Cold water fishing has begun in southeastern North Carolina, and that means local saltwater anglers are targeting the big three low temperature inshore fish: speckled trout, redfish, and black drum. All three fish are hitting well right now. It is important to know both how to catch each species and what the current regulations are for keeping or releasing them.
The saltwater fish most identified with cold weather in our region is the speckled trout. Although there were fears about the local population after a harsh winter last year, so far this year the trout bite has been very good. Some big specks have been landed and the smaller ones are schooling in the usual places.
Big changes have come to speckled trout regulations in the last few weeks, however. The Marine Fisheries Commission, in response to years of overfishing of specks by both recreational and commercial fishermen, have placed strict limits on both types of speckled trout fishing. Make sure you check these.
Speckled trout are most easily caught by live shrimp (while they are still around) under a popping cork or float. Live minnows on Carolina rigs will take their share, finger mullet, mud minnows, and pinfish while all are still available.
I prefer switching over to lures for trout at this time of the year. The scented soft baits such as the Gulp and Fishbites brands are deadly on schooling specks, and hard plugs like MirrOlures catch the larger sized fish many anglers will be targeting now that the creel is reduced.
You can also use the shrimp-imitating scented bodies marketed by DOA, Betts, and other companies. Fish these just like live shrimp, with only a little movement as the water gets colder. The local Carolina-based company Sea Striker sells many good trout rigs and plastic bodies available at great prices in our Brunswick County tackle shops.
Redfish (red drum) will be schooling in larger and larger pods as the water cools. The redfish bite in Brunswick County, and especially to the south of us in northern South Carolina, has been amazing since mid-summer so this should be a great winter for them.
Redfish love to hit live shrimp and minnows as well as trout do, although they are also caught more often by cut baits, especially really fresh mullet and shrimp. Red drum also hit lures readily including all the scented soft baits and top water plugs in shallow water.
Redfish are great fighters on light tackle but are often released since the NC limit is one redfish per day in an 18-27 inch slot. The local inshore cold water red drum can run anywhere from 14 to 30 inches. The key to catching them is staying quiet and not spooking the big schools. Some boaters switch from trolling motors to long push poles to target cold water redfish.
If you are as into seafood recipes and fish cooking (as I am) don’t let all the size and creel limits send you into complete despair. There is one obliging NC fish that can be caught from Nov straight on through spring and are perfect for eating. These are the undervalued black drum that I turn my attention to most as the weather cools.
Small black drum in about the 14 to 20 inch size are delicious eating, and they have no size limits in NC. Black drum can they can get huge, up to the 100 lbs size, but the larger ones that have lost their stripes are not good eating and should always be released alive. Please do not kill a big black drum if you catch it but let it go to help keep the stock healthy.
Eating-size black drum are silver and white fish with big black stripes sometimes confused with sheepshead, another structure dwelling fish that is much harder to catch. You can always tell a black drum by the ‘barbells’ under their chins and the fact that unlike a sheepshead (which has small sharp teeth) the ‘teeth’ of a black drum are powerful shellfish-chompers located in their throats.
You catch black drum on bottom rigs around structure such as bridges, piers, rocks, rip-rap, or docks. As the water gets colder and bait-stealing pinfish grow less prevalent you can use really fresh cut shrimp. They also hit fiddler crabs, cut crab, clam meat, and the Fishbites artificial bloodworms. Don’t ask me why black drum like the fake bloodworms during the winter, as their diet is usually shellfish, but trust me they do.
SC actually has strict size limits on black drum (way too strict for some reason) so stick to the NC side to catch them. They are common around any old pilings and are also most active at night, especially around lights.
Some folks think southeastern NC fishing ends as the water gets cold around the holidays, but actually it gets much better for these three species. Just remember to keep up with the latest regulations.
On a last note the sales of my new book Surf and Saltwater Fishing in the Carolinas have been wonderful and I have appreciated all the positive responses from the readers. The critics’ reviews are also in and universally positive, so if you are looking for an inexpensive Christmas present for a Carolina angler check it out.
For many more free articles on Carolina fishing and seafood cooking check out my blog A Dash of Salty.