Science and action are amazing things. Where once there was a dearth of many saltwater game fish species because of overharvest situations, fishery management plans at the national and state levels have blended scientific research with action to restore many species to abundance.
Red drum are increasing in size and numbers year by year. King mackerel populations continue to remain on sound footing. Some flounder populations have been troubled, but fishery managers are making great strides to bring them back to abundance. Spotted seatrout have always been fickle fish this far north. But the North State has had back-to-back banner years for specks. Cobia are now as ever a viable catch for those that know how and where to look, and anglers are become more adept at catching them with each passing season.
Here’s a look at what anglers need to know before heading out after these fabulous five — our best-to-catch saltwater game fish.
There are three flounder species commonly caught by North Carolina anglers. The southern flounder is the most popular because it is caught from all inshore waters. The summer flounder is the second most popular because it inhabits the nearshore ledges and reefs from the inlets out to about 10 miles offshore. Gulf flounder are more rarely caught, comprising less than 5 percent of the total catch. They are fish of the offshore waters and are usually caught by anglers seeking summer flounder. Summer flounder and Gulf flounder can be caught from the same ledges, but Gulf flounder like sandy bottoms, while summer flounder prefer hard structure. Southern flounder can confound the identification process because they also may be caught at inshore ledges and reefs.
The good news is that summer flounder have recovered from past abuses and anglers can catch limits of them at nearshore ledges by using live minnows as bait. Feeding the fish is what it takes, since pinfish, seabass, bluefish and other species steal baits intended for summer flounder. When fishing offshore ledges and reefs, anglers can figure on using 20 baits per hour per angler when the fishing is hot.
Hot offshore fishing begins in April and continues into November. Reefs and ledges off Southport, Wrightsville Beach, Bogue Banks and Morehead City have seen some truly hot action the past couple of seasons.
Southern flounder have become the subject of more intense regulation. A catch reduction of 50 percent has been identified by fishery managers as the way to bring the population of fish back up to where it should be. This has resulted in the state’s first bag limit for inshore waters. However, the good news is that for the first time in many years, the inshore and offshore bag limits are the same at eight fish per day, with a minimum length of 14 inches.
All flounder species eat the same baits. Summer flounder and southern flounder also achieve some hefty sizes, with a 5-pound fish common and a 10-pounder a true trophy fish. Most Gulf flounder typically weigh only a pound or two, but they can exceed 5 pounds.
The classic flounder rig is a “fish finder” or “Carolina rig,” consisting of an egg sinker sliding above or pegged to a swivel and a 15- to 30-pound leader tied below the swivel. Special hooks with wide bends, such as the Kahle style, are used to penetrate far back inside a flounder’s mouth to achieve a secure hookset.
Most flounder are lost because the angler sets the hook too soon. Some count to 30 and others wait so long that the flounder begins to move off with the bait before they set the hook. A good adage is “you can’t wait too long” to set the hook in a flounder’s jaw. The strike can be so subtle that anglers cannot detect it without experience.
Lures have become a mainstay of many summer flounder anglers with the invention of scent-impregnated soft-plastic baits. Stuck on the hook of a jig, these baits will often outfish live baits when cast into likely flounder haunts, such as dips in grassbeds or pockets in oyster beds or beneath boat docks.
Red drum are still considered overfished, but it is largely because the latest stock status assessment is not yet due. It is likely that the status will change to viable. If not during the next stock review, the fish stock should be reclassified soon afterward. Assessments are routinely performed every three years to give scientists time to assess landing data. However, anglers and biologists are reporting that plenty of red drum in all age-classes are being caught in all of the state’s coastal waters.
Reports of great red drum fishing are coming from everywhere. Anglers report fishing huge schools of adult fish that can top 41 inches and grow to over 50 pounds.
“I caught the first three adult drum I’ve ever caught with a fly rod,” said Chuck Laughridge of Roanoke Rapids. “I was fishing the Cape Lookout Shoals when I spotted the fish. I hooked three by casting to the fish as they fed on top of the bar.”
Laughridge was fishing in late fall, an excellent time to catch adult drum. The biggest red drum school off Cape Hatteras and Cape Lookout in the fall. Many enter Pamlico Sound to spawn during July and August each summer and the recreational fishery has a large following in waters near Oriental.
Other big red drum are caught at the Cape Fear River mouth in November, especially by flounder fisherman dropping live baits at the artificial reefs. Catching a 50-pound redfish on a medium-duty spinning rod intended for flounder results in quite a tussle and a never-to-be-forgotten experience for any angler.
Smaller puppy drum have been reported from all the state’s sounds, rivers and bays. They also roam the surf zone and navigation channels. After reaching maturity at age 4 and a length of about 32 inches, adult fish head offshore to spend their adulthood, with the exception of the Pamlico Sound breeding population, which return to spawn.
The smaller fish can be caught all year ’round. By May, they are feeding in schools along grassbeds, oyster beds and bars. Anglers can catch them by sight-fishing with flies or lures or by casting live or dead baits into structure areas and bait-holding areas.
One of the most exciting ways to catch redfish is by casting topwater lures along docks or flats where red drum are known to lurk. A red drum has difficulty in getting the hook in its mouth, resulting in multiple strikes before the fish gets “the point.”
When fishing with topwater lures, anglers should therefore wait until they feel the fish’s weight before setting the hook. Otherwise, they will jerk the lure away from the fish. The trick is to keep the lure moving at the same retrieve rate and rhythm as the fish strikes and misses. It’s not an easy thing to do with adrenaline shakes in the hands.
The spotted seatrout, or “speck” is the third most popular inshore game fish in the state. Aggressive at attacking lures or live baits, specks do not offer spectacular fights. But when caught on light tackle, they still give thrills.
Sometimes referred to as the largemouth bass of salt water, specks can be caught with bass tackle, often by using the same types of lures. Standard lures are jigs tipped with natural or synthetic hair or soft-plastic trailers, minnow imitations and topwater “spook”-type lures or propeller lures.
Specks feed on mullet, croakers, menhaden and shrimp. The top live bait for speck fishing is a live shrimp. However, some of the largest specks dine on pinfish the size of an angler’s hand.
Specks form dense schools that concentrate wherever there’s a supply of baitfish or shrimp. Creek mouths, jetties, riprap, oyster beds and pier pilings hold massive schools at times. They can often be caught in large numbers at ocean fishing piers. They are such a staple at the Oak Island piers that live shrimp can be bought at the pier houses during the speck runs in the early summer and early fall.
Live shrimp are usually fished on a float rig. It’s the same rig freshwater anglers use for catching bream and crappie. However, a No. 6 treble hook is used to hold the bait. The mouth of a speck has tender membranes that are easy to tear. The treble offers extra holding power after the cork goes down and the hook is set.
Veteran speck anglers use light-action rods with plenty of flexibility. When fighting a speck, they keep the fish’s head beneath the water as it approaches the landing net to keep the fish from tossing the lure as its head shakes when it breaches the surface.
Most specks weigh a pound or two. But a few top 4 pounds and a very few top 7 pounds.
The Fort Macon and Wrightsville Beach rock jetties have held many specks the past couple of seasons. Pamlico Sound, Core Sound, North River, Elizabeth River and New River have also produced their share of nice fish.
Many fishermen consider a cobia to be on the same plane as a catfish. In fact, it looks much like a big freshwater flathead catfish and fights even harder. These huge brutes can top 100 pounds and put a strain on the heaviest tackle. When fought on light trolling tackle intended for king mackerel, it is not unusual for it to take 45 minutes to two hours to land a big cobia.
Morehead City is the epicenter of the cobia run, with a local tournament that hails the arrival of the fish in May. The waters off Cape Hatteras also hold large numbers of cobia as they arrive.
In the deep channels around Morehead City, anglers soak big live baits, cut baits and crabs for cobia. They use chum to help draw the fish to the baits. At the piers, anglers use live baits fished on trolley rigs to catch cobia. Cobia are landed at piers with weighted treble hooks tied to ropes after being played all the way to the pilings. Some anglers also use large drop-nets to land fish.
An increasingly popular tactic for catching cobia is sight-fishing. Anglers with towers on their boats cruise the tide lines near inlets as they look for the fish. The fish are often associated with huge schools of rays that arrive at the same time of year.
When sight-casting, anglers use live baits, large soft plastics, large jigs, topwater chugging lures and natural strip baits. A cobia can be finicky, so it pays to have a couple of different choices rigged and ready when looking for cobia.
Live bait trollers often catch cobia when they are after other species. But anglers can target them intentionally by looking for the fish. Cobia tend to orient themselves close to structure. Buoys, pilings, jetsam and flotsam, or weed lines attract the fish.
Once a cobia is hooked, there is about a 50 percent chance that it is swimming with another fish. Anglers should watch for the opportunity for a multiple hookup, if they think they can handle two cobia at the same time without getting the lines fouled.
A hooked cobia will bring other cobia with it. Whether they are paired off or whether the second fish wants to try to steal a meal is anybody’s guess. But hooking a second or even a third fish is always a possibility. Since it’s going to take a while to land the first fish, why not kill the time by hooking and playing a second or even a third fish?
Cobia should be played to absolute exhaustion before being landed. Many a cobia has found renewed vigor after being struck with a gaff. They straighten gaff hooks, wreck ice chests, break fishing rods and even flop their way back overboard. A big cobia can break a bone with a swipe of its tail, so care must be used when landing the fish.
Cobia remain along the coast until early fall. But the bite is never as strong later in the season as when they first arrive in May or June.
The big king mackerel or “horse mackerel” may be the objective of more offshore big-game fishing trips than any other schooling fish. The fish begin arriving in April and stay along the state’s coast until November. When the water turns cold, they don’t disappear. They merely move farther out to the western wall of the Gulf Stream, where most winter anglers don’t want to go because of the length of the trip.
The first fish to arrive are “school kings” or “snakes”: the thin juvenile fish that typically weigh 4 to 10 pounds. Anglers troll spoons and lures or live or frozen baits to catch the small fish.
Kings are drawn to baitfish schools. Baitfish schools concentrate along beaches, at inlets and at artificial reefs and natural ledges. Anywhere there is a food source, including shrimp boats or menhaden boats culling catches, there will be king mackerel eating the easy handout.
Large kings can top 80 pounds. But most tournament winners weigh between 30 and 50 pounds. A big king is a tough fish to handle. Their speed is awesome and their teeth are sharp. The light leaders and lines most anglers use to attract strikes from the oldest and wariest kings invite failures. Often the tiny treble hooks used for live bait and frozen bait fall out of their mouths when kings are landed. Live baits are usually trolled on conventional rods and reels spooled with lines as light as 15 pounds or as heavy as 30 pounds
. Limber rods are used to keep the line tight at all times.
Anglers wanting to catch a limit of kings for fun and eating often have better luck with trolling spoons and lures than with live baits. Anglers can catch limits of kings weighing up to 30 pounds by using “hardware.”
Inlets and river mouths produce some of the best catches. The Cape Fear River channel is a top spot. Reefs offshore of Topsail Island and Morehead City also hold some impressive numbers and sizes of kings.
King mackerel boats are thought of as “ocean bass boats.” With as many as three outboard motors mounted on sleek hulls, these speedy boats can travel long distances to get to the action and back to the tournament dock before weigh-in time is over. The best king mackerel fishing and the best king mackerel fishermen in the world call North Carolina home. Tar Heel anglers are the best because they get plenty of practice. No place on the planet has better fishing for king mackerel.
There are many good saltwater guides in North Carolina, too many to list, but here are some good guides for the top five fish:
- Flounder — Captain Wayne “Rerun” Freeman, Flatfish Charters, Southport, (910) 523-0309.
- Red drum — Captain Fisher Culbreth, Capture Charters, Carolina Beach, (910) 262-1450.
- Speckled trout — Captain Stu Caulder, Gold Leader Charters, Wrightsville Beach, (910) 264-2674.
- Cobia — Captain Dave Dietzler, Cape Lookout Charters, Morehead City, (252) 240-2850.
- King mackerel — Captain Mike Taylor, Taylor Made Charters, Swansboro, (252) 725-2623.
(Editor’s Note: Mike Marsh’s books include Inshore Angler — Coastal Carolina’s Small Boat Fishing Guide and Offshore Angler — Carolina’s Mackerel Boat Fishing Guide. Either book is available by $20 check or MO sent to Mike Marsh, 1502 Ebb Drive, Wilmington, NC 28409.)