Southern Rock: Fishing the Striped Bass Spring Migration on the Roanoke River
Illustration by Mike Sudal This was going to be candy. When the Roanoke River’s famed striped bass swarm their spawning...
Illustration by Mike Sudal
This was going to be candy. When the Roanoke River’s famed striped bass swarm their spawning grounds, a fishing frenzy grips northeastern North Carolina. Guides from Florida to New England crowd mom-and-pop motels. Interstate 95 is clogged with boat trailers. The only word to describe April and May on the Roanoke is gluttony. I’ve caught 50, sometimes 75, stripers in a day of flyfishing, and every angler in the eastern half of the state has a tale of Roanoke River grandeur. Hit it right, and you can catch rockfish coming and going. It’s like nowhere else on the planet.
So I hatched a foolproof plan: Fish the Roanoke three times, at three storied locations, capturing an entire month of the migration. I’d move like the fish themselves, from the monstrous river mouth at Albemarle Sound to the largest bottomland hardwood swamp in eastern North America and on to the rocky outcrops of the largest striped bass spawning grounds in the South. This was going to be a piece of cake.
But I forgot one thing. This was fishing.
Part I: The Mouth
Photos by T. Edward Nickens
Where to kick off my springtime rock fight is never in question. On a bright April afternoon, with March winds and sunny skies warm as a late June day, I meet Alan Hoggard and his dad, Kelly, at the Highway 45 bridge at Batchelor Bay. This is one of the wildest spots in eastern North Carolina. Here the Roanoke River and three smaller waterways coalesce in a vast 30-square-mile forested delta. Brown-water, black-water, and brackish flows lattice deep swamps and archipelagos of cypress hammocks, all draped in Spanish moss and muscadine vines. We thread the bridge pilings in Hoggard’s 24-foot bay boat, then head east for the edge of the open water.
Hoggard is a timber buyer with deep roots in the lower Roanoke, and a long history of hearing his father’s tales. Kelly grew up fishing for rocks with a Zebco 33 and a fancy new lure that was just showing up in these parts–the Rebel diving plug. He remembers mule-drawn carts hauling river herring to market, and shoreside campfires from the old watermen netting herring, shad, and rocks from the Roanoke. And he remembers when the striped bass fishery hit the skids.
For millennia, huge numbers of stripers migrated up the main stem of the Roanoke River, traveling to spawning grounds as far away as the foot of the Blue Ridge Mountains, more than 400 miles inland. By 1998, however, fish stocks had plummeted to fewer than 200,000 fish, due to overharvesting, water pollution, and reservoir-dam construction that stymied the fish from reaching their historic spawning destination.
In the late 1980s, the state of North Carolina kicked off a massive program to restore the suffering fishery. Now, after decades of tight restrictions and springtime dam releases that take into account the needs of spawning fish, the Roanoke fishery has roared back. In spring, an estimated 1 million striped bass storm the river.
“They all have to come right through here,” Hoggard says. This early in the run, fish are still schooling in the mouths of the Roanoke, Cashie, Middle, and Eastmost Rivers. We’ll start casting where the riverbottom rises from a 20-foot-deep channel to mudflats where stripers feed in water as shallow as a few feet.
I search through Hoggard’s tackle box. “Look for a bait that’s got some paint wore off it,” Kelly says. “That’s how you know it’s a good ‘un.” The trays are stuffed with Smithwicks, Bombers, and Rebels. I pull out one jointed stickbait that looks appealingly abused.
Sadly, I won’t be accused of playing rough with Hoggard’s tackle. After three hours of fishing I’m the only angler without a striper to crow about. I’ve been here before–a fresh face on unfamiliar water getting schooled by the locals as I try to dial in to the action. But at times, two generations of Hoggards fight rockfish bow and stern, while I drag hard baits through water seemingly void of fish.
It’s enough to send the old man into spasms of knee pain–Kelly just had a knee replacement the month before–and as we reel in for the day, he snips the lure off his line and sidles up beside me. “Boy, you can take a whipping pretty good!” he says. That’s high praise, and I know it. He hands over the lure. It’s a “Hoggard family special,” a jointed Rebel floater-diver with every scrap of colored paint carefully scraped off with a pocketknife to yield an all-white version. It’s the secret weapon of at least three generations of his Roanoke River clan, and a gift not to take lightly.
So I’m disappointed the next day when Kelly can’t make the trip. Just for starters, I’m not halfway through my country ham biscuit when the first striper whacks the plug. I cast the Hoggard family special into the “leaning-tree hole,” one of an innumerable number of little shoreline cutouts where a tree angles precariously over the water.
The fish hits, and I spit biscuit crumbs before I start fighting it from stern to bow. This fish might go 8 pounds, and it’s green and ornery and runs from the boat four times before we get it in the net. Anyone who grew up on the Roanoke, who had fished it through all the seasons of his life, would have felt in his bones what I feel with that first fish of the new striper year. There is so much that’s right about it. I don’t even have the plug out of the fish’s mouth before Hoggard is on the cellphone to his dad, letting him know that I might turn out to be an O.K. fishing partner after all, and wishing he were here on the boat with us on another glorious Roanoke morning.
Once I break the spell, it happens just like in the glory days. I catch rockfish one after the other. And I never change lures. I’ve learned my lesson: Around here, it’s best to keep it all in the family.
Part II: The Swamp
For centuries, the hoot of an owl has figured as a harbinger of death, but my buddy Scott Wood hooks the first striper hardly a minute after a barred owl lets fly. “Hey, maybe we’re not crazy after all,” he says.
We should know better. Owls hooting in broad daylight–what good could come out of that? And it is cold and rainy, thanks to the wet leading edge of a storm front that will drop daytime highs by nearly 30 degrees. Two weeks after Alan Hoggard and I stalked bass in the mouth of Batchelor Bay, Wood and I slip my 16-foot johnboat into Gardner’s Creek, a -cypress-choked ooze of swamp water that flows into the Roanoke in the middle of the river’s massive swamp-woods midsection. Our plan is to camp for two nights on a wilderness tent platform in the Roanoke River National Wildlife Refuge and nab stripers as they nose upriver.
I look down as Wood lifts a nice 5-pound striper from the water. A green, red, and white Clouser fly decorates its jaw. It’s a great kickoff, but the boat ripples the tall, somber reflections of cypress and gum in the black water, turning each trunk into the haggard outlines of Edvard Munch’s figure in The Scream. Maybe that vision should have clued me in, too: All is not well. I’ll soon feel like letting loose with a good primordial shrieking, myself.
We’ve come prepared for any fishing condition: Riding in the passenger seat of my truck, Wood tied superfast-sinking fly lines out of old running line and heavy T-14 tungsten line that sinks at 9 inches a second. On the tent platform we spooled superthin braided spinning lines that would cut the thick current of the Roanoke and drag a plastic fluke to the bottom no matter how fast the flow. We have Clousers and diving plugs and circle hooks for cut bait. But we’ve fished this river enough to know that a plummeting barometer is the kiss of death to dreams of striper glory.
The next day’s fishing tells the story. We leave the tent platform with pale sunlight winking through the dense canopy of cypress and gum and birch and ash, a hit list of migratory fish hotspots in mind. We fish the mouths of tributary streams where the currents set up slack waters where stripers can hold in the seams. We fish underwater sandbars that concentrate bait. We fish deeply shaded banks because we know that rockfish abhor the sun. We dredge the middle of the river because stripers will skulk away the midday hours in the deepest holes they can find.
And we meet with similar success everywhere: We catch a trophy-size bowfin, the primitive muck-loving “swamp muskie” that most anglers disdain. I land a catfish that goes maybe 12 pounds. We never catch a rockfish. It’s hard to square the failure with what we know is in the water beneath the boat. The river here flows through a floodplain 5 miles wide, and for mile upon mile there are no houses, buildings, or other signs of man. There are prothonotary warblers migrating downriver, herons winging toward massive rookeries, water snakes draped across sunny logs. Spring is everywhere but on the ends of our fishing lines. “Eventually,” Wood says, “you’d think we’d get lucky.”
Late in the afternoon we anchor up at the confluence of the Roanoke and Conine Creek and throw our entire arsenal into the water, wave after wave of baits, like artillery fire. Scarlet tanagers call from the riverside cypress and sycamores; a wild turkey hurries across the creek. We have all the elements of a world-class river striper day, except for the remarkable lack of striped bass in the middle of the Roanoke, in the middle of spring.
And the crazy thing is, we never give up hope. Through the wind and the rain and the hours of fruitless casting, we know the fish are there, and even though we’ve long since buried the dream of yet another legendary haul on the Roanoke, we are sure that this fly on this cast with this retrieve will unlock the mystery and wash away the memory of the 5,000 casts that came before. Which explains the jolt of energy that courses through the boat when Wood’s 8-weight fly rod bends double.
“This could be it,” he says. “This is the story maker.” The fish tears across the river. Fighting it back to the boat, Wood lifts the rod, trying to get the creature to show, desperate for a glance at the one last-chance fish that will make us forget two days of nearly fishless effort. Suddenly, 4 feet of scales and fins emerge, colored amber in the brown water of the Roanoke. For a split second our hearts soar–until we see the teeth.
“A gar on the fly?” Wood says. “And look: He’s hooked in the mouth! That ought to count for something.”
Wood leans over the gunwale to release the gar. His sides are shaking and soon I join in, laughing the laugh of men with nothing to lose.
Part III: The Ramp
This has all the makings of a red-letter Roanoke day. In two casts I land a pair of buck stripers. They are lean and skinny, spent from their arduous migration. But they are hungry for a Clouser, and by the time I pull the fly from the second fish’s mouth, my buddy Mike Zlotnicki has parked the truck and is waving me in.
An old saying flashes through my mind: Never leave fish to find fish. I should have modified it to say: Never leave fish to pick your buddy up from the boat ramp. Live and learn.
The mile of river at the Weldon boat ramp is unquestionably the most famous rockfish water in the South. Here, the swirling, boiling, full flow of the Roanoke stair-steps through a half mile of rocky outcrops, cascading from the rolling geology of the Piedmont into the flat coastal plain. And it can draw what seems to be most of the world’s fishermen. I’ve fished Weldon when a haze of outboard exhaust lay on the river like a summer fog. I’ve waited in the ramp line for an hour and a half, and been on the water with so many boats even the guys with spinning rods have to watch their back casts. But once the keeper season is closed, and the regulations stipulate barbless hooks and catch-and-release angling, the crowds thin to more manageable levels. Most years, this coincides with the peak of the bass spawn–and the peak of the action.
But the fish today might not have heard of how easy it can be on the Roanoke. For the next seven hours Zlotnicki and I throw everything we have and try every hotspot we know, and still suffer a mini version of my trip with Wood a few weeks earlier. We catch practically nothing. Defeated, we chat up a couple of biologists in an electrofishing boat. Their take: Three nights earlier, the river temperature hit 68 degrees–the magic number at which striper spawning starts to peak. That was also the night of a so-called Super Moon, that rare occurrence when a full moon coincides with the closest distance between the moon and Earth. “The spawn was just crazy that night,” one of the biologists told us. “And sometimes the spawn can be over that quick. The next day we saw it in our survey numbers: The fish just ran out of here.” I can practically hear the owls hooting again.
So maybe Zlotnicki drew the lucky straw, because he’s a short-timer today: He has to bolt early to make a late-afternoon work meeting. After our dispiriting chat with the experts, I run him upriver, cutting to an idle as we approach the Weldon boat ramp. Just below the rapids, not 75 yards from a different ramp, a man in an aluminum skiff is pulling his anchor. As we pass, he calls to us, conspiratorially, so that no one else can hear: “I caught 110 right here,” he says. He points to the back of his boat. “Right here!” Zlotnicki and I glance at each other and grimace. Salt in the wound.
I drop Zlotnicki off, motor a half mile downstream, and tie up to a shady branch to lick my wounds. I am beat–tired from a long day of driving and fishing and tired from a long month of chasing fish. I stretch out across the boat, my head on a camouflage throw cushion, and try to talk myself into doing the wrong thing: quit.
But the right thing to do gnaws at me like a horsefly. It’s as plain as the look of Roanoke River glee on that man’s face by the boat ramp, and as clear as every memory I can muster of the Roanoke’s goodness over the years. I know the right thing to do. It just takes me a few long minutes of wallowing in self-pity to scrounge up the gumption to do it.
Ten minutes later I grind the boat onto the sandbar beside the boat ramp and I am out like a young colt, energized with what I think I can make happen. I toss the anchor into the riprap and run to the truck. The nearest bait shop is barely a five-minute drive, and I load up: a pair of Red Bulls–tallboys, because I’m not messing around now–a family-size bag of Funyuns, and two dozen live shad. I’m back to the river in 40 minutes, tops, in time for the evening bite.
I ease into the slot “110 Stripers Man” vacated, and toss an anchor into the slack of a current seam. The bait shad is 4 inches long, shimmering silver, and I thread the circle hook through the chin and out a nostril. The river is a paisley sheen of silver whorls and swirls and foam lines bubbling below the falls, with white clouds overhead, peppered with soaring vultures. The shad isn’t overboard 10 seconds when the first striper hits. The second fish is more selective. Call it 20 seconds. In less than 10 minutes I go four for five–four striped bass on five live shad. Half of them hit as soon as I can release the prior fish, bait the hook, cast, and set the baitcaster when I feel the Carolina-rigged egg sinker kiss bottom. Two more fish: That’s six stripers on seven baits.
The action never slows. Fish No. 10 is a nice 5-pound catfish that breaks my rockfish streak, but that’s O.K. The next striped bass–No. 11–spits out the shad as it comes over the gunwale, and I slap the precious bait into the boat as if I’m making an alley-oop shot. The poor thing is wiggling meagerly between my feet when I scoop it up, string it back on the circle hook, and ease it gently into the current. It’s a secondhand, used bait, so maybe that explains the relative wait. But two minutes later, I’m up to a dozen stripers on 15 live shad.
I buzz around the boat like a puppy in a pen, casting from the bow, landing from the stern, trying not to whoop it up but having a hard time holding in my glee. By now it’s early evening and the -after-work anglers are showing up. There are old men sitting on white buckets, kids in white T‑shirts along the bank, anglers standing on rocks, anglers in waders and flip-flops. Three more boats of striper fishermen have moved into the heavy current below the falls. They’re all looking at me.
By the time I land striper No. 20, I am down to a single live shad swimming circles in the bait bucket. For a solid hour I’ve been catching striped bass on live bait. Then I catch them on flies until I run out of time. I never so much as move my anchor. Never need to. In 10 hours of fishing, I find the Roanoke’s sweet spot in the last 60 minutes–an hour in which I land 21 striped bass on two dozen live shad, and three bonus fish on flies.
I’m not sure if they were coming or going. But as soon as the boat is trailered and I pull the truck door shut, I throw my head back and crow. Nary an owl answers.