By Tim Glover, Charlottesville Shop Manager
Winter is the perfect time to reflect on past fishing adventures, and to daydream about the nice weather arriving with spring. Reels and other equipment are cleaned and repaired. Fly boxes are filled again as the tying table looks more inviting than the cold. Well, maybe if you live somewhere else, but fortunately North Carolina offers excellent winter fly fishing opportunities for red drum and other species along the coast. If you enjoy sight-casting to fish in shallow water, than red drum are the right target, and a window of nice weather is the perfect opportunity.
Along the North Carolina coast, good weather for sight-fishing means light winds, bright sun, and mild temperatures. Then all you need is the ability to coordinate the weather with time off (if you figure out how to do this please let me know, as my abilities are more suited to taking the day off during gale warnings). And if you like to sleep a little later, then winter is the perfect time to relax, read the paper, drink some coffee and get on the water after the sun drives away the shadows and the chill (somewhere around 8:30 or 9:00 is usually early enough).
Finding drum in winter means covering lots of water. The good news is that finding fish usually results in really finding fish! Unlike summer, when fish scatter and follow the more abundant forage, in winter drum school together in large numbers, from small schools of 20 or so to as many as several hundred. With the water clearing up for the season, a bright sunny day makes spotting a large school easy, if you happen to be looking in the right area. It sounds simple enough, but there is a lot of water out there, the conditions are often less than perfect, and a giant school of drum can hide in a surprisingly small area.
To increase your chances of finding fish, focus on areas where the water temperatures are usually a little warmer in winter. Where I fish (the Wilmington area) this includes places with dark bottom (brackish creeks), the edges of deeper channels, and the surf zone. When temperatures drop dramatically and the wind blows hard, shallow areas inshore cool off rapidly. After a cold night, the water temperature in some areas may drop 10 degrees or more. The ocean temperature outside is more constant, so drum can avoid drastic temperature changes by staying in the surf, or by hanging on the edges of deeper channels, particularly near the inlets where the flow of tide keeps the temperature from dropping rapidly. Brackish, dark-bottom creeks are a good place to look, particularly on a mild sunny day when the water may be several degrees warmer than other places. I offer this information only as a guideline for where to start looking, with the admission that my understanding of drum behavior changes every time I get it wrong (which is often). The best way to find a big school of drum is to cover as much water as possible when the conditions allow.
Once you find fish, their cooperation may depend on how warm it is… if the water temperatures climb into the 50 degree range, they usually are not picky. When the water is cold and clear, sometimes it seems there is nothing they will eat. In these situations, try using small baitfish imitations such as pearl copperheads, small surf candies, or small shrimp patterns with a slower retrieve. If you are poling or using a trolling motor, try to stay a distance of a long cast away from the fish, as they are very spooky when the water is clear. When possible, lead the fish with a cast that moves the fly away from them, never towards them. If your position makes this impossible, then move or wait for a better shot. Drum will often circle back to where you first spot them, if given a chance to settle down. Though it is tempting when you see a big school of drum, pushing after them aggressively and casting across their backs so the fly moves towards them rarely produces strikes. Anchoring at a distance or moving slowly and quietly will result in more opportunities to catch fish.
On a recent day off, the first in over a month not matched perfectly to miserable weather, I watched from the poling platform as a friend dropped a cast into a large school of drum. The fish were rolling on their sides, their scales flashing sunlight, giving us a clear target to present a long cast to… when the fly settled into the school, several drum turned and followed it aggressively. I watched as one of them inhaled it, and a second later the line tightened under a clean strip-strike. After several long runs, another drum of close to 7 pounds was beside the boat… one of many caught that day.
When I got home, I stashed my fly rods in the corner of the garage, where they still dripped from hosing them down. One of them was crusted with salt where I missed a spot, and my tackle bag was a mess of tangled leader, extra spools and layers of gloves, hats and fleece stripped off and stashed as the day warmed. The console of the boat was littered with hastily changed flies, and one of my fly lines was about ready to break in several spots where it was nicked, or the coating was coming apart. I guess my gear will never get the attention it needs in the winter, my fly selection will dwindle until we get another bad stretch of weather, and the list of home improvements will grow longer. Maybe tomorrow I will catch up on everything…but first I need to check the marine forecast!