RIVER RODEO

HEAD TO NORTH CAROLINA’S NEUSE RIVER TO LASSO A TRUE BULL RED

Saltwater Sportsman - - Float Plan / New Electronics - BY DAVE LEAR

Sud­denly, the wa­ter bulged, and we watched as a bronze tor­pedo ze­roed in on the plug. A beach-ball-size swirl punc­tu­ated by a whin­ing drag con­firmed I was tight to a truly gi­ant red­fish. Fif­teen min­utes and sev­eral rod-bend­ing par­ries around the boat later, my tro­phy was wal­low­ing on its side. We quickly re­leased the 51-pound bull back into the Neuse River shal­lows.

In this age of hy­per­bole, many words like “su­per­star” and “hero” have lost their orig­i­nal luster. Sport fish­ing hasn’t been spared the trend ei­ther, and the best ex­am­ple is “bull red,” which is used far too of­ten. Ex­cept in North Carolina, where red drum the size of Brah­mas re­ally de­serve this spe­cial moniker. These enor­mous fish pour into the brack­ish Neuse River via the Ore­gon and Beau­fort in­lets start­ing in July, and the short spawn­ing win­dow of­fers out­stand­ing odds at a ci­ta­tion catch — a fish ex­ceed­ing 40 inches. Gen­uine tro­phies like the one I landed are also fairly com­mon.

“The Neuse River is re­ally a brack­ish es­tu­ary,” says Capt. Ge­orge Beck­with, who has spe­cial­ized in gi­ant reds on these wa­ters for more than 20 years. “This is re­ally the spawn­ing fac­tory for North Carolina’s red­fish. The ju­ve­niles will stay in­side for three to four years un­til they grow to more than 30 inches, then they’ll move off­shore be­fore re­turn­ing ev­ery sum­mer. If the full moon is late in September, they’ll bug out right after that. By Oc­to­ber, the big fish will usu­ally be back out along the Outer Banks.”

Cus­tom Rig

The river has very lit­tle cur­rent, so Beck­with and other guides de­pend on the wind to move wa­ter and fish. He an­chors near shoals, starts chum­ming, and lets the fish come to him. There are times, how­ever, when the reds will cor­ral men­haden on the sur­face, froth­ing the wa­ter white while feed­ing. Beck­with has also wit­nessed big bulls chas­ing small floun­der to the top where they’ll skip like Fris­bees in an at­tempt to es­cape. In calm wa­ter on top of shal­low bars, the reds will lay up, barely mov­ing, with dor­sal fins or tails ex­posed, which re­quires a stealthy ap­proach. But the an­chor-and-chum method is the most com­mon tac­tic.

“It ain’t pretty fish­ing, but it sure works,” he says. “The big­ger fish will be in deeper wa­ter.”

Beck­with’s typ­i­cal arse­nal is 20-pound-class spin­ning rods loaded with 300 yards of monofil­a­ment or braid, and

set at 4 to 6 pounds of drag. Us­ing a Bi­mini twist, he ties on a 6-foot wind-on leader of 60- or 80-pound mono or flu­oro to pro­tect against chaf­ing from other lines or fish. The fi­nal piece of ter­mi­nal tackle is the Owen Up­ton red drum rig. Named for the long­time lo­cal guide and avid con­ser­va­tion­ist, this in­no­va­tive setup was de­signed to pre­vent gut-hook­ing. Us­ing a short sec­tion of 100-pound fluoro­car­bon leader, the rig in­cludes a snelled Mus­tad or Ea­gle Claw cir­cle hook up to 14/0 in size. The small rigs have a 2-ounce egg sinker, while the larger ones bump up to 3 ounces. The leader length is 3 to 5 inches (al­ways less than 6). Rig­ging beads (of any color) lock ev­ery­thing in place, with the line dou­bled be­tween the sinker and the crimps.

“It’s re­ally a hard con­cept for peo­ple to grasp at first,” Beck­with ex­plains. “But the weight ac­tu­ally drags the hook to the cor­ner of the mouth to pre­vent gut-hook­ing. The amount of gut-hooked fish is less than 4 per­cent since I started us­ing this rig.”

For bait, Beck­with uses chunks of freshly caught mul­let. Men­haden cut in half is an­other option. He cuts the tails off those to put out more scent. Beck­with nor­mally fishes up to six rods at a time.

“You don’t want to have more than you can eas­ily get to,” he ad­vises. “I tell my clients if the rod bounces or moves, pick it up and start wind­ing. Don’t set the hook! I don’t like to put too much pres­sure on these fish. They wear out soon enough.”

Beck­with av­er­ages 10 fish per trip dur­ing the peak sea­son, although it’s not un­usual to catch 30. On a re­ally good day, ev­ery client records a cou­ple of ci­ta­tion-size fish.

“The largest fish I’ve heard of is 62 inches,” he adds. “But when you’re talk­ing about fish of this size that pull as hard as they do, it’s all good. That’s also why fish­ing with ar­ti­fi­cials has taken off. Many

an­glers want to take it to the next level, es­pe­cially once they’ve al­ready landed a cou­ple on bait.”

Fake ’Em Out

Capt. Mitchell Blake is one of the top guides in the area who caters to lure and fly-fish­er­men. In ad­di­tion to big Yo-zuri pen­cil pop­pers, Darters and Zara Spooks, Blake of­ten arms his clients with D.O.A. or Z-man swim­baits rigged with up to 30 inches of 40-pound leader and hand-poured ¼-ounce jig heads with 8/0 hooks. The soft-plas­tic lures, which are about the same size as the for­age mul­let and po­gies, are run be­hind a Blab­ber Mouth plas­tic pop­ping cork to cre­ate com­mo­tion.

“These fish are an­gry,” Blake says. “When you get a group to­gether, they try to out-eat each other. I of­fer them a choice be­tween nat­u­ral and loud. I gen­er­ally go with pearl or light bel­lies and gray or char­treuse back pat­terns, but I’ve prob­a­bly caught more tro­phy fish on loud lures. You want it to stand out. If it’s calm, I’m corkin’. If it’s choppy, the corks are ef­fec­tive too.”

Us­ing his Mo­torguide trolling mo­tor mounted on the stern of his cus­tom­ized 235 C-hawk cen­ter con­sole, Blake tar­gets the river’s sandy shoals or con­tour lines. Bait schools get spe­cial at­ten­tion. Salin­ity af­fects where the fish will con­gre­gate from year to year, and they’ll typ­i­cally drop off the deeper edges dur­ing heavy boat traf­fic.

“I tell my clients to make the long­est casts they can, let the lure hit the bot­tom, and rip it back up be­fore let­ting it drop again so it yo-yos through the wa­ter col­umn. If the bait is ner­vous, there’s fish un­der­neath, so fan-cast all around be­fore mov­ing on,” Blake says.

No Bull

The shal­low depths of the Neuse (24 feet or less with an av­er­age of 16 feet) also of­fer ex­cel­lent op­por­tu­ni­ties for fly-rod­ders look­ing to score gi­ant red drum. Blake rec­om­mends 10-weight out­fits with 25- to 30-pound fluoro­car­bon tip­pets. He ties on big streamer pat­terns to mimic the bait, rigged with stout hooks for faster sinking and strength. He’ll some­times tie a Cam Sigler foam pop­per a foot in front of the half-and-half pat­tern flies to add some noise.

“When the fish are thick, you can some­times catch up to a dozen, but that’s the ex­cep­tion, not the rule,” says Blake, whose per­sonal best is a 54-incher. “Three or four on lure or fly is a fan­tas­tic day. These are 30-plusyear-old tro­phy drum, and they truly are the fish of a life­time.”

I agree, with­out hes­i­ta­tion. Rompin’, stompin’ and mean, Neuse River red drum truly de­serve the honor of be­ing called bull reds.

GI­ANT: Few places of­fer tro­phy reds as con­sis­tently as North Carolina.

MI­GRANTS: Big reds leave the es­tu­ary only to re­turn to spawn ev­ery year.

Owen Up­ton Red Drum Rig

Crimp to se­cure Cir­cle hook 2- to 3-ounce egg sinker 100-pound fluoro­car­bon Snell to hook Swivel Plas­tic beads

RE­LEASED: An­other bull red lives to fight an­other day.

THE PRIZE: The Neuse River up­holds its rep­u­ta­tion as a tro­phyred­fish fish­ery.

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