CHERRY POINT — Winter is no reason to put your fishing gear into hibernation.
Some of the most consistent and predictable fishing for spotted sea trout takes place along North Carolina's central coast from January through March. You just need to dig out your long johns, fishing mittens and hand warmers.
And you need a plan.
"Winter fishing requires winter strategy, depending on the water temperature," Rick Patterson, who runs Cape Crusader Charters in Cape Carteret, said on a recent frosty morning on Slocum Creek, a Neuse River tributary in Craven County.
Patterson started the morning with water temperatures in the low 40s, working the water from 10- to 20-feet deep. He moved closer to the shoreline "once the sun got up" and started to pick up a few fish.
In the fall, most speckled trout move out from the state's internal waters, sounds, rivers and marshes, following the fleeing mullet baitfish into the ocean to winter offshore. However, many trout stay behind, moving up into creeks to wait out the winter.
Many of these creeks have water deep enough to protect the fish from occasional freezes, dark muddy flats to warm the fish during sunny days and a convenient resident source of food throughout the winter.
Slocum Creek is one of many creeks that trout move into when water temperatures drop. Another such stream near Marine Corps Air Station Cherry Point is Hancock Creek.
Slocum is typical of the many of the winter trout creeks. Most of the creek is four to five feet.
"You have to get way up above the bridge on the base in the narrows to get to where the deeper water is," Patterson said.
Picking the right bait is important.
Patterson prefers several of the hard plastic jerkbaits made by MirrOlures jerkbaits, such as the MR 27s, MR 17s, 52M, TT and Catch 2000. He also likes Berkley Gulp! in the shrimp pattern.
Pogies on 1/16-ounce or 1/8-ounce jig head is another option.
Patterson keeps color simple; He likes pearl white.
"That's my standard color," he said. "I don't use a whole lot of different colors, because I always seem to do the best on those."
Natural baits such as mud minnows may work for some trout anglers in the Neuse River creeks. Patterson hasn't had much success with them there, but at the Cape Lookout rock jetty they have worked well for him.
The key to using mud minnows this time of year is to put them on a split-shot rig with the split shots crimped 20 to 24 inches above small circle hooks. Float corks work on them as well.
Mind the line
Most serious trout fishermen prefer modern super-braided lines over monofilament lines.
"You have so much more feel, it's a lot more sensitive than mono is," Patterson said.
He prefers a 15-pound test braid that has the diameter of 4- or 6-pound monofilament.
Trout have keen eyesight, so a stealthy fluorocarbon leader is an important addition to not-so-stealthy braided line.
He uses a pair of uni knots to bind the lines.
"I like to try to match the fluorocarbon to the size of the line that I'm fishing with," Patterson said.
Rod and reel are typically light. Patterson uses a spinning reel that's rated to hold 150 yards of 12-pound monofilament and a 7-foot medium light-action rod.
Plenty of places
Aside from the Neuse River locations, the central coast has many accessible locations that yield citation trout.
Among the best locations are the rock jetties at Cape Lookout and at Fort Macon in Atlantic Beach.
Other areas include the Newport River marshes known as the Haystacks, as well as the creeks on the north side of Bogue Sound along N.C. 24, including Spooner's, Pelletier, Gayle's and Broad and Deer, which hold citation trout throughout the winter.
Continuing west, trout anglers find success in the White Oak River from the bridges in Swansboro up to the Stella Bridge and then a little farther west to Queens Creek.
The myriad of channels and creeks behind Bear Island, part of Hammock's Beach State Park, also can be trout havens.
This day in the brackish waters of Slocum, with Marine jets flying overhead, produced several nice speckled trout along with a largemouth bass, a chain pickerel and a puppy drum - quite an inshore variety for an icy winter morning.