North Carolina has several excellent winter fisheries; however, the lower Roanoke River striper fishery is arguably the best in the state for several reasons. Perhaps the most obvious reason is that on any given day, anglers have the opportunity for the illustrious triple-digit catch. Catches of 100-200+ striped bass in a day’s outing are not uncommon. In fact, they are quite normal once the fish have moved up into the river. The second reason the fishery is so good is that on its worst day, anglers can still seem to “scrap out” 20-30 fish just through sheer effort and time spent on the water. A third reason is that these fish are striped bass, which are quality saltwater gamefish. They are aggressive feeders and give a good fight and pull on our medium-light action spinning gear or a 7-9 weight fly rod.
A fourth reason is that it is one of North Carolina’s premier winter fisheries is the scenery. The lower Roanoke River floodplain is one of the largest intact bottomland hardwood forests in the country and the largest in North Carolina. You can catch quality striped bass in a flooded forest in one of the most beautiful settings in Eastern North Carolina. You won’t see any houses other than a rare hunting or fishing cabin along the river, and you’ll mostly be surrounded by mature hardwoods and large tracts of protected land comprising the Roanoke River National Wildlife Refuge. The bottom line is that there are a ton of striped bass in the Roanoke River and Albemarle Sound system, and it’s an ideal training ground for fishing soft plastics in heavy river current or for fly fishermen looking to perfect the technicalities of fishing with heavy sinking lines.
Mostly all of our fishing is with Z-Man soft plastics on 3/8-1/2 ounce jig heads. I use a custom-poured jig head Big Head Jig Heads (email me for contact info) with a double barb (for keeping the Elaztech soft plastic baits from slipping down with the use of super glue) and a 4/0 mustad hook. I also have started using the Weedless 3/8 TT Snakelockz Jig Heads offered by Z-Man. They are great in certain situations where we need to be weedless to fish an area efficiently.
For the Z-Mans, I typically use the 3” MinnowZ, the 4”, 5”, and 7” Diezel MinnowZ, the 5” Scented Jerk Shadz, or the 5” Streakz in pearl, chartreuse, or pink. Sometimes in clearer water I use some natural colors such as Smokey Shad, Pearl/Blue Glimmer, or something similar. For the rods, I use Temple Fork Outfitters Medium-Light Action Tactical Series spinning rods with a 2500 Diawa Ballistic LT spinning reel spooled with 20 pound FINS 40G braid. Flourocarbon leaders are not necessary but do offer a nice connection to the bait. I typically fish with a 2’ 20 pound flouro leader and use a loop knot to the jig head. This gives the bait more action while jigging.
For fly fishing, I typically utilize an 8 weight with 400 grain Rio Striper line (30’ sinking) or even a 9 weight with 450 grain line. For the larger fish over 20”, the 8 and 9 weight are a fine match; however, if catching some 15-20” fish, I prefer a 6-7 weight for the fight. But we are sometimes limited by the line weight, having to go heavier with the rod weight to match the heavier line weight we need to get down to the fish in areas with heavier current or if the fish are a bit deeper. Although many baitfish patterns will work, you can’t go wrong with a clouser minnow in any of the classic striper colors such as Chartreuse, White, or Pink, in solid colors or any combination of those.
Your tackle is important and it’s always a good idea to pay attention to the details and also give yourself every advantage possible by controlling the factors that you can control as an angler and having your gear and terminal tackle rigged up properly; however, the most important aspect of striper fishing in the lower Roanoke is being able to locate fish. If you can find fish, then a lot of the other stuff becomes a little less crucial. The Roanoke River is classified as a “brownwater river” like the Tar or Cape Fear, meaning that it originates in the clay soils of the Piedmont or foothills. Many of its tributaries are blackwater creeks, meaning their headwater originate in the Coastal Plain; therefore, the water is stained black by the tannic acid from the cypress and gum swamps. Our Coastal Plain rivers are no different that any mountain stream in that they have the same features you might be able to easily recognize from a shallow rocky river in the Piedmont or Western North Carolina. The straight sections have “riffles”, meaning they are relatively shallow. The outsides of the curves are the deep “pools” and the inside of the curves have “point bars” or shallow depositional areas. These features give the bed of the river its shape, direction, and depth. Utilizing these features to find depth changes and likely ambush points for the striped bass is the essence of fishing a flowing coastal plain river for stripers and other species.
Striped bass are like any other fish in that they prefer to find a place to sit and ambush bait verses chasing their prey, although they will chase bait when they have to. Finding these types of ambush areas and then figuring out how to get your bait to them so that it looks realistic to them is 80% of the work. The other 20% is execution, meaning making the cast and making sure your presentation is correct. In most cases in the winter, the bait must be bounced or jigged off the bottom. I tell my clients that if you don’t have bottom contact with your bait, you won’t get nearly the bites you would by bouncing the bottom. For those who are not used to fishing in a river with heavy current, this is tougher than it sounds. It requires a tight line and good line management throughout the cast. Often I work with my clients throughout our trip with subtle tips that help them to keep a tight line and feel the bottom.
For jigging, I typically utilize the soft plastic jerk baits or the 3” Minnowz (which is a small swimbait). Other circumstances might require are more suspended presentation where we will utilize the larger 4”-7” swimbaits and just swim them as they are intended to be used. In the correct situation, this can be just as deadly as jigging off the bottom. When we jig off the bottom, we typically cast over a horizontal distance and jig the bait off the bottom as we retrieve it back to the boat. In situations with very heavy current, we sometimes position the boat over the fish and vertically jig directly under the boat. This can be more advantageous in very heavy current where you might not be able to get a good sink rate due to very heavy current or if the fish are in a really tight area.
This fishery can be very technical and has many more technical aspects to it regarding the way water levels affect the fish’s behavior and location, but that stuff has taken me many years and many hard days on the water to learn and I can’t just hand it over to you in this article. If you want to up your game and learn enough about the lower Roanoke striper fishery to add a level of consistency to your fishing, then I encourage you to book a charter. Our winter season usually cranks up around the holidays and we fish this area until we move up the spawning grounds in Weldon about the second week or April. Give us a call, as there’s no better way to learn than by spending time on the water. Even if you never plan on returning to the area, the lower Roanoke River experience in one that every fisherman should enjoy.