Spring Fishing: The Big Thaw is On

BY Gretchen Nash

Fish and fishermen are warming up to spring’s wake-up call as water temperatures climb into the 60s and 70s. In April menhaden finger mullet and glass minnows migrate from the south and wait for Springtime to work her magical warming trend before heading toward inshore creeks and shallow waters. Like clockwork the big fish that schooled in the deeper waters of the ocean during the winter season ravenously follow the bait. And anglers likewise follow the fish shaking out cast nets and restocking tackle boxes for the new season.

We asked three fishermen — a fishing guide a local fisherman and a tackle shop owner — to share some of their favorite thoughts on successful inshore fishing this spring. Whether you’re fishing for redfish bluefish flounder or speckled trout this season their experiences might give you a few new ideas to take with you.

The Guide

It’s like a light switch ” says Capt. Jon Huff of the fish that explode to life with the coming of spring. Huff who captains a 56-foot sportfishing boat for offshore trips is also a well-known local fishing guide who chases redfish flounder and speckled trout from his 17-foot Maverick Master Angler. He prefers to stalk the inshore waters stretching from the mouth of the Cape Fear River to Topsail including creeks flats and inlets.

Huff specializes in inshore light-tackle flats fishing especially sight-fishing for redfish with a fly or light spin tackle. “In the spring we’ll fish for speckled trout puppy drum and then a few errant species some bluefish. If it’s beautiful we’ll go outside; otherwise I don’t leave the inlet ” he says.

Redfish also called drum or channel bass have a reddish coloration one or more dark spots at the base of their tails and they can be found around docks inlets creek mouths and flats along the Intracoastal Waterway.

Flats are large expanses of shallow water with oyster bars grass edges little channels and deeper holes. Because redfish are easily spooked anglers sneak across the flats in a flat-bottomed skiff using a push pole to reach shallow areas. It’s a challenging endeavor but clear water a parting gift from winter makes sight fishing for schools of redfish a little easier says Huff. A school of redfish looks like an “oyster bar that moves a little ” he explains. “Imagine somebody pulling a brick on a string along the bottom. When you’re in water 2 feet or less say on the flats and hunting for drum either schools or singles and you can see them before you cast to them — it’s pretty exciting.”

Redfish congregate on flats because it’s where the food is. “There are a lot of crabs small crustaceans worms and shrimp snails and they use some of these flats to corral bait ” he explains. “I have places that at dead low tide will be bone dry; we’ll actually wait on the edges and come in with the tide. And it almost seems like these fish have been waiting to get back onto these areas. They know what the tides are doing. They know where they need to get to and they’re like ‘Smorgasbord!’”

For fishermen who want to fish for drum using light tackle as opposed to flies Huff suggests live bait such as fresh shrimp; top water plugs because they allow anglers to cover a broad area and don’t get hung up in the grass beds; and soft plastic jigs and jerk baits such as the popular Berkley Gulp!

The Local Fisherman

Local inshore fisherman Phil Livesay likes to include his family on early spring fishing trips. “My kids particularly enjoy surf fishing and getting the first run of sharks bluefish and drum ” he says from his office on Oleander Drive. Last spring Livesay and his two sons camped and fished specifically for the early run of sharks close to the inlet on the incoming tide an hour or so after the tide had switched. Within six hours they had reeled in and released 25 to 30 sharks.

“For children that are just getting introduced to fishing — catching a lot of times is the most important part because it keeps their interest up ” he says. “I’ve found that as I’m fishing with my family and friends a lot of times the particular quarry isn’t as important as the activity.”

They also fish for sheepshead recognized by its silvery body and five or six dark diagonal bars along its sides. They hang out around structures like docks jetties markers and old pilings and use their long teeth to scrape off barnacles and dine on mollusks and crabs.

Livesay scrapes the sides of pilings with a flat-head shovel to knock off barnacles creating a small feeding frenzy in the water. He uses a stout rod with braided line puts a fiddler crab on a large shank hook and waits. “They’re very difficult to hook because their mouths are really hard and they’ve got a soft bite ” he cautions first-timers. “They’ll come up crunch the crab and then suck it in. So a lot of times you might have a 5- to 6-pound fish that you can barely feel — other than a slight sensation. So you almost have to hook it based on when you think he’s going to bite not on when you feel him.”

Like Huff Livesay prefers either fly-fishing or fishing with light tackle particularly for redfish speckled trout and flounder. When searching for redfish he looks for some telltale signs in the water. “You see some coloration differences. You can even see what look like little Vs where something’s moving fast under the water you can see some ripples coming up behind them.”

Flounder on the other hand are nearly impossible to spot so Livesay fishes their feeding areas. When fishing the backwaters of the Intracoastal Waterway he suggests searching for a creek that empties into a larger creek. Look for a deep hole at that location and as the tide drops flounder will set up close to the hole and feed on the minnows as they’re coming out. He also fishes for flounder around structures like piers where shallow water drops off to fairly deep water. “The closer to the pier it is the greater its chances of holding a flounder. And better still if there’s a creek close by it’s like the triple whammy ” he says.

For live baits try using a Carolina rig with a live tiger minnow finger mullet or a mud minnow to catch flounder. “I probably use soft plastic-bodied baits as much as anything which most people know as grubs ” he explains. “They’ve now got artificial grubs with scents impregnated in them. And that’s probably one of the biggest changes in grub fishing that I’ve seen since I’ve been fishing.”

Both Livesay and Huff agree that even the best advice can never replace time spent on the water. “If you’re going to be out there day in and day out you’re going to learn a whole lot more than fishing once every month or month and a half. And keeping a journal makes a big difference because you can learn what worked and what didn’t ” says Livesay who has recorded tides water temperatures and atmospheric conditions for almost 30 years. “The best fishermen allocate five six seven hours a day even inshore. If you’re out there for a day chances are sometime during that day you’re going to have a successful run.”

The Tackle Shop

If you can’t hire a fishing guide and your fishing buddy’s out of town then call your next best friend and advisor sitting behind the counter at the tackle shop. He can tell you everything from what’s biting to which lure to use.

If bluefish are the first fish of the spring season then let Tex Grissom owner of Tex’s Tackle in Wilmington guide you through his aisles of jigs and bucktails that uncannily resemble big-eyed glass minnows and other live bait. “Got-cha plugs are excellent for the bluefish when they first show up ” he says from his shop. “They’re used from the beach mainly the fishing piers like Johnnie Mercer’s Pier but they work good off the boat too. And they’re excellent for bluefish sometimes Atlantic bonito — we get false albacore first thing in the spring and they’ll (Got-cha plugs) work for them as well as a lot of little jigs and bucktails that work well.”

Grissom’s favorite jig for bluefish is a Don’s jig a lead-head jig made with Mylar to make it flash and a little bucktail at the end of it. “And then you’ve got your standard bucktails and they come in a variety of sizes and colors some of them fancy some of them not and all that stuff works ” he says. “These would be used on a lighter outfit not like a big 10-foot rod where you’re throwing a big chunk of bait out there. But you know a big chunk of bait works for the drum and bluefish in the surf.”

In the spring bluefish can be found at the Liberty ship or one of the inshore reefs. “A lot of times we’ll go out there in the springtime the bluefish are so thick and most of the time they’re real tiny ones. But that’s fine. It’s the first fish of the spring and everybody just wants to catch something ” says Grissom who also catches blues around the jetties creeks and waterway. “In the springtime we do get some really big blues 9 to 11 pounds that seem to be getting more and more common in the spring.”

After the blues show up Atlantic bonito make an appearance as water temps continue to climb. “You catch them near the beach somewhat but they’re generally a little farther offshore in the 2- to 10-mile range ” he says. “Atlantic bonitos are like baby tuna fish. And everybody thinks they’re false albacore but they’re not. You can tell they’re Atlantic bonito real easy because it looks like a small tuna but he has teeth like a mackerel. Light tackle is the best. They’re anywhere from about 3 pounds to 8 or 9 pounds. And on light tackle it’s a hoot.”

Spring’s magic formula draws fish from their deep ocean waters to the creeks and flats along our coast. Like fish fishermen also gravitate toward warm water and sunny days. “Everybody’s ready for springtime because they’ve been sitting around watching football and basketball ” says Grissom. “Hunting season’s over and they’re ready to go fishing. Everything’s coming back to life.”