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Saltwater Best Bets: 5 Top Carolina Fish

Saltwater Best Bets: 5 Top Carolina Fish

Spring brings warmer water to the coast, spurring our favorite saltwater fish to feed more eagerly. From the inside out, try these fish for the hottest action. (May 2009)

Compared with May, April was just a teaser. Oh sure, the red drum schools started moving around in the backwaters and a few short flounder began to bite at the inlets. But the true saltwater fisherman looks forward to May as much as a kid anticipates the arrival of Christmas because he knows virtually every saltwater game fish will be biting somewhere along the North Carolina coast.

Some species are so abundant and willing to bite that they are the fish around which saltwater anglers revolve. But there's always room for variety, and indeed, many species occur in the same habitats and bite the same baits and lures, so multiple species trips are not only possible but also probable.

One of these perennial favorites is the flounder. An experienced eye can identify the three main flounder species that occur in North Carolina waters. The southern flounder hooks more fishermen than the other two species combined because they are so accessible and attain large sizes. By late May, southern flounder have invaded the inlets, with the bite reaching a crescendo by mid-June.

The fish move back into the estuaries from the inlets, but they can still be caught in the surf and from ocean fishing piers. Mottled, indistinct markings on their backs identify southern flounder.

Structure and food attract flounder. They may be found anywhere there's an inch of water to cover them. Top flounder fishermen cast live baits to docks, piers, bulkheads, oyster beds and channel edges. While some large southern flounder are caught by anglers using small mud minnows, mullet and menhaden, tournament fishermen use live menhaden that can be 6 to 12 inches long.

Special hooks with wide bends are used for flounder fishing. The hook must reach far back into the mouth for a secure hookup to occur.


Anglers are becoming more proficient at catching southern flounder by using lures, with scented artificial strips fished on jigheads a top choice. The use of trolling motors and Power Poles is also on the upswing, with anglers adapting these freshwater devices to have more flatfish flopping in the ice chest. Cruising along under silent electric power while casting to shoreline structure and pier pilings is much more productive than hopscotching along from place to place, dropping and retrieving an anchor.

Summer flounder move to the coast earlier than southern flounder, where they rapidly colonize artificial reefs and natural ledges at 10 to 20 miles, then move to the inlets in April. The smaller fish typically show up first, leading to big catches, with 90 percent of them having to be released. But by summer, the fish are everywhere from the inlets on out, with top catches made at fishing piers and nearshore reefs within a mile or two of the beaches.

A pattern of five eye-like spots identifies the summer flounder. Like the southern flounder, they can achieve weights above 10 pounds. Any fish above 5 pounds is considered trophy.

Gulf flounder occur at the sandy bottoms away from the inlets. However, they commingle with summer flounder, especially at artificial reefs in the more southern part of the state. They are identified by a pattern of three eye-like spots on their backs. They only comprise about 5 percent of the recreational catch.

These offshore flounder species are typically caught by anglers using live mullet and menhaden as bait. Bottom rigs are used to take the bait down from an anchored boat or from a boat that is drifting. Drifting is a good way to discover a concentration of flounder, or to find a ledge where they may be congregating.

A few anglers are experiencing good luck using scented artificial lures and strips in the deeper waters offshore, where the fishing occurs between 25 and 45 feet down. Strips on a two-hook pier rig work well. A heavy jighead with a scented shrimp, fluke or minnow imitation can also be effective.

Fishing with bottom rigs at artificial and natural reefs requires patience because it invites snags. The fish are located within a very few feet of the edge of the structure. A GPS unit and electronic depthfinder may not be necessary to fish the inshore waters, but are necessities for fishing the Atlantic Ocean for summer and Gulf flounder.

Red drum are called many names, starting with the official State Saltwater Fish. Smaller juveniles are called puppy drum, rat reds, redfish and spottails. Adult red drum are sometimes called channel bass, or drum. While the vernacular can be confusing for the uninitiated, the angler who catches his first redfish knows what he has hooked and is usually hooked for life.

Red drum are very prolific fish, but were in severe decline until the late 1990s, when fishery management plans began to take effect. Now, red drum occur in all of the state's saltwater ecosystems, from far inland in coastal rivers and sounds to the deep waters of the offshore ledges.

Red drum are protected against harvest by anyone beyond three miles offshore. But surf-fishermen, flyfishermen, wade-fishermen and anglers fishing from piers and boats all get some fantastic red drum action.

Most redfish anglers simply dunk live minnows or cut baits, as well as shrimp, crabs or other shellfish, into deep holes or beside structure to entice red drum. A float rig or a bottom rig can work equally well, depending upon the mood of the fish and the water depth. Jetties, seawalls, sandbars and navigation channels concentrate baitfish and other prey creatures on which red drum feed, concentrating juvenile fish of up to 14 pounds or so.

The smaller fish also form large schools that move in and out of grassbeds on the flush and ebb of the tide, feeding with their heads down and tails up, or sometimes with their backs showing or leaving foraging "muds" where they disturb the bottom sediments. Clear-water conditions in early spring and late fall and winter allow anglers to participate in the exciting sport of sight-fishing for redfish. Clear water occurs in many places at different times, but these are the best times of year for the correct conditions.

The angler can wade, pole a boat or use a trolling motor to sneak in close to a visible redfish, hoping he can make a cast that not only will not disturb the fish, but that will entice a strike. Topwater lures are classics for hooking redfish in the shallows where they are visible. But soft-plastic lures, spinnerbaits and weedless spoons also work well for sight-fishing redfish.

Using fly tackle offers the maximum excitement because the angler must

sneak in very close, make a presentation that will not alarm the fish, then land the fish from a jungle of marsh grasses and junkyard of oyster shells.

Sight-fishing is also a good option along the ocean surf zone, especially in the dead of winter. Cold water makes the fish less spooky, a big plus when a school of redfish may include dozens, hundreds and perhaps thousands of fish.

Some anglers wade into the surf and cast natural baits, waiting for a school of redfish to pass by and take a bite on the run. Others use their boats, surfing the ocean breakers while watching for telltale signs of redfish, including the porpoises, which move in close to the beach to prey on red drum.

Once a school is located, the angler or anglers cast until there is a hookup, and often multiple hookups occur. Redfish are legendary fighters, giving strong, surging runs that test the drag of any light-tackle reel.

Adult drum are different creatures altogether. At age 4 and about 15 pounds, they head for the ocean, except during the spawn. Entering Pamlico Sound, and perhaps other areas as yet undiscovered, the fish form large schools in summer. Anglers fish along channel edges and bars, using cut chunks of menhaden, mullet and croaker as bait.

They cast several bottom rigs in a clock-face pattern that covers lots of water and some anglers also use chum to attract red drum to the baits. While most of the sound fishing occurs during late afternoon and night, anglers are discovering adult red drum can also be caught during the daylight hours.

In the fall, the big fish move to the bars and sloughs of Cape Lookout, Ocracoke and Cape Hatteras, where anglers catch them using cut baits cast with heavy surf-fishing tackle.

The spotted seatrout or speckled trout is a very popular inshore fish. Notoriously finicky, specks can be persnickety about what they will strike on any particular day.

Many lures are used for catching specks, including bucktail and plastic dressed jigs. Hard-plastic lures designed for specks include topwater, suspending, twitch and swimming lures.

Some anglers prefer hard lures, while others prefer soft lures. But the larger specks typically strike hard-plastic lures and live baits. Top live baits for specks include pinfish, croaker, shrimp and peeler crab.

Specks may bite one particular lure or color pattern of that lure on a certain day and at a certain hour. Then, suddenly, they change their minds. This leads successful speck anglers to have dozens of options in their tackle boxes before they begin fishing. Scent impregnated artificial lures are increasingly the go-to lure for many anglers because of their added attracting power of scent to vibration, profile and color. Scent impregnated artificial lures have revolutionized speck fishing more than anything else, other than the recent phenomenon of incredible abundance.

Specks are subject to winterkill because Pamlico Sound is the northern extent of their historic spawning range. While the biggest specks are often caught in winter, they are actually warmwater fish, with protracted spawn occurring all spring and summer. Yearling fish have the potential to spawn once they reach 10 inches in length and a big 5-pound speck is usually a 3-year-old female.

Several warm winters have led to the current fantastic speckled trout fishing and it will continue as long as the sounds don't receive an arctic cold snap that lingers for a couple of weeks.

Anglers are catching specks everywhere. Jetties are the top draw, attracting so many boats that anglers must get there early to have an anchoring spot. But anglers also catch them by trolling along channel edges and grass beds and casting float rigs to docks and piers. Popping cork rigs are very popular for fishing live baits and jigs. They are float rigs that have a short sliding section of wire or monofilament with a bead stop on the top and bottom of the slide.

When the line is pulled, the beads slap against the float, making a popping sound that supposedly imitates the flipping of a shrimp and attracting the fish to the bait, which jumps up and down as the line is pulled and released, an action that also imitates a live shrimp.

With the red drum limit at one fish, anglers who want to take home something to eat increasingly target black drum. While the two species sometimes occur together, the black drum is much more structure oriented.

Juvenile black drum make the best eating, up to a size of 20 pounds or so. The adult fish, while still flavorful, can become coarse textured and have parasites that make them appear unappetizing. Juveniles have vertical stripes like sheepshead and spadefish, but the more robust appearance and lack of external teeth, as well as chin barbells, quickly sort out the black drum from the other "convict fish."

The best bait for juvenile black drum is fresh shrimp. Fished on a bottom rig, float rig or jighead, a shrimp cast to a dock or oyster bed can result in a strike. At times, black drum occur in big schools, presenting anglers the chance for possible large catches. Surf-fishing and pier-fishing with shrimp, squid and other natural baits can result in good catches of the juvenile fish. The fish also strike jigs, flies and lures that imitate baitfish and shrimp in the backwaters.

The adult fish, which can reach enormous size, occur in estuaries and along the surf. The fish migrate in large schools, with individual fish so large airplanes have reported seeing the fish as they move into their spawning areas.

Most large black drum caught by anglers are encountered in March through October, with the best time to catch them in hot summer months. Many anglers hook them but never know for sure that they have because they never see the fish. They drop a piece of cut bait or shrimp near a bridge piling or bulkhead on a light-tackle rig. A large fish takes off with the bait and the fight is typically short, ending with a broken or cut line.

Catching big black drum near heavy structure where they occur requires stout bottom-fishing rods and heavy lines. The switch to superbraid lines for light-tackle fishing has resulted in more big black drum being landed by anglers fishing for other species in heavy structure areas with light tackle and has revealed new hotspots that hold the adult fish.

The dolphin has been called the "perfect game fish." Although dolphin can achieve impressive sizes of 80 pounds or more, they are prey species for billfish, sharks and other predators. Therefore, they grow incredibly fast and spawn prolifically, leading to their prolific presence in offshore anglers' fish boxes. A trip that is unsuccessful for billfish and tuna still commonly results in a good catch of dolphin.

Dolphin leap high and often when hooked and are amazingly fast. With lots of stamina, the most beautiful coloration in the ocean and wonderfully delicate flavor, it's hard for any angler t

o argue the word "perfect" as an appropriate adjective describing dolphin.

Most anglers catch dolphin by setting out a trolling spread consisting of a dredge or spreader bar with multiple teasers, and from four to 11 trolling lures rigged with small and large ballyhoo baitfish. Dolphin have smaller mouths than other saltwater big-game fish, so targeting them requires smaller hooks and baits than are used for tuna, wahoo and marlin.

Anglers watch for weedlines and flying fish when they head out for dolphin. While warmwater conditions that favor weedlines and dolphin prey occur in the Gulf Stream all year long, the warmer currents of summer bring dolphin much closer to shore than other big game fish, often moving them within five miles of the beaches, where anglers in small center console boats designed for king mackerel fishing catch them right along with the big offshore boats.

Dolphin strike menhaden and mullet fished in king mackerel spreads as readily as they strike ballyhoo rigs in offshore spreads, making them one of the highlights of the summer for small-boat anglers.

North Carolina Saltwater Guides
Capt. Dave Dietzler, Cape Lookout Charters, all inshore and nearshore species, (252) 240-2850.

Capt. Jot Owens, Wrightsville Beach, all inshore and nearshore species, (910) 233-4139.

Capt. Charles Brown, Old Core Sound Guide Service, all nearshore and inshore species, (252) 725-7070.

Capt. Shane Snow and Capt. Carl Snow Jr., Fish Witch Charters, Carolina Beach, all inshore, nearshore and offshore species, (910) 458-5551.

Capt. Butch Foster, Yeah Right Charters, Southport, nearshore and offshore species, (910) 845-2004.

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