While many people think of North Carolina as a mountainous retreat, there are many jewels to discover east of the Great Smokies. The coast of North Carolina is a treasure trove of diving and big game fishing opportunities. Carteret County, known as the Crystal Coast, is one of the best locations to take advantage of this bounty.
Warm waters from the Gulf Stream make one of the closest loops to land at this point of the Atlantic coast, and with it comes all of the great fighting species. Giant bluefin tuna, marlin, sail fish, kings, albacore, false albacore, wahoo, dorado and cobia are all seasonal visitors in addition to the bread and butter species of reds, Spanish mackerel, and flounder.
Unless you have a crystal ball and multiple days to work with, when planning your trip to the Crystal Coast, keep in mind that weather can play a major role in your angling experience. On a recent trip to North Carolina, my angling partner and I considered the potential for bad weather offshore and opted for a hybrid trip with an inshore option, since we were only going to be in the area for one day. That choice meant the difference between fishing and standing at the dock scratching our heads. While the lure of giant billfish was strong, I am a realist first and an optimistic fisherman second. The realistic side of me wanted backup because fishing for anything is better than fishing for nothing. As it turned out, the realist was right.
We contacted Captain Joe Shute, the region's most notable fly-fishing guide, and lined up a trip fly-fishing for Spanish mackerel along the coast in the early morning, and a later assault on the trout and puppy drum in the inshore basin. When we arrived on the coast late in the afternoon prior to our scheduled trip, we went straight to the ocean to check out the conditions. The wind was blowing sand about 30 miles per hour and big breakers were rolling along the shore. Blowing sand was drifting up along the boardwalk and between our teeth. In short order, we had grit grinding between our teeth and despair in our hearts. A quick check of the weather confirmed our greatest fears. The weather service was forecasting winds of 30 to 35 MPH with gusts to 40, and 5 to 8 foot seas for the following morning. No matter what might be possible, one thing was for sure, the fly rods that we had brought all the way from Nebraska would not see daylight.
Plan B materializes
On our way to the motel, we dialed in a local station on the radio of our rental car and heard our guide giving his official report for area anglers. Red fish, or puppy drum as they are known locally, were biting well, as were trout and flounder. These three fish make up the grand slam for inshore angling, and can be as much fun to catch, as they are delicious to eat. With renewed enthusiasm, we turned in for the night prepared for a 5:30 AM rendezvous with Captain Joe.
When dawn came, the sun was shrouded in heavy clouds and the flag, which flew outside our motel, was standing straight out and popping loudly. We found Captain Joe at his dock, loading fresh shrimp and fingerling mullet into the livewell. His 23-foot Parker, which is made locally, was loaded and the 200 HP Mercury was idling smoothly. We quickly cast off and headed for a spot where more mullet could be acquired. "If the drum are biting like they have been all week, we'll need a lot more bait," he said. This statement raised our level of expectations, especially when he added that the wind had been blowing like this all week and the fish were still very active.
Fingerling mullet run in schools and castnetting for them along a shore rife with oyster beds is challenging enough without the wind. However, Joe was not to be denied. After fighting for boat control and numerous casts, Joe thought we had enough bait to outlast the pinfish, and we were off to a spot that was known for producing big spots.
Captain Joe maneuvered his craft close to a cove lined with grass and we anchored with the bow upwind. Using a simple rig consisting of a 30 lb. test mono leader, a small weight and a #5 circle hook, we lip-hooked the fingerlings and cast toward the weed line letting the tide carry our bait along its length. On the four previous day's charters Joe reported catches of a dozen or more large reds in the 5-12 pound range. Plan B was looking more promising by the moment. We were definitely ready to test the light spinning rigs that we held in great anticipation. Despite the irritation of the stiff wind, we were able to cast and work our baits as long as the rod tip was kept low to avoid having the line pull the bait out of the water.
Suddenly, off to our right a school of bottle-nosed dolphin confirmed the value of our chosen site. Four of these playful rascals moved into our cove and began chasing our intended quarry. While it was comforting to know that we were in a good fishing spot, and that there were indeed reds waiting to take our bait, the continued presence of these skillful hunters negated any reason for us to persevere at this anchorage. After weighing anchor we opted for plan C.
Plan C Develops
Trout are abundant in the Intercoastal waterway which also offered protection from the wind. We set our compass for another rung on the alphabet ladder.
Trout are suckers for live shrimp and we had 8 dozen. Four miles up the Intercoastal waterway we were able to anchor and fish several locations until we found an active school of trout. Although we didn't boat any record fish, the action was steady and once we found the trout, they kept hitting until we ran out of bait. Mixed in with our catch of trout were a small red and a flounder, thus we achieved the inshore grand slam. After exhausting all the shrimp and mullet fingerlings we headed for the dock across a now angry bay. Fortunately, Joe's 23-foot Parker was well suited to this challenge and we only suffered a light spray that was most refreshing in the 90+ temps.
As we made our way into the harbor literally hundreds of stately offshore boats lined the docks with silent engines and bare decks. As seaworthy as they were, these beautiful charter boats were now silent hostages of the wind and brutal waves that lay beyond Bogue Inlet. We didn't land any marlin that day but one thing's for sure; we went fishing and had a great time.
For more information on fishing, diving or vacationing on the Crystal Coast, check out their visitor's web site at sunnync.com For local fishing reports and inshore trips, Captain Joe Shute can be found online at www.captjoes.com.
Frank Ross grew up on a lake in Florida, where fishing and hunting were second nature. He has pursued his passion from the jungles of South America to the northern reaches of the Arctic Circle and most points in between. With a background in newspapers, the wire services and magazines that began in 1970, Frank brings a unique perspective to his work with Cabela's. He is an award-winning photographer with a flair for getting to the bottom line of every story.
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