Cape Fear Striper Tournament
Capitalizing on a flurry of activity just after noon, Capt. Jim Sabella, of PLAN 9 Charters, and anglers Ben Bowditch and Dean Lamont, caught, tagged, and released 11 striped bass in little more than an hour, securing the Grand Prize in the 2013 Cape Fear Riverwatch Striped Bass Tournament.
The trio had plied the Cape Fear River’s waters all morning without putting a striped bass in the boat, fishing in both the Cape Fear and Northeast Cape Fear rivers. Around noon, the captain made the call to take a lunch break.
After tying up to a channel marker near the confluence of the two rivers, the anglers alternated casting with eating.
“I was casting a grub and all of a sudden felt a tick that didn’t feel like the bottom,” Sabella explained. “I told the guys to cast up where I was, and we hooked a fish on the next cast.”
It didn’t take long for Lamont to battle the fish to Sabella’s waiting landing net.
“We were all excited to get that fish and get the skunk off the boat,” Sabella continued.
After seeing their first fish of the day, lunch took a backseat to fishing, and the anglers continued casting with renewed fervor. They soon found their initial fish wasn’t alone.
“We had pretty steady action for around an hour and a half,” said the captain. “We’d either hook up, miss a fish, or get hung up every few minutes.”
The crew continued adding fish to the tally over the next hour, at one point nearly overwhelming the captain.
“We have to land, measure, tag, photograph, and release the fish,” said Sabella. “At one point I had one on deck and two in the livewell waiting in line.”
Curlytail grubs, white Gulp shrimp, and a yellow bucktail/soft plastic combo all produced fish for the anglers until the action slowed around 1:45 that afternoon.
With eleven fish to their credit, the anglers headed for tournament HQ at Wilmington’s Coastline Convention Center feeling solid about their day’s catch, and with good reason, as they handily topped the leaderboard after the tally was complete.
Capt. Jot Owens, his father, Jot Owens, Sr., and Duane Auman released 29.5” and 26.5” stripers to take home the tournament’s Largest Striped Bass and Largest Two-Fish Aggregate awards.
The team started their morning in the Northeast Cape Fear River, and they had action from 9:00 on, but much of it was the wrong kind in a fishing tournament.
“We caught 12 reds and 7 stripers that day,” Owens explained. “Those reds can be a little frustrating in the tournament.”
After making a move to the Cape Fear River as the falling tide started to slow, the crew found the fish that would put them on the leaderboard.
“We caught both of those big ones in the late morning,” Owens said.
Owens, Sr., was casting a weedless-rigged Gulp Jerkshad to a bank in the Cape Fear when their first big fish bit. After battling the fish for several moments, he was able to work it into range of his son’s waiting landing net.
The anglers continued working the same section of bank, covering ground with their trolling motor, after Owens tagged and released his father’s striper.
Not long later, Auman’s number was called as he worked a Rapala X-Rap crankbait along the bank in 8’ of water.
Soon after the hookup, the anglers realized they had another big fish.
“That was a fat fish, and it took a long run,” Owens reported. “It was a handful. I knew about then that was one we needed to get into the boat.”
Auman and the fish negotiated for the better part of five minutes before Owens was able to slide the net under it.
“That’s the biggest one we’ve ever caught in the tournament,” he reported.
Though they put several more fish in the boat before it was time to head in, their two late-morning fish were the day’s biggest.
“I thought we might win the aggregate,” Owens said, “but somebody usually has one just over 30” in the tournament, and if we caught that many, I figured other people had had a good day. We were thrilled to get the big fish as well.”
The Striped Bass Tournament has a unique category for Junior Anglers, holding an essay contest to earn one lucky angler a free spot in the event. Winnabow, NC’s Jonathan Lanier won the essay contest and a spot on Capt. Jeremiah Hieronymus’ boat, and the 15” and 18” stripers he released also earned him the tournament’s Top Junior Angler honors.
Cape Fear Riverwatch holds an Education Day concurrent with the tournament, and this year’s event more than doubled in size, with around 450 people attending to learn about the history, issues, and future of the river’s fisheries.
A series of three Lock and Dam systems represent one of the biggest issues right now, as they block striped bass, sturgeon, and other fish from reaching their freshwater spawning grounds.
Using proceeds from previous Striped Bass Tournaments, Cape Fear Riverwatch successfully lobbied to have a rock ramp built leading up to Lock and Dam #1 that allows fish to make their way past, and the group has already documented striped bass successfully negotiating the structure.
A live auction and banquet the night before the tournament function as an additional fundraiser for the group’s fishery restoration efforts. They, too, were extremely successful in 2013. Along with a host of other items, the auction features some unique prizes–live striped bass that are unknowingly participating in a race.
The group invests in 20 PIT tags each year, which let transponders placed along the river know when a specific fish passes by. The tags aren’t cheap, and to defray the costs the Riverwatch auctions them off for $1000 each before they’re implanted in stripers caught during the tournament. Each tagged fish is given a name, and whichever fish crosses the transponder at Lock and Dam #1 first crowns the winner, who receives half the auction proceeds.
All 20 tags were purchased at this year’s banquet, so the race is on!
For more information about the Striper Tournament and Cape Fear Riverwatch’s efforts to return the river’s fisheries to their former glory, check out their website at www.capefearriverwatch.org.