roanoke River about their favorite artificial lures and you'll get 10 different answers. Throughout most of the spring in Roanoke River, stripers feed primarily near the river bottom so sinking lures are a must. Bucktail jigs are a favorite and a local variation (referred to as a "hairy worm") seems to work very well. A hairy worm is simply a bucktail jig with the addition of a curly-tail, soft-bait to the hook. Curly-tail, soft-bait jigs by themselves often work well as do the paddle-tail fish imitation jigs. Fly fishing for stripers is becoming increasingly popular on the river with flashy Clouser minnow streamers being the preferred lure. Weighted fly line is a necessity to get these lures down deep.
Anything that remotely resembles a baitfish — minnow imitations, spoons and crankbaits — will catch stripers when conditions are right. If you're using artificial lures and aren't catching fish, switch to a different lure or observe anglers fishing around you. Sometimes, just a minor change in lure style or presentation can greatly improve your catch rate. Later in the spring, as water temperatures rise into the upper 60s, stripers can sometimes be caught on topwater lures. Topwater action usually occurs for an hour or so just after daybreak and again an hour or so before dark. Whatever your choice of lures, as is the case with natural bait rigs, expect to lose some to the woody debris of the Roanoke.
Many anglers enjoy catching and releasing striped bass in Roanoke River either during or after the harvest season. Hooked stripers can die from injury or from the stress of being hooked, fought and landed. Ideally, striped bass should be landed quickly, handled little, if at all, and kept in the water while the hook is removed. You can greatly aid in the survival of released stripers by following these guidelines:
Despite all its beauty and richness, Roanoke River can be a dangerous place to visit. In the lower river, swift currents, unseen logs and tree limbs and unexpected encounters with shallow flats can present life-threatening situations to boaters. In the upper reaches of the river, even swifter currents and the presence of rocks and boulders add to the list of navigational hazards. Here's a list of recommendations that will help make your trip a safe one:
Call us at (919) 733-3633. Also, keep checking the Wildlife Resources Commission's Web site for developments, as well as the weekly Roanoke River fishing report that we will post online every Friday afternoon this spring.
James W. "Pete" Kornegay is the anadromous fisheries coordinator for the N.C. Wildlife Resources Commission.
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