N.C. saltwater fishing includes a vast array of coastal fish, and now’s the time to catch ’em.
North Carolina’s diversity of habitats, currents and water temperatures generate an amazing array of saltwater game fish. Anglers of all skill levels can participate in these legendary fishing trips with an excellent chance of success.
The Morehead City area hosts some of the best fishing for two of anglers’ favorite saltwater game fish. Both species arrive around the middle of May and are still swimming at peak numbers through June. Capt. Dave Dietzler, of Cape Lookout Charters, said any angler with a boat capable of cruising through Beaufort Inlet to head offshore 3 miles can cash in on the fantastic fishing.
“If you want, you can fill the cooler with some great-eating Spanish mackerel and then try to catch a cobia,” Dietzler said. “You could make it an all-day trip for either species, but you can catch both fish in the same places.”
While catching a cobia is one of inshore fishing’s most exciting events, fishing for a cobia has been described as about as exciting as “watching paint dry.” The most reliable method is catching bluefish with lures or menhaden in cast nets and placing them in a live well to use as bait. Anglers without live wells can store freshly caught menhaden on ice chest and cut them into chunks.
Dietzler uses an upsized Carolina rig consisting of an egg sinker enough to hold the bait on the bottom and 3 feet of 50- to 80-pound test fluorocarbon leader with an offset 8/0 hook.
“I find a place where I can anchor my boat securely near structure,” he said. “Some good places to fish are the State Port shipping channel, the railroad trestle between Morehead City and Radio Island and anywhere along the ICW. I anchor the boat in the deepest part of the channel to intercept cobia moving from the ocean to enter the rivers and sounds to spawn. I drop two or three lines with live baits to the bottom.”
Then, the waiting begins. In between cobia bites come shark strikes, stingray hookups and battles with red drum. When a cobia hooks up, the fight is protracted and powerful. The stamina of a cobia, which usually weighs from 30 to 70 pounds, is legendary.
On calm days with good water clarity, Dietzler heads offshore to find menhaden schools. He catches the cobia that lurk beneath these schools using what freshwater anglers refer to as a drop-shot rig.
“I tie a single No. 2 treble hook to a leader with a 2-ounce bank sinker below the hook,” he said. “I cast it into the menhaden school and snag a baitfish. Then, I let it sink to the bottom. If a cobia is down there, he is going to eat it as it falls.”
While he is snagging “shad” as old-time Morehead anglers call menhaden, he also sets out a live bait rig, which is the same rig without the sinker. He ties a balloon to the line with a rubber band to keep the bait swimming near the surface. When a cobia strikes, the balloon pops and the battle continues unimpeded.
“The trick is to be patient and fish slow,” he said. “I might drift alongside a baitfish ball, fishing it for 30 or 45 minutes before giving up.”
Cobia anglers seeing Spanish mackerel jumping all around the boat and can grow impatient waiting on a cobia bite. Terns working baitfish schools are the best sign that Spanish mackerel are feeding at the surface and anglers can see these birds at great distances.
“When the fish are really hot, I use a tandem rig with two jig heads and 3-inch Fin-S Fish trailers,” Dietzler said. “Sometimes you catch Spanish two at a time.”
Dietzler also casts Stingsilver or other types of metal spoons. If the fish are not in the shipping channel or ICW, he heads for Cape Lookout or along Atlantic Beach.
“I look for the birds and the baitfish,” he said. “They might be anywhere out to 3 miles in the same places I look for cobia. If I don’t see anything, I head to AR315, which is 3 miles off the beach.”
To catch fish at the artificial reefs, Dietzler uses a live bait rig consisting of a swivel, 6 inches of No. 3 wire and a No. 4 treble hook tied to a 25-pound fluorocarbon leader. Hooking a small “peanut shad” through the nose, he lets it swim unrestricted by any sinker. Saltwater anglers call an un-weighted line a “light line” and freshwater anglers call it a “free line. While Spanish mackerel will attack a live bait on a light line, other reef denizens that may strike are king mackerel and amberjack.
In June, the first runs of giant red drum migrate inland into the Neuse River. The river and Pamlico Sound are the only inshore area where the fish enter the state’s inland waters to spawn. These adult fish are big — they can weigh 40 pounds or more.
Captains Jennings Rose, Mitchell Blake and George Beckwith Jr. of Down East Guide Service are some of the area’s best red drum guides. They launch their 23-foot Parker boats at the N.C. Wildlife Resources Commission’s Oriental Boating Access Area. The best fishing for giant redfish occurs at dusk and continues through the first two hours of the night. However, anglers will miss some great action if they do not cast for redfish during the day.
“Our fishing for adult red drum is so good, it overshadows the fishing for puppy drum,” Beckwith said. “While you are waiting on the evening bite, you can catch dozens of smaller fish that can run 12 to 32 inches long and weigh up to 12 pounds.”
Beckwith said anglers can also target menhaden schools and certain known hotspots to catch the adult drum during the day. However, the night bite is more consistent.
“During the day, we fish around the shoals, along the shorelines or up in the creeks,” Blake said. “That is where the puppy drum action is on fire. I use a tandem rig with a Fin-S trailer in a smoke color with a green metal flake on one jig head and a hot pink Bass Assassin one on the other jig head. I keep changing colors if they don’t hit my go-to colors to see what they like best because they can change their preferences on a given day. If they are hungry, puppy drum will bite anything that looks like a baitfish. Sometimes you can catch them by casting and winding in the line with a steady retrieve. But, most of the time, you have to hop the lure up and down or vary the retrieve in other ways to get their attention.”
The smaller fish are fun to catch on light tackle, especially when an angler might catch and release a dozen or more from a single spot. While they do not jump or make fast runs, the fish fight doggedly, taking the line in surges against a tight drag setting with a medium-action spinning reel. The bag limit is one fish per day between 18 and 27 inches long, total length. Therefore, anglers must release all of the big, adult fish they catch, along all but one fish within the slot-size of their puppy drum catch.
Dusk finds the anglers heading to one of the channel edges or to a slope angling away from the shoreline. The fish migrate along these edges, using them as travel ways for feeding and spawning. Beckwith was involved with telemetry tagging studies that showed the adult fish can move several miles in a single night, so anglers have to locate a good spot where the fish pass by on a regular basis. Compared to a freshwater lake, the drops in the Neuse River and Pamlico Sound are very subtle, changing only a few feet over a hundred yards of horizontal distance.
Anglers who fish for adult red drum at night must use special rigs to prevent the fish from swallowing the hook. This conservation measure protects the fish from injury because all adult fish must be released. The rig was designed by angler Owen Lupton and carries his name, but are also called “Old Drum Rigs.” In Pamlico Sound and its tributaries south of the Albemarle Sound Management Area between July 1 and Sept. 30 between 7 p.m. and 7 a.m. anglers fishing with hooks larger than 4/0 must use one of these rigs. The rig has a circle hook with the barb either compressed or removed and a sinker of at least 2 ounces secured in such a way there is no more than 6 inches of line from the fixed weight to the circle hook. For more on this regulation and making the rig, anglers should visit http://portal.ncdenr.org.
“We anchor the boat and cast four or five baits in all directions,” Rose said. “Then, we sit and wait for a big drum to bite, chumming with fish chunks every 15 minutes or so. We may catch some stingrays during the wait and we have to keep checking the baits constantly because bluefish and croakers are always nibbling at them. But, when that big one hits, you are going to know it right away. He takes off with the bait with the line melting off the reel and the rod bends over so far you wonder if you can get it out of the rod holder. Until he makes his first turn, all you can do is hang on. After that, it is a tug-o-war. You gain some line then the fish takes it back, over-and-over again. Very few of them get off the hook, though. So, after 10 or 15 minutes depending upon how much drag you can stand, you should have the fish beside the boat where we can tag it with a dart tag and let it go.”
For anglers who want to catch big fish with little expense, the ocean piers are the places to go and king mackerel are the fish they want to catch. Except for September, June is the best month for catching kings. When the water temperatures warm to 70 degrees, baitfish schools migrate along the coast and hungry king mackerel follow.
Some piers that host hot king mackerel action are Avon, Avalon, Bogue Inlet, Surf City, Jolly Roger, Johnnie Mercer’s, Kure Beach and Oak Island. Anglers can call individual piers to ask about the king bite. No matter which beach you visit on vacation, a fishing pier is nearby.
To catch kings, anglers use trolley rigs, which have an anchor rod and fight rod. The angler uses the anchor rod to cast a surf sinker to hold the bottom. A release clip on the fight rod line slides down the anchor rod line, holding a baitfish. The baitfish may be a spot, pinfish or bluefish. The rig has two or more treble hooks that dangle alongside the baitfish.
Once the baitfish reaches the water, the anchor rod line holds it in place. King fishermen can control their baits to keep them from tangling other angler’s lines or pull them out of the water if a shark appears.
When a king strikes, it makes a long initial run, giving other anglers time to clear their lines from the water. A fellow angler lands the king with a rope gaff as the angler holds on, trying to keep the line away from the pilings.
King mackerel rigs also catch cobia, dolphin, red drum, bluefish and Spanish mackerel, depending upon the location of the pier. To pass time between king strikes, anglers use light spinning rods to catch bait, rigging a two-hook bottom rig for spots, croakers and pinfish or casting a Got-cha lure or spoon to catch bluefish and Spanish mackerel.
GUIDE CONTACT INFORMATION
Capt. Dave Dietzler, Cape Lookout Charters, Morehead City 252-241-0210. Captains George Beckwith Jr., Jennings Rose and Blake Mitchell, Down East Guide Service (800) 671-3474.
Editor’s Note: Mike Marsh’s book “Fishing North Carolina” shares more than 100 hotspots from the mountains to the sea including all ocean piers. To order, send a $26.60 check or MO to 1502 Ebb Dr., Wilmington, NC 28409. To contact Mike, for credit card sales or to order his other fishing and hunting books, visit www.mikemarshoutdoors.com.