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