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Fishing North Carolina Saltwater

Best Bests: 5 Top Carolina Saltwater Fish

October 4th, 2010 0

For saltwater anglers, the good old days may not have held fishing as good as it is right now. Here’s how to catch five favorite North Carolina game fish.


Capt. Jeff Cronk of Fish’n 4 Life Charters caught these big southern flounder at an offshore ledge near Swansboro.
Photo by Mike Marsh

It has only been a couple of decades since fishery management has even been attempted in the Tar Heel State. Where once an angler could keep anything he could catch, today’s structure of size and bag limits as well as commercial quotas has returned many species to abundance and is at least helping others hold their own against continuing fishing pressure.

For example, red drum were once considered to be in serious trouble. While they are still under very restrictive harvest regulations, red drum have expanded their range and population size all across the coast and anglers are having a ball catching them.

While southern flounder, the flatfish of inshore haunts, may be subject to greater harvest restrictions in the near future, summer flounder that inhabit offshore ledges and artificial reefs have rebounded and are thrilling anglers once again. That does not mean that southern flounder fishing is not good, however. The fish are still out there waiting to bite a hook.

Yellowfin tuna have always been fairly abundant. But recent harvest restrictions ensure they will remain that way. Anglers heading offshore to the Gulf Stream in spring, especially during May, have been catching limits of the big fish without much problem.

Spanish mackerel seem to carpet the water near inlets during the spring and early summer. This abundance is also a benefit of good management. Nothing beats an easy trolling trip for Spanish mackerel with the family for justifying the cost of maintaining a boat or booking a charter trip.

Weakfish were once so severely depleted that anglers nearly forgot how to catch them. Now they are so abundant that Tar Heel anglers may find a big school at any time of year. However, early spring and late fall are the best times to target them.

Here’s a more in-depth look at where and how to catch these top five Tar Heel saltwater game fish.

RED DRUM
Red drum are truly everybody’s saltwater game fish. Designated the state’s official saltwater fish, redfish occur in all saltwater areas of the state.

In the state’s coastal rivers and brackish backwater sounds, juvenile red drum or “puppy drum” congregate until they reach an age of about 4 years and a weight of about 10 pounds. These fish form large schools during cold months, then break up into smaller schools of six to 20 fish as the water temperature approaches the mid-60s.

Anglers target puppy drum by many methods. The most exciting method is “hunting” the fish. In shallow water, the fish become very spooky and will swim away at the least disturbance. A dropped lure that hits the deck or a push pole banging against a poling platform can send the fish to safety.

Anglers use electric trolling motors, drifting, wading and poling tactics to find the fish. Once they spot them, they have a variety of options for catching them. Casting a weedless gold spoon past the fish and reeling it alongside them is a sure way to entice a strike. Topwater lures also work well for sight-fishing, as do floating and sinking flies. Soft plastics and spinnerbaits also work well for catching shallow-water redfish.

If fish cannot be spotted near the surface, anglers use live and natural baits fished on the bottom or beneath float rigs to catch red drum. Deep-probing lures such as jigs and crankbaits also work well when the fish are feeding in deep channels or beneath boat docks and piers hiding in the shade to ambush prey.

Superbraid lines are preferred by most shallow-water redfish anglers. They hold up better than monofilament lines in grassbeds, oyster beds and pilings encrusted with barnacles. Adding a fluorocarbon or monofilament leader helps ensure a fish doesn’t see the line.

Juvenile fish and adults spend a lot of time in the ocean. Surf-fishing for red drum is one of the most popular pastimes for anglers who do not own boats. Public beaches and beach access points abound along the coast. Driving on the beach at places like Fort Fisher, Carolina Beach’s North End, Topsail Beach and Cape Hatteras National Seashore is a tradition that has become more permit-intensive, but is still allowed during certain times and seasons.

Surf-fishermen use medium to heavy tackle. Without a boat to chase the fish to regain line, the need for line capacity becomes apparent quickly when a 41-inch, 40-pound adult “channel bass” picks up a menhaden steak from a sandbar and heads for the ocean. A minimum of 300 yards of 15-pound-test line should be available and a surf-angler’s reel must be sturdy enough to have a chance at turning one of the big fish.

FLOUNDER
Flounder are tops on every saltwater angler’s list. While not possessing the strength, endurance or speed of other game fish, they are one of the most sought-after species because of their taste and the challenge of catching them.

To catch a flounder, you nearly have to hit him in the head with the bait. Flounder ambush their prey from hiding spots along the edges of bars, channels, oyster beds and in the surf. They also like to hide along the edges of grassbeds, beneath docks and piers and beside coral, rock ledges, artificial reefs and wrecks.

The fish begin biting in May, when concentrations of small fish show up. By June, the fishing is wide open, with anglers catching fish at inlets by drifting or trolling tactics. Both summer and southern flounder are caught at inlets. Southern flounder dominate the catch in inshore waters, while summer flounder dominate the catch in offshore waters north of Cape Hatteras. Last season, anglers caught very high numbers of southern flounder from the state’s southern coast offshore ledges and artificial reefs at Topsail, Swansboro, Morehead City, Southport and Carolina Beach.

Live baits are the ticket to catching flounder. Many flounder are caught by surf- and pier-anglers using cut baits and some are caught by anglers using jigs. When jigs are used, they work best when tipped with fish, shrimp or a live or dead mullet minnow.

Anglers drift live baits by letting the boat go with the current flow. A 1- to 3-ounce trolling sinker keeps a live minnow “tickling” the bottom. The hook is the most important part of the rig. Anglers use Kahle-style, wide-bend or wide-gap hooks to catch flounder because they have mouths that open wide. The hook must penetr
ate far back inside the mouth or the fish can toss it during the fight.

Drifting is also a good tactic for finding fish at offshore structure. However, snags are common at ledges and wrecks. Once the fish are located, anglers usually anchor and cast live baits around the area. The fish will often be concentrated in a small dropoff at the edge of a ledge. So many fish can come from one spot it seems they are stacked like flapjacks and that is what many divers report seeing.

A GPS and electronic depthfinder are of no consequence to inshore flounder anglers because of the shallow nature of the territory. However, for offshore fishing, electronic equipment is vital to the success of a trip. Finding an offshore structure can be tricky to difficult without electronic gear.

A flounder bite is subtle compared to any other game fish. Instead of streaking off with the bait, he engulfs it with his huge mouth and holds it for a few seconds before turning it around to begin swallowing it. The initial strike is often no more than a tap or heavy sensation. Because of the way flounder feed, more of these fish are missed by anglers who set the hook too soon than are missed for any other reason. When in doubt about whether a hook is hung on the bottom or in a flounder’s mouth, it’s best to wait up to a minute or two before moving the bait or setting the hook.

The second top time for losing a flounder is when it is near the boat. A lightly hooked fish will throw the hook when it thrashes above the surface. Experienced anglers submerge the rod tip to lead the fish into a landing net. Still, while it is rare, a big flounder may leap from the water when it senses the net.

A large landing net is important for catching flounder. The shape of the fish makes getting a 10-pounder into a bass-fishing net nearly impossible.

YELLOWFIN TUNA
Yellowfin tuna are one of the premier big-game fish of the North Carolina coastline. Most yellowfin tuna weigh 20 to 40 pounds. But fish approaching or exceeding 100 pounds are caught each year.

Anglers head to the Gulf Stream in early summer and early fall to catch yellowfin tuna. Aggressive biters, tuna are also fast swimmers. Lures, usually rigged with a small ballyhoo or strip bait, are trolled at high speeds. The more commotion the lures make, the better. It’s impossible to troll a lure too fast for a tuna to strike it.

Anglers typically set out six to 12 rods for tuna. Yellowfin tuna can be leader-shy, so monofilament leaders are used ahead of the lures. Rods and reels are usually in the 30- to 80-pound class, with the most common rigs falling in the 50-pound class.

When a tuna strikes, line streaks from the reel. Multiple strikes often occur. Boats without enough fight chairs require anglers to use “stand-up” tackle.

Strong backs are a plus for tuna fishermen. Many anglers make the mistake of trying to pump a fish before it ends its first run. This creates fatigue and frustration. A better tactic is to let the fish run to a standstill before trying to reel it to the boat.

Once it sees the boat, a tuna dives deep spirals. A big tuna can exhaust an angler because it can make multiple runs and never seems to give up.

Yellowfin tuna are found where there are baitfish schools, temperature changes, color changes or current rips in the edge of the Gulf Stream. A trip to the tuna grounds usually takes a pleasant boat ride of two or three hours.

SPANISH MACKEREL
Spanish mackerel are one of the easiest to catch saltwater game fish. Most Spanish mackerel are caught by anglers trolling with flashy metal spoons. Spanish mackerel feed on small schooling baitfish and fry, commonly referred to as “glass minnows.” Matching lure size to the size of prey fish can be important for success, especially during warm water or clear water conditions.

Tactics for catching lots of Spanish mackerel in short order include rigs with multiple jigs or tube lures. These rigs are cast from piers, boats or trolled. Still, most anglers troll or cast single lures. Jerkbaits or metal tube lures are ideal for casting from boats or piers because they can be cast long distances even in the wind.

Most anglers see the fish before trying to catch them. Spanish jump from the surface and attract sea birds when they are feeding on baitfish. Trolling through a school can scatter the fish or drive them deep. Therefore most anglers circle a school, trolling the outside edges.

Spanish mackerel are great game fish, possessing lightning speed when hooked on light spinning or fly tackle. But when schools head deep, anglers must use heavy jigging spoons or troll lures behind planers or heavy trolling sinkers to catch them. For deep-running fish, anglers use electronic depthfinders to spot the fish and troll lures at the depth of the school.

Most fish caught on lures weigh 1 to 3 pounds. But for trophy fishing, anglers use live baits to catch Spanish mackerel that can weigh above 6 pounds.

The outsides of inlet bars and nearshore artificial reefs are top spots for big Spanish mackerel. Anglers hook a 6-inch menhaden or mullet through the nose with a small treble hook, which is attached to the line with a short wire leader. Tossing a couple of wounded baits overboard usually incites any Spanish mackerel around. Once they begin slashing at the live “chum,” the angler substitutes a hooked live minnow. It disappears into a big boil and the battle is on.

Spanish mackerel have extremely sharp teeth, but are very leader-shy. Trolling and casting anglers usually use hard monofilament leaders of about 30 pounds for catching Spanish. When a fish is boated, the best idea is to swing it directly into a cooler to keep your hands safe. The fish also have tiny scales that stick like glue to everything and eject stomach contents when boated. Hooks should be removed with pliers once a fish is safely inside the cooler.

WEAKFISH
Weakfish, also referred to by anglers as gray trout, are a management success story. Returned to abundance, they were once considered a cold-weather fish. However, anglers report catching them during spring and fall, sometimes even during the summer.

Most weakfish are caught at artificial reefs and ledges. However, occasionally they are also caught from the surf, from piers and in the sounds and bays.

When the fish are schooling in 20 to 50 feet of water at a hard structure area, they are easy to spot with an electronic depthfinder. They can also hug submerged structure where a big school of baitfish is seen on the depthfinder screen. The weakfish themselves will be hard to spot on the depthfinder under those circumstances, but fishing around a big school of baitfish is never a bad idea.

Most anglers use natural baits like fish or shrimp to catch weakfish, or they jig with heavy metal spoons. But jerkbaits and jigs also work well if they are heavy enough to sink quickly.

Cut fish or shrimp fished on a standard, two-hook bottom rig works just fine for catching weakfish. Live mullet fished on flounder rigs also work well. But most anglers prefer using jigging spoons because they don’t have to fool with baiting the hook and the fish are aggressive strikers.


AN ANGLING GUIDE TO OUR FAVORITE SALTWATER GAME FISH
SPECIES PRIMARY RANGE BEST FISHING BEST TACTICS BACKGROUND
RED DRUM Red drum range from shallow backwaters to ocean waters. Juvenile fish up to 10 pounds remain in estuaries until reaching sub-adulthood at about 30 inches in length and then head to the ocean. Red drum are caught at every time of year. Best fishing occurs in spring, summer and fall when water temperatures are above 60 degrees. Lures, flies, live baits and natural baits all catch red drum. Fishing with bottom rigs baited with minnows or cut fish account for more red drum than any other fishing method. Anglers are allowed to keep one red drum per day, between 18 and 27 inches fork length. Tops in game fish qualities, redfish are strong fighters on any tackle with lots of power and endurance.
FLOUNDER They can be found in inshore bays, rivers, sounds along boat docks, in grassbeds, oyster beds, navigation channels, offshore ledges, inlets and artificial reefs. While flounder begin biting in May, the best bet for catching lots of fish is June. The biggest fish of the season are caught in late summer and early fall and the bite can go into November. Drifting or trolling live baits on sandy bottoms is a tried-and-true method. However, fishing live baits vertically over offshore structure is increasing catches of flounder for many anglers. Summer flounder have recovered from overfishing abuses of the past, while southern flounder may see some increased restriction due to declining populations. Top eating game fish.
YELLOWFIN TUNA Yellowfin tuna are caught far offshore at the Gulf Stream. Anglers at the upper and central coast have shorter trips than anglers along the southern coast to reach the warm waters that hold tuna. Best fishing for yellowfin tuna occurs during spring and fall when they form large schools. But they can be caught all the way through the summer months. Lures trolled at high speeds are best for catching yellowfin tuna. Finding temperature eddies along the continental break is the ticket to catching tuna. Yellowfin tuna are top offshore game fish because of their schooling habits. Several anglers can hook up tuna at the same time. They are strong, fast, and are excellent eating fish.
SPANISH MACKEREL Spanish mackerel are caught inside inlets, waterways and sounds. But highest concentrations are usually within a few miles of the beach. They gather around structure and baitfish schools. Spanish show up in late April and these can be some of the season’s biggest fish. They stay around until November if the weather remains warm. Best fishing is usually June and September. Trolling spoons and lures is traditional. Anglers casting jerkbaits and other lures from piers and boats catch lots of fish. Live baits fished at artificial reefs account for the largest Spanish mackerel. Spanish are great fish for everyone to catch. They are easy to find and aggressive, as well as speedy fighters. Many anglers fill up a cooler with Spanish quickly for a fish fry.
WEAKFISH Pamlico Sound has a good population of weakfish. Most weakfish are caught from piers or boats. They form large schools at ledges, reefs and channels. The best time to catch weakfish is during cool-weather periods in early spring or late fall. However, the rebounding population has helped anglers catch weakfish from nearshore waters. Weakfish are caught by anglers fishing with jigs, jigging spoons, natural baits, such as squid, shrimp and cut fish or live baits, such as small menhaden and mullet. Weakfish are easy to catch and abundant. Most fish caught in North Carolina waters weigh 1 to 4 pounds, although they routinely top 10 pounds in more northern states. Excellent eating.

The spoon is dropped to the bottom, then reeled up a couple of turns. It is then bounced up and down with the rod tip until a fish strikes. The strike usually occurs as the spoon falls, so keeping the line tight is important.

Weakfish are named for their thin mouth membranes. Lots of them are lost while reeling them in. Anglers should not jerk hard to set the hook on a weakfish. Instead, they should just start reeling steadily at the strike. A limber rod and light drag also help prevent the hook from pulling free.

Landing a weakfish without a net invites the fish to slip the hook. Anglers use rubber or coated nets to minimize hooks tangling in the mesh. Another tactic is replacing the treble hooks at the end of the spoon with a single hook. This also allows easier release of undersized weakfish and gives them a better chance of survival.

FOR MORE INFORMATION
For saltwater fishing regulations, visit N.C. Division of Marine Fisheries Web site at
www.ncfisheries.net

Carl and Shane Snow specialize in offshore fishing for gray trout and yellowfin tuna. Call Fish Witch II charters at (910) 458-5855.

Wayne Freeman fishes for flounder offshore. Call Flatfish Charters at (910) 523-0309.

(Editor’s Note: Mike Marsh’s new book, Offshore Angler — Carolina’s Mackerel Boat Fishing Guide compliments the top-selling Inshore Angler — Coastal Carolina’s Small Boat Fishing Guide. Both have tips and tactics from fishing professionals and hotspots for catching many species of game fish. Cost of either book is $20, check or MO, sent to Mike Marsh, 1502 Ebb Drive, Wilmington, NC 28409.)

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