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Turn Up the Heat on Carolina Drum & Specks

Turn Up the Heat on Carolina Drum & Specks

Up and down the coast you can catch puppy drum and specks — if you know where to look for them. Here's where the experts fish.

By Dan Kibler

North Carolina fishermen are blessed with hundreds of miles of coastal shoreline along the Atlantic Ocean, and thousands of square miles of sounds and coastal rivers where saltwater fish abound.

Go almost anywhere the water is salty, and you'll hear North Carolina fishermen talking about at least one of two fish: the puppy drum and speckled trout. They are favorites among inshore fishermen up and down the coast, from Shallotte to Wrightsville Beach, from Wrightsville Beach to Portsmouth Island, from Portsmouth Island to Hatteras, from Hatteras to Manteo.

But catching them at Holden Beach might be different from Figure Eight Island, from Atlantic Beach, Ocracoke and Avon. Variations in the nature of the coastal habitat account for many of those differences. For instance, west of Cape Fear, coastal rivers are smaller and the wide expanses of sounds are missing. But there are canals. The vast Pamlico Sound makes for a different kind of fishing behind Hatteras than you'll find in the marshes behind Atlantic Beach and Beaufort.

As the fall approaches, fishermen along different parts of North Carolina's coast are targeting fish in different kinds of places. Baits and lures are basically similar, differing only in how they are used in different kinds of water.

From the northern coastline down, here's where top fishermen and guides will be looking for specks and puppy drum this month and in the coming fall months.

Manteo guide David Dudley took this nice puppy drum in Oregon Inlet, where fish can be found late into the fall. Photo by Dan Kibler

David Dudley of Nags Head Guide Service in Manteo says that puppy drum and specks are spread out in the Pamlico, Croatan and Roanoke sounds for much of the summer, often being caught back in what little marshland there is around the Roanoke Island area. But all that changes as the water starts to cool. Like iron filings to a magnet, puppy drum and trout are drawn toward Oregon Inlet.


"In the fall, they get ganged up real good. I think it's a combination of things: the water cooling and baitfish migrating out of the sound," said Dudley, who splits time between guiding and a successful career as a pro bass fisherman. "We've got a lot of resident fish, but when they start moving, you've got to stay with them. It's a game of staying ahead of the fish. When they're in the sound, they're usually in shallow water."

Dudley keys on sandbars and shoals in and around the Herbert C. Bonner Bridge over Oregon Inlet for most of his puppy drum action. Fish typically are moving out of the sound, looking for cooler water. Dudley casts bucktails and spoons or fishes live bait - hogfish and pinfish are favorites - on a Carolina rig. For specks, he looks for sloughs and dropoffs, where fish prefer to feed - especially if those areas are near deeper water. Plastic grubs fished on leadhead jigs are tops.

Tackle shop owner Frank Folb of Avon agrees that Oregon Inlet can be a real hotspot for puppy drum and bigger, mature channel bass.

"Look for the first couple of pretty good northeast blows, and you'll start to hear of one or two drum being caught at the Avalon Pier, Kitty Hawk Pier or maybe at Oregon Inlet," he said. "You've got a lot of drum coming out of Oregon Inlet, turning south, and you've got some coming south from the Chesapeake Bay. As October progresses, you start hearing of fish being caught in Rodanthe, and by mid-October, we start seeing them down our way in Avon. It might be November before they get to Cape Point (Buxton), and when they get there, they're here for good."

As a tackle shop owner, Folb deals mostly with surf fishermen when it comes to puppy drum and specks. Both fish usually show up on the beaches of the Outer Banks in October. Surf outfits for drum are usually stout spinning or baitcasting rods mated with reels capable of holding hundreds of yards of mono and of casting a half-ounce of bait and weight 100 yards or more. Fresh-cut menhaden and mullet cast and fished using fish-finder rigs around breaks or cuts in sandbars just off the beach are the bait of choice among most drum fishermen. Most trout caught in the surf are taken on leadhead/grub combinations, on casting spoons, MirOLures or a variety of baits, including shrimp.

Around Hatteras Inlet, guide Ken Dempsey of Hatteras concentrates on sandbars at the inlet for drum, and on sloughs back in the sound for trout.

"The redfish will use any bar in the sound, depending on the wind direction," he said. "They'll move up and down on sandbars in the sound, and once you find some, you can pattern them for four or five days," Dempsey said. "You get some sight-casting opportunities in the summer, but it's much better in the spring and fall. You'll get some dead-still mornings and evenings, in water that's between 8 and 18 inches deep, and that's where you'll find 'em. One of the best places is on the back of the north side of Ocracoke."

For trout, Dempsey looks for dropoffs where the broken eel-grass and spartina flats tumble into deeper holes and cuts.

"What you've got down here behind Hatteras and Ocracoke is eel-grass and spartina. It doesn't come all the way to the top, and the specks will get on top of that grass on the flats. They're a lot more spread out when they're on the flats. When it comes to sloughs, you fish the edge of a slough that's 4 to 8 feet deep. That's the kind of place that will concentrate fish.

"If you can only fish one month out of the year, it should be late September through October. The specks are gathering up, making their run (to the ocean). They're all coming across the sound, headed for Hatteras Inlet. It's a good bite," Dempsey said, "with a lot of 17-, 18-, 19- and 20-inch fish and some bigger ones."

Dempsey's go-to rig ends in a leadhead/curlytail grub combination, but he also likes to use paddletail grubs, and one of his favorite ways for catching big trout is using a live shrimp under a popping cork.

On the west side of the expansive Pamlico Sound, trout are also on the move, generally out of coastal rivers and creeks and into the deeper waters of the sound as the water temperature rises in late summer. Chuck Hudson of Bounty Hunter Charters in Aurora concentrates on the Pungo River and nearby areas in the sound.

"Normally, when the water gets real warm, the trout will work back out in the river. The hotter the water gets in the shallows, the deeper they'll go, moving to the mouth of the river and the edge of the sound," Hudson said. "The fish will move out all the way to the mouth of

the river, even to Hobucken, and they'll stay out in the sound until about the 25th or 26th of September, and then they'll start to work back into the rivers and creeks as the water cools."

George Beckwith of Down East Guide Service in Oriental has zeroed in on some of the best big-drum fishing in North Carolina in late August and through most of September around the mouth of the Neuse River.

Beckwith said that bigger drum are scattered out all over the sound during the summer. "The old-timers say they make a circle - from Swanquarter to Goose Creek to this side of Brant Island Shoals, Jones Bay and Hobucken," he said.

Beckwith concentrates his efforts on long shoals and points in the sound and near the mouth of the Neuse, places where drum can move from deep water to feed in relatively shallow water - usually after dark.

"These big fish will move up out of deep water every evening to feed, usually where the water drops off from 4 to 6 feet deep into 10 or 12 feet," he said. "They're just like largemouth bass, staying out in deep water and moving up shallow to feed and spawn."

Beckwith fishes cut bait on Carolina or fish-finder rigs on relatively light tackle. Typically, he anchors up an hour or so before dusk on a shoal that drum are using, starts a chum line, puts out baits and waits for big drum to move up and start to feed.

Maybe the most consistent fishing for puppy drum and specks takes place in the Morehead City-Atlantic Beach-Beaufort-Cape Lookout area. That statement covers a lot of ground, but the area covers a lot of water - most of it used by trout and puppy drum during the summer and fall.

According to Joe Shute, an inshore guide and tackle-shop owner from Atlantic Beach, specks and puppy drum stay back in the extensive marshlands of the North and Newport rivers for much of the year. As the water starts to cool, the trout start to move out toward the ocean.

"When the water gets down to 52 to 54 degrees, that will move them out," Shute said. "Usually by the end of October and first of November, they'll be all the way out on the Cape Lookout rock jetty."

Along the way, fishermen will take specks under the Morehead City-Beaufort high-rise bridge, anchoring up and pitching live baits into the current.

"Live shrimp are your best bet; if you fish live shrimp, use a Kahle-style hook and a little egg sinker just to get 'em on the bottom," Shute said. "A lot of people will fish them under a popping cork, or under a float using a bobber-stop knot so they can get them down 15 to 20 feet deep."

When they get out on the rock jetty, fishermen will often put down their live bait and cast grubs or lures toward the jetty, hoping to catch fish cruising the edge of the rocks.

Puppy drum fishing is a little easier, because the fish don't really leave the marshes or the Bogue Sound. Shute likes to target oyster rock in shallow water, especially around emergent aquatic grass. "You want to fish it when it starts to drop out from full high tide," he said. "You just bump your jig back real slowly."

Dave Dietzler, who also guides out of Atlantic Beach, said that specks and puppy drum will be feeding in the Bogue Sound and the marshes this month.

"They're out cruising the top of the grass, eating shrimp and finger mullet," he said. "The shrimp are bigger at that point, 30 count (to the pound), so you can use a bigger bait. The drum tend to be pretty resident. If you find a small population of them, they'll stay in the area for a while. In fact, we have drum that stay in the sound and just move up and down the bank, stopping on boat docks, all summer."

Shute likes to fish in Core and Adams creeks, which feed the Bogue Sound, and he likes some of the small creeks that feed the Newport River marshes.

"There are a lot of mullet and baitfish and oyster rocks in there, but you need to fish them very shallow to fish them effectively," he said.

Both Shute and Dietzler like to fish leadhead/grubs, either curlytail or paddletail, occasionally mixing in a spoon or a topwater lure - they're especially good the first hour or two of daylight.

About an hour to the south of Morehead City, Rick Bennett of Rodman Charters in Wrightsville Beach has a completely different set of circumstances to deal with. He doesn't have a lot of extensive backwater to work with. Basically, he's got the Intracoastal Waterway and feeder creeks for most of the year.

"As Labor Day approaches, I'm fishing (boat) docks in the waterway and the jetties at Masonboro Inlet for puppy drum. The trout, typically, are waiting for cooler water to show up," Bennett said. "I'll fish for trout in Page's and Hewlett's creeks, or out on the jetties when they move out."

Bennett likes to target docks that are close to the mouth of creeks feeding the waterway, or cuts back into marsh areas. A falling tide will flush backwater areas, and Bennett figures that a variety of game fish - puppy drum and flounder, in particular - will set up on those docks to ambush bait.

"For puppy drum, I like to fish live finger mullet or smaller pogies (menhaden) on a Carolina rig or a Shrimposter on a 3/8-ounce (jig)," Bennett said. "I like to throw upcurrent of the pier, let it sink to the bottom, then pop it or work it down the current until I have to pick it up and cast again.

"Our drum are pretty much resident fish. They stay inside all the time, unless it gets real cold, then they'll move out of the inlet and get on the beach where the water is a little warmer."

Crossing the Cape Fear River, fishermen are faced with a different set of circumstances. Along the Brunswick County coastline, fishermen are limited to the Intracoastal Waterway, tributary creeks and rivers, Lockwood Folly and Shallotte Inlets and man-made canals in the Holden Beach and Ocean Isle areas.

Trout and puppy drum summer in the Shallotte and Lockwood Folly rivers. When falling water temperatures put them on the move toward the waterway and inlets, guide Chuck Nelson of Holden Beach starts to look for puppy drum on oyster rocks along the banks of the waterway, in deeper holes along the waterway, and finally, in the canals.

"The canals are best in October and November; they get good when the water temperature drops under 70 degrees," said Nelson, who guides out of the Rod & Reel Shop in Supply, across the waterway from Holden Beach on the mainland. "The canals are filled with baitfish, menhaden, finger mullet, grass shad and shrimp. It can be very easy fishing. It's just a matter of finding out where they're holding on a particular stage of the tide."

Nelson said that speckled trout tend to stay in the deeper waters in the middle of the canals. They're usually in pods or schools, and Nelson targets them with leadhead/grubs. "The trout tend to set up m

ore in one spot than drum," he said. "If you get a bump in the middle of a canal, throw back in there and he'll be there.

"I think the drum just cruise the oyster beds (that line parts of the canals). The corners have got the thickest growth of oysters, and the drum will stay around them from October on. I've caught them along the edge of the oysters on a low tide, and over top of the oysters on a high tide. They'll be with those oysters."

Again, grubs and jigs are primary lures, although live baits, such as finger mullet, shrimp and small menhaden, can be tough to beat, especially drifted under a popping cork around the oyster beds.

Basically, up and down the coast in north Carolina you can catch these fish. Plan a trip, scout the cover and structure, and you shouldn't have to fish too long before the tip of your rod begins to bounce.

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