Crys­tal Coast

TRO­PHY FISH AND A WIDE RANGE OF GAME ABOUND OFF THIS STRETCH OF NORTH CAROLINA COAST­LINE

Saltwater Sportsman - - Top Shot - BY ALEX SUES­CUN PHO­TOS BY ZACH STO­VALL

As Jack cranked with all his might, a sec­ond sail grabbed a bait and som­er­saulted fran­ti­cally be­fore rac­ing for parts un­known. The boy’s mom, Kristi, took this one, and not yet 20 min­utes into our fish­ing, we had our­selves a sail­fish dou­ble­header. Both sails were coaxed to the boat, lead­ered and re­leased, giv­ing the en­tire crew aboard Reel Coun­try, the 58-foot Buddy Har­ris out of More­head City, good rea­son for celebration.

EF­FEC­TIVE SPREAD

While North Carolina’s Crys­tal Coast is renowned for the va­ri­ety of species that con­verge in the area, it was October, and wa­hoo are au­tumn’s off­shore head­lin­ers. So Capt. Mark “Mi­crowave” Cham­bers in­structed Dylan Rhudy, his mate, to rig pri­mar­ily for the striped tor­pe­does. But with sail­fish sud­denly dom­i­nat­ing the scut­tle­butt around the docks, Cham­bers made sure to add a cou­ple of small naked bal­ly­hoo to the trolling spread. The tac­tic paid off, as Jack’s older brother, Michael, later added a third sail­fish to our re­lease tally.

Like the day be­fore, when Luke Snedaker and Zach Davenport (friends of the cap­tain) helped us boat five up to 50 pounds, the ’hoos made more than a cameo. A rod off the star­board cor­ner — with a planer well ahead of the bait, keep­ing it 20 feet be­low the sur­face — was the first to con­nect. It was my turn, and af­ter some huff­ing and puff­ing, I brought a solid 30-pounder to gaff.

HITS PA­RADE

The hits kept on com­ing. Bryon Geer, the boys’ dad, did his part, adding to the wa­hoo in the fish box, and I was lucky enough to reach for the rod af­ter the sav­age at­tack of an­other, closer to 40 pounds, that sky­rock­eted with the man­gled bait clamped in its toothy jaws.

As if three sail­fish and four nice wa­hoo weren’t enough, dol­phin made the scene af­ter lunch. Pushed by the pre­vail­ing east­erly wind, large patches of sar­gas­sum ap­peared in our path, strewn along the edge of the continental shelf, some 42 miles off Cape Look­out. Hun­gry dol­phin were on pa­trol, and sev­eral pounced on our spread, putting on an ac­ro­batic show be­fore chill­ing in the fish box.

THE SUN HAD BARELY CLEARED THE HORI­ZON WHEN THE LINE POPPED OFF THE RIGHTRIGGER CLIP. YOUNG JACK GEER JUMPED IN THE FIGHT­ING CHAIR, AND HIS DAD HANDED HIM THE ROD JUST IN TIME TO SEE THE SAIL­FISH THAT CLAIMED POS­SES­SION OF THE BAIT TAKE TO THE AIR.

CLOSER TO SHORE

De­ter­mined to sam­ple as many op­tions as pos­si­ble dur­ing our visit, we hopped aboard Fish Fin­der, Capt. Joe Shute’s 23-foot Parker, for some nearshore and in­shore fish­ing. Shute told us the rem­nants of re­cent Hur­ri­cane Jose had prompted a sub­stan­tial in­flux of false al­ba­core and, armed with fly rods and a box full of Clouser Min­nows, we ze­roed in on shrimp boats trawl­ing near Beau­fort In­let in hopes of find­ing the al­bies trail­ing be­hind.

We hit pay dirt right away. The ag­gres­sive fish stuck around the boat while I fought one of their school­mates, which en­abled us to amass some 20 re­leases in about two hours. That’s when Shute pointed to the 13-weight fly out­fit racked un­der a gun­wale and said it was time to set our sights on larger game. By that he meant the 6- to 8-foot spin­ner sharks we spot­ted finning across the wakes of the shrimp boats.

APEX PREDA­TORS

The game plan, Shute ex­plained, was sim­ple: run up to a nearby shrimper, cast across its wake, let the fly sink, and set the hook hard when a shark took it. I did ex­actly as in­structed and soon found my­self in a se­ri­ous tug of war with 120 pounds of ticked­off shark. De­spite the tight drag, back­ing siz­zled off the reel un­til the shark and yours truly set­tled into a 20-minute give-and-take that cul­mi­nated with the de­hook­ing and re­lease of the dogged spin­ner.

“No time to waste,” said our guide, who a minute later had us back in po­si­tion for an­other shot at the hun­gry sharks. Soon lots of dor­sals zigzagged in front of the boat, so I re­peated the pro­ce­dure and again hooked up. We stayed on the spin­ner shark

merry-go-round for an­other hour be­fore go­ing back to the al­bies, then had a nice lunch on the wa­ter­front and a short run back to the dock.

IN­SIDE FLUSH

The next morn­ing started with a quick look-see at “The Hook,” the lo­cal name for Cape Look­out, which shields Look­out Bight from winds com­ing from three of the four quad­rants. Al­bies churned the calm sur­face to a froth in every di­rec­tion. They launched brief at­tacks on school­ing bait­fish be­fore dis­ap­pear­ing and turn­ing up again some 50 yards away. Shute, an ex­pert at false al­ba­core guer­rilla war­fare, kept up with the fish un­til we’d re­leased a few and the tide stage was right to try for redfish and trout in­side Beau­fort In­let.

Af­ter cast-net­ting our sup­ply of shrimp in Har­lowe Creek, we an­chored off a cou­ple of marshy shore­lines lined with oys­ter beds and pro­ceeded to catch black drum, black sea bass, and blue­fish, as well as the in­tended tar­gets, redfish and trout. Although the area en­joys a le­git­i­mate rep­u­ta­tion for tro­phy redfish, only small ones obliged this time. But the half-dozen plump trout we brought over the gun­wales would make any an­gler’s day. They av­er­aged 2½ pounds, and Shute boated a kicker of 4 pounds.

GAME FISH GA­LORE

The dozen species we landed dur­ing our brief stint in North Carolina’s Crys­tal Coast was but a small sam­ple of the ar­ray avail­able. Blue mar­lin make their an­nual in­cur­sion in the spring, wa­hoo peak in spring and fall, dol­phin, sail­fish and white mar­lin abound in the sum­mer, black­fin and yellowfin tuna come to for­age at dif­fer­ent times of the year, and dur­ing win­ter, gi­ant bluefins move into 40 feet of wa­ter a half-mile from the beach.

Bot­tom­fish­ing for snap­per and grouper is pretty good too. Co­bia roam the Shack­le­ford Banks and ad­ja­cent beaches in May.

The king­fish bite is red-hot in the fall, when big smok­ers come close to shore. Span­ish mack­erel and blue­fish con­gre­gate at nearshore wrecks and hunt along the beaches dur­ing sum­mer and early fall, some­times ven­tur­ing into the sounds. Lit­tle tunny (aka false al­ba­core) fol­low suit in spring and fall, while other pop­u­lar in­shore species like redfish and seatrout are avail­able year-round in one spot or an­other.

NICE BONUS: When the tide slowed down, the trout started chew­ing.

EYES IN THE SKY: Bird ac­tiv­ity be­hind a shrimp boat sig­nals fish feed­ing un­der­neath, top left. SE­RI­OUS GAME: Big and ag­gres­sive spin­ner sharks made for tough fly-fish­ing bat­tles, top mid­dle. SPEEDY TAR­GETS: Packs of lit­tle tunny, aka false al­ba­core, raced each other to the fly, top right.

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