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Saltwater Best Bets: 5 Top Carolina Fish

Saltwater Best Bets: 5 Top Carolina Fish

Whether you're after a cooler full of fillets or fantastic sport, North Carolina's salt water holds the key to your happiness. From flatfish to kings, here are five of the top fish sought on the coast.

By Mike Marsh

Fishing at the coast has never been more popular or more productive. Many saltwater species once suffered from years of over-fishing by both the recreational and commercial sectors.

However, science and good management at the state and federal level have gone a long way toward restoring some sport fisheries. Flounder are being caught everywhere. Red drum have increased their population to the point that they provide yearlong fishing. Spanish mackerel schools cover the water for acres at tide lines near the inlets. Weakfish have become a top reason for anglers to keep their boats in the water through the winter months. Where tarpon were once a little understood species in the state, they are now a major reason for fishing guides and anglers to deck out their rod holders with heavy tackle during the sweltering heat of the summer.

For anglers who want to know more about the finest fish the state's salt water has to offer, here's the latest word on where and when they are biting and how to go about hooking them up.

Biologists still classify red drum as overfished. However, anglers and biologists are reporting lots of fish are being caught. In fact, anglers along the southern coast are reporting the best fishing they have ever seen.

"The northern coast had a lot of rain last year," said Lee Paramore, North Carolina Marine Fisheries red drum biologist. "That hurt the fishing in the sounds. But the fishing along the beaches was good. The best spawns in history came after hurricanes, and Hurricane Isabel hit the northern coast in 2003. It could help the red drum fishing in the future, but you never know."

During 2003, the rains kept the big fish out of areas in Pamlico Sound that normally produce fish in late summer. The big spawning adult fish were still there, but they did not head for the same spots where fishermen usually catch them. They were nearer Oregon Inlet instead of at the lower end of the Neuse River. The biggest fish are caught in July and August.


Steve Laughinghouse holds up a big flounder and a red drum taken at Carolina Beach. Photo by Mike Marsh

"There should be more and more big ones," Paramore said. "It's just a question of whether the anglers will catch them. There were also lots of year-old fish last year. Those will be slot-sized fish during 2004. The next stock assessment will be conducted in 2005 and nothing will change as far as bag limits until then. But it seems that the management plan is working and the fish are recovering."

Tagging data supports separate fisheries for red drum north of Cape Lookout and south of Cape Lookout. The inshore areas south of Cape Lookout have more salinity and smaller inlets. Red drum prefer high salinity areas, so anglers target them at inlets and marshes near the inlets. Along the northern coast, anglers catch red drum in the surf, inlets and inside sounds when rainfall is normal.

For the biggest red drum, which can exceed 50 pounds in weight, anglers use heavy spinning tackle or baitcasting rigs with 20- to 30-pound-test lines. Live menhaden, mullet and other fish such as spots and croakers make top red drum baits. Cut baits, whole dead baits and lures are also used to catch fish. Large fish are caught from the surf at Cape Hatteras, Cape Lookout, Bald Head Island and at artificial reefs near Southport. They are also caught in Pamlico Sound at the mouth of the Neuse River.

Smaller "puppy" drum of up to 12 pounds in weight are caught everywhere there is salt water. Swansboro has seen a resurgence of juvenile fish in the marshes and creeks. The fish are schooling in big numbers all the way south to the South Carolina line. Bear, Brown, Bogue, Topsail, Masonboro, Carolina Beach and Lockwood's Folly are inlets that have produced great red drum fishing in the southern coastal area.

For catching puppy drum, anglers use the same baits as for the adult fish, just in smaller sizes. They are also caught on lures and flies. Light spinning, baitcasting tackle and fly rods offer great sport for drum.

As the fish become more populous, anglers are sight-fishing the big schools. The trick is to catch one or two fish from a school and move on to another school to keep from educating the fish.

Capt. Bryan DeHart (252-473-1575) guides anglers for big Pamlico Sound red drum.

There are three species of flounder that make up the bulk of the catch from North Carolina waters. Southern flounder are found mostly in the inside waters. Summer flounder are caught in ocean waters, primarily north of Cape Hatteras. Gulf flounder are caught in ocean waters out to 35 miles off the beaches.

"We are doing a new stock assessment and plugging in new data on Recreational Commercial Gear License gigging and netting, which was not done before," said NCDMF biologist Carter Watterson. "Recreational giggers are taking 90 percent of the recreational quota of 450,000 pounds, putting a lot of pressure on southern flounder."

The pressure has caused summer flounder stocks to become composed of mostly 1- and 2-year-old fish, which barely make keeper size. Many recreational anglers are asking for size and bag limits, especially for gigging. Still, lots of fish above 5 pounds in weight are being caught at Morehead City, the Cape Fear River and southern inlets.

Summer flounder stocks have recovered, thanks to restrictive harvest regulations. Gulf flounder have also benefited from the ocean flounder restrictions and have created an exciting fishery just off the beaches.

"Summer flounder occur mostly offshore, but are also caught inside," Watterson said. "Along the southern coast, much of the offshore catch is Gulf flounder. It is difficult to tell the two fish apart. But there is a pattern of five eye-like spots with outer rings on the summer flounder and three on the Gulf flounder. Gulf flounder occur from one to 35 miles out and like hard bottoms and wrecks, so they are not easily caught in commercial trawls like summer flounder. They don't get as big or as thick as summer flounder. A good Gulf flounder is 17 inches."

Lots of fish over 5 pounds in weight are being caught at artificial reefs and natural rock ledges off Swansboro, Wrightsville Beach and Southport. Anglers use live baits to catch the biggest flounder, with menhaden and mullet top choices.

Baits are dropped to the botto

m structure on Carolina rigs and worked slowly. The same is true for inside fishing in the shallower water, where anglers use Carolina rigs while allowing baits to drag behind a boat on an incoming or outgoing tide at the inlets, or with the wind in a bay. Some anglers use Carolina rigs or variations of them to troll for flounder in areas where there is no water movement.

Jigs tipped with strips or minnows catch lots of flounder along shallow bars, oyster beds and grassbeds. Lures work best when there is little current and the water is less than 10 feet deep.

Capt. Jeff Cronk of Fish'n-4-Life charters (336-558-5697) specializes in catching large flounder inshore and offshore of Swansboro.

Spanish mackerel are the objectives of many family fishing trips. Grownups enjoy a sunny day on the ocean while kids reel in fish caught on trolled spoons. That should occur as frequently this season as in the past because there are plenty of Spanish mackerel along the coast.

"Stocks are in good shape," said NCDMF biologist Randy Gregory. "The last couple of years, we haven't caught our quotas, but we don't think anything is wrong with the fishery. The fishery is healthy."

Spanish mackerel are prolific and achieve "keeper" size of 12 inches at age 1. These yearling fish make up the bulk of the catch when anglers are trolling spoons near the inlets.

"A citation fish of 6 pounds is only about 4 years old," Gregory said. "There are lots of those large fish around."

While anglers who want to catch lots of fish troll tide lines that form during falling tidal stages at the inlet mouths, anglers who want bigger fish use live baits or cast lures in the vicinity of offshore structure.

Big Spanish mackerel are suckers for live menhaden and mullets fished on king mackerel live-bait rigs and tackle. They will also strike poppers, casting spoons, jigs, minnow-imitating lures and flies.

Spanish mackerel anglers have no trouble finding the fish. The fish form huge schools that chase baitfish to the surface. Birds are attracted to the feeding frenzy and fishermen are attracted to the fish by the birds.

Spanish mackerel are fast swimmers, and can leave the area in a hurry if spooked by a boat. Trolling anglers should navigate the edge of a school to keep them near the top. Anglers casting lures or flies should stop the boat at the edge of a school and make casts from downwind to keep the shadow of the boat from drifting through the school and spooking fish.

Lots of Spanish mackerel are caught by anglers trolling at Oregon Inlet, Barden Inlet, Bogue Inlet and Masonboro Inlet. Artificial reefs all along the coast hold some huge Spanish mackerel. The reefs off Morehead City and Wrightsville Beach attract some of the biggest fish of the year in the fall and are good bets for live-bait fishing for citation-sized fish.

Capt. Dave Dietzler of Cape Lookout Charters (252-240-2850) is a top guide in Morehead City who specializes in catching big Spanish mackerel using live baits.

Weakfish nearly disappeared, but have been restored to a gold-medal fishery along the coast. Bag limits are increasing and recreational anglers are catching more weakfish than ever.

"Things are still good and the age structure is improving," said Paramore. "The fishing is getting more consistent at Manteo and Morehead City. We have seen bigger fish and lots of improvements in all categories. I heard of a 14-pounder caught at Oregon Inlet and there are fish up to age 12 that are over 10 pounds in weight."

Weakfish become more migratory as they grow older. That migration takes them northward. Large adult weakfish appear off Cape Hatteras in winter when few anglers fish for them. The majority of the fish that fishermen catch are smaller fish of 1 to 4 pounds.

Pamlico and Albemarle sounds have good fishing for weakfish, where they are caught on jigs, lures, shrimp and minnows. But weakfish are primarily caught at nearshore structure such as live bottom areas, wrecks, artificial reefs and rock ledges. They move around a lot and the bite can be frantic one minute and end the next. But while the fish are biting, anglers can fill a limit in a hurry.

Jigging is a popular way to catch weakfish. Heavy jigs and metal jigging spoons are lowered to the bottom and then reeled in a couple of turns to prevent snagging. The lure is jigged up and down and weakfish will not refuse if they are in a biting mood.

Anglers find fish by circling bottom structure and watching a depthfinder screen. When a ball of baitfish shows up with larger wedges mixed in or below the baitfish, it's a good bet weakfish are the sources of the heavier echoes.

A weakfish strikes a falling lure hard. Many beginning anglers make the mistake of setting the hook just as hard. A jarring hookset can tear the fragile membranes in the mouth of a weakfish. Therefore, veteran anglers just start reeling and keep the line tight. A drag setting that allows the angler to keep the fish moving without tearing its mouth will land the fish most of the time. A landing net is imperative for success at catching large weakfish.

Capt. Butch Foster of Yeah Right charters (910-845-2004) carries anglers out of Southport to the nearby reefs for weakfish.

When most anglers think of tarpon, they imagine tropical beaches on the Florida coast. However, anglers should not overlook the excellent tarpon fishing in North Carolina.

The two primary tarpon destinations are at Bald Head Island and Pamlico Sound. In the shallow waters of Pamlico, tarpon can be seen basking at the surface on calm days. Sometimes they crash from the water when attacking baitfish.

At Bald Head Island, the fish move through the sloughs and sandbars at Cape Fear. They head inshore from the ocean and pass through the shoals to get to the Cape Fear River channel. Late in the evening and early in the morning, anglers can see the fish as they jump from the water.

At both locations, the fishing techniques are the same. Anglers try to arrive in a good spot ahead of the fish to avoid spooking them, anchor, set out their baits and wait for a strike.

Whole dead spots, croakers, menhaden or bluefish are used as tarpon baits. Sometimes when the fishing is slow, anglers troll large plugs through a known tarpon hangout. While strikes on lures are rare, they do occur. But moving around will often startle tarpon into jumping and reveal their location to the fisherman.

About one strike in 10 results in a hookup and half of the hookups result in a landed fish. Once the leader is in the hands of an angler, the fish is considered landed, whether the leader break

s or whether the hook is worked free of a bony jaw with pliers.

Many tarpon break the line during the battle because anglers do not give enough slack when the fish leaps by "bowing" to the fish. If tension is kept on the line during a leap, the fish falls back toward the boat and parts the line with its body weight or slices it with its hard mouth. Bowing to release tension during a leap allows the fish to fall away from the boat, saving the connection between angler and fish.

North Carolina tarpon achieve weights exceeding 200 pounds, although any tarpon is a trophy fish. Some anglers use 20-pound-class king mackerel tackle to land the powerful fish. But most successful anglers prefer line weights from 30 to 50 pounds so they can land fish in a shorter period of time. At Pamlico Sound, the water can get rough without warning. Anglers must fish from boats as large as they use for fishing in the ocean for king mackerel.

At Bald Head Island, anglers fishing from johnboats and small skiffs land tarpon when the weather is good. However, larger craft are needed to fish the ocean side of the shoals.

George Beckwith Jr. of Down East Guide Service (252-349-3101) is a top Pamlico Sound tarpon and red drum guide.

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