Guide Time – Neuse River Classroom
For most inshore anglers, the winter months mean one of two things—trout or striper—so once Capt. Gary Dubiel, of Spec Fever Guide Service, and I had confirmed a 7:00 am meeting at the Lawson’s Creek Boat Ramp for a half day of New Bern-area fishing, my next text to him was, “Trout or striper?”
“Both and a few extras,” he quickly replied, so I made sure the camera battery was charged and the voice memo feature on my smart phone had plenty of storage left because trout, striper, and a few extras sounded to me like the material for a winter issue Guide Time article.
Rocky Damico, a new Fisherman’s Post hire, joined me for the easy run from Wilmington up Highway 17, stopping just once on the drive to re-coffee. We weren’t the only ones at the ramp that morning, as a handful of boats were there pre-7:00 to try and get the jump on either a few fish or each other.
Our early December morning was only slightly chilly, but air temperature mattered little because our first stop was a short run into the Neuse River to an artificial reef just south of the big bridge. Dubiel’s machine showed that we were in 10-13’ of water, and it also seemed to be marking a few fish suspended in the water column.
I’ve fished several times with Dubiel before, so I knew from experience that he will give very detailed instructions and explanations, if asked. And I also knew that he’s thought about every detail that goes into his answers, as he is one of the more precise and scientific anglers that I know, so when he started to tell Rocky and I how he wanted us to fish this open water location, I made sure to pay attention.
Rocky was going to start by throwing a subsurface lure, and I was given a soft plastic. My instructions, though simple to follow, were part of the Dubiel model of doing whatever practice gives you the best chance of landing the most fish.
I had a Storm Coastal 360 4” paddle tail on a 3/8 oz. jig head, and my first direction was to make sure I give the bait enough time to fall all the way to the bottom. Then instead of lifting the rod tip to generate action on my bait, I was to do 3-4 quick cranks of the reel while keeping my rod tip at a fixed, raised position. After the 3-4 quick cranks, pause to let the bait fall to the bottom again, and then repeat all the way back to the boat.
I asked him why he likeded that type of retrieve, wanting to know the reason and logic, and his detailed answer didn’t disappoint.
For one, Dubiel explained, keeping the rod tip up and steady for the 3-4 quick cranks and then letting the bait fall creates less tangles and hangs on the bottom. The bait will rise and fall on bottom structure, as opposed to being drug through the structure.
As for specifically cranking and not using a rising/fall motion of the rod tip to generate action on the soft plastic, Dubiel said, “You’re not wanting to throw a lot of rod tip in there because it can generate slack in the line. With slack, you get more hangs, feel less bites, and catch fewer fish.”
“The difficulty,” Dubiel continued, “is fine tuning that fall and being able to maintain line contact so that you’re feeling the bite on the way down instead of the way up.”
Maybe I’m a great student, or maybe Dubiel is a great teacher, as well as knowledgeable enough to have us in the right spot at the right time with the right baits, but on about the third repeat of my first cast that morning, I felt an aggressive strike on the fall and set the hook into what would be our first fish of the morning, a 20” New Bern striper.
We paused for photos, released our fish, and then went back to work. I continued with a soft plastic from the bow of the boat, while Rocky focused his efforts on selling a striper on a subsurface hard bait. Rocky had a Rattletrap, and now it was his turn to get some feedback from our host.
Dubiel’s suggestion was that Rocky had too steady of a retrieve and wasn’t getting the bait low enough in the water column. So the instructions, once again reason and logic based, were to give a longer pause to let the bait fall more, and then vary the rate on the retrieve, going for more of an up-and-down slow roll. Dubiel also wanted Rocky to give the bait a sharp snap of the rod tip every now and again to create a hard rattle and sound waves.
“You want the fall, and you want the rattle,” Dubiel instructed. “You want to attract them with the noise of the rattle. The hard pop changes the sound and gets their attention, and, of course, the falling of the bait is a big attention grabber as well.”
“Fish will hit a steady retrieve,” Dubiel continued, “but they’re more apt to hit a bait that is falling. So baits that are weighted, like jig heads and Rattletraps, and allowed to fall will increase the amount of strikes by 3 or 4 fold. It really makes a difference by the end of the day.”
Maybe Rocky is a great student, or maybe Dubiel is a great teacher, but when Rocky came tight to a fish on his fourth cast after getting those instructions, I knew I had not only a Guide Time article in the works, but an easy-to-identify theme for that article.
We paused again for photos, and during the pause the feeding activity increased. Several fish were now crashing bait on the surface, and more birds were collecting around those fish crashing bait. Even though my Storm soft plastic had found a fish on my first cast of the day, it was easy to give it up when Dubiel asked if I wanted to try and hook a fish on a popper.
I threw out the Storm Chug Bug with confidence, thinking to myself that I had caught several fish on all types of topwaters and had a firm grasp of what technique to employ, but when my first two casts came back unmolested in spite of several fish blowing up all around me, I remembered Dubiel’s earlier reflection of females on charters.
Females on the boat are great, he had told Rocky and I. Often with no pre-conceived notions of how to fish, they listen when you suggest technique and, subsequently, have better results, sometimes to the frustrations of a man on the same trip who thinks he already knows and doesn’t need any advice or suggestions.
I didn’t want to be that guy, so before casting out again, I asked Dubiel to give me some popper advice.
His first suggestion was to give the bait a softer pop. Bait move a little slower in December, so a softer pop would be a more natural bait motion. Then he noted that I was pausing too long between pops. The bait would look more realistic (more like a fleeing baitfish) and sound more realistic (more like other stripers feeding on the surface) if I sped up my rate of pop and retrieve.
It would be too thematically convenient if I told you that I caught a topwater striper on my very next cast. My big striper of the day, a 25” fish, did come on the Storm Chug Bug after the Dubiel lesson, but it took me at least a dozen or so casts.
Our New Bern stripers had been very accommodating, quickly offering us action on soft plastics, suspending baits, and topwaters, but now with the sun a little higher in the sky and the air temperatures already warming, the stripers were moving more and making it more difficult to find them.
Fish would start to surface feed 50-100 yards off the bow, and we would trolling motor over, only to have the fish go down and then soon reappear back where we had come from. This pattern only played out a couple of times before Dubiel grew tired of the irony, so we decided to call stripers a success and start on the trout portion of the article.
This time of year the fish—stripers and trout—are in a transitional stage, Dubiel instructed, so while our stripers were out in open water, some, like the trout, had already moved upriver where they hold more on ledges.
We could tell Goose Creek had traffic, boats both coming and going, so Dubiel’s idea was to head up the Trent River, past the former Governor Purdue’s house and the Nicholas Sparks’ house, and try a ledge just off a mixed shoreline—rock bulk headings, grass lines, and several docks.
He had Rocky and I cast to the shoreline with basically the same soft plastic instructions he had given us on the stripers. Then to help cover more water, he was going to cast out into the middle.
The trout and Dubiel were on the same page, apparently, as he quickly found a small head shaker at the deepest end of the ledge in about 12’ of water. One trout likely meant more, so now he and Rocky worked the middle to end of the ledge while I kept targeting water in the 4-8’ range between the boat and the shoreline.
Rocky was the next to hook up. His fish was clearly a keeper, so the net came out to make sure we had our trout photo for the article.
Rocky and Dubiel landed and released a handful more in that same zone, while my rod, focused on shallower water, stayed quiet. Dubiel had delivered on the trout and striper, but before I could remember his text that promised “a few extras,” I brought in a largemouth right before Rocky found a pickerel and a catfish. Our freshwater fish were a great reminder of just how dynamic the fishery is in the Neuse River system.
Jealous of the 3 lb. speckled trout that Rocky and Dubiel had landed, I decided on my own to abandon the shallower waters, but after all three of us gave a number of casts that came back without even a bump, I suggested we call trout a success and head back to Lawson’s.
As we started to idle down the shoreline in the direction of the ramp, Dubiel called me over to look at his screen. His machine showed a hard ledge, dropping quickly from 4’ down to about 16’, and halfway down that ledge was a hard knot of fish. They were suspected to be trout, could be stripers, but they were clearly halfway between the top and bottom of the ledge, right where Dubiel had predicted the fish would be.
In addition to great trout and striper action throughout the colder months, New Bern winter fishing has many other advantages.
First, you don’t have to be at the boat ramp at dawn to try and cash in on an early bite, as the fish will be active later in the morning and throughout the day. Second, the Neuse, Trent, and surrounding creeks offer any number of places that can potentially hold fish, so no matter which way the wind is blowing, there are always several options where you’re guarded from the complications of wind. Third, there’s something surprising and enjoyable about landing striper and trout in the same locales, especially when any bite could also be crappie, bass, perch, or pickerel.
Sneaking in a winter trip for trout and striper can do wonders to hold any angler over until the warmer spring months. For more information or to book a trip, give Capt. Gary Dubiel, of Spec Fever Guide Service, a call at (252) 249-1520, or visit him online at www.specfever.com.
You can then decide for yourself whether you’re a great student or Dubiel’s a great teacher, or maybe you’re the kind of guy that already knows everything about fishing…