Pamlico Bound: North Carolina’s Pamlico Sound is a fishery FOR ALL SEASONS.
By Gary Dubiel
We idled out of the harbor in Oriental, North Carolina onto the Neuse River. The river looks more like a bay at first glance, being around three to four miles wide at Oriental, and this morning the surface was glass-calm. My friend and fellow guide Brian was quiet, but far from calm. This was his first trip to the Pamlico Sound estuary, and his face showed that look of anticipation.
“What are we going after first?” Brian asked.
“We’ll sight fish for reds this morning,” I replied. “I think we’ll start out at a spot where they have been mixed in with specks and grays as of late.”
Red drum, or as we call them here in eastern North Carolina, puppy drum, specks (speckled seatrout) and gray trout (weakfish) are common targets in this vast estuary. With over 2,000 miles of shoreline and 2 million surface acres of water in Pamlico Sound, narrowing the search for redfish might seem quite difficult, almost as difficult as locating that Russian sub. But armed with the right knowledge and a little time, any angler can connect with some world-class redfishing in one of the most beautiful and remote areas on the Eastern Seaboard.
I jumped up on plane after we cleared the marina seawall and headed straight across the Neuse River. After traveling four miles, I settled down a short piece from a small tributary and eased to the mouth under trolling motor power.
I handed Brian a fly rod rigged with a Clouser Minnow. “Cast to the shoreline and bring it out with an erratic retrieve,” I explained. I grabbed my spinning rod and began tossing a soft-plastic minnow on a lead head toward the shoreline. Brian cast to the edge of the marsh and worked the fly as I instructed. He was using a clear, intermediate line, which would be the best choice since we were fishing where the water dropped from 18 inches to four feet. In fact, an Intermediate is my top choice for “search” fishing. It’s best to reserve the floaters for pure sight fishing in the shallowest places.
“Man these fish are fast!” Brian exclaimed after missing a strike.
“Seatrout have great eyesight and don’t push through the bait when they strike.” I explained. “You get little warning that they are about to bite.” And their bite can be soft, too, so it took five or six hits before Brian connected. It wasn’t a giant, but it was a speckled trout around 14 inches long. Brian and I landed several more school-size specks and a gray trout before we spotted a big disturbance about 75 yards in front of us.
“That’s gotta be redfish!” I said. I closed the gap with the trolling motor, then raised it, hopped up on the polling platform, and poled us within 45 feet of a huge school of reds. Brian grabbed his 8-weight outfit and got a fly in front of the push of fish. His line came tight, but then went slack. But he didn’t panic.
“It’s cool man…just drop it right back in there.” One back cast, and Brian shot it right on the mark. And bang! He was back in business. The red made a hard right and headed for the open river. Brian cleared the fly line off the deck and quickly backing ran through the guides. Brian beamed as he fought, landed and released the 6-pounder, his first red on fly.
He looked up at me just smiling, and then realized I was eyeballing the next target. He looked where I pointed, then scrambled to set up for another cast. I poled the boat back toward a tailing fish. The school had broken up, and the fish milled about in small pods, some tailing and some pushing wakes in less than a foot of water. Brian dropped his fly softly within inches of a redfish and twitched it once, twice, and four fish raced for it, and the fight was on again!
“Now that’s what we’re looking for!” I exclaimed. “
“Is it always this easy?” Brian laughed.
Clear flats are limited, though fly fishers and spin fishermen do sight fish throughout Pamlico Sound.
After we landed and released the red, the school moved off to deeper digs. I poled a short distance, but when we realized the window had closed, I hopped to the bow and lowered the trolling motor to do some blind casting along an oyster bar. We landed several more specks, a flounder and a small red, by which time the wind freshened up out of the northeast and the water became choppy. I knew it would not be long before the wide river would become rough.
The Neuse River flows into Pamlico Sound from the west/southwest and strong winds from the east to northeast can make things a bit interesting to say the least for small-boaters. Fortunately the River and Sound have a multitude of creeks and coves. What we refer to as creeks here are actually small rivers lined with tall hardwoods and pine woodlands. This added protection provides anglers with lee shores and fishing opportunities that they would not have elsewhere on the coast. Breezy days can actually be a benefit. There is not much of a tide here, but wind can drive water in and out of the Sound. Around Oriental, on the north bank of the Neuse, easterly winds push water in, essentially creating a flood tide, and appreciable current around points. This sets up good feeding stations for a variety of fish.
Later that morning, we left our starting point, headed upriver, and made a left into the Intracoastal Waterway. As I reached one of my favorite creeks, I dropped off of plane and eased into the shoreline where we were greeted by countless schools of juvenile mullet and menhaden, two of the primary food sources for puppy drum during the fall months.
“Look at the baitfish! Is it always like this?” asked Brian.
“Most of the year,” I said. “Cast up to the bank and work your fly out. Expect a strike within the first 15 feet or so. Sometimes the fish are tight to the shore and sometimes they’re out a bit. We won’t have any sight casting here—the water is two feet deep at the back and it’s a dark bottom.”
While Brian cast, I picked up a spinning rod and I went back to work. It wasn’t long before I had a hookup. A copper flash and a boil told me it was another puppy drum.
Whether you prefer to sight fish exclusively, or mix things up with some blind casting as most local anglers do, light- to medium-action rods with reels holding 6- to 8-pound test are ideal for redfishing or mixed-bag fishing. However, many traditional redfish lures do no not work well in this area. With such an abundance of bait much of the year, the fish can get choosy and are generally not willing to run down topwater or fast-swimming plugs. This is a limited sight fishery. Redfish do not tail here as much as they do in some shallow marshes from Georgia to South Carolina. The Pamlico Sound and Neuse River have miles and miles of shoreline with varying depths to cover, so given a choice, I recommend 1⁄8- to 1⁄4-ounce plastic-tail jigs. You could head out with nothing else in your box and do well with these jigs. They work well in all areas of cover and structure and will elicit strikes from fish that are actively feeding or just cruising the shoreline. As far as color selection goes, dark tails with gold flash score, but all-white, silver and green tails are all top-notch choices. It is usually not necessary to tip the baits with shrimp, as this will often invite more pinfish and croakers than puppy drum, trout and flounder.
It is important to identify the fishiest parts of the typical Pamlico creek. A top spot is a point at a creekmouth. Ideally, it will be partially exposed so as to be easily found. If it is windy, a good wind rip can develop there, which holds bait and attracts gamefish. Locating and fishing “windy” points throughout your fishing day can keep you in the action all day. When it is so windy that holding position with a trolling motor is difficult, it’s best to anchor up within casting distance of a point. However, that’s not a fly rod-friendly situation, and even casting and detecting bites on artificial lures is tougher. It’s then that the bait fisherman has a big advantage.
Several variations in bait presentation will work but one of the most enjoyable, especially when fishing with kids, is to rig with a cork, two splitshots and a circle hook. With the abundance of live bait around here, cast-netting finger mullet, menhaden or shrimp generally requires only a few tosses. Hook the bait, toss it toward the shoreline point and let the bobber drift with the current. Another method that can be even more productive at times is fresh cut mullet, either rigged on a Carolina rig or a jighead.
Though fly rodders intent on sight fishing won’t find expansive flats like those in Florida, South Carolina and other venues, they are certainly not out of luck. There are enough shallow sand flats along shorelines that have pieces of eroded stumps and logs, creating a great place for feeding drum. Reds will often cruise right around the stumps in shallow water.
Pamlico Sound – Fishing Through the Seasons
W hen you arrive at the village of Oriental and first gaze across the wide expanse of the Neuse, you might wonder if you can locate any gamefish in this vast estuary. In reality it is not difficult at all. There are numerous areas of shoreline not only in the river and sound but also in countless creeks. Tall trees protect the shorelines from the wind. There is no rise and fall of water with tides to worry about and most importantly, redfish are widely distributed.
On average, autumn redfish will run 2 to 10 pounds with a fish into the middle teens being caught every day. The reds are schooled, moving and feeding prior to their migration toward the ocean. September, October and early November are peak months for experiencing this kind of fishing day near Oriental. In addition to red drum, spotted seatrout, weakfish, flounder and even striped bass can be taken from the same area on the same baits every fall. Just down the road, near Harkers Island, hundreds of false albacore fishermen race up and down the coast for a shot at a little tunny. The albies can be expected to show along the beaches of Cape Lookout National Seashore, and will take small baitfish flies and small tins and flashy jigs. Most of the fall gray trout (weakfish) catches occur around New Bern, Oriental, Swan Harbor and Mann’s Harbor, and anglers can expect to bag schoolie stripers, specks and flounder in those same locales.
Fall is not the only time to catch reds here, however. Late spring and summer have good fishing as well. In fact, breeding red drum move into the Oriental in summer, and anglers may encounter fish to over 40 pounds, with the occasional 50- to 60-pound brute. Late afternoon and night fishing is best for these “old drum,” around the numerous shoals and reefs throughout Pamlico Sound and the Pamlico and Neuse rivers. Cape Hatteras beaches host classic surf fishing for big reds, and good redfishing and speck fishing centers on the flats inside of Nags Head, Ocracoke and Hatteras inlets. Bluefish, flounder and weakfish round out the cast on the beaches and at the piers.
A supporting cast of cobia and tarpon round out the summer bite. Cobia can be spotted and cast to around buoys, pilings and along tide lines. Our tarpon fishery is being developed, and Oriental even hosts an annual tarpon tournament. The mouths of the Neuse and Pamlico rivers are the places to find the biggest schools of 60- to 150-pounders, and local anglers normally anchor up ahead of traveling fish and chum them into biting a fresh cut bait.
By winter, all thoughts turn to stripers, locally called “rockfish.” The stripers make a trek from the northeast, and North Carolina’s Outer Banks is a top spot for an encounter. Surf and pier anglers score with live bait, cutbait and artificials. Fly fishers cast big flies, and trollers drag diving plugs around the white water around inlet shoals. Smaller, hungry 5- to 15-pound stripers enter Pamlico, Albemarle and Currituck sounds, and fine rock fishing is a wintertime staple in the Pamlico and the Neuse, and nearby Pungo River. The last several winters have produced excellent striper catches in general, particularly for anglers fishing afternoons with bucktails, crankbaits and plugs around structure and bridges of the Neuse River.
If You Go
Most residents of Oriental, North Carolina would be less than surprised to know you have not heard of their sleepy little town. Oriental sits on the northern shore of the Neuse River, fourteen miles upstream of Pamlico Sound.
Known as the Sailing Capital of North Carolina, Oriental has as many sailboats moored at its docks as it has inhabitants. This hamlet has a melting pot of personalities, restaurants with excellent cuisine, motels and bed and breakfasts, and, of course, a tiki bar.
There are bike and kayak rentals, dogs napping in the streets, a public boat ramp in town, but not a traffic light within 12 miles. With all this to offer and countless miles of shoreline, sport fishing remains in its infancy. There are no fancy billboards announcing how wonderful the fishing is, and the fact that you’ll need to drive 10 miles to buy bait and tackle makes it essential to pack all fishing gear that you’ll need.
However, the local Rotary sponsors an annual tarpon tournament which is going on 10 years old. Two of the area’s guides have captured national attention. Renowned angler Bob Clouser not only comes here to fish but hosts an annual fly school and trip. Oriental has everything the visiting angler needs, most importantly fish and plenty of places to chase them. It won’t be long before the rest of the world discovers it, but its saving grace will always be the wide expanse of water and an abundance and variety of gamefish. To help plan your trip to Oriental visit: www.oriental-nc.com, www.visitoriental.com, www.towndock.net, or www.orientalharbor.com.
Inn at Oriental (252) 249-1078;
River Neuse Motel (252) 249-1404
Cartwright House B&B (252) 249-1337
Capt. George Beckwith (252) 249-3101; www.pamlicoguide.com
Capt. Gary Dubiel (252) 249-1520; www.specfever.com
Capt. Derek Jordan (252) 249-0579
Pamlico Bound: North Carolina’s Pamlico Sound is a fishery FOR ALL SEASONS.