Chris House’s busy schedule allows only one weekend day for fishing. He heard the shad were running at Cape Fear River Lock and Dam No. 1 in Bladen County and wanted to catch some of the shiny fish for catfish bait and because they are fun to catch. While the run usually peaks in April, he was unable to go until Sunday, May 1.
“I know they run when the dogwoods are blooming,” said House, 47, an analytical chemist for Fortron Industries. “The dogwoods in my yard still are, so I wanted to try.”
We met in downtown Wilmington and drove the ramp that gives access to the base of the lock and the river downstream of the rock arch rapid, a stepping stone arrangement of boulders going over the dam to enable fish to leap upstream to reach historic spawning areas. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers finished the rock arch rapid in 2010.
After arriving, House kept checking a cellular phone. In between red and orange thunderstorms showing on the screen, he walked down the ramp to cast shad darts to the base of the lock without any luck.
Finally, the sky cleared, we launched and motored to a seam in the river current. He had watched fish rolling and jumping. No one else was fishing.
“It must be the rain that is keeping them away,” he said. “But I really wanted to come and try.”
After anchoring the boat, we began casting darts, as the cone-shaped lead-head jigs with tiny tufts of hair are called. On the second cast, we hooked a fish that turned out to be not a shad, but a striped bass.
“I heard there are a lot of them in the river,” he said. “There is a moratorium on keeping them, so we have to let it go.”
While we kept seeing fish that were obviously shad, jumping and creasing the top of the water with their dorsal fins, none would bite. Several shad-less hours later House hauled out the boat and headed for home.
The trip precipitated a call to Michael Fisk, N.C. Wildlife Resources Commission’s District 4 Fisheries Biologist. The Commission conducts surveys of fish through electro-fishing, angler surveys and sampling for eggs.
“We have been sampling the river since mid-March,” Fisk said. “Last week was the first week we saw striped bass in decent numbers and the fish are 14 to 32 inches long. The shad have mostly moved upriver to Locks and Dams No. 2 and 3, so you probably would have had better luck up that way.”
It was a good sign that the fish were successfully navigating the rock arch rapid, with shad and striper numbers higher than in past years above what had formerly been an impassible obstacle.
When striped bass and shad are migrating, the locks are operated on a defined schedule to ensure at least some of them can spawn in the upper river. But, the Cape Fear River partnership, which includes many organizations and governments concerned with all aspects of the river, including its fish and its use as a water supply for municipal and county governments, had reached a mutual concurrence that the rock arch rapid was the best solution for all concerned – especially the fish.
However, all is still not well with striped bass.
“We have data prior to the rock arch rapid in 2007 and 2008 for comparison and did some egg sampling last year,” Fisk said. “Back then, American shad were primarily spawning downriver and striped bass were non-existent above the first lock and dam. Now, striped bass are getting upriver.”
The Commission changed its striper-stocking program in 2010, when it began using endemic brood stock from the Cape Fear River and stocked 6- to 8-inch “Class II” fish rather than fingerlings.
“Those fish began returning to spawn last year and we are hoping to see even more this year,” he said. “Males return at 3 to 4 years, females at 5 to 6 years. Once the females are over age six, they produce more eggs so they have a larger impact on reproduction. We can tell through genetic markers if the fish are hatchery derived or naturally reproduced. For hatchery fish, we know what year and what tank they were spawned in. A sample that comes back as unknown is either from a fish stocked prior to 2010 or that was naturally reproduced. We have not seen any naturally reproduced fish since we began this evaluation in 2010.”
The way biologists tell a striper’s origin is by sending a fin clipping the size of a fingernail to a South Carolina lab. The samples are then matched to a database of brood fish.
“Last week we started seeing striped bass eggs in our sample nets, called ‘bongo nets,’” he said. “We are working through the life history of striped bass to see where they are spawning and if habitat conditions are conducive for survival.”
No natural reproduction has been documented in Cape Fear River stripers. While they fish are laying eggs, there is no indication that the fish hatching from them are surviving, migrating to the Atlantic and returning to the river to have a successful spawn that creates another generation. Every fish in the river appears to have its origins in a hatchery. That is the reason for the moratorium on keeping them all the way upstream to the dam at Buckhorn Reservoir. It is an experiment to see if, given better conditions and enough time to grow, whether stripers can successfully repopulate the river on their own.
Despite having to release it, House had been happy to catch a striper.
“It was cool to catch one,” he said. “I would rather see a striper at the end of my line than a shad, any day. They are beautiful fish and put up a hard fight.”