Whitetail Scouting with Capone

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I took Capone scouting for whitetail sign this morning on state land I’ve hunted for years.

Fortunately, the temps in NC have come down considerably, along with humidity over the last several days. It appears the ‘dog days’ of August may have peaked. And that’s fine with Capone and I.

I’m going to have to brag on my buddy a minute. I got Capone four years ago this month, and like most boxers, he has a surplus of energy. I do my best to walk him daily throughout the year, but the hottest days of summer are very difficult on short-nosed dogs. They just can’t deal with it.

So we’ve taken advantage of the recent weather trend. I tried to take him to Umstead Park this morning, but the place was a madhouse, so we opted to hit the real woods. I don’t bow hunt anymore, so I wouldn’t normally scout this time of year, but with the outbreak of EHD central NC has been dealing with over the last several years, I wanted to see what sign I could find.

I’ve never taken Capone scouting, or hunting for that matter. With no way to cover his scent, or his enthusiasm, it never seemed like a good idea. But he has really been turning into a great dog, and friend. I have him on the boat all the time and he knows where to go and what to do when fish start hitting the deck; he’s a real pro. So I figured it was time to see how he would react in the woods with me when I’m trying to stay undetected by wildlife.

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And he did not disappoint in the slightest. I had him off leash the majority of the morning as we stalked the woodlots and fields for sign of wildlife. When I stopped, he stopped, when I crouched, he seemed to sense what I wanted of him, and he walked behind me, which he never does on trails or sidewalks. He knew something was different about the way we were moving through the woods. It was impressive.

There was a good steady breeze that covered most of our noise as we walked through the dry undergrowth; overgrown from the last several years declining travel by man and animals. EHD, a horrible hemorrhagic disease, had a bad swath that hit central NC, mostly around the lakes, as that was where the gnats bred that carried the virus to our deer herd. They laid in the lake mud, where the waters receded from lack of rains in summer, and bit deer on Jordan, Kerr, and Gaston lakes, as well as others. It was a vicious cycle. Whitetail deer get bitten while hydrating, then the disease makes them feverish. They can then only return to the water for relief, and they die there; never able to recondition their internal temperatures. Boaters were sometimes finding 10 to 50 deer a day during the summers of 2015 and 2016. I estimated the herd where I have frequented the woods for years was decimated by as much as 70%. Mother nature and her very real cruelty is always visible to those who go to her hidden places and truly explore her treasures. I used to go out and see 3 to 10 deer per sit during a season, which over a three month season would turn into roughly 70 or 80 deer sightings in a single season. But over the last three seasons, I’ve seen less than 20 deer total. So I’ve passed up on most of the sightings; won’t shoot a doe anymore.

But, to my surprise, we started finding good sign right off.

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I found several sets of doe tracks in a few predictable places, then came across the buck tracks near a dwindling water hole. We busted a deer a few moments later, but never saw it, and it never blew.

Then, after stalking to a place that I passed a doe last season, Capone and I heard a deer blow and scamper off. But there were two yearlings that seemed to take no note of it. They were about fifty yards ahead and into the wind. The mother had heard us coming and warned the young, but they never heard us and certainly never winded us. I watched them a few moments, then they finally walked off. Capone was very composed and I rewarded him for it. I really couldn’t believe he stayed put.

Our exploration led us to a winding creek bed that was bone-dry. We’ve been in drought again this summer in NC. Capone and I followed the snakelike path of sand and hard clay through the forest for at least two miles and found a spot to hydrate ourselves (luckily I’d brought water for both of us) and watch a few travel routes for a while. Capone chilled and we sat in silence for almost thirty minutes.

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After our uneventful break we headed back towards the truck. We were probably three miles from the road, and back on the trail; perhaps twenty minutes later, and just as we hit the top of a hill, we heard walking in the leaf litter to our left. Capone and I stopped simultaneously, and a young spike, in full velvet, walked out of the woods and across the path not twenty-five yards ahead of us! We stayed crouched and after a few seconds, two more deer hopped out from the same place to cross the path. I kicked myself for having my camera in the backpack. The second was at least a two-and-a-half year old 8pt, in full velvet, and the other was a second spike, also with velvet clad antlers.

I looked down at Capone and again gave him praise for being so silent and for remaining at my side. I did grab his collar after the first deer, but if he’d wanted to bolt, he could have. We stayed there a few more minutes, but I was sure that was all we would see. Batchelor groups this time of year almost never have more than three male deer. But that was the first such grouping I’ve witnessed in at least four years. Very encouraging.

We had almost reached the road when I spotted a box turtle in some grass in the path. Capone walked right over it and actually hit it with his foot. I turned him around to see it, but it took a few seconds for him to register what he was seeing. Then, once he’d done so, he obviously didn’t like the shelled-creature and pulled away from it; apparently he has a turtle issue. I laughed and thought to myself, ‘that’s ok, he did great today’.

So we exited the woods and hit the road. I was encouraged by the amount of sign and the sightings, but as usual, the reward had nothing to do with the quarry.

 

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Tagged Striped Bass on the Cape fear

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Photo: Scott Kroggel

I got out on the Cape Fear river over the holiday with a good friend and caught my first two tagged striped bass.

As long as I’ve chased these fish, its amazing these are the first ones with tags I’ve ever come across. And two of them in the same day was quite the treat. I found stripers feeding readily as soon as I arrived at the first location. Shad were breaching the water trying to escape the aggressively feeding fish. I could see the linesiders thrashing the surface of the water, but my first hookup was a big largemouth bass.

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My buddy Scott Kroggel was along for his first river trip in his brand new kayak. Scott is a very talented artist, musician and photographer and he took several beautiful photographs during our outing. Below is a pic I snapped of him a few weeks ago on his maiden voyage with his new yak.

The river was a little high and the water was slightly stained, but I had success at first with a chugbug by jerking it across the surface. Fortunately, there was abundant cloud cover, wind was almost non-existent, and the river water was cool enough for the fish to be active. It was one of those perfect days.

Soon enough, I landed the first striper.

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The fish was quickly released, as they are still protected on the Cape Fear, and after a few more casts I hooked the first tagger, a red tagged fish close to 25″. These fish are worth $100 bucks to the NCWRC.

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After a couple pics it was also returned to the river. And the fish just kept biting; more stripers, a few white bass, a gar and then I caught a few carp for good measure…

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Photo: Scott Kroggel

This guy inhaled a small crankbait, which was a challenge to remove safely for the fish. But he seemed to swim away unharmed. Luckily, the tiny bait hung short of his gills.

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The white bass wanted the little crankbait too.

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The carp prefer sweet corn.

We moved to a different area and I found the yellow tagger. I was fishing directly beneath a spillway and my buddy took a couple really cool pictures. I couldn’t believe my luck. This fish is worth $5 bucks and a NCWRC marine fisheries hat. Once again, after a couple quick photos the striper was returned to the water to go about his business mostly unscathed and a little bit smarter for his trouble.

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Photo: Scott Kroggel

 

 

 

Summer Stripers & White Bass

Big white bass and stripers were feeding good yesterday afternoon.

I got a call from Captain Stu Dill yesterday afternoon. He was on the lake and the fish were chewing. He had two white bass in the livewell and had already caught a largemouth bass and a crappie.

I got a few rods together and jumped in the truck to join him. It had been raining off and on all night and throughout the earlier part of the day. It was cloudy, the barometer was moving and there was a front stalled just off our coast.

Perfect.

I’m currently in the second round of editing on my book; this time with the publisher’s editor (so it’s easier now after the majority of the work has been done) so a break from the keyboard would be a nice distraction.

I got aboard in the early afternoon and we put the hammer down to cross the lake and drop lines. We went to a spot that’s been producing a few striped bass, but nothing was happening after a few passes watching the sonar. So we motored to the area uplake where Stu had been catching earlier.

After a few minutes of trolling we put the fourth species of the day on the boat; the scourge of the lake; the notoriously voracious white perch. We found them on humps and started catching them 2 and 3 at a time. It was fairly steady action for a while and after only landing one channel catfish aside from the myriad of perch, it took some discipline for us to leave those fish biting. They were stacked on humps just off the sloping red-clay banks that lined that part of the watercourse.

But we knew where we needed to go.

So we made the run back down to another area we’ve been checking lately and after dropping one rod back we started running too shallow, but as I was reeling up some line the rod doubled over in my hands. It fought like a striped bass, shaking its head violently, but after a few moments I saw the taller profile with the stripes and brought a nearly 15″ fish taco into the boat.

I just love everything about white bass. They feed readily in the right conditions, fight like crazy and make excellent table-fare. Especially fried in peanut oil! So now we had three nice ones already in the livewell.

After another pass we hung the first striper (feature photo). It fought hard as it took the crankbait, which was all we caught fish on all afternoon, they wouldn’t touch bucktails of any color, spinners or a Bama-rig. The fish was just short at 19″, but we made the call to put it in the livewell a few minutes to recover. To hell with the ticket if the warden would rather we throw it back to die. Striped bass can’t take the struggle and being thrown back into hot surface water right after the fight. So we took the chance and let it go when we felt it would live. And it did. Right to the bottom! If you can get them past that first 5 or 6 feet they’ll usually do ok.

We started catching perch again and a few more nice white bass before calling it a day. It was a 6 species outing with steady action all afternoon and I took home 5 fatty white bass for a fish taco dinner.

 

Memorial Day Weekend on Gaston Lake

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The striped bass have continued to be active on Gaston Lake, so I headed up last Friday to try my luck again.

After a few hours of searching last weekend, I’d found a large school of schoolie stripers near the back of a long creek on the lake. I didn’t expect them to be in the same spots, but to my amazement, they were not only still there, but there seemed to be more of them. These young striped bass are ferocious when it comes to attacking baits and even more so once landed. Anglers should be very careful when handling stripers, young or old, these fish are full of piss and vinegar long after you’ve fought them to the boat.

I hadn’t been on the water twenty minutes Friday afternoon when two of four rods doubled over on the first pass. I fought both fish to the boat and happened to land them on Capone’s bed. He was nowhere near as thrilled as I was with the double hookup.

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Both fish hit crankbaits and were positioned in fifteen FOW on a hump in twenty-two FOW. These young fish are truly beautiful specimens, and are likely naturally spawned fish. Gaston Lake has a very healthy, naturally-reproducing population of stripers. The colors are slightly crisper on the smaller fish, much like reptiles, young striped bass’s hues really pop in bright sunlight. You can see purples, blues and even pink shades in the white areas on the younger fish.

That afternoon was filled with multiple striped bass hookups, and I boated a ton of perch too. There was a good size class of white perch feeding in the same areas the stripers were occupying. I fished til sunset and called it an afternoon with plans to hit the water early the next morning with my Dad and stepmother on their boat.

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The next morning was calm and started off with cloud cover. It was perfect. We knew the lake would get extremely busy sometime around midday since it was a holiday weekend. So we got out at dawn and quickly started catching fish. I offered to drive their boat and just let them catch fish and they graciously accepted.

We started off slow, only catching white perch, but it was steady action, and we had a few doubles that kept my family engaged in the outing. Then, we came across the school of striped bass one time and they each landed one. Shortly afterwards my father landed a largemouth bass and a few more perch as well.

After a few hours the traffic started picking up and we opted to break for breakfast. But after we got back to the dock, I couldn’t stand it (of course) and decided to take my boat back out for a while.

I don’t know what it is, but my Alumacraft is just a striper magnet. I hadn’t been in the area a few moments and dropped three rods back, all with crankbaits attached. I was preparing to drop a fourth rod back when all three rods doubled over at the same time. I wasn’t even in the most productive areas at the time. But in short order I boated a triple and snapped a quick pic.

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Two of the fish were fairly small, but the third was close to the 20″ minimum. Regardless, I released all three of them and kept after it. I trolled around another few minutes and hit the school a few more times, which resulted in more short fish; then started catching the perch again. Once they started I couldn’t get the baits down to the linesiders anymore. I even had a few perch quads! It was hilarious and the action was so steady, I started just fishing with two rods out. The traffic made it hard to troll and even harder to do anything besides hook the fish, fight the fish and toss them back in the water as fast as I could.

After perhaps another hour or so boat traffic got so steady it was impossible to fish the lake, so I decided to join the revelers and enjoyed the afternoon. There was even a pizza boat!

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All in all it was a really fun couple days of fishing, and we even had a great time giving up the water to the jet skies, wake boarders and skiers. Sometimes you have to just join the park-tanners and fish in the early and later parts of the day. Those are the most productive times of the day anyway.

I caught all my fish on crankbaits this past weekend. I’m sure they would have hit other baits, but when a crankbait bite is on, it’s as easy as it gets. The fish were still hitting in shallow water in the creeks and I found no fish on the main lake. The larger fish are still working their way back down lake, as they have been spawning in the river.

But I would guess the big fish will be hitting the main lake in the next few weeks. Stay tuned….

 

Gaston Lake Schoolie Striper Smackdown

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The striped bass have started biting on Gaston Lake, so Capone and I got out there this past weekend to get in on the action.

I had a little time Friday afternoon and got on the water about 4:00. First, I rode around and checked as many areas as I could before the last hour; places I’d caught stripers in spring there before. I’d caught a few largemouth bass on big #5 inline spinners in 50′ of water on the main lake as soon as I’d got to my first area. They always bust there in the afternoons when it’s warm, there’s low boat traffic and calm. But I hadn’t located any striped bass.

I planned to head back to Pea Hill Creek and hit a few more points and humps before sunset. It was warm but the cloud cover was well received. I passed under the bridge and started into the creek and quickly saw good marks on the sonar in 20′ of water. Nice marks with lots of color. So I dropped lines and started trolling, but as soon as I’d started the wind really picked up and a light rain accompanied it. The sun was peaking through at times and the cloud cover’s colors varied from dark, likely rain holding clusters to light and smooth, low-lying cirrus and cumulus puffs hovering at all heights. It was too windy to troll where I was, so I took off across the creek for cover.

The plan was to wait out the weather and then get back to fishing before dark. And after a few moments I was about to anchor up in a windbreak when fish started busting around a point near me. I dropped the anchor back in the bin, started the boat and carefully got to within casting distance of the commotion.

I had a rattletrap tied on a braid pole and soared it at the boiling water. One dip and a striper was on.

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I snapped a pic and tossed the schoolie striper back into the lake. Then, after a few more throws the fish stopped their assault on the shad. I saw lines on my sonar and opted to start trolling the area. The fish were in shallow water and were positioned in the slot of a cove near an island; so trolling was going to be difficult, but they weren’t hitting anything else.

It’s a good thing I decided to risk losing gear, because I didn’t lose anything, but man did I get on a school of short stripers. I had maybe a three-hundred yard run that ended at one end in a cove and the other in deep unproductive water, and had to navigate two humps that came up into 5′ of water. The fish were active in 15′. I was pulling my gear on leadcore with two colors out, which put me at close to 10′ with the lures. There was also the slot to deal with; I had to turn through both humps and hit the slot where the largest portion of fish were positioned. It was tough but I didn’t hang once.

First, they were hitting the ‘Bama rig.

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Then, the fish tossed any qualms they had with color, shape or size and hit everything I trolled by them. I didn’t measure any of them as I could tell they were short of the 20″ minimum, and I only snapped pics every few fish. The action stayed on fire for a good hour and I fished til dark. I probably caught 15 to 20. Here are the rest of the pics I took that afternoon.

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So the sun set on that day, but I decided to wake up at 5:00 am and get back out. I was hoping some bigger stripers would join the party.

The next morning started a little slow, and I started off catching perch in the same area I’d finished up the prior day. But pretty soon the stripers woke up again…

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It was basically a repeat of the previous day. No keepers, but a ton of fun action and Capone got in on the party!!

I had planned to help Pop out with a few things at the lake house at midday and ended up helping a neighbor with a little labor too. Then, we were gona head back out but another freakish windstorm cancelled afternoon fishing plans. So me, Pop and his wife just enjoyed the cooler weather on the porch and watched the hummingbirds. They’re just starting to visit the swings and feeders up there. There may have been a few cold beverages too.

We thought about fishing again Sunday morning, but I figured that school of fish was tired of my harassing behavior, so I just woke up, put the boat back on the trailer and headed back to town. People who know the lake wouldn’t believe me if I told them where these fish popped up. Never seen them there before and probably never will again. But it was a lucky coincidence of stripers hunting and baitballs escaping wind and current, and I was happy to have experienced and learned from it.

I’ll be back there soon when the action hits the main lake.

Six Species Slab Smackdown

 

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So this afternoon was a no-brainer to go after some slabs.

I wanted fish tacos and I was lucky enough to find the ingredients today. The weather was what I call perfect for fishing. Light winds, overcast, rainy-at-times and cool with constant approaching weather.

I got on the water around 2:00 and started catching fish right off. There was bait on top of the water, but I never saw any surface activity. I launched and headed into the back of a cove I’ve had plenty of luck in over the years and hit a keeper striper before I could get all three lines out.

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I had two rods spooled with leadcore already out and was dropping back a crankbait in the center of the spread when the first rod doubled over. It was a decent fish and fought hard, digging deep repeatedly in 20 fow. I lip-gripped the striped bass and brought it into the yak. It was about 21″, so I took a quick pic and released it. I was only planning on keeping whites or crappie.

I trolled through the area a while and picked up a few small catfish before landing the first white bass. I thought it was a striper, as usual with the bigger whites. It was almost 14″ (feature photo) and hit the ice. Then, I trolled right back through the same spot and hit a nice crappie, just about 12″ and it too joined the white bass.

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Then, the sun popped out, the temperature went up and the bait and fish vanished. The wind picked up a bit too, so I trolled across the lake and hit a different area. Once there, I found fish on structure and started jigging after a few passes with no takers. I caught several bream, with one nice one first. I thought about keeping them, but turned them back.

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Then, I caught another striper, it was short and also quickly released.

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Right afterwards, as the the bait sunk back to the bottom I pulled the first time and felt a huge bite. I was sure I was hung then felt the shaking and new I was on a nice fish. It dug good and shook its head several times before I turned it upward and was able to bring it to the side of the yak. Awww. Anyway it was nice fight…

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The afternoon started getting late and I was headed back to the ramp and the wind died. The clouds covered the sky again and I decided to tie on a chugbug. I love those things. Rivers, lakes wherever. I chucked it along a bank a few times and had one blow up. I figure it was a maybe two pounds, but it was fun for the sixth species of the day.

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After that the wind started up again and I split. Only kept the crappie and white bass but it was just enough. I love overcast calm days on the water.