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