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 only 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-reporting on 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 conducted this past week, I’ve surveyed the river extensively and I can tell you, it’s infested with stripers. I began my research last Tuesday, May 6 and by 2 p.m. we’d caught over 100 stripers from 14 inches all the way up through 24 inches. On Wednesday, the fishing was even better—we had 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 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 were about 10 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 1990s and early 2000s 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 swam up from the Albemarle Sound over the last couple of months to spawn and they’re so stacked up that 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—if it hasn’t already.
At this point, the fishing is catch and release only; the keeper season ended on April 30. 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 downriver 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 quarter-ounce bullet weights Carolina rigged or fish them below the boat while anchored with half-ouncers or more, depending on the current. You can also suspend baits under slip bobbers. Jigs, especially those primed with Berkley Gulp,work well. Try four-inch 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.
Image by Dick Jones