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Roanoke River Reborn - A story of conservation

By Capt. Rod Thomas
Posted in the Striped Bass Magazine – March/April 2004 issue

Can you imagine catching a hundred pound striper in a river that’s a cast and a half wide and three to twelve feet deep? Sound like heaven? It is… it’s called the Roanoke River and it stands a shining example of how conservation efforts by government agencies as well as individual fishermen can return a decimated fishery to complete recovery.

There are records of many hundred pound fish being caught out of the Roanoke in the early nineteen hundreds – at least hundreds and possibly thousands of years before that we knew that Native American fishermen came here every spring for the great striper fishing. All those year and the action has always happened within a few miles of what’s now know worldwide as “the Weldon boat ramp”. When you enter Weldon, the sign welcoming visitors to this small town in the northeast corner of North Carolina says “Striped Bass Capital of the World”… and for about two months in springtime, they have every right to that title.

Stripers that live their adult lives in the ocean travel through Albemarle Sound and up the Roanoke River almost one hundred sixty miles every spring to spawn. Depending of water level and temperature, they always end up within a few miles of the boat access area in Weldon, N.C.

For roughly four to eight weeks it’s literally a fisherman’s paradise. Thousands of fish from up and down the eastern seaboard and even beyond have congregated each spring for hundreds of years in the same tiny piece of river and that spring spawning ritual is what makes the Roanoke River such a unique and special fishery. Chad Thomas, district Fisheries biologist for the North Carolina Wildlife Resources Commission, explains why this happens. “We know that hundreds of years ago, long before there were any dams on the river, Native Americans fished for stripers on this exact same site. What makes the river near Weldon so unique is the presence of a fall line, a change in elevation where the coastal plain ends and the piedmont begins. A combination of factors including good spawning habitat and a good flow of water draw the migrating stripers to this spot, the same spot they have come to for hundreds and possibly even thousands of years.”

By the late 1980’s, what had been an unbelievable fishery for many years was nearly totally gone. Legal over fishing as well as illegal catch and sale of stripers from the Roanoke took a tremendous toll and we lost a special spot here in North Carolina. People like Chad Thomas at North Carolina Wildlife Resources Commission were determined to bring the fishery back to its glory – and they’ve succeeded in a big way.

“In the late 1980’s the Wildlife Commission began introducing new regulations to protect spawning striped bass. The make-up of the fishery at that time consisted of mostly three, four, and five year old striped bass in very low abundance.” Thomas explained. “Reasons for the decline in the fishery were numerous and included over fishing throughout the system, illegal activity, poor water quality, and highly variable flow regimes from Roanoke Rapids Dam. About that same time a group of individuals consisting of anglers, scientists, power company officials and others formed what became known as the Roanoke River Flow Committee. The objective of this committee was to look at the relationship between survival of eggs and fry of striped bass in the Roanoke and the amount of flow from Roanoke Rapids Dam. The group came up with a series of guidelines that showed what flow levels in the spring would help the striped bass population spawn most successfully. The changes to the flow regime have proven to be a significant benefit to the fishery. We have also seen marked improvements in water quality over the last thirty years. So we now have optimum spawning flows, improvements in water quality, and fishing regulation in place to protect the existing spawning stock. Those three things in conjunction with one another are primarily responsible for the tremendous increase in the numbers of striped bass in the system. The anglers have had to endure continual changes to their fishing regulations. Since 1991, it seems like the regulation have been modified in some way almost every year. Without the angler’s commitment to these regulation and to the way we’re trying to manage the fishery, we wouldn’t have the recovered population that we have today.” Thomas said.

The best news is that these fish are returning and as time goes on, we move closer and closer to getting those giants back to Weldon. One of the tools Thomas uses is a boat with charged electrodes that stun the fish so they can be netted and weighed, measured, and tagged, and his data reinforces what fishermen already knew. “Back in 1991 most of the fish we observed while electro-fishing were small three to four year old males around eighteen inches. As time has gone by, now we’re seeing ten, eleven, twelve, and occasionally thirteen year old fish in this population. Once you get a striped bass to thirteen years old that fish is over forty inches, and usually between 33 – 37 lbs. So each year we’re seeing bigger and bigger fish and that’s a really good sign, especially when those fish are males.”

The big question Thomas asks now is “What could the fishery look like in the future? We have a river now that’s full of fish and the fish continue to get larger, but can we ever get back to a situation where we have 80 – 100 lb. fish here? It may be a little optimistic to think that we could, but that’s what we get paid to do – to take something that is already good and try to make it even better. Needless to say, I doubt there is an angler on the river that wouldn’t love to see and 80 lb. gravid striper grab their bait and head downriver.” Thomas said.

Fishermen plan an important role in making this system work, and there’s no place you’ll ever fish that you have to pay closer attention to details in terms of the regulations. The season in the upper Roanoke (above the U.S. highway 258 bridge near Scotland Neck) runs from March 15 – April 31. All fish caught before or after these dates must be returned immediately. Catch limits change yearly based on the success of the spawn the previous year. This coming spring anglers can keep 2 fish per day between 18 and just less than 22 inches, including one fish over 27 inches. Fish between 22 and 27 inches are in the “slot limit” and must be released. These fish are the ones between five and seven years old, the females that contribute the most to the spawning stock. Barbless hooks only and single hooks only. No treble hooks – even on artificials. Toward the end of the season there’s a great top water bite, and I have a special tackle box full of Red Fins, Zara Spooks, and poppers that are all rigged with a single barbless hook – where the middle treble hook normally hangs when you buy the lure.

When the top water bite is really going, you might get three of four strikes on a cast before you get a hookup. I’ve tried hanging the single barbless hook off the trailing split ring, but I seem to have better results hooking fish when the hook is midway down the bait. One trick that really works well is to tie a FrontRunner (Doyle Hodgin Sports) about a foot to eighteen inches above your Spook or Red fin. It’s a small bait, also rigged single hook and barbless, that doesn’t affect the action of your top water lure. Once you get a fish on, other fish are attracted to the excitement of the fight. You can end up with two fish at a time, one on each lure. You sometimes lose on or both, hook up again, lose another, hook up another, on and on – you get the idea. It’s a bait that works well in any schooling situation, and it’s hard to find a fishing hole with more fish in close proximity fighting for food than there are on the Roanoke in spring. When the season ends, I set my single hook barbless box aside and wait for next year.

During the rest of the season these fish can be taken on live or cut bait, buck tails, sassy shad, and a great variety of herring between 12 and 15 inches long. These bait fish are caught in the river, usually at current breaks, using Sabiki Rigs or with a cast net. Most of the fish over twenty pounds came on those big lively baits last year.

Leave your rod holders at home. Bites come often enough that I tell even the most inexperienced client to set the hook on anything they feel. That way they get to feel the strike without gut-hooking the fish.

You catch fish either anchored with three-way swivels and river sinkers 1 or 2 ounces on the bottom or drifting with baits on a 12 to 18 inch leader from a barrel swivel with a split shot or two to get them down a little more toward the bottom. 12-15 lb. test on a light drag works fine. Once in a while you may have to chase a big fish to land him, but it’s amazing how easy it is to become more sporting in terms of tackle and line size when you know that if you happen to lose a fish, it’s not the end of the world. The next bite is never more than a couple of minutes away and lost chances are easily forgotten when you’re constantly hooking up.

A bad day last year was 25 fish, and 100 fish days are not uncommon. It’s a great place to take kids or people with little patience to wait on a bite. You really stay busy. On the other hand, it’s a fairly narrow river that has a good flow and guaranteed you’ll be fishing around more people and boat traffic than you’re used to, especially in moving water. Last year heavy rain totals caused near flood conditions for at least the first half of the season. Low overhanging branches from flooded trees were a real hazard. You’ll see everything there from ten foot Jon boats to 24 ft center consoles with 225’s, all having fun and catching fish.

Every year, it seems that more and more people are catching bigger fish. Water levels were so high last year the fishing remained strong all the way to late May. After the keeper season ends May 1st, fishing pressure eases greatly and with surface temperatures rising – the top water bite is usually on by then. North Carolina Wildlife Resources Commission does a great job at keeping fishermen informed through their web site at ncwildlife.org. You can go there any time to get regulation and general information and during the season. They update a weekly fishing report every Friday.

The ramp at Weldon in located just a couple of miles off I-95 on Hwy. 301. You can contact Halifax County Travel and Tourism for information on accommodations, guides, and anything else you might need at 1-800-522-4282.

It’s a spot completely unique to itself and unlike any other place you’ll fish all year. Friends like guides Capt. George Beckwith and Capt. Brian DeHart spend the year anywhere between Hatteras and Costa Rica – following the best fishing. They always show up in Weldon in spring. It’s been a ritual of spring for hundreds… possibly even thousands of years, and I assure you that once you experience this fishing spot, you’ll never live through another spring without wishing you were there.

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