Off the Porch: It's on like ping pong on the Roanoke
Reluctantly, I opened the bottle of alcohol based hand sanitizer and squirted a good sized dollop into my hand. I briskly rubbed my hands in a washing, cleansing motion and endured the pain. After all, as I always say, stuff that will kill an ordinary man, causes me minor discomfort. I suppose the discomfort was minor, but almost every finger and especially my left thumb burned like fire where hundreds of striped bass had abraded, cut, scratched, punctured, finned, bit, and scraped my hands over the last four days. As they used to say in the old days, your correspondent has been in the field in order to file an accurate report. Well, it wasn’t the field, it was the river.
I suppose I could be accused of over covering the current spawning run of striped bass on the Roanoke River, but trust me; this is a fishing event of epic proportions. In my own personal research over the last four days, I have surveyed the river extensively and I can tell you, it is infested with stripers. I began my research this week on Tuesday and by 2 p.m. we had caught over 100 stripers from the smallest fish of about 14” up to our largest at about 24”. On Wednesday, the fishing was even better with 120 fish by 1 p.m., and I went out alone after my anglers left and caught 26 in just over an hour. Thursday was even better. Our conservative guess was that we caught 180 fish by the end of the day, around 3 p.m., and many times, all three of us had a fish on at the same time.
Over the years, the Roanoke River has proven to be one of the best fishing venues on the East Coast during the spring spawning run, but the peak years I’ve experienced happened about ten years ago. In recent years daily tallies have run from 40 to 80 fish, good numbers for fishing anywhere, but much less the glory days of the late 1990’s and early 2000’s when 100 fish was a slow day. This year, the fishing is back to those levels; every guide I talked to reported over 100 fish days for their clients.
These fish have swam up from the Albemarle Sound over the last couple of months to spawn and they’re so stacked up, they often black out a depth finder under the boat. When the river warms up to 68 degrees, the females will begin to release their eggs while surrounded by excited males. The larger females will be surrounded by a cluster of males as large as a Volkswagen and as the swarm rises to the surface, it’s so dense the upper fish often get pushed completely out of the water flopping on the backs of their friends. When I left the river, the water temperature was 66 degrees, so the spawn will begin soon.
At this point, the fishing is catch and release only; the keeper season ended on April 30th. Anglers can only use single barbless hooks and should be careful to handle fish carefully to assure their survival. Properly handled fish have an extremely low mortality rate. While there are a lot of fish in the river, they tend to school up and it makes sense to hire a guide for your first trip to allow you to learn the ropes.
Water levels on the Roanoke are controlled by the dams above the river and often change rapidly, at lower flow rates, below 4,000 cubic feet per second, the river can be a bit tricky due to exposed rocks around and below the boat ramps. Currently, river conditions are close to optimal at around 8,000 cubic feet per second. Almost any rocks you could hit down river from the boat ramp are clearly visible. Boating above the ramp shouldn’t be attempted by those who don’t know the river. Not only is that part of the river potentially harmful to your boat, it’s downright dangerous.
Most anglers drift with live shad or bass minnows. Shad seem to work best but are more expensive and harder to keep alive. Drift with ¼ ounce bullet weights Carolina rigged or fish them below the boat while anchored with ½ ounce or more, depending on current. You can also suspend baits under slip bobbers. Jigs, especially those primed with Berkley Gulp work well. Try 4” minnow shapes in pastel pinks, greens, and blues for best results. Jig fishing requires some finesse; you’ll need to work close to the bottom without tangling on the myriad of obstacles that line the river bottom. A good fly angler can catch as many as any other method, provided he has the right gear. You’ll need a fairly high sink rate rig to throw medium sized Clousers and Deceivers in pastel colors and grey and white.
No matter how you like to fish, the Roanoke is hot now and probably will be through most of May. Hard core anglers and novices alike can have a great day and catch staggering numbers.
The Roanoke River is one of the best fishing opportunities in America but it can be a daunting place on your first trip. Of course some might not have a suitable boat for river fishing, but there are excellent guides who can not only provide you with a great day of fishing, but will be happy to ecucate you on how to fish the river. My favorites are listed below.
Greg Griffith specializes in anchored fishing. He uses both bottom and slip float fishing off a 24 foot Carolina Skiff. Greg’s methods work really well for beginners as well as those who like a more leisurely way of fishing. greggofish.com
Rod Thomas normally drifts the river with live shad from a 22 foot Pioneer Center Console. He’s great with novice anglers and kids. captainponytail.com
Bryan Dehart specializes on more advanced fly and jig anglers. Bryan has a quiet but informal style of guiding and makes a great teacher. If you fish with Bryan, you’ll leave the boat smarter. fishingthefield.blogspot.com
Dick Jones is an award winning freelance writer living in High Point. He writes about hunting, fishing, dogs, and shooting for national magazines and websites. He recently finished his first book, Off the Porch. If you’d like to have him speak to your group, or would like a copy of his book, he can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or offtheporchmedia.com.