North Carolina Wildlife Resources Commission

Fishing for Striped Bass on the Roanoke River - Questions & Answers

[Editor's Note: Updated April 2018]

As one of the most sought after game fishes in the state, striped bass have been thrilling anglers of all ages and skill levels for decades. Fortunately, North Carolina now boasts one of the best striped bass fisheries on the East Coast, with the restoration of the Albemarle Sound/Roanoke River striped bass population. Thanks to an aggressive striped bass management program initiated in the late 1980s, abundance of striped bass has increased from an historic low of 195,000 fish in 1988 to nearly 1 million fish today. Anglers, from all over, flock to northeastern North Carolina each spring to enjoy this world-class fishery.

What is the single most important thing a first-time striped bass angler on the Roanoke River should know?

Without question, understand the dangers of boating while on flowing water and always wear your life jacket. The Roanoke River is an absolutely beautiful resource, but it is also unforgiving. Underwater rocks, logs and other debris can flip a boat in a matter of seconds. In the springtime, water temperatures are in the 50s and 60s so even the best of swimmers can be stunned or worse.

What kind of tackle do you recommend for striped bass fishing on the Roanoke River?

Whether you want to catch a few fish for the dinner table, catch-and-release many fish or target large striped bass, we recommend anglers use medium-to-heavy weight rods and terminal tackle so that fight time and, consequently, stress on the fish will be reduced. Live bait and fresh cut bait are very effective, but we recommend the use of artificial lures if anglers plan to catch-and-release a lot of fish. Striped bass caught on artificial lures are generally not deep-hooked as often as they are with natural baits, so overall catch-and-release mortality generally will be lower with artificial bait. Other factors such as high-water temperature and poor handling contribute to catch-and-release mortality so we encourage anglers to be prepared to release striped bass quickly and carefully.

Put an end to the debate: natural baits versus artificial baits.

To be such ravenous feeders, striped bass can be pretty picky about what they eat. Cut bait and live minnows are the baits of choice nearly all of the time, but on some days, striped bass will bite only the freshest bait and ignore anything more than a day old or anything that’s been frozen. At other times, artificial baits are just as effective as natural bait. We encourage anglers who use natural baits to use circle hooks, and, in the upper river, single barbless hooks are required from April 1¬–June 30. If a striped bass swallows a hook, we recommend cutting the line before releasing the fish and not trying to retrieve the hook.

When is the best time to fish topwater lures for striped bass, and what topwater lures would you suggest striped bass anglers throw at that time?

Topwater fishing usually picks up after striped bass have completed spawning, generally by mid-May. Topwater lures can be especially productive at dawn and dusk.

If you were planning a striped bass fishing trip on the Roanoke River, where would you launch your boat in mid-March? Mid-April? Mid-May?

Generally speaking, mid-March is best in the Plymouth/Jamesville area; mid-April, the Williamston/Hamilton area; and mid-May, the Weldon area. However, these suggestions can change from year to year based on water temperature and flow conditions. A warm spring may cause the striped bass migration to occur earlier, whereas a cold spring may delay the migration a few weeks.

What about shore-bound anglers? Is it worth their while to plan a striped bass fishing trip? If so, what should they do?

Because the Roanoke River is bounded by wetlands in most areas, bank fishing generally is restricted to areas adjacent to public boat ramps. There are quite a few bank-angling opportunities along the river including several new piers recently constructed by the Commission and local municipalities. The Town of Plymouth has several fishing areas located downtown on the waterfront. There is a new pier at the recently constructed Astoria Landing Boating Access Area in Jamesville. The Town of Williamston recently partnered with the Commission to build a new fishing pier and canoe launch at River Landing Park adjacent to the Williamston Boating Access Area, and the older public pier at Moratock Park in Williamston is still popular. The Commission completed a fishing pier adjacent to the Hamilton Boating Access Area. Also, recent improvements at the Weldon Boating Access Area have resulted in better bank angling access along the river bank upstream from the boat ramp. A new Commission boat ramp and adjacent fishing pier has been constructed near Lewiston/Woodville that provides opportunity for bank fishing in Bertie County.

Does your answer about natural versus artificial baits change, depending on whether striped bass anglers are fishing from the shore?

No. Bait-and-tackle strategies for bank anglers are really no different than for boat anglers.

How is the striped bass creel limit determined? With striped bass stocks recovering, is there any chance the creel limit will be increased so anglers fishing the Roanoke can take home more striped bass?

Since the early 1990s, we have operated the striped bass harvest seasons for the Roanoke River and Albemarle Sound under a “Total Allowable Catch” plan or TAC for short. The TAC is the total poundage that can be safely harvested without jeopardizing the population. Originally, the TAC was quite low. In fact, it was an 80 percent reduction of historical harvest. As the population recovered, the TAC was gradually increased. In 1993, the TAC for all fisheries in the Roanoke River/Albemarle Sound area was 117,600 pounds. As the population recovered from 1993-2004, the TAC was increased in several steps to its peak at 550,000 pounds beginning in 2004 and remaining there through 2014. Several poor year classes and a resulting decrease in the estimated numbers of spawning females resulted in a reduction in the TAC to 275,000 pounds beginning in 2015. The TAC is split among the recreational and commercial fisheries in the Albemarle Sound and Roanoke River with 50 percent allotted to commercial harvest in the Albemarle Sound, 25 percent to recreational harvest in the Albemarle Sound, and 25 percent to recreational harvest in the Roanoke River. The current allocation for recreational harvest in the Roanoke River is 68,570 pounds each year. When setting hook-and-line creel limits, fishery managers consider the TAC for a particular year, the expected duration of the harvest season, and the intensity of fishing pressure.

There’s no doubt that many anglers would like to take home more fish, but because the striped bass population appears to have been experiencing declines in reproduction and because the number of anglers participating in the fishery grows each year, increasing the daily creel limit seems unlikely.

 

Why does the Commission use a slot limit for Roanoke River stripers? Why not just use the simpler minimum-length limit?

During the springtime harvest season, striped bass are so concentrated in the Roanoke River that extraordinary precautions must be taken to make sure they aren’t overfished. The protective 22- to 27-inch slot limit is a management tool that we use to make sure that large numbers of female striped bass aren’t harvested. Female striped bass ranging in age from 5 to 8 years old usually fall within the 22-27 inch slot limit. In addition, we time the harvest season (March and April) to coincide with the period when mostly male striped bass are present (they migrate upstream first). Our combination of seasons, creel and length limits attempts to focus harvest on males between 18 and 22 inches.

Are striped bass like salmon in that they always make spawning runs up the same rivers where they were born? Or is it possible that a striped bass born in the Roanoke River will migrate up the Cape Fear River after it matures?

Striped bass are anadromous fish meaning they spawn in freshwater rivers but live most of their life in saltwater estuaries or the ocean. On their annual spawning migrations, most striped bass return to their river of origin. We call this “natal river fidelity.” Occasionally, a striped bass tagged and released in Roanoke River will be caught from the Tar or Neuse rivers, or vice versa, but the majority of fish return to spawn in the same river where they were born.

Is this information being applied to other rivers in North Carolina that historically supported larger striped bass populations than they do now?

Yes. The N.C. Wildlife Resources Commission, the N.C. Division of Marine Fisheries and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service produce Fisheries Management Plans that guide striped bass management decisions in North Carolina. Spring harvest regulations on the Tar-Pamlico and Neuse river systems are similar to the Roanoke River, although a fall season is also allowed in these systems. Currently there is no harvest allowed in the Cape Fear River. The Tar-Pamlico, Neuse and Cape Fear rivers are supported exclusively with hatchery fish; little evidence suggests that recruitment of wild fish is occurring in these systems. The Watha State Fish Hatchery (owned by the Commission) and the Edenton National Fish Hatchery (owned by the USFWS) stock an average of 100,000 6–8 inch striped bass annually into each of these three river systems. Management actions aimed to protect larger, older females in these systems are being considered because of the lack of wild fish being produced. Environmental conditions are also critical to the sustainment of wild striped bass populations. For this reason, improvement in striped bass populations is also highly dependent on maintaining adequate flows during spawning and nursery periods, and access to historical spawning grounds upstream of dams and other blockages.

To what factor(s) do you attribute the recovery of Roanoke River striped bass?

The Commission coordinated with Dominion Power, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Division of Marine Fisheries and other stakeholders to develop and implement a flow regime that provides proper water flow conditions in the Roanoke River during the spawning season. This flow regime includes a range of water flows that allows striped bass eggs to successfully hatch, and it eliminates the large, daily fluctuations in water flow known as “hydropeaking” during the spawning season. These changes increased successful reproduction of striped bass in the Roanoke River. Additionally, the Commission and Division of Marine Fisheries implemented regulation changes that resulted in a significant reduction in harvest at a time when the Albemarle/Roanoke striped bass stock was on the verge of collapse.

How much more can Roanoke River striped bass stocks improve?

A healthy stock is one that has multiple age classes in the population. Having good numbers of 30- to 40-pound female striped bass (usually ages 10–15) is like having an insurance policy in case something goes wrong. Striped bass are notorious for having cycles of good and bad reproductive years. If we maintain a good percentage of the older fish in the population, their reproductive potential will assure that the stock can rebound should we have a series of bad spawning years. After seeing high numbers of large striped bass throughout the early 2000s, the numbers of larger, older striped bass have been trending downward noticeably following several poor years of recruitment. The result is that the population is currently dominated by 3-5 year old fish. To reverse this trend, and to increase the overall abundance of the population, a 50% reduction in the TAC (total allowable catch) began in 2015. We will continue to monitor changes in the population with focus on increasing the numbers of striped bass to levels observed during the early 2000s.

When did striper stocks bottom out? How do those numbers compare to today's striped bass stocks?

Our estimates of striped bass abundance indicate that the population was at its lowest point in the mid-1980s, around 195,000 fish. Beginning in the early 1990s, the numbers of striped bass rose steadily, was declared recovered in 1997, and by 2000 the striped bass population was around 2 million fish. The latest stock assessment, completed in 2014 indicates that the population has seen numerous weak or failed year classes including 2003, 2004, 2009, 2012 and 2013. With this many weak or missing year classes moving through the population, the overall abundance has declined.  Management actions were identified in 2014 and implemented in 2015 (50% reduction in overall harvest) to reverse this trend.

What is the status of the Roanoke River/Albemarle Sound striped bass stock today?

The Roanoke River/Albemarle Sound striped bass stock is currently in fair condition. After recovery through the late 1990s, the population continued to expand to include strong numbers of older, larger fish in the population. Recruitment was above average for many years, especially 1997-2002. Noticeable declines in recruitment began in 2003 (high flow year with flows reaching 35,000 cfs), and many weak year classes have followed (2004, 2009, 2012 and 2013). Although the fishery is not considered overfished, management actions were implemented in 2015 to curtail harvest by 50% across all commercial and recreational sectors. Although the striped bass fishery on the Roanoke River still provides excellent harvest and catch-and-release opportunities for anglers, the management goal is to improve the size and age structures of the population and increase overall abundance. An updated fishery management plan is being developed in 2018 that will identify additional strategies for stock enhancements.

Related Information

Striped Bass Fishing Information
General information about striped bass fishing.

Fishing for Striped Bass on the Roanoke River
Boating access areas, local accommodations, bait and tackle guidelinnes and more information updated for the 2012 season.

Frequently Asked Questions about Striped Bass
Fisheries biologists answer some frequently asked questions about striped bass stocks and striped bass fishing in general

Electrofishing for Striped Bass on the Roanoke River   

This 3-minute video offers a look at how Commission fisheries biologists collect, weigh, measure and sometimes tag striped bass to collect data on this reowned fishery.


Striped Bass Regulations  (PDF)

Shad and Herring Identification Guide (PDF)

Releasing Striped Bass Safely Information Card (PDF)

How to Measure a Fish (PDF)