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Our Best Saltwater Fishing

Our Best Saltwater Fishing

Will the cold snap in early 2003 hurt our inshore fishing prospects this year? Here are the latest predictions from biologists.

By Dan Kibler

As a cold snap, it was a pretty good one, that last week of January 2003.

The temperature plunged 15 or 20 degrees in a three-day period. Parts of the Pamlico Sound grew a layer of ice.

At Oden's Dock in Hatteras, Ken Dempsey, an inshore fishing and duck-hunting guide, watched one afternoon as commercial fishermen brought in box after box filled with speckled trout that they'd dip netted after the trout had floated to the surface. The trout had been killed by the invasion of cold water.

Dempsey looked at Scott Caldwell, another inshore guide from Hatteras, and said, "We're going to pay for this later on."

Dempsey and Caldwell paid for the cold weather by switching their efforts last year to gray trout, bluefish, Spanish mackerel, puppy drum and flounder, because there weren't many speckled trout to be had on the Outer Banks.

And biologists can't really make heads or tails of whether fishing will be affected this season by that weeklong snap of cold weather more than a year in the past. It's a good bet that its effects will be noticed, at least by anglers who target speckled trout, southern flounder and puppy drum, because these are species that are susceptible, in varying degrees, to having their worlds rocked by too-cold water.


Whether or not there's a cold front that will chill fish and fishermen this winter, completing the work that last year's weather left incomplete is another variable that could enter the mix before most anglers make their first trip to the coast in 2004.

Fortunately, those are the only three species among the handful that North Carolina fishermen call favorites that may have relatively low populations this year. The outlook is reasonably good for summer flounder, gray trout and the two mackerel species that are most often targeted by Tar Heel State anglers.

Beth Burns, a biologist who monitors speckled trout for the N.C. Division of Marine Fisheries, knew from experience that "her" fish might be in trouble last winter when the cold weather hit. It could have been that layer of ice she saw on the sound when she drove down Route 12 from her office in Manteo on the way to Hatteras. And that she well knew what happened in four previous winter kills (1995, 1998, 2001): The trout population had been knocked for a loop.

"We're just hoping for an average year for 2003," Burns said, not really convinced by the words she was speaking. "I wish I knew the answer, but honestly, we haven't seen very good signs of them."

Burns said that landings for specks were down for most of 2003. A few nice-sized fish began to show up in September, but nothing like the numbers of fish that filled the Pamlico Sound in the mid- to late 1990s, before the first of three winter kills wreaked havoc on the population.

"If I really had to guess, I'd say we're looking at an average to below-average year. We're hoping for an average year - at best. The (NCDMF) guys doing red drum netting caught gobs and gobs of juveniles this summer, but they've got to make it through the winter before they'll have any impact on landings (in 2004). A lot of it depends on whether we have a harsh winter or not.

"Speckled trout have been having cold winters and winter shock for a long time, and they usually rebound in two to three years."

When bad things happen to speckled trout, it usually happens like this: A cold front slams down into the Southeast, and trout that are wintering in the shallow creeks and rivers on the west side of the Pamlico Sound are caught, literally, napping. They don't have time to escape to the deeper waters of the sound, where the water is a little more temperate.

When the water temperature dips below 50, specks start to be affected. When it dips below 45, they die. With North Carolina being just about the northern end of the species' range, trout here are more likely to encounter the kinds of winters that affect them.

"What we like to think happens is, if you have a winter where it's cold for a long time, but it gets cold gradually, a lot of those fish have a chance to get out before the creeks freeze," Burns said. "The problem is, when it gets cold and severely cold real quickly, they get trapped."

Burns said that, thankfully, speckled trout grow and reproduce rather quickly, which helps fill in the gaps when a cold-water kill occurs. "A 4-pound fish, if it's a female, will only be 3 years old," she said. "Once they get up to 12 or 14 inches, they really start to pile on the weight and grow really fast. By (this) summer, the fish that were spawned last year will be keepers, and they spawn for a long time, from May through September."

The daily creel limit will remain at 10 fish this year, with a 12-inch size minimum.

North Carolina lies at the southernmost boundary for gray trout populations, so those fish that are found throughout the Mid-Atlantic states are much more prepared for cold weather. In fact, they thrive in water that would send a speckled trout floating to the surface.

The majority of North Carolina's gray trout are found north of Cape Lookout, although there remains a good fall fishery off the Wrightsville Beach/Carolina Beach area.

"The farther south you go, the numbers get thinner as far as how abundant they are," said Lee Paramore, the DMF biologist who tracks gray trout and channel bass (red drum) stocks. "For catching trophy weakfish, our hotspots are the northern locations. You don't see a lot of weakfish much farther south than Cape Lookout."

Overall, gray trout are one of the DMF's success stories. The populations crashed in the 1980s, and rebuilding started in the early 1990s with strict harvest regulations. Gray trout stocks are considered "viable" now by fisheries biologists.

"Numbers wise, weakfish are looking as good for this year as they have in years," Paramore said. "The stocks are rebounding well, and we're getting fish up to 10 years of age in our samples, so there should be more and larger weakfish available to our recreational fishermen this year.

"I look for good fishing around the inlets in the spring and the fall. There were some 13- and 14-pound weakfish taken around Oregon Inlet last spring, and the fishing at Hatteras Inlet was very good."

Paramore said that biologists are still looking for a full recovery throughout the entire age structure of the species, and they'd like to see more fish in the 6-, 7-, 8- and 9-year-old classe

s, but gray trout are a fast-reproducing species.

"They'll spawn at 7 or 8 inches long, really early," Paramore said. "You can harvest a 12-inch weakfish (the daily creel limit is seven fish, with a 12-inch size minimum), and it's usually already spawned once or twice - unlike red drum, which don't spawn until they're outside the slot limit, about 32 inches. By the time they're caught, our weakfish have usually spawned a couple of times. They recruit quickly and early."

The pride of North Carolina's coastline is its red drum. The all-tackle world record was caught 30 years ago at Avon, and most of the biggest drum on record have come from the Outer Banks.

But huge red drum aren't the ones that most fishermen are targeting these days. With regulations that require release of all fish more than 27 inches long, it's strictly a catch-and-release fishery. Actually, with a daily creel limit of one fish between 18 and 27 inches, the entire recreational fishery is basically a catch-and-release fishery.

But most red drum aren't caught to be kept; they're caught for the excitement of the battle, for the singing of a reel's drag when an 8-pound "puppy drum" takes off with a little spoon, a piece of plastic or a live finger mullet and you're fishing with 10-pound-test line.

Red drum are recovering from some population numbers that gave biologists concern in the late 1990s. They aren't back to full strength yet, despite indications the past several years of excellent populations.

Here again, however, last year's cold snap may play a role in the success that fishermen have this year.

"Red drum fishing should be pretty good," said Paramore. "But we (didn't see) a whole lot of 12- to 14-inch drum. I think a lot of them might have gotten hurt in that cold snap. We're not seeing a lot of the smaller ones - the ones that will be 18 inches this summer when you catch 'em.

"We've got good indications from down south, around Wilmington, but there haven't been many fish in the Pamlico Sound."

Red drum spawn in the fall, so fish that were spawned in the fall of 2002 should have shown up in last summer's netting surveys at around 12 to 14 inches long. Those are the ones that were missing in 2003.

"Any given year, the fish spawned in the fall will be 16- to 20-inch fish when you catch 'em the next fall," Paramore said. "They grow pretty fast - about an inch per month. By the time they're 18 months old, they're usually around 18 inches long. The variability in recruitment strings is why you see such fluctuations in the abundance of puppy drum. If you have an off year, everybody wonders where the drum went.

"What I would expect is that the fishing will be average or better, but a little bit below average on the low end of the slot. It's not an overfishing problem, but just as speckled trout are vulnerable to cold weather, red drum are also, but to a lesser extent, and it's usually just the young-of-the-year that are affected."

Paramore said that surveys indicate excellent populations of fish between 3 and 7 years old, those fish that are between 20 and 30 inches and drive the fishery in North Carolina. "We've had good year-classes come through ever since the 1996 year-class. We had some really awesome year-classes in '98, '99 and 2000.

"The good news is there were a lot of larger puppy drum and bigger ones up to adult size," Paramore said. "They were available in the ocean off Oregon Inlet all year, and there were big drum in the Pamlico Sound in the fall - that's been pretty consistent the past couple of years."

Paramore said that fishermen along North Carolina's southern coast, say, from Swansboro south, experienced one of their best years ever on puppy drum in 2003. "From everything I've heard, down south, those guys were seeing fish like they've never seen before, especially numbers. Those fish should be around again (this) year, and there will be a good number of puppy drum that recruit into the (18- to 27-inch) slot again this year," he said.

"There is some separation between groups of fish. From tagging data, we know that fish tagged north of Cape Lookout tend to stay north, including the Pamlico Sound, and fish south of Cape Lookout tend to stay there. We've tagged a lot of smaller fish south of Cape Lookout, fish that weren't adults. In the past, we just haven't seen that many big fish down there."

Paramore also said that distribution of puppy drum up and down the coast last year might have been pushed by the wet weather more than anything else. The southern end of the Pamlico Sound and the marshes around Beaufort and Harkers Island didn't have their usual tremendous numbers of puppy drum, and Waterson believes that last year's heavy rains changed the salinity of the waters inside sounds and bays enough to move entire groups of fish.

"All the rain we had seemed to mess things up in the Pamlico Sound; it certainly pushed the fish to the eastern side of the sound," he said. "We had salinity readings in Oregon Inlet last year that we usually see in the Albemarle Sound."

Flounder have been among the most popular saltwater fish for recreational anglers over the years, and the future for flatfish looks, well, bright and dim, depending on where you're fishing.

North Carolina has two distinct species of flounder in its waters, the "summer" flounder, which is most often caught in the ocean and around inlets, and the "southern" flounder, which is caught in less saline and more brackish waters - typically, sounds, the Intracoastal Waterway and coastal rivers and creeks.

The word from the DMF offices in Morehead City is that summer flounder are recovering after a long period of overfishing, but southern flounder are starting to show the wear and tear of fishing pressure.

"The Atlantic States Fisheries Management Council and Mid-Atlantic Fisheries Management Council announced this year that the summer flounder stock is no longer overfished, and overfishing is not occurring," said Carter Waterson, the DMF fisheries biologist who oversees both species of flatfish. "They have no intentions of lifting the quota, but they will relax it as they find more fish out there. But we may not see creel and size limits change for a couple more years."

Fishermen who catch flounder in the ocean and around inlets are regulated by an eight-fish daily creel limit and a 15-inch size minimum. Flounder in other "inside" waters are regulated by 13- and 14-inch size minimums in different areas, but there is no daily creel limit.

"Our last stock assessment on southern flounder is that they are overfished, and we're working on a fishery management plan right now," Waterson said. "We hope it will be done by the end of 2004, and we'll probably have our first creel limits on flounder in 2005.

"Actually, the harvest is a good bit over what we'd like right now. The recruitment is not down; it's running about average - good years and bad years - but we're just overfishing them."

In addition, Waterson said, there was some winter kill of southern flounder last January between the Core Sound and Swansboro - certainly not the extent of the speckled trout kill, but certainly noticeable.

"The summer flounder can find deep water, and they can tolerate colder water - we're really at the southern end of their range," he said. "And (southern) flounder can tolerate cold water, but it was that sudden cold snap that got them."

Waterson expects recreational fishermen to have a daily creel limit on southern flounder in place in 2005, but it will be well into 2004, when the next stock assessment is finalized, before any decisions are made on what that limit will be and whether or not the size minimum will change.

Looking at a flounder and determining its species can be difficult, but Waterson said there's one quick visual test. A summer flounder will have about five oscillated spots on its back - spots of color with a lighter ring around them. Southern flounder are missing those spots.

"The thing fishermen need to realize is, if they plan on going into the ocean at all, they should go there first, then come back inside," he said. That way, fishermen aren't caught with smaller but legal southern flounder in areas where the size minimum on summer flounder is in effect.

The stock-status report on the N.C. Division of Marine Fisheries' Web site says it all:

"Based on the 2003 stock assessment, spawning stock biomass is above target and fishing mortality is below target."

In layman's terms, there are plenty of king mackerel and Spanish mackerel out there, and we're not catching nearly enough to be of concern to biologists like Randy Gregory, who tracks the two popular mackerel species for the NCDMF.

"We just had stock assessments, and both came back good," Gregory said. "The fish are not overfished, and the stocks are considered healthy. We don't expect any fluctuations in the population, at least in a downward trend, for the next year or so.

"We think everything will remain relatively the same. If the weather cooperates, we expect to see good numbers of Spanish and kings (in 2004)."

Gregory said that the DMF looks at mackerel landings over a longer period of time than other species, because factors out of the control of recreational and commercial fishermen often drive the annual harvest.

"Water currents and the weather have a whole lot to do with our landing of Spanish," he said. "And it's hard to tell what went on (in 2003), with that crazy weather we had."

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