North Carolina'™s Saltwater Outlook

Start planning your saltwater trips now for the upcoming spring and summer fisheries. Here's a look at the prospects for some of our favorite inshore species. (March 2008).

Photo by Mike Marsh.

The management, or mismanagement, of saltwater game fish species in North Carolina had a dubious beginning. Essentially, there was no management. Any angler, whether he was a recreational, commercial or subsistence fisherman, could sell or keep any saltwater fish he could catch.

That ended in the 1970s with the first commercial fishing licenses issued. Now there's even a recreational fishing license and a recreational fishing license for using commercial gear. Everyone who takes fish from salt water must have a license of some kind.

Management plans are now in place for most saltwater game fish species that are highly sought by anglers with a few exceptions like black drum, false albacore, spadefish, Atlantic bonito and Florida pompano. But while these under-the-radar game fish have not been championed as of yet, many other higher profile saltwater species are benefiting from an increasing knowledge of their life cycles and abundance and this knowledge is a direct result of money brought into the management system through licensing. Biologists now have a couple of decades of data telling them, through their computer models that are fed by recreational and commercial landing statistics, what's going on out there in the deep, briny blue.

Comparing what is now historical data with current landings and spitting out projections for the expectations of future landings is now the norm, so much so that it has taken much of the mystery out of the cycles of abundance and scarcity that once plagued many marine fisheries. While Mother Nature still throws fishery managers and fishermen a curve ball sometimes, especially regarding species such as red drum and spotted seatrout that spend so much of their lives in the volatile chemistry and temperatures of shallow water, fishery managers have gained a better handle on saltwater game fish populations and can manipulate the one factor they can control -- commercial and recreational landings.Commercial landings are usually managed by implementing quotas and seasons and recreational landings are usually controlled by size limits and bag limits. It had to happen that way. In the past, there were not many people living along the coast and many relied on fishing for food or cash. Now, there are simply not enough fish to go around for everyone who lives along the coast, if the fish were taken with no regard to each saltwater species' ability to replenish itself.

Some of the most highly sought species still suffer declines because of fishing pressure or other natural factors. Some have abundance that remains stabile. But a few are experiencing an abundance like never before and the easiest explanation is better management than ever before. Anyone who wants to blame fishery managers for population declines must now laud them for these bright spots of abundance.

Some super catches for this year are predicted for some species, while others will offer continued solid fishing opportunities. Here's the lowdown on catching some of our most abundant and popular game fish species.

Red Drum
The red drum is the official North Carolina saltwater fish. Despite this fact, the state's red drum populations were once severely depressed. As a result, red drum have been subjected to tight harvest restrictions placed on both the recreational and commercial sectors since the late 1990s. A change in the regulations that would have allowed an increase in the commercial by catch daily landing limit for red drum from seven to 10 fish has been under discussion and may actually go to public hearings. But many recreational anglers are not happy with the initial recommendation from the NCDMF Red Drum Advisory Committee, which approved the changes at its initial meeting.

But the upshot of this is that the tight restrictions, which also allow recreational fishermen to retain only one fish per day of between 18 and 27 inches, appear to be working well at restoring the red drum's lofty status among inshore game fish. The NCDMF updated red drum stock assessment indicates that overfishing is no longer occurring, thanks to the management actions taken as a result of the 2001 North Carolina Red Drum Fishery Management Plan.

Recreational landings reached an all-time low in 1997 of 38,327 pounds, the first year the restrictive regulations had an effect on landings. In 1998, recreational landings rebounded to their peak of 591,435 as the protected "super spawn" in the wake of the hurricane season of 1996 reached the slot size limit. Since then recreational red drum landings have averaged around 220,000 pounds and they were right on target at 216,115 pounds in 2006.

Red drum fishing will continue to be excellent. Plenty of big adult "channel bass" for catch-and-release fishing will continue to spawn in Pamlico Sound, as well is in the offshore waters, in summer and early fall. Only juvenile fish make up recreational fishing landings because the fish reach maturity at a length greater than 27 inches and therefore cannot be retained. The fish are protected against harvest beyond the three-mile extent of state waters jurisdiction.

The best places to catch the big adult redfish, which can weigh well over 40 pounds, will include Pamlico Sound, Cape Lookout, Oregon Inlet, New River and the beaches and bars of Cape Hatteras. However, newly discovered places for catching the big fish include the Brunswick County coast's NCDMF artificial reefs, Bald Head Island's beaches and the rocky bottom structure offshore of Fort Fisher.

Juvenile "puppy drum" swarm in all the marshes, with Pamlico Sound, Neuse River, Cape Fear River, Topsail Island, Middle Marsh, Core Sound and nearly any other of the major estuaries hosting large populations of redfish. The best time for catching puppy drum occurs in the warmer months in the estuaries and along the beaches in the colder months. The best months for big adult redfish are July, August and September in Pamlico Sound and September, October and November along the nearshore structure and in the surf of the southern and northern coasts.

SUMMER FLOUNDER
Summer flounder are primarily ocean fish, arriving at nearshore reefs and ledges in April or May and sticking around through early fall. But they still enter inlets and coastal rivers to mix with southern flounder. Summer flounder are 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 spots on most fish. The patterns on southern flounder are not distinct and the oscelli are absent.

The official word from NCDMF is that there have been impr

ovements in the age-class structure, spawning stock biomass, and fishing mortality of summer flounder stocks since the early 1990s. However, NCDMF states that overfishing is still occurring and as a result, there is continued concern for the stock.

The commercial fishery takes the vast majority of summer flounder from Atlantic waters, but management includes restrictions on recreational fishing as well. In 1990, recreational landings of summer flounder were at a high of 523,591 pounds. The last several seasons, landings have been curtailed to around 200,000 pounds. In 2006, recreational fishermen landed 203,582 pounds, which was at least an improvement over 2005, when recreational landings were down to 176,483 pounds.

Unless fishing effort isn't curtailed, summer flounder populations will continue to remain flat. Regulations aimed at reducing recreational harvest include bag limits and size limits, which are subject to change. Currently, recreational fishermen may keep eight flounder caught from offshore waters having a size limit of 14.5 inches.

Summer flounder commercial landings are controlled through the use of quotas and seasons. Offshore flounder rules have varied from year to year, with rule changes usually implemented in the fall or spring, so anglers should watch carefully for any size limit changes or season closures.

Fishing reports for summer flounder catches have been spotty along the North Carolina coast. It may be that they occur in abundance in one place to the detriment of another because the species is migratory. Best bets have been the natural ledges and artificial reefs offshore of Bogue Inlet, Morehead City, Southport and Wrightsville Beach. Ocean fishing piers continue to be excellent places to catch summer flounder.

SOUTHERN FLOUNDER
Southern flounder are common throughout the inshore waters of the state and are caught by anglers up to the first dams in coastal rivers. But they also mix with summer flounder in nearshore waters and are therefore caught from ocean fishing piers, natural ledges and artificial reefs and in the surf.

NCDMF lists southern flounder as overfished and further says that overfishing is still occurring based on the latest stock assessment. A North Carolina Flounder FMP was approved and amended management measures implemented in 2005. The current regulations for recreational anglers include an eight-fish bag limit and a 14-inch size limit.

Southern flounder are caught mostly in the sounds, bays, estuaries, navigation channels such as the Intracoastal Waterway and at the inlets. They also are caught from the surf and sound sides or ocean piers. Like summer flounder, southern flounder strike live minnows, strip baits and jigs fished on the bottom.

Average recreational landings of southern flounder are fairly stabile at around 222,000 pounds. But in 2006, southern flounder recreational landings were higher at 357,588 pounds. For fishermen having Recreational Commercial Gear Licenses (recreational gigs and gill nets), 45,535 pounds of primarily southern flounder were landed in 2006. The eight-fish bag 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, where large catches can be made on hook and line.

Both summer and southern flounder are subject to high commercial fishing pressure, including an expanding pound net fishery in Pamlico Sound, the state's largest water body outside the Atlantic Ocean. Commercial quotas and closures help keep the fishery intact.

Places to catch trophy southern flounder include the Cape Fear River and the southern coast inlets, including Lockwoods Folly, New River, Mason, Carolina Beach and Rich. Barden Inlet and the Morehead City shipping channel are some good central coast spots for big southern flounder. Pamlico Sound and other large, shallow sounds generally produce many smaller flounder. Inshore, great catches of the smaller fish are made in Pamlico and Core sounds. Ocracoke Inlet is a good spot farther north for big fish, as well as large numbers of fish.

SPOTTED SEATROUT
Of all inshore species, spotted seatrout or speckled trout shine the brightest for this season. These beautiful, feisty game fish are being caught like never before.

Spotted seatrout, also called speckled trout or specks, are listed as a "viable" species by NCDMF. The fish spend their life cycles in estuaries, resulting in the fact that environmental factors rather than fishing pressure have relatively greater influence on their size and abundance. 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. But in good years, the trout have large spawns and they mature quickly. For these reasons, speckled trout boom-and-bust cycles have become legendary.

SPOTTED SEATROUT

Of all inshore species, spotted seatrout or speckled trout shine the brightest for this season. These beautiful, feisty game fish are being caught like never before.

Spotted seatrout, also called speckled trout or specks, are listed as a "viable" species by NCDMF. The fish spend their life cycles in estuaries, resulting in the fact that environmental factors rather than fishing pressure have relatively greater influence on their size and abundance. 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. But in good years, the trout have large spawns and they mature quickly. For these reasons, speckled trout boom-and-bust cycles have become legendary.

Specks are caught by anglers fishing with jigs, live baits and lures along grassbeds and oyster reefs, at hard structure such as docks and rock seawalls, from ocean fishing piers and in the surf. They grow fast, have protracted spawning over the summer and fall, and therefore have a tremendous reproductive potential. They can begin spawning at a length of around 10 inches.

Winters of 2004-06 were mild, resulting in some spectacular speckled trout fishing, with plenty of big fish caught and large numbers of fish being caught at places like the Wrightsville Beach jetties, Cape Lookout jetty, Fort Macon jetty, Cedar Island seawall and Ocracoke, Topsail and Hatteras inlets. New River has hosted some really nice speck runs. The speck fishing should remain excellent barring severe weather during the winter of 2007.

While the speck fishing in 2004 was excellent, with 383,861 pounds landed by recreational fishermen, it improved to 624,076 in 2005, nearly equaling a record high landing of 690,003 pounds in 1994. But 2006 eclipsed all recorded recreational landings by nearly 50 percent with a total recreational catch of 925,612 pounds.

Specks can be caught all year long, with the best fishing in late summer, fall and winter. The recreation

al bag limit for speckled trout is 10 fish with a minimum length of 12 inches.

Yellowfin Tuna

One of the brightest spots for offshore fishing is big, yellow and shiny. It swims in abundance on the yellowfin tuna grounds. These ferocious fighters school in early summer and late fall and usually attack baits and lures set in trolling spreads en masse.

Specks are caught by anglers fishing with jigs, live baits and lures along grassbeds and oyster reefs, at hard structure such as docks and rock seawalls, from ocean fishing piers and in the surf. They grow fast, have protracted spawning over the summer and fall, and therefore have a tremendous reproductive potential. They can begin spawning at a length of around 10 inches.

Winters of 2004-06 were mild, resulting in some spectacular speckled trout fishing, with plenty of big fish caught and large numbers of fish being caught at places like the Wrightsville Beach jetties, Cape Lookout jetty, Fort Macon jetty, Cedar Island seawall and Ocracoke, Topsail and Hatteras inlets. New River has hosted some really nice speck runs. The speck fishing should remain excellent barring severe weather during the winter of 2007.

While the speck fishing in 2004 was excellent, with 383,861 pounds landed by recreational fishermen, it improved to 624,076 in 2005, nearly equaling a record high landing of 690,003 pounds in 1994. But 2006 eclipsed all recorded recreational landings by nearly 50 percent with a total recreational catch of 925,612 pounds.

Specks can be caught all year long, with the best fishing in late summer, fall and winter. The recreational bag limit for speckled trout is 10 fish with a minimum length of 12 inches.

YellowfinTuna
One of the brightest spots for offshore fishing is big, yellow and shiny. It swims in abundance on the yellowfin tuna grounds. These ferocious fighters school in early summer and late fall and usually attack baits and lures set in trolling spreads en masse.

Tuna trolling is a game of strong, young backs and plenty of them. In many cockpits of offshore trolling craft during the initial yellowfin run in April and May, every line in a trolling spread may have a tuna tugging at the business end. When a tuna strikes, it makes a long run. The angler must wait until the fish, which can weigh between 30 and 100 pounds, gives up. The fish is then pumped to the boat until it slugs it out straight down in a tight spiral until it's brought to gaff. Tackle in the 30- to 80-pound class is necessary to boat these strong, high-endurance fighters.

Recreational landings of yellowfin tuna have been increasing. Historically, landings have varied wildly from 982,060 pounds in 1992 to 7,075,966 pounds in 2000. In 2003, recreational landings fell again, bottoming out at 511,319 pounds. But in 2004, recreational landings jumped to 5,232,812 pounds, increasing to 5,510,876 pounds in 2005 and to a whopping 7,645,118 in 2006. Barring any changes, and with welcoming spring weather conditions, landings above this all-time high could be in store for offshore big-game anglers.

The best places to find yellowfin are warmwater eddies spinning off the Gulf Stream that intercept baitfish concentrations. Baitfish are also associated with structure, so dropoffs attract yellowfin tuna to the same old holes year after year, such as the Same Ole (short for "Same Ole Hole") offshore of Carolina Beach, named for this attracting effect.

Top yellowfin tuna baits include skirts with small to medium ballyhoos and strip baits. Yellowfin tuna are attracted to commotion, so deploying spreader bars and dredges to imitate baitfish schools in a trolling spread is a good ploy.

Kite fishing for yellowfin is becoming increasingly popular. With the baits dropped from kite lines, leader-shy yellowfin tuna cannot detect the leader. The skipping of the bait or lure across the surface imitates a flying fish, a top-drawer yellowfin tuna forage fish. Watching a school of huge yellowfin tuna crashing and missing a kite bait several times before one or more of them hook up is one of the most adrenaline-generating events in all of saltwater fishing.

For more information, visit the N.C. Division of Marine Fisheries Web site at www.ncfisheries.net.(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, NC 28409. Also available at bookstores and tackle shops.)

Find more about North Carolinafishing and hunting at:NCgameandFish.com

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