Winter Fishing on the Neuse River

Catching up on some late trips (Instagram is much easier than committing to writing a blog post).

Our view from the AirBNB out onto a Neuse creek.

Back in the middle of March, I and a collection of other Washington DC natives (representing a variety of eco-focused organizations that I’ve been able to connect with over the last year through a mutual friend) traveled down to the Neuse River in North Carolina, visions of speckled seatrout, striped bass, and red drum in our heads.  Last year around the same time, I found this area of the Carolinas full of aggressive juvenile fish including hickory shad and American shad, flounder, and the earlier mentioned “big three”.  This time around the weather looked great.  Our Friday arrival saw temperatures climb into the 80’s and the weekend forecast was sunny and warm.

The night we arrived we stayed up until 2 in the morning, drinking whiskey and swapping tales.  Expectations swelled in each of us, and by our 7AM wake-up call the next day, we were hungry to get out on the water.  We rigged our sinking and intermediate lines, tied on clouser minnows, and set off in kayaks and canoes borrowed from our AirBNB.

Kayak limbo for our AM session on the creek.

Very quickly, I scored a couple striped bass on a spinning rod – small fish, no bigger than 17″, but enough to further excite the crew.  But as the sun rose, and the mullet in the tiny creek began to leap from the water, the bite died.  The water was warm, likely in the upper 60’s or nearing 70 degrees, and I began to wonder if our timing was off.  Perhaps the best fishing of the year was weeks earlier, when the water was in the 50’s, and the drum, trout, and striped bass would have massed in the creek to warm in its shallow, muddy waters.

We headed up into the upper reaches of the creek, holding out hope that the fish were somewhere close by.  In the maze of grass hummocks we did catch fish, but not what we were after:  Micro-sized striped bass, and a couple largemouth bass, one of which was very large.

We headed in early, cooked up the bass (not my idea) and had fried bass fingers, sandwiches, and beers.  The bass was excellent (perfectly made by someone who knew how to make black bass edible), and the beers stole what was left of our energy.  We slept a few hours, and woke back up to fish the evening bite (if there was one).

Largemouth Bass for lunch?  Surprisingly good.

The fishing disappointed again.  I kayaked away from the group, heading out into the main waters of the Neuse and up a neighboring creek, covering miles of shallow flats.  Along the way, I noticed the general destruction of the shoreline, the homes, and the docks:  I had forgotten all about Hurricane Florence, how to it landed squarely on New Bern (a mile or two from our location).  The heavy rains and storm surge increased water levels 10 feet above normal levels, and damaged the surrounding communities.  Maybe this was the reason that the fishing was off – the flood of freshwater and mud chased out the normal winter residents to areas further east, closer to the ocean.  Reading fishing reports that night seemed to confirm those suspicions:  The surf fishing was on fire, and the charter guides seemed to be fishing away from New Bern, closer to Oriental or the barrier islands.

Incredible sunset over New Bern and the Neuse River.

After an amazing sunset we watched from the dock, we headed into New Bern itself.  It was St. Patrick’s Day, and the town was alive.  In the dark, it was not evident that any damage had ever occurred to the town.  Families and friends in green hats and plastic bead necklaces wandered past loudly, laughing and smiling.  At least for these people (likely the more wealthy residents of the community), the had weathered the storm.

The next day, we departed early, hoping to swing through Shenandoah early on the way home.  I’ll plan to return to New Bern and the Neuse next year, but will take the lessons learned from 2019 when planning our home base location.



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