We've put together a month-by-month calendar for fishing the best spots in North Carolina. (February 2006)
North Carolina, where you can leave the sand and drive 250 miles to a mountaintop, certainly has a lot to offer in the way of a variety of quality fisheries. Here are some of them.
The winter bluefin run was originally an Outer Banks affair, but since 2000, more and more big tuna are showing up in the Cape Lookout area from December through February.
Nowadays, you've got as good a chance to battle tuna by leaving from Atlantic Beach or Harker's Island as you would from any other port.
In January, most of the action will take place east of Cape Lookout Shoals, around inshore wrecks and reefs like 30-Minute Rock, the Summerlin Reef and the Atlas Tanker wreck. One key is finding water in the 61- to 64-degree range; that's the bluefin's comfort zone. The other is finding big schools of bait, and for a bluefin, bait doesn't necessarily mean little sardines or menhaden; it may mean gray trout. Most fishermen set out trolling around likely spots using extremely heavy tackle (80- to 130-pound class) and circle hooks in the 16/0 range. Horse ballyhoo and split-tail mullet are the most productive baits, often dressed with a trolling feather of some kind.
When a concentration of tuna is located, many fishermen will knock their boats out of gear and drift live bait 10 or 15 feet deep behind the transom. The best live bait can be anything from a huge menhaden, a gray trout or bluefish, but make sure it is a foot to 14 inches long.
Capt. Joe Shute's is a popular tackle shop in Atlantic Beach where fishermen can hook up with a charter captain or get the latest in bluefin information. Call (252) 240-2744.
Walleyes are among the most popular fish in North Carolina's mountain reservoirs, and even a rumor about fish starting to make their spawning run into creeks and rivers is bound to bring dozens of fishermen running.
Fontana is one of North Carolina's best walleye lakes, and walleyes normally start to stir around the middle of the month, moving to the head of their two main spawning rivers: the Little Tennessee and Tuckaseegee, both of which are on the eastern end of the lake, near Bryson City.
According to Jim Mathis at Almond Boat Park (828-488-6423), walleyes will work their way back into the rivers until they're stopped by an impassible set of shoals; that's where they'll set up shop to spawn.
Mathis advises fishermen to work along the banks of the rivers, looking for any kind of current break that will give fish a place to rest and feed -- either a laydown tree, a boulder or a little point that offers protection from the faster water.
Tackle should be relatively light. Spinning outfits are the norm, spooled with 6- to 8-pound-test line. Most fishermen will be using curlytailed grubs (chartreuse is a favorite color) threaded onto leadhead jigs. One-quarter- or 1/8-ounce jigs work best, depending on the amount of current. Cast out, bump them along the bottom and wait for the walleye's characteristic light bite. Small crankbaits, such as No. 5 and No. 7 Shad Raps, can also be very effective.
Few lakes can match Lake Wylie as a bass fishery, especially in the months when the water is a little on the cool side.
This 12,100-acre reservoir southwest of Charlotte has long been extremely productive, and with numerous feeder creeks and a nutrient-filled river feeding it, it can be a bass hotspot in the early spring.
Concentrate your efforts on the upper half of the lake, from the Buster Boyd Bridge upstream. A lot of fishermen like the Catawba River section of the lake, or the South Fork, where the action picks up fairly early.
Look for fish to be holding on secondary points or around the corners of main-lake pockets or pockets just inside the mouth of major creeks.
As the month progresses, pre-spawn fish will move back into creeks and congregate in spawning pockets.
A good source of information on Lake Wylie is Robby Byrum at Byrum's General Store in Charlotte, (704) 588-0434.
Buggs Island Lake
If there is a heaven on this earth for bass fishermen who like to fish shallow, it's Buggs Island in April and May, when fish pull into flooded shoreline cover.
The Nutbush Creek area of the lake, with headwaters near Henderson, has always been a great place to start in April because banks are a little flatter and more good shoreline cover is flooded.
Try to target windy points, and pay special attention to the base of flooded gum trees. Spinnerbaits are tremendously effective, in part because bass are so aggressive and because the wind will ripple the water up enough to keep bass from getting a good look at the lure's rippling skirt and jangling blades.
Later in the day, bass will often move back into pockets and set up shop around the base of flooded willow or buck bushes. That's when flipping a jig or a Texas-rigged soft-plastic bait of some kind becomes very effective.
Action in early April is generally around the mouth of Nutbush. As the month progresses, more fish move back in the creek and up in the river toward other creeks.
Bass pro Joel Richardson guides actively on Buggs Island. He can be reached at (336) 643-7214.
Offshore boats from Oregon Inlet and Hatteras will normally make a B-line in May to an area east of Diamond Shoals called "The Point" -- a ledge that drops off into extremely deep water and attracts loads of baitfish and predators like yellowfin tuna.
Big tuna can show up as early as late April and hang around through June, but May is the peak of the season, especially in terms of numbers of fish. Boats from either port are able to reach the fishing grounds with a run of just over two hours.
Daily limits of three fish per angler are very common, with most fish running between 25 and 40 pounds.
Most boats troll ballyhoo dressed with trolling feathers or Sea Witches; pink is a very popular color for tuna. Dolphin and some billfish will also show up in the same area.
Boats can be chartered out of Oregon Inlet Fishing Center, (252) 441-6301, south of Nags Head, and in Hatteras, Oden's Dock, (252) 986-2555, Hatteras Harbor Marina, (252-986) 2166 or Teach's Lair Marina, (252) 986-2460.
Cobia arrive along North Carolina's Outer Banks in mid-May, working their way north. By the middle of the month, Hatteras will be the center of the cobia universe, with fish pushing through the inlet into deep sloughs back in the Pamlico Sound, and working east up the beach toward Diamond Shoals.
The key range of water temperature is 72 to 78 degrees. When the mercury hits the 80-degree mark, most cobia will be gone.
"The longer the temperature stays in that range, the longer they'll stay around," said guide Ken Dempsey of Hatteras (252-986-2102). "Our cobia will show up the second or third week of May, and be here as late as the second week in July, but June is definitely the best month."
Dempsey and other inshore guides concentrate on sloughs in the sound behind Hatteras Inlet and in the inlet proper. As June progresses, he'll make the 45-minute run from the inlet up to Diamond Shoals, setting up on the step-down ledges that come off the side of the shoals.
Some cobia will be seen close to the surface, swimming lazily around marker buoys, often in the company of big rays. Sight-casting with bucktails is a productive way to catch those cruisers. However, the most effective way to catch cobia is to fish fresh-cut bait, normally menhaden, on the bottom on an 8/0 hook, a fish-finder rig and a 60-pound leader. Successful fishermen swear by chumming with ground menhaden.
French Broad River
The French Broad may be the best muskie fishery south of the land of a thousand lakes, in terms of numbers and big fish.
The biggest fish are normally caught in the winter, but great numbers of fish are hooked -- and some are landed -- during the summer along the river from Skyland (upstream from the Asheville airport) all the way to Rosman, a good 30 miles.
Muskie fishermen normally look for fish in deeper areas of the river, especially around eddies caused by ledges, sandbars or laydowns. Muskies will rest contentedly in the slack water waiting for a baitfish to be washed into range by the current.
Fishermen need to use medium-heavy to heavy baitcasting tackle. Big (1 ounce) spinnerbaits, jerkbaits and jumbo muskie-sized jerkbaits are very effective.
Muskies are very territorial, according to guide Jay Dodd of Water Wolf Guide Service in Asheville (828-281-1538). Once he raises or hooks a muskie in a certain area, he'll visit that spot on most every trip, content in the knowledge that a fish that sets up in a certain hole will not likely leave.
This fishery is so good that sometimes catching a handful of big drum in one sitting is almost easy.
There are a few rules to follow. First, fish near the mouth of the Neuse, where fish will be moving in from the Pamlico Sound. Search chart maps for shoals where the water comes up from 15 or 20 feet to less than 10 feet. Anchor on top of the shoals, and set out a handful of fresh-cut baits on fish-finger rigs at various depths around the shoals.
To attract big drum, fishermen will often chum with an almost liquefied mixture of ground menhaden or other oily fish. The chum slick -- especially on a falling tide -- will spread out on the shoals toward deeper water. The idea is that any drum that cuts the slick will turn its nose toward the source of the slick and work its way up the shoal until it hits the big chunk of cut bait -- fished on an 8/0 circle hook on a fish-finder rig.
Among guides who target big drum, George Beckwith of Down East Guide Service (252-249-3101), Derrick Jordan of DJ's Guide Service (252-322-5356) and Chris Elliott of Crystal Coast Charters (252-808-7067), work out of villages like Oriental and Gloucester.
King mackerel hang around the North Carolina coast for a good six months every year (roughly May through November), but fall fishing is the peak of the season.
Fishermen with different kinds and sizes of boats can run to different areas in search of kings -- from just outside inlets to 10 miles off the beach.
Masonboro and Carolina Beach inlets normally hold a good concentration of kings, which congregate around the inlets on falling tides to snack on the baitfish that are sucked out of the Intracoastal Waterway.
Farther off the beach, good live bottoms, wrecks and artificial reefs dot the area out to about 10 miles -- or 65 feet of water.
Kings will eat just about anything, but the most productive live baits are big menhaden, with an occasional spot, croaker or bluefish thrown in. Off the beach, they're more likely to hit a dead cigar minnow.
Live-bait fishermen normally slow-troll at a little over a mile per hour, just fast enough to keep baits swimming. Rigs normally involve a single hook in the nose of the bait and a treble hook tucked in the fish's back or tail fin -- with some fishermen using a trailer or stinger hook that swings freely behind the bait.
Rigs will be fished at various depths, from near or at the surface down as far as 25 or 30 feet.
Lloyd Eastlack at Bug 'Em Bait Company in Wilmington (800-242-2493) keeps tabs on king-fishing action along the Cape Fear coast. Rob Bierstedt at Onmyway Charters (910-798-6093) is a veteran captain.
Flatfish are big business along the Brunswick County coastline in October, as fishermen from Southport west to Holden Beach, Ocean Isle and Shallotte spend countless hours on the water. Inshore artificial reefs are good spots to start. The McGlammery and Yaupon reefs off the mouth of the Cape Fear River and the Brunswick County reef off Lockwood Folly River are great places to fish live menhaden or finger mullet on the bottom in search of big fish that have already made the transition from inside waters to the ocean, where they will move offshore for the winter.
Back in the skinny water, fishermen need to target the mouths of creeks that empty into the Intracoastal Waterway or rivers like the Cape Fear, Shallotte and Lockwood Folly.
Flounder will position themselves along dropoffs and cuts where they can intercept baitfish that are being pulled out of flooded marsh areas as the tide drops. When it's rising, fish parallel to the bank and keep your bait up against the grass.
Live finger mullet, m
ud minnows and smaller menhaden are preferred baits. For up-to-date fishing information, call The Rod & Reel Shop in Supply at (910) 842-2034 or Wildlife Bait & Tackle in Southport at (910) 457-9903.
Shearon Harris Lake
Shearon Harris Lake is one of North Carolina's best bass fisheries, producing good numbers of fish and an awful lot of big fish.
One of the best times to fish is in the fall, when fish move out of deep water and start to feed around the deep edges of the hydrilla beds dotting the shoreline.
Guide Phil Cable (919-815-1185) has had tremendous success working the shoreline for big bass. One November several years ago, he treated a guest on his boat to the sight of 5- and 6-pound fish coming over the gunwales at regular intervals.
The key to Cable's working patterns is to find the right kind of grass on the right kinds of banks. He looks for short, main-lake pockets with steeper banks where the hydrilla doesn't run out very far -- horizontally, that is. Most of the lake's grass will grow out to about 6 or 7 feet, leaving a distinct grass line on the deep end.
Cable parallels the grass lines with spinnerbaits, jigs and Senko-type plastics.
The fall and winter striper run on the Outer Banks is something to behold: schools of fish a mile long and 400 yards wide, with fish up to 50 pounds caught regularly.
The return of that fishery has revitalized the strip of sand from Kitty Hawk south to Cape Hatteras at Buxton. Surf-fishermen can expect good action from mid-December through January on most any section of beach. Casting bucktails and spoons to feeding fish is the normal daily fare. Drenching fresh-cut bait in the surf while waiting will also provide an occasional fish.
Fishermen do even better in boats, working out from the beach to four or five miles out.
Trolling big bucktails and long, trolling plugs or drifting live eels are preferred ways to take big stripers. If a school is on the surface, casting with bucktails, spoons or big topwater baits can be exciting.
Fishing will kick off around Oregon inlet and on northern beaches before Thanksgiving and can extend through January. The fishing peak is normally December.
Frank Folb at Frank & Fran's tackle shop in Avon keeps up with the surf-fishing action. More than just a handful of boats out of Oregon Inlet Fishing Center (252-441-6301) regularly charter for striper fishermen, with Devin Cage on the Poacher (252-473-6108) one of the most successful captains.