Test your tackle against North Carolina sheepshead, red drum, flounder or pompano for some great saltwater fishing. Better yet, try them all.
Coastal waters in the summer provide a tremendous variety of sport fish for anglers to pursue. Whether you want some fresh fish for the grill or a fine day catching and releasing, this is the time to plan a great fishing trip.
While the sheepshead takes its name from its teeth, which resemble those of a sheep, nothing in the way it fights is sheepish. Sheepshead “graze” on marine growth occurring on pilings, bulkheads, bridge supports, oyster beds and other hard structure, with their primary prey being mollusks and crustaceans. Their bite is powerful because they use their teeth to chip away at hard shells to get at the goodies inside.
Great baits for catching sheepshead include fiddler crabs, mole crabs, barnacles and shrimp. These baits are available for the gathering and kids can have fun chasing fiddler crabs in the marshes during low tide periods, sifting through oceanfront beaches with rakes or fingers to collect mole crabs, which are also called “sand fleas,” or using a hoe to scrape barnacles from a piling.
Hooks must be stout and sharp to penetrate such hard-shelled baits. Shrimp is easier to handle and hook, but other fish with less powerful bites like pinfish can eat them before sheepshead can find them. Sheepshead can bite through light wire hooks or kink them, so strong, stainless steel hooks are must-haves for catching them.
Anglers can catch them from any pier or dock by dropping their bait beside a piling. Observant anglers use polarized sunglasses to see the fish as they move along, looking for something to eat. Some great places to sight fish are marinas and ocean piers. The bait is dropped on a miniature Carolina rig or a drop-shot rig in front of the fish and the battle is on. Another way of catching them is by dropping the bait to the bottom beside the structure — the closer the better, because sheepshead hunt by facing the structure. Hang-ups are commonplace, but if you aren’t hanging your hooks, you are not fishing in the right place.
Fishing with braid or high test-weight mono is important, as is a tight drag. Sheepshead make strong runs, and if they wrap the line around a piling or other structure, the encrustations can cut the line. The best bet is cranking down the drag and horsing the sheepshead away from the cover.
Tying off the boat to a piling and fishing under a bridge is a great way to find protection from the heat or rain. The best time to fish from a boat is during the rising tide. A metal object, such as a garden spade, is used to scrape barnacles from the piling. The shells and creatures inside them fall to the bottom as ready-made chum and attract the sheepshead to the bait. If the tide is high, water covers the barnacles and oysters so anglers cannot scrape them off the pilings.
“Everyone thinks you have to jerk the rod to set the hook before a sheepshead bites,” said Capt. Jeff Cronk of Fish’N 4 Life Charters out of Swansboro. “But the actual bite can be as strong as for any other fish. The trick is to set the hook anytime you feel something different. It can be a tap or slack in the line. It can also be a fish taking off with the bait. You do whatever it takes to stop its run or you will lose the fish if it’s a big one.”
Flounder lurk anywhere water is deep enough to cover them, which means it may be only a couple of inches deep. However, they also inhabit deep waters, so an ocean pier or artificial reef is also a great place for making a flounder foray.
Anglers in all kind of boats can catch flounder. The best places to fish are structure areas. The best natural structure areas are dips and points of grass beds, oyster beds, shell bottoms, channels and rock outcrops. The best manmade structure areas are piers, jetties, seawalls, bridges and boat docks. These areas concentrate the baitfish that flounder prefer to eat.
Several rigs work well for flounder. As long as it holds a live mullet, menhaden or mud minnow, it will entice a flounder to strike. A Carolina rig was called a flounder rig or fish-finder rig long before bass anglers renamed it. It consists of an egg sinker sliding above a swivel with a leader below. The leader can be long or short and holds a wide gap or Kahle hook at the end that the angler inserts through a baitfish’s nose.
The cast is made as near to the structure as possible, without risking the hook snagging. Still, hang-ups are common for anglers who are fishing in the right spots.
The bait is allowed to sit or is retrieved very slowly along the bottom. Flounder are ambush predators, preferring to strike the bait as it passes while they wait on the bottom, covered with sand. While the Carolina rig works well at any depth because it is fished on the bottom, a float rig works well for shallow water. Float rigs have the advantage of keeping the bait above the bottom where the hook will not snag on oyster shells and barnacles or other hard structure.
Anglers can drift along, allowing a bottom rig or float rig to move on the current or troll it slowly behind the boat. For ocean piers or other piers, the angler can walk the planks, sliding a bottom rig from piling to piling. When it draws near the right one, a flounder will strike the bait.
The areas where the biggest flounder occur include Ocracoke, Southport, Morehead City and Carolina Beach. However, large numbers of keeper-sized flounder occur everywhere, so the big sounds and coastal rivers are also great places to fish.
Offshore, the species change, with Gulf and summer flounder supplanting the southern flounder of inshore waters. Many artificial reefs and natural hard bottoms hold flounder, which anglers catch using the same bottom rigs they employ for catching flounder inshore. Good hard bottoms and reefs are located just offshore of Carolina Beach, Wrightsville Beach, Bogue Inlet and Oak Island. Some good artificial reefs include AR 370, Meares Harris Reef, AR 378, Phillip Wolfe Reef, AR 420, Tom McGlammery Reef, AR 425 and Yaupon Reef.
- Lure advice: Rattle Up Redfish With These Lures
Capt. Guion Lee of Green Creek Outfitters and Guide Service fishes the reefs and hard bottoms near Wrightsville Beach.
“June is the top month for catching flounder,” Lee said. “I find little pieces of structure away from the main masses that other anglers do not look for. It may be just some baitfish on the depthfinder that give a honey hole away. I drop down a live mullet or a jig with a soft plastic trailer. If the flounder are down there, they let you know right away.”
Florida pompano are smaller fish than the enormous African pompano anglers catch far offshore. Anglers may also catch another similar species, permit, in North Carolina waters and mistake them for Florida pompano. The permit has a deeper body and more pronounced sickle tail and can be much larger than a Florida pompano.
Most anglers refer to the Florida pompano simply as “pompano.” The fish have yellow bellies and are also differentiated from bar jacks or crevalle jacks by the lack of hard scutes, which are hard scale structures, along the belly.
Now that we have the identification straight, we can focus on the best time to catch pompano, which is during the heat of the summer when they show up in large schools. Anglers may encounter them nearly anywhere, but by far the best place to catch them is in the surf.
The best bait for pompano is the mole crab or sand flea. Anglers catch them with specially designed rakes that have baskets to sift the sand, leaving the mole crabs in the basket. Kids also gather them by hand, raking their fingers through the sand as the waves recede. Pompano will also strike fiddler crabs, fresh shrimp, squid and appropriately scented artificial strip baits.
Any surf rod will suffice for catching the fish, with many anglers using light spinning rods to get the most fight out of the fish. Although they can weigh 8 pounds, most weigh from 6 ounces to 2 pounds. For their size, they are some of the hardest battling ocean fish, especially when played on light tackle.
The fish are common catches up and down the coast. Some excellent places include Cape Lookout National Seashore, Cape Hatteras National Seashore, Freeman Park, Fort Fisher State Recreation Area and all ocean piers. While most anglers catch them when they are fishing for “anything that bites,” anglers who target them use the correct bait — mole crabs — to fill up their ice chests with them. The best way to find out where they are biting is to call an ocean pier or visit the pier’s website for a fishing report or a live camera view of the action.
Red drum go by many names. “Puppy drum” describes the smaller fish, up to 27 inches long, which remain in the interior waters for as long as four years. Larger fish, which can top 40 pounds, called old drum, bull reds, channel bass or redfish, spend most of their lives in the ocean until they return to the inshore waters of Pamlico Sound to spawn, one of the only places on the East Coast where they do so. The spawn begins in June and lasts until September.
These adult fish are subject to special fishing regulations that require anglers who fish for them to use rigs designed by angler Owen Lupton that also carry his name. In Pamlico Sound and its tributaries south of the Albemarle Sound Management Area between July 1 and September 30 between 7 p.m. and 7 a.m. anyone fishing with hooks larger than 4/0 must use one of these rigs. The rig has a circle hook with the barb compressed or removed and a fixed sinker of at least 2 ounces secured no more than six inches from a circle hook. For more on this regulation and making the rig, anglers should visit http://portal.ncdenr.org.
Capt. Gary Dubiel of Speck Fever Guide Service is one of the top red drum fishing guides catching the fish out of Oriental. He catches large numbers of puppy drum using jigs and lures. But he also uses popping float rigs to catch old drum by casting them to areas where they lurk during the day as well as by sight-fishing the menhaden schools. He said casting a popping rig in front of an old red drum is tantamount to a bullfighter shaking a red flag in the face of a bull.
“I use spinning tackle to cast a typical popping float rig and I also use fly tackle,” he said. “I hook a cut or live bait or lure below the float. I came up with the Pop-N-Fly rig that lets anyone catch big red drum using a fly rod a couple of years ago. Cast the rig to a menhaden school, let the bait or lure settle, give the line a tug to pop the float, and you will get a strike sooner or later. It is such a savage strike that it dwarfs anything else in inshore saltwater fishing. Then, you have to hang on for the duration until the fish wears down from the friction of the line and the reel drag.”
GUIDES MENTIONED IN THIS ARTICLE
• Capt. Guion Lee, Green Creek Outfitters and Guide Service, Wrightsville Beach for flounder, Oriental for red drum — (252) 617-0024
• Capt. Jeff Cronk, Fish’N 4 Life Charters, Swansboro for flounder and sheepshead — (336) 558-5697
• Capt. Gary Dubiel, Oriental for flounder, puppy drum and old drum — (252) 514-3484
• Kure Beach Fishing Pier, Kure Beach, pompano and other bottom fish — (910) 458-5524