North Carolina's Saltwater Forecast

North Carolina's Saltwater Forecast

Let's have a look at the status of our most popular saltwater game fish and the prospects for anglers this coming season. (March 2007)

Author Mike Marsh caught this pair of big flounder while fishing the Cape Fear River near Bald Head Island.

Photo by Mike Marsh

Early spring is the time of anticipation for saltwater fishermen. Chilly weather keeps many anglers home through the winter, except for those who don't want to miss those few icy opportunities like getting in on the great striped bass fishing along the northern coast.

For the first time this year, those venturing to the coast's saltwater regions will need to buy a North Carolina saltwater fishing license and keep it in their possession while fishing along the coast unless they already had a lifetime fishing license or lifetime combination hunting and fishing license prior to the cut-off date of Jan. 1, 2006.

Technically called the Coastal Recreational Fishing License (CRFL), the license can be purchased as a 10-day, annual or lifetime license or combined with a variety of licenses issued by the North Carolina Wildlife Resources Commission. The license is required to catch finfish in any Coastal Fishing Waters, including all sounds, coastal rivers and their tributaries, continuing out to three miles in the ocean. Anglers fishing the Exclusive Economic Zone from three to 200 miles offshore are still required to have a CRFL before landing any fish they catch inside the state of North Carolina.

So, now that you have to buy a license to fish, what is out there in the brine to catch? Here's what to expect regarding the scientists' take on the ups and downs of the populations of some of North Carolina's most popular saltwater fish.

RED DRUM

Red drum have been subject to tight harvest restrictions in both the recreational and commercial sectors since the late 1990s. They were once in severe decline. The good news is that the rules are working to restore the health of the state's official saltwater fish to the coast.

Average recreational landings from 1996-2005 were 226,286 pounds, and the landings were up a bit at 237,422 pounds in 2005. The average number of citations for released fish of over 40 inches in length from 1996-2005 was 1,058 and that number was up by one-third in 2005 when 1,520 citations were issued.

A new stock assessment is continuing as an update of the 2001 Red Drum Fishery Management Plan (FMP). Stock assessments have shown that the number of juveniles entering the adult population has increased because of the harvest restrictions, but that the stock is still being overfished when considering the U.S. coast as a whole. But North Carolina's commercial and recreational harvest restrictions significantly reduce mortality in accordance with the Federal FMP under the authority of the Atlantic States Fisheries Commission, so there are no changes in store for North Carolina's recreational red drum fishermen. Currently, anglers can keep one red drum measuring between 18 and 27 inches total length, per day. This protects adult fish, which mature at 4 years of age and around 32 inches in length.

Offshore, bans on taking adult fish continue to preserve the spawning stock. Red drum may not be possessed outside the three-mile state waters limit.

The red drum rebound has been thundering throughout the state's estuaries and along the oceanfront. The largest fish, which can top 50 pounds in weight, are caught at Cape Lookout and Cape Hatteras in the fall surf, at the artificial reefs offshore of Southport in November, and in Pamlico Sound in July and August.

The smaller redfish, often called puppy drum, are caught from all of the state's saltwater marshes, sounds and rivers at the coast. While surf-fishermen heave big slabs of cut fish for catching red drum, backwater anglers use jigs, spinnerbaits, topwater lures, soft plastics, flies, and live or dead, cut or whole shrimp and minnows to catch the juvenile fish, which weigh up to 12 pounds.

Sight-fishing is a popular way to catch puppy drum. But they can be caught from deep channels -- hence the name "channel bass" -- oyster beds, grassbeds and other structure in the marshes, rivers and inlets. The puppy drum fishing starts picking up in late March or April as the estuaries begin to warm. Puppy drum form schools numbering in the hundreds in winter, suspended over sandy bottoms where there is some reflected solar heat to warm them. Once spring weather comes along, the schools begin to roam everywhere, breaking apart into smaller schools.

DOLPHIN

Dolphin have been called the "perfect saltwater game fish" because they are abundant, fast growing and great tasting. Toss in the fact that they are one of the most gorgeous fish in the world, changing colors from yellow to emerald to steel blue with turquoise freckles in a neon flash when brought from the water. Now add the fact that they have incredible fighting abilities, displaying speed, stamina and aerial acrobatics.

They are also sure bets. Almost every trolling trip offshore for a variety of species from tuna to billfish will result in catches of dolphin weighing up to 70 pounds.

Dolphin can grow to 2 feet long in four months. As food for all sorts of predators, including fishermen, their reproductive and growth rates are incredible. However, there is still concern among anglers that some new techniques, particularly in commercial long-lining operations, adversely affect the dolphin population caught by the U.S. recreational fleet.

Studies have shown dolphin probably migrate from the central Caribbean Sea through the mid-Atlantic area off the coast of North Carolina, then to Bermuda and back to the central Caribbean. But the fact that dolphin are present off the state's coast all year long shows their population dynamics are more complex than is known. Tagging studies underway will shed more light for managers of this important fish.

Dolphin move to within sight of the beaches during northeast winds in mid- to late summer. However, they are much more abundant in and near the warm waters of the Gulf Stream, 40 to 60 miles off the coast.

Anglers catch them by trolling lures at 7 to 9 knots or by casting flashy jigs and lures with spinning tackle to schooling fish. Hooking a dolphin and keeping it beside the boat draws others in for a look, so they can be caught with spinning or baitcasting gear.

The average recreational landings from 1996-2005 were 4,478,921 pounds. It was above that in 2005 at 5,041,254 pounds. The average number of citations for 35-pound fish from 1996-2006 was 308. In 2005, 164 dolphin citations were issued.

The st

ock status is "viable." Anglers can expect continued excellent fishing for dolphin. The bag limit is 10 fish per angler per day.

SUMMER FLOUNDER

Summer flounder are primarily ocean fish, arriving at nearshore reefs and ledges in April or May and sticking around through fall. They do enter inlets and coastal rivers, where they mix with southern flounder. The summer flounder is identified by a triangular pattern of eye-like spots on the tail with the apex pointing toward the head. There are two more of these "oscelli" widely spaced top and bottom near the center of the body, making a total of five such spots on most fish.

The stock status is listed as being of "concern." Overfishing is still occurring despite a strong recovery of the population over the last decade and a half. Mortality has decreased and the stock biomass has increased continuously due to harvest restrictions.

Average recreational landings were 314,820 pounds from 1995-2005. In 2005, they were 177,223 pounds. Average citations for all flounder species combined issued from 1995-2005 were 377. In 2005, 330 citations were issued for fish over 5 pounds.

In internal and ocean waters, all species of flounder are included in a 14-inch size limit and the bag limit is a total of eight fish.

SOUTHERN FLOUNDER

Southern flounder are the common flatfish of bays, estuaries, waterways and inlets. They also are caught from the surf and ocean piers, where they mix with summer flounder. Like summer flounder, southern flounder strike live minnows, strip baits and jigs fished on the bottom.

The stock status is "overfished" and the population appears to be in decline. The recently implemented size and bag limits for combined flounder species in the internal and ocean waters should help stop the decline.

Average recreational landings were 222,780 pounds from 1996-2005 and 361,702 pounds in 2005. Average Recreational Commercial Gear Licenses (recreational gigs and nets) were 83,126 pounds from 2002-2005 and were 58,099 pounds in 2005. The eight-fish limit was put in place to decrease the harvest by those using nets and gigs recreationally, but it also affects hook-and-line anglers fishing in areas of abundance, such as inlets and nearshore ledges.

Both summer and southern flounder are subject to extremely high commercial fishing pressure. Commercial quotas and closures help keep the fishery intact.

BLUEFISH

Bluefish are listed as "recovering." Although bluefish are no longer being overfished, the population is still in an overfished state. With regulation, fishing mortality has decreased steadily since 1991 and the biomass has been increasing since 1997.

Average recreational landings from 1996-2005 were 899,944 pounds. In 2005, recreational landings were 1,115,076 pounds. Average citations for fish over 17 pounds from 1996-2005 were 20, and in 2005 just five citations were issued. Although on the surface, these low citation numbers look like they are indicating that there are not very many big bluefish; but, in fact, anglers in North Carolina usually release big choppers rather than eat them, so the number of citation entries probably greatly underrepresents the number of big fish actually caught.

Bluefish occur in all sizes along the coast. Small snappers begin biting at artificial reefs, inlets and in the surf in late April. Big choppers show up along the same areas as well as offshore in May. There are always some small fish around. Then in September and October, the choppers begin to show up again along the beaches near Cape Hatteras.

Jigs, spoons, surface poppers and resin-bodied flies are used to catch bluefish. They are a good fish to go after when nothing else is biting because a bluefish is always hungry. Toss or troll anything near a bluefish and it's likely to bite it. Some anglers catch bragging-sized bluefish by using live menhaden for bait.

Bluefish give their presence away by slashing at baitfish and chasing them by leaping from the surface. Seabirds are attracted to these feeding frenzies and help anglers find bluefish. Slicks left by the oily bodies of baitfish give anglers clues to the presence of bluefish by both sight and scent.

The bluefish limit is 15 fish per day of which only five can exceed 24 inches total length.

SPOTTED SEATROUT

Spotted seatrout, also known as speckled trout, are listed as "viable" by NCDMF. The fish spend their life cycles in estuaries, resulting in concern over environmental factors rather than fishing pressure as having adverse impact on their size and abundance.

Specks are fast-growing fish that engage in a protracted spawning season that takes place over the summer and fall. In North Carolina, cold winters are bad news for specks and speck fishermen, since extended freezing temperatures can cause the population to plummet. Hurricanes, red tides and excessive fresh water entering estuaries also ruin speckled trout habitats. For this reason, speckled trout boom-and-bust cycles have become legendary.

Winters of 2004-2005 were mild, resulting in some spectacular speck fishing, with plenty of big fish caught and large numbers of fish being caught at Wrightsville Beach, Cape Lookout and Pamlico Sound. Barring any bad weather events over the winter of 2006, speck fishing should remain excellent.

Average recreational landings were 366,166 pounds from 1996-2005. In 2005, recreational landings were 621,016 pounds. Average number of citations for specks over 4 pounds from 1996-2005 were 366. In 2005, 290 citations were issued.

Anglers catch speckled trout with jigs, lures and live baits. Live croakers and pinfish are excellent baits for the biggest specks. Jigs with grub trailers are good choices for those who want to catch big numbers of specks.

Jetties and oyster beds are great places to fish. But speckled trout are also caught from ocean piers, along grassbeds and in shallow channels. The fish can be caught all year long, with the best fishing in late summer, fall and winter. The limit for specks is 10 fish with a minimum length of 12 inches.

STRIPED BASS

After years of concerted effort on a coastwide basis, the recovery of the Atlantic Migratory Ocean Stock of Striped Bass has been phenomenal. The stock is listed as "viable." Coastwide, the ages and sizes of ocean striped bass continue to increase, with fish aged 13 and older becoming more abundant. Like many fish, the bigger and older a female, the larger the number of eggs she produces.

The spawning stock biomass is well above the target of 38.6 million pounds at 54.8 million pounds. Young fish continue to recruit into the adult category.

In North Carolina, the big news is in the Albemarle Sound/Roanoke River Management Area, which has an increasing abundance and age structure. However, the downside is there continue to be problems in the Central/Southern Management Area, where the stock is class

ified as "overfished."

Nevertheless, the Cape Fear River has a good run of stocked Albemarle striped bass, which are hatchery raised and released by both the NCDMF and N.C. Wildlife Resources Commission. Albemarle Sound is full of striped bass and the fish now migrate far up the Neuse and Tar rivers.

Alongside the bridges spanning the rivers and sounds are excellent places to catch striped bass weighing up to 20 pounds. In the inland waters, striped bass can be caught all year long. The larger fish are most abundant off Oregon Inlet, Cape Hatteras and Cape Lookout. The big fish can be caught from the surf or from boats and the best time to catch them is in January. Seabirds, gannets in particular, attracted to schools of stripers feeding on baitfish give away the presence of fish weighing 30 to 50 pounds that can cover many acres of water.

Stripers are caught with live and cut baits, by casting lures and flies, or by trolling deep-diving plugs and spoons. Anglers fishing in the rivers and sounds use live eels fished on the bottom with float rigs, slow-trolled or drifted to catch stripers. At night, lighted bridges attract and hold numerous fish.

In the ocean, trolling and jigging are the most common ways to catch striped bass. But the big feeding boils absolutely beg to be fished with a topwater lure, such as a popper or stick bait.

In the surf, heavy metal casting spoons and plugs tossed with long spinning rigs are used to reach the fish that move in near the beach. Sometimes it's a race to get to a school that has moved to the beach. Everybody wants to get in a few casts before they move away. The ocean waters limit is two fish with a minimum length of 28 inches. Other limits apply for inland waters.

For more information, visit the N.C. Division of Marine Fisheries Web site at NCFisheries.com.

(Editor's note: Mike Marsh is author of Inshore Angler -- Coastal Carolina's Small Boat Fishing Guide ($20), Offshore Angler -- Carolina's Mackerel Boat Fishing Guide ($20) and Carolina Hunting Adventures -- Quest for the Limit ($17). To order, send a check or MO to 1502 Ebb Dr., Wilmington, N.C. 28409. Also available at bookstores and tackle shops.)

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