January Freeze Closes NC Speckled Trout Season
More Stunned and Dead Trout Still Being Found

The winter weather at the North Carolina Coast usually ranges from cold to cool, sometimes turning warm, and only occasionally becoming very cold.  2018 began during one of those few periods the weather was very cold.  The freezing temperatures began with overnight visits the last few days of 2017 and by just a few days into the new year the daytime temperatures were barely eclipsing the freezing mark and the overnight lows were in the teens.  While not quite as much of a drop, the water temperature also plummeted to near freezing in many places and this combination forced newly appointed Division of Marine Fisheries Director, Steve Murphey, to issue a proclamation closing the spotted sea trout (speckled trout) fishery until June 15.

Closing speckled trout season is always a contentious move.  Fishermen, both commercial and recreational, just don’t like it.  While there is truth in the adage that Mother Nature won’t dole out anything her fish and animals can’t overcome, there is also a valid argument that reacting positively to cold stun/kill events, helps moderate the damage and hasten the affected species on the road to recovery.

Most fishermen were wondering what would happen by late December.  The weather was already cold and the forecast was for it to become frigid.  On December 28, 2017 the N.C. Division of Marine Fisheries issued a press release asking fishermen to stay vigilant and report all stuns and kills so they could be documented by DMF staff.  At first there were just some internet rumblings, but the reports began to check out and on January 3, the DMF Director issued the proclamation that the spotted sea trout season would close at 3:00 P.M. on January 5.

Some fishermen disagree with this move, while others say it should have been done sooner.  It is sad that any trout that succumbed to the cold couldn’t be gathered and eaten, but there were trout that were only stunned and recovered and some of them would have inevitably been gathered had it been allowed.  The odds of them recovering were extremely low, but there was no chance they might recover when stacked in a cooler.  Trout were dying and something needed to be done.

Dead trout in Oldhouse Creek - Cronk

Past protocol for closing trout seasons required DMF staff observing catastrophic kills in four or more counties, but there wasn’t a set standard for what should be considered catastrophic.  There is still the provision for DMF staff to observe reported kills, but there are now established quantitative triggers and temperature triggers.  All were exceeded.

On January 8, Cpt. Jeff Cronk of Fish’n 4 Life Charters in Swansboro spent some time carrying a Marine Patrol Officer through the waters around Swansboro to see what they could find.  They found the suspected trout kills in several sections of Queens Creek, but also found stunned and dead red drum, black drum, flounder and mullet there and on the flats in the marsh between the Intracoastal Waterway and Bear Island.  The fish pictures accompanying this were taken by Cronk on that trip.

Finding the stunned and dead trout was expected, but there are not usually the other species involved in cold stun and kill events.  Cronk said he spent a lot of time out and talked with several other fishermen and duck hunters and all felt there were more stunned and dead flounder and red drum than trout in the marsh flats and shallow creeks behind the island.  He hopes this was close enough to the inlets that many trout made it into the warmer ocean waters.  Cronk said he also ran the beach Monday afternoon and was pleased to find numerous schools of red drum that made it to the surf.

DMF biologists were also surprised to hear of the stunned and dead drum and flounder.  There are no provisions in the red drum and flounder fishery management plans for dealing with cold stuns and kills.  Thankfully, as of January 10 this appears to be an isolated incident in this area, but there are concerns fishermen may continue to find stunned and dead fish for a while.

In the past a trout closure was always issued for the entire coast, but now there are three regions (Northern – Albemarle Sound and all its tributaries including Croatan, Roanoke and Currituck sounds; Central – Pamlico Sound, Tar-Pamlico and Neuse rivers and their tributaries and all coastal waters in Carteret County from the Highway 58 bridge east; and Southern – all of the southern coast south of Highway 58;) that can be considered individually.  There was no debate on closing the northern and central regions as most of the kills were there.  However, Surf City is in the southern region and the kills there triggered the southern region closure.  There were stun/kill events reported as far south as Shallotte in Brunswick County, but DMF staff had not verified any as of January 10.

Other criteria for closing trout season include numbers of fish observed based on the size of the area.  A few fish in a large area is not a significant stun/kill event, but this involved numerous fish in numerous locations and easily met this criteria.  There are also temperature triggers based on time spent with the water temperature below certain levels and all of these were exceeded.  DMF has 80 temperature loggers and 25 water quality sondes spread along the N.C. Coast from Cape Fear to Currituck Sound and all were monitored regularly.  Full details on the NCDMF Cold Stun/Kill protocol can be found at http://portal.ncdenr.org/web/mf/cold-stun-facts.

NCDMF lead spotted seatrout biologist, Steve Poland, said he is concerned this is not over.  On January 10 he confirmed DMF was still receiving kill and stun reports and this incident might be worse than expected.

“We received stun and kill reports from Currituck County to Brunswick County,” Poland said.  “We couldn’t confirm the Brunswick County  report, but have confirmed cold kill incidents from Surf City northward.  At this point we have eight confirmed cold stun incidents and some cover large areas.  The reports have slowed, but I won’t be surprised to continue receiving reports through the end of the month.  It will be spring before we understand the full effect of this freeze.  Most of the new reports won’t really be new incidents, but cases where fishermen just got into these areas or situations where fish that had already sank to the bottom deteriorated enough to rise back to the surface and float where they can be seen.

“This isn’t good, but thankfully trout are surprisingly resilient and have a history of rebounding well,” Poland said.  “This is a big event and it may take several years to fully recover, but the closure runs into the prime spawning time to give those mature trout that survived time to spawn several times before they can be removed from the water.  Mature trout can spawn every 6-7 days once the water warms.  Their usual spawn period begins in mid to late April and runs until October, with a peak in mid to late June.  Hopefully we will see a lot of spike trout next fall.”

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Capt. Jerry Dilsaver has been fishing since he was a child and writing about fishing, hunting and the outdoors since 1986. He is from Southport-Oak Island, N.C. and continues to live there in semi-retirement. His writing features this area prominently, but he has fished and written about the East Coast from Virginia to Florida, the Gulf Coast, California, Alaska and several of the Great Lakes in the U.S., plus several countries in Central America and several Caribbean Islands. He has been on staff at Carolina Adventure, North Carolina Sportsman and South Carolina Sportsman Magazines and his byline has appeared in several other magazines and newspapers.