Gary Hurley

Guide Time: King of Topwater

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Topwater strikes can be addictive, but addictive in that good way. Many anglers that focus on topwaters will tell you that they’d rather catch one fish on a topwater than a dozen fish any other way.

It’s that shared love of the topwater bite that brought me and Capt. D. Ashley King, of Keep Castin’ Charters, together in the early summer to target stripers in the New Bern area on topwaters. Fortunately for me, though, I didn’t have to be satisfied with the reward of a single topwater bite, as Ashley produced topwater bites all morning until we broke for lunch.

We met at the Lawson Creek Park boat ramp and then motored downriver a little to a series of docks, some used and some abandoned, where we started our day. Ashley’s on his fourth year of guiding, but he’s been regularly fishing the area for the past eleven years.

Capt. Ashley King, of Keep Castin' Charters, with a summer striper caught on a Rapala Skitter Walk. He was fishing some pilings on the north side of the Neuse River below New Bern.

Capt. Ashley King, of Keep Castin’ Charters, with a summer striper caught on a Rapala Skitter Walk. He was fishing some pilings on the north side of the Neuse River below New Bern.

Stripers and trout are his main focus and passion, and for most of the year he can successfully throw topwaters for one or both species.

We were fishing structure on the south side of the river just down from New Bern, basically a big sand flat that extends from the shore line out a couple of hundred yards, so the only thing holding fish in this area would be structure.

“When you’re fishing this side of the river, you need to fish tight to the structure,” Ashley told me, emphasizing the word tight.

We pulled off plane a good distance from the first piece of structure he wanted to target, and used the trolling motor to approach the outside corner of a set of broken-down dock pilings out from the shoreline and in the shape of a square.

Though we were getting a fairly early start, Ashley emphasized that the topwater bite isn’t just limited to the morning hours.

“You can target these fish all day long on topwaters,” he explained, a toothpick hanging out of the corner of his mouth. “It doesn’t have to be dawn or dusk. Those fish will respond just as well in the middle of the day.”

Ashley’s approach when fishing structure is to make some quick casts to cover the water you’re targeting, but if you don’t generate some quick strikes, or at least some quick swirls, then it’s time to move on to the next piece of structure.

“Don’t waste a whole lot of time on structure,” he repeated, handing me a rod with a Hedon Super Spook tied on, as he got ready to throw a big Rapala Skitter Walk. “You’ll know very soon whether or not the fish are there.”

The fish were there this morning. Ashley generated a blow up on his second cast, and then came tight to a New Bern summer striper on his third cast, in almost the same exact location where he had a big boil on the previous cast.

“When you miss a fish, I always stop and do a couple of quick twitches,” he told me as he brought the fish in the boat via a landing net. “It’s an erratic twitch like he’s wounded and just sitting there on top of the water and flouncing. And if the fish doesn’t come back to the bait right then, I will twitch it about 5-10 feet forward real fast and then stop it again.”

The 17-inch striper was now out of the landing net and hanging from the Boga grip to grab a quick weight measurement. Then Ashley continued, “If I don’t catch the fish again, then I will cast back and work the topwater the whole length of the cast, and I’ll move it fast and erratic. A lot of times that second retrieve real fast will entice the fish to strike. He’ll hit it out of shear frustration, annoyance, or aggravation.”

This technique doesn’t work every time, he recognized, but it worked today and made for a strong start to our morning. As we continued to move around the pilings, I kept casting, and Ashley kept catching.

While he brought in a second and then a third fish, I tried to be patient but couldn’t help but wonder aloud why I hadn’t come tight yet on my first topwater striper. Is it my retrieving rhythm? Do I need to change out my topwater? Do I need a different color? A different size?

The questions didn’t get answered because before Ashley could tell me to just be patient and keep casting (yes, an easy pun on his guide service name), I had a New Bern striper hit my topwater almost immediately after it landed. All I had needed was to get it in front of a fish.

My fish, too, measured in at 17 inches.

Ashley and I moved around more pilings, some more productive than others, but all produced at least a couple of topwater strikes.

Time of the day or season may not matter much to Ashley, but as for color, he does have a preference. He likes chartreuse and chrome with orange bellies, or any variance of that color scheme. White or bone’s always a good color, too, he adds.

The docks were continuing to be productive, but Ashley wanted to show me a different part of the river, so we crossed over to the north side and started working an area of stump beds off a point inside Goose Creek.

“Any time you see the tall grass with a mud bank,” noted Ashley as he once again used the trolling motor to bring us up quietly to the zone he wanted to fish, “that often means there’s a sharp drop there, and those spots typically hold fish. The fish may not always be there, as they’re coming and going all the time, but it’s more likely to hold fish.”

All of our initial casts were targeted as close to the shoreline as we could get, but no strikes came, not even a boil. So Ashley had us change tactics. He had us tie on some smaller topwater baits, a Super Spook Jr. and a smaller Skitter Walk, and start casting down and away from the shoreline.

The new tactic worked. We both created a topwater strike, me off the bow of the boat and him casting directly away from shore to an area between three crab pots.

Ashley basically put us on an early summer topwater bite that lasted until lunchtime when we headed back to the boat ramp, and he told me he produces results like this through most of the year.

“If you have good water temperature, you’ll catch these fish all year long on topwater. I’ve caught stripers and trout both in 50-55 degree water temperature,” he explained, as we idled under the bridge. “And I’ve also caught stripers in the middle of July in when it’s well over 100 degrees outside—bluebird day, no wind, and landed over 40 stripers on topwater in about two feet of water.”

If you’d like to target stripers (or speckled trout or red drum) on topwaters, then give Capt. D. Ashley King, of Keep Castin’ Charters, a call, as you’re speaking his language. He does well with all three species in the spring and fall, and then focuses on red drum and stripers in the summer and speckled trout and stripers in the winter.

You can reach him at (910) 389-4118, or visit him on Facebook by looking up Ashley King or Keep Castin’ Charters.