Off the Porch: The beaches are open and the fish are there
While I’m strongly tempted to spend this entire column berating the government goon politicians who have held so many outdoor opportunities hostage during their most recent political fracas, I will refrain from doing so. I will say this is a great example of why we need a lot less federal government. Politics aside, the North Carolina beaches are again open and the best time for Coastal Carolina surf fishing is here.
This is arguably the best possible time of year to fish and we’re having some great weather for surf fishing. Our best two locations in the state are our capes. Cape Hatteras and Cape Lookout both have the reputation for great surf fishing because of their almost unique geography. Both locations are surrounded by a large area of open water on three sides and both are perfect locations for migrating fish to congregate. While some of the target species don’t have strong migration patterns, the bait they feed on often does. The holes and channels created by currents moving past our Outer Banks points are perfect locations for concentrations of bait. This concentration of bait is the lure that brings big schools of red drum, bluefish and Spanish mackerel within easy casting distance.
Later, as the water gets colder, speckled trout will be foraging the holes, sloughs, and bars off Hatteras and Lookout. Perhaps, if the water gets cold quickly this fall we may be blessed with the big ocean run stripers we experienced a few years ago. For now, you can look for blues, late season Spanish, red drum, black drum, whiting, and flounder. A good battery of rods would be a light eight to ten foot rod for the calm water and smaller species and a good heaver for throwing the big eight ounce sinkers needed to fish for big drum when the wind blows southwest and northeast.
Those light tackle rods should be spooled with 12 to 15 pound test line. Use colored line like green or, my favorite, gold for night fishing. The color makes it easier to see your line in low light dawn and dusk conditions. If you get into action that requires throwing a spoon or lures, tie on a three or four foot leader of fluorocarbon to make the line almost impossible for line sensitive fish to see. On those rods, three and four ounce sinkers are fine and for best results tie your own rigs, or at least, buy premium rigs. Cheaper rigs have low quality snaps and swivels and I’ve seen dozens of them separated by big fish that would have been the trophy of a lifetime, but wound up as a lost big fish story. Make sure you have some floater rigs, too. Bluefish like their bait off the bottom and so do puppy drum. Never surf fish without Stingsilvers, or similar spoons, in your kit. I like 1 ½ ounce white and silver best, but all the colors should be in your box.
For fishing the rough water when the wind gets up, you’ll need a rod that can throw a minimum of eight ounces. I like gold 20 pound test with a 25 foot 40 pound shock leader. The shock leader allows you to load the rod with the big sinker for a longer cast, while preventing a snap of the line. Snapped off eight ounce sinkers can be dangerous projectiles if a leader snaps in a cast. The added benefit is having 40 pound test on the fish when he comes into the wash. I like circle hooks when the rod is in a sand spike, but if I’m holding the rod, I want a J hook. Big drum often pick up a bait and bring it in toward the angler and you’ll almost always lose that fish using a circle hook. In a sand spike, the fish can get hooked with a circle hook when he turns away from the rod, but if you pull when he’s facing you, the hook will come out without snagging the fish.
Everyone knows the best time to fish is when they’re biting and they bite best and Lookout and Hatteras on northeast and southwest winds. These wind directions push the bait along the beach and eventually propel them across the points and into the mouths of the target fish we’re looking for. If you can plan your trip on short notice, that’s the best way to go. Have everything ready and spring when the tides and wind are best. I like to fish high tides and sun rises and sunsets. My normal day is to fish from two hours before sunrise til two hours past. I then take a nap and do the same in the afternoon. Full moons will provide a high tide near sunrise and sunset and I’m firmly convinced this is the best time to plan a trip.
Hatteras has plenty of empty beach houses this time of year. It’s a buyer’s market if you begin or end your trip on a Saturday or Sunday. Call just ahead and find what suits your need and is available. For two bedrooms, renting a house is normally cheaper than two motel rooms. Tell the realtor how many days you want to stay and have them look up what’s available. At Hatteras, you’ll need a beach driving permit as well. Look for information on it below.
At Lookout, the non-electric cabins are normally booked way ahead of time. Camping is generally the rule for short notice trips. Cherie and I have a slide in truck camper and it’s perfect. Even if you can get a cabin, the ride by truck to the Lookout Point is a 30 to 45 minute ride, so camping makes perfect sense. Take everything you’ll need, Lookout not only has no electricity, they also have no stores.
In spite of the efforts of organizations like the Southern Environmental Law Center, the Audubon Society and Defenders of Wildlife, to shut down access, surf fishing is still possible on our beaches. There are a few hoops to jump through, however. More information on this below.
North Carolina has the best surf fishing on the East Coast and Gulf of Mexico. Maybe it isn’t as good as it once was and maybe it’s a little problematic but the fishing is great. I hope to see you there, I’m in the green Chevy with the Off the Porch sticker. Drop by and say hi.
You must have a beach driving permit. Cost is $50 for one week and $120 for a whole year, but the year runs out At 12:01 a.m. on January 1 of each calendar year. For either permit, you must watch a short video on birds and turtles. There is no camping on the beach and with the exception of the area between ramps 30 to 38 and the point, you must be off the beach by 9:00 p.m. and can’t get back on till 7:00 a.m.
South Core Banks, Cape Lookout’s island
You can camp on the beach but all camping is primitive. Access to the island is by ferry only and you must make an appointment or take pot luck. This can be problematic at busy times. Bring you own bait to the island, there is no bait store. I normally get mine at the little seafood store just across the bridge on US 70, in New Bern. There are some beach closures, but much less than Hatteras.
Dick Jones is an award winning freelance writer living in High Point. He’s a member of the board of directors of the Southeastern Outdoor Press Association. If you’d like to have him speak to your group, he can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.