Striped Bass Bonanza: Fishing North Carolina’s Lower Roanoke River

By: Frank Jones

Always on the Lookout for Small Waters

Last month I shared some of the many different types of small waters there are to explore and enjoy. One of the those was the category of smaller areas of larger lakes and rivers. With this in mind I thought I would share the story of one of my top 5 fishing trips. The story is one of fishing the lower end of the Roanoke River in eastern North Carolina in the late winter and early spring. This story is about my original trip to the river which was on a larger bass boat, but what I discovered on this trip were some smaller areas of the river that I have since returned to successfully fish with my Twin Troller X10. During the trip I was on constant lookout for where and how we were fishing the river and how it could be broken down to smaller parts that could be explored. Because of this approach I have returned multiple times on small water adventures to target some of the most productive parts of the river. I hope you enjoy this story and that it results in you always keeping an eye out for those small water treasures.

Over the years I have heard of springtime fishing in eastern North Carolina’s “upper” Roanoke River during the famous striped bass spawning run. It has been on my bucket list of fishing trips for some time. Earlier this year while attending a local fishing expo, I met Capt. Scooter Lilley of CWW Inshore Charters (252-799-9536). We talked about the Roanoke and I mentioned my desire to fish that river. Scooter, being the great guy he is, gave me a pointer or two. “If you really want a great experience, you need to fish in the winter months. From November through March, the striped bass will winter and begin to move upriver. In the LOWER end, it’s not uncommon for my clients to have 100-fish days!” I wasn’t born yesterday, and I have been known to tell a good fish tale or two, but I wondered why I had never heard of these “100-fish” days before!! I mean, come on, that’s not the kind of thing that can be kept secret but so long!

A short while after our initial meeting, I got a call from Scooter with an invitation to join him for a day on the water during the middle of February. “Frank.. how would you like to go fishing one day?” I quickly replied, “How about tomorrow?” Lucky for me he was serious and we made a date! Little did I know, I was in store for one of the most amazing fishing days of my life.

The next day I woke up at 4:45am to the loud crack of thunder and heavy rain. I thought Mother Nature was going to put a stop to this fishing trip. A quick check of the radar…to  my disappointment the storm was headed straight for my destination of Jamesville, NC. Knowing my drive was going to be about 2 ½ hours, and seeing how fast the storm was moving, I looked at my watch and it said “time to go fishing”. Out the door I went! Sometimes in life things don’t look promising at the start of the day, but they turn out great! This was one of those days! After driving in rain the entire trip, would you believe it stopped raining 15 minutes after I met up with Scooter?! We launched his Triton bass boat from the Wildlife Ramp on the west side of Jamesville, NC, and we arrived at our first stop after a short run up the river.

The area in which we had stopped looked just like any other spot on the river to me, but Capt. Scooter assured me that was not the case. “River fishing is different from other types of fishing. You’re not looking for major structure changes but rather small changes in the river that cause minor changes in current and water color. People can fish the Roanoke for years and if they don’t know what to look for, they go right past some of the most productive locations on the river. I’ve got 30 years experience fishing this river and I learn a little something new each time I’m on the water.” After tying on a 3/8 oz jig head and a 5-inch paddle tail grub, my first cast proved that he knew what he was talking about. That first cast produced a fat 3-lb Striper, and over the next 2 ½ hours the action was non-stop! We lost count at around 100 fish caught in a stretch of the river no longer than 300 yards. “Not everyone can catch these fish” said Capt. Scooter, “you have to cast

The perfect small water hideaway, Back Water Creek

to the right location and let the lure drift and sink with the current. That’s the trick. If you don’t put the lure in the right location, or if you get impatient and reel it in before it gets to the right depth, you’ll catch a few fish but not the numbers we’re catching today.”

Scooter with striped bass

It’s hard for me to leave fish while they’re biting, but around 1:30pm Capt. Scooter assured me that no fishing trip to this part of the river was complete without a lunch stop at the famous Cypress Grill in Jamesville. The Cypress Grill is located right on the river and has been in business for decades serving fried fish to locals and fishermen from around the world. Fried herring is the specialty of the house this time of year and I highly recommend it. I had the salted herring with a little vinegar, and it’s a real treat! After our short break it was time to get back on the water, and though we had left the fish biting, Capt. Scooter wanted to show me some more of the river and try something a little different. After spending 3  hours of almost constant action in the morning, I was game for a change- even if it meant the fishing slowed down. Boy, was I in for a surprise!

The lower end of the Roanoke has a number of small “back water” feeder creeks and we went looking for one to see if the fish had moved into them. The week before this trip, North Carolina had been hit with our second snow storm of the season, but the week of my trip we were finally seeing our first string of warmer days. Even though the day had started out with rain and temps in the 40’s, the afternoon had cleared up and warmed to the mid 60’s with some sunshine. Scooter shared some more information, “This time of year these creeks can warm up a couple of degrees in the afternoon. That will be enough to send the Stripers up the creeks looking to feed. When this happens, they are often bigger fish. You don’t usually catch the numbers, but you make up for it in size”. We pulled into one of these creeks and started using a different technique than what we had used that morning. “These feeder creeks don’t have the same current as the main river so instead of letting the lure drift and sink, we’re going to be fan casting across the creek and slow reel the same lure as we used this morning”, Scooter informed me. The first part of the creek didn’t produce a fish and we considered moving to another location, but roughly halfway up the creek, we caught our first fish. The next 2 hours were once again fast and furious!! The biggest fish of the day, about 8 lbs, was caught in the morning with the average fish being about 2 ½ lbs. The afternoon catch averaged 3 ½ to 4 lbs with a number of 5-lb fish…all full of fight!!!

I had my doubts at the fishing show, but now I’m a believer in fishing the LOWER Roanoke in late winter thru early spring for fast Striped Bass action. Capt. Scooter assured me that this day was extraordinary. We lost count of the fish somewhere north of 100, but that on an average day this time of year, in this part of the river, it is common to catch 50 fish. Now that’s a great day on the water for anyone!!

The key to the Roanoke River is knowing the water, and Capt. Scooter Lilley of CWW Inshore Charters (252-799-9536) is one of the most experienced guides in the area. My advice- your office work will always wait for you! Take a day off and go fishing!! Give Capt. Scooter a call, grab a buddy, and go experience the world class fishing of the Lower Roanoke River.

Note; Sad to report that since this article was written the original Cypress Grill location on the river has burnt down. Good news it they have relocated just down the road in Willaimston, NC at 819 East Blvd. You can’t get there from the water but it’s the same great food and a must stop when you are in the area.

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