For the most part, we have enjoyed some usually warm winter weather since the deep freeze at Christmas. This has been good in many ways, but especially as many fishermen and fisheries biologists were concerned that another deep freeze might send several species, primarily speckled trout, into a tailspin.
There have been a few nights the temperature dipped below freezing, but for the most part the end of January and February have enjoyed mild weather. In addition to enjoying many mild days, there have also been a lot of days when the wind and sea cooperated to allow fishermen to head offshore comfortably and fish wherever they wanted.
Not only was the weather nice, but the abundance of warm, sunny days allowed the water temperature to rebound from the 40s after the Christmas freeze. The water had eased into the lower 50s by the end of January and has warmed to the upper 50s in the past week. The CORMP (Carolinas Ocean Research and Monitoring Program) reporting station at the CMS Dock along the Intracoastal Waterway between Carolina Beach and Wrightsville Beach was reporting water temps in the low 60s several afternoons last week.
Several fishermen said their fishfinder units also showed water temps reaching the lower 60s in some of the shallower creeks in the area. Sunlight on dark bottom can really make a difference in water temps. Visit www.cormp.org to check it out.
This warmer water has made many fish more active than usual and had them feeding more aggressively than usually expected during February. Not only has the inshore fishing been good, local fishermen found wahoo on every Gulf Stream trolling trip during the past month. Some unusual catches have been recorded too. There have been a few blue marlin jumped off Hatteras and small pods of dolphin attacking trolling spreads off Murrells Inlet and Georgetown, S.C. Those fish swim by here too.
In inside waters, speckled trout, red drum and black drum have been biting aggressively. There have been days they were difficult to find, but when found they were hungry and cooperated. Surf and pier fishermen have been finding a few bites too. The primary fish are bluefish and whiting. Both are fun to catch and work well as the centerpiece of a winter fish fry with fresh local fish.
Just before the deadline for this, the N.C. Division of Marine Fisheries announced there would not be a spring season for flounder due to fishermen catching more than the allocation of southern flounder in 2022. The spring season was to be in the ocean only to allow recreational fishermen to target summer and Gulf flounder, but could only be opened if the 2022 allocation of southern flounder was not exceeded.
The 2022 overage on southern flounder catches will also affect the fall season. No one knows exactly how yet, but the fall season will be adjusted to reduce flounder catches as the Fishery Management Plan requires the payback of overages the next year. More information is below.
The N.C. Marine Fisheries Commission advisory committees met in the past few weeks and made recommendations to the commission regarding amendments to the fishery management plans for several species. They are meeting this week, beginning Wednesday evening, February 22, for public comments. Several things we should be concerned with on the state level include flounder seasons and regulations for 2023, possible changes in speckled trout regulations and possible changes in striped mullet regulations. It is possible to log onto the meetings if you can’t attend in person and to mail or offer your opinions online. More information is available on the MFC/DMF website at https://deq.nc.gov/about/divisions/marine-fisheries. Meeting specific information is available at https://deq.nc.gov/about/divisions/marine-fisheries/marine-fisheries-commission/marine-fisheries-commission-meetings for the Marine Fisheries Commission meetings and at https://deq.nc.gov/about/divisions/marine-fisheries/marine-fisheries-commission/mfc-advisory-committees/mfc-advisory-committee-meetings for the advisory committee meetings.
The federal fishery management agencies have also been meeting during February. The South Atlantic Fishery Management Council met in Charleston and discussed several changes in seasons and limits for several grouper species, red porgys and American red snapper. The other councils and commissions meet farther away, but there are places to find the meeting dates and times, the issues that will be discussed and how to comment if you can’t attend the meetings. The big federal agency is NOAA Fisheries at www.fisheries.noaa.gov. The regional agencies are the South Atlantic Fishery Management Council at www.safmc.net, the Mid-Atlantic Fishery Management Council at www.mafmc.org and the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission at www.asmfc.org.
There have been many fishing, boating and outdoor shows across N.C. and neighboring states during January and February and there are a few more this last week of February and into March. The Central Carolina Boat and Fishing Expo will be at the Greensboro Coliseum Complex in Greensboro this weekend, February 24-26, and I will be one of several guides, captains and tournament fishermen presenting seminars over the weekend.
There will be at least one fresh water and one salt water seminar each hour. The seminar schedule had not been finalized at my deadline, but should be by now and is posted at https://www.greensborofishingexpo.com. This is a boat and fishing show and will have lots of shiny new aluminum and fiberglass, plus a large selection of fishing tackle and accessories.
The Dixie Deer Classic will be held at the N.C. State Fairgrounds in Raleigh on March 3-5. This is the largest hunting/outdoor show in N.C. each year and draws exhibitors and attendance from several states. There will also be seminars presented by nationally and regionally recognized outdoorsmen, hosts from TV outdoor shows, biologists and other notable speakers. If you’re into hunting, especially deer hunting, this is a show to attend. More information is available at www.dixiedeerclassic.org.
The seminars at the Central Carolina Boat and Fishing Expo will be my final tune-up for the 2023 Oak Island Saltwater Fishing School that will be held at Ocean View United Methodist Church in Oak Island on Saturday, March 4. Capt. Butch Foster will be joining me there as we discuss rods, reels, line, tackle, baits, lures, locations and more for catching fish in the waters inside the inlets and in the nearshore ocean. The species covered will include speckled trout, flounder, red drum, black drum, striped bass, Spanish mackerel, king mackerel, offshore bottom fish, fish of the surf zone and more.
In past years this event was often filled by now, but the multi-purpose room at Ocean View UMC is larger than the past facilities and there are seats remaining. There is a flyer and registration form that can be downloaded and mailed at www.captjerry.com and interested persons can also register in person at the Oak Island Recreation Center.
The days, at least the hours of daylight, are getting longer. We have already gained more than an hour of daylight since the Winter Equinox on December 21 and there are times it seems like I can tell a difference each week. Two big things will happen in March. The first is the arrival of Daylight Saving Time on March 12. This will seem like we suddenly gain a lot more daylight, but in reality we only move an hour of sunlight from the morning to the afternoon where more folks can take advantage of it. The other is the arrival of Spring on March 20. This won’t be quite as big a deal as fishermen and fish have already been enjoying the mild spring-like weather.
For another couple of months Scales and Tales will be in the paper the last Wednesday of the month. The weekly reports will return the week before Easter. Regardless of the time of year, Scales and Tales always welcomes pictures and fishing reports from readers. If you had a great fishing trip and or have a picture of a fish that makes you smile, send the picture and some details on the trip. Send them to firstname.lastname@example.org or email@example.com. We look forward to highlighting outstanding reader catches.
The Fishing Report
February fishing has been surprisingly good. Many fishermen give credit to the mild weather and there is no doubt it helped. Several days of rain helped too. Eastern N.C. had not had significant rain in several months and we were in drought conditions. This affects our fishing by not washing bait down from farther up the river and allowing the edge of salt water to creep inland to upriver from Wilmington. Now, with warm weather and some rain returning, fish and bait are returning to their usual late February haunts and fishermen are finding them more readily.
Red drum, black drum, speckled trout and even some flounder are in the Cape Fear River up to Wilmington and the Lockwood Folly River nearly to the Highway 211 bridge, plus in the creeks, bays and marshes between them. There are also stripers in the Cape Fear River, Northeast Cape Fear River and Brunswick River, plus many of the creeks that run into them around Wilmington.
These fish are feeding, especially on the sunny days. Live baits are catching well and shrimp head that list. There are a few folks catching some live shrimp for bait, but they aren’t telling where. Some tackle shops are carrying mud minnows and will have shrimp if they can get them. Shrimp get everything’s attention when floated through the area suspended under a cork. Mud minnows also will produce suspended under a cork and can be fished on the bottom too.
Carry your cast net with you, even during the winter. Occasionally you’ll find some mullet or a school of 3-5-inch pogies in a creek or bay and they make good baits. You can fish them live or using them as cut bait. Their fresh oily scent will help get fish interested in eating them. Pieces of crab also make good baits.
Soft plastics fished around points, creek mouths and oyster rocks will often produce strikes from all but black drum. When fishing the drop-offs into the channel, big lipped diving lures will get the lures down to the fish and get bites. Red drum, trout, flounder and stripers will hit lures pretty well, but black drum can be stubborn and hold out for live baits or pieces of shrimp and cut bait. Red drum and stripers like these too.
There have been reports of shad moving up the rivers in central and northeast N.C. There were a few mentions of shad in the Cape Fear River at Lock and Dam Number one and number two in early February, but they haven’t been mentioned lately. It is time for shad to be moving up the river and the closest place that is consistent with them is at Lock and Dam Number One, just above Riegelwood. Shad will hit darts and small spoons and a local favorite rig around Lock and Dam Number One is a tandem rig of 1 or 2 inch curltail grubs.
Both piers and 15 miles of the ocean surf zone are open and are nowhere near as crowded as they will be from Easter on. Pier and surf fishing isn’t hot, but fishermen willing to put in the time and fish through a tide change or two will ordinarily catch a few fish. Usually, it’s enough for a small dinner, but sometimes they pick the right spot and catch a bunch. This fishing is simple, using pieces of shrimp and cut bait on a double-drop bottom rig. The primary catches are whiting and bluefish, but occasionally a red drum, black drum or trout joins the catch.
Sheepshead fishermen are as tight-lipped as trout fishermen, but they are catching a few fish and many are nice size. The key is vertical structure and it can be docks, piers, bulkheads, sunken wrecks or artificial reefs. Fiddler crabs are good baits and they have been out on several of the warmer days. Sometimes sheepshead will eat frozen sand fleas (mole crabs), pieces of crab and shrimp.
Moving farther offshore, the bottom dwellers are the next fish and they have been representing themselves well. There have been multiple reports of limits of large black sea bass and good assorted catches of grunts, porgys, triggerfish, beeliners and more – except grouper and red snapper. The shallow water grouper season is in the middle of its annual spawning closure and red snapper are verboten except for a couple of days during July.
Several fishermen have reported catching limits of 18-inch and larger black sea bass within 20 miles of the inlets. This is great news and shows the restrictive limits and larger minimum sizes of the past decade are helping. Most of the other species begin showing beyond about 80 feet and fishing becomes consistent once deeper than 100 feet. These fish respond well to chunks of cut bait and squid.
We don’t hear much about king mackerel during the winter as they have followed the schools of baitfish offshore. They rarely go as far as the Gulf Stream, but many days the general area around Frying Pan Tower is a good starting place. Some days you never leave there and some days the water has cooled so the bait moved and took the hungry kings with it.
If you don’t mind making the longer run, there are usually schools of kings to be found between Frying Pan Tower and the Gulf Stream. These are primarily smaller kings and they are eating machines that are always hungry. When you locate a school feeding on suspended bait, the bites will come fast and furious. Limits can be filled very quickly by trolling spoons and sea witches with strips. Commercial fishermen make this a day trip and often return with 800-1,000 pounds and sometimes more.
The next move is to the Gulf Stream or the edge of the Continental Shelf. Wahoo and blackfin tuna have been there all winter. Both can be caught trolling, but some days blackfin tuna respond really well to jigging. Find some suspended bait, with lots of arches around it, and get ready. Drop metal jigs though the action and then jig them back up into it. This is tiring fishing, but once you get the hang of it, it produces lots of tasty tuna. Jigging also works around structure to catch grouper, snapper and more.
There have been scatterings of billfish and dolphin caught both south and north of us. These fish and some yellowfin tuna have to pass by here in their travels and shouldn’t be a big surprise when one tries to pilfer your bait. They are fun and unexpected catches, especially during the winter.
There are still big bluefin tuna to be caught, but they have moved to the northern N.C. Coast. There are some charters out of Manteo, Wanchese and Oregon Inlet if you want to give it a go with one of these beasts. Going with a charter is the easy way to do this as they have the appropriate equipment, the experience and know where the fish have been feeding.
Scales and Tales has switched to once a month for the winter, but we’ll be here the last Wednesday of the month and return to weekly at Easter. Even when it’s cold out, we like to fill the page with pictures from readers. Send those pictures of you smiling wide and holding your latest catch to us at firstname.lastname@example.org or email@example.com. Include a few details of your catch and we’ll gladly share them with all our readers.
No spring flounder season
The Division of Marine Fisheries announced Feb. 13 the proposed recreational ocean-only spring season for ocellated (Gulf and summer) flounder will not occur in 2023. Preliminary data from the 2022 recreational flounder season (Sept. 1-30, 2022) indicates that removals of southern flounder exceeded the Total Allowable Catch (TAC) by 25,000 pounds and there are concerns that southern flounder will be caught during the spring ocean season. The 2023 recreational quota and season must be adjusted based on the previous year’s data and with the 2022 catch overage, the 2023 quota must be reduced. The current recreational TAC is based on the most recent stock assessment that indicated southern flounder is overfished with overfishing occurring.
The North Carolina recreational flounder fishery is managed as left-eyed flounder, consisting of three main flounder species: southern, summer, and Gulf flounder. Southern flounder are the only species of the three left-eyed flounder without ocellated spots. Ocellated spots are eye-like dark marks enclosed by a band of another, lighter color. For more information on how to identify the three main flounder species that occur in North Carolina, see the Flounder Identification Guide at https://deq.nc.gov/media/32390/open.
Adaptive Management under Amendment 3 (https://deq.nc.gov/media/30784/open) to the Southern Flounder Fishery Management Plan allows for a March 1 to April 15 recreational season for ocellated flounder in the Atlantic Ocean if the additional harvest does not limit the rebuilding of the southern flounder stock. While the purpose of the spring season is to allow for additional recreational access to summer and Gulf flounder, there is the potential for southern flounder to be harvested during this time. Due to the overage of the TAC and to meet sustainable harvest requirements established under Amendment 3, the Division will not open an ocellated flounder season in the Atlantic Ocean during 2023.
The same release said the dates for the 2023 fall recreational flounder season will be announced at a later date once all data are finalized. The Southern Flounder Fishery Management Plan requires that any overages must be paid back the following year, so flounder fishermen should expect another heavily restricted season. North Carolina’s southern flounder fisheries are managed under the Southern Flounder Fishery Management Plan Amendment 3. For more information on the management measures, see the Southern Flounder Information Page under Hot Topics at https://deq.nc.gov/about/divisions/marine-fisheries/hot-topics#flounder.
Steven Viltoft of Southport was bluefin tuna fishing with Capt. Wally Trayah of Oak Island Fishing Charters on January 10 when he caught a really big fish. This wasn’t a bluefin tuna, but it was the recently certified new state record for common thresher shark (Alopias vulpinus). Threshers have a reputation as hard fighters and excellent table fare. Viltoft will attest to the first part and several local folks said the second part of that statement was also true.
The waters around Cape Fear are the winter home to many thresher sharks, which are easily identified by their long, sickle-shaped tail. For years there have been tales of some really large ones being hooked and broken off or released and the size of Viltoft’s fish lends a quarter ton of credence to those stories. Viltoft’s fish weighed 589 pounds, 1 ounce and replaced a record of 185 pounds that was caught off Oregon Inlet and had stood since 2005.
The crew was trolling near the Knuckle Buoy when the big fish hit. The fight lasted two hours before Viltoft bested the big thresher and led it to the gaff. They had discussed releasing the big fish, but it expired during the fight, so they brought it in. It wouldn’t fit through the transom door, so they jammed it in as far as it would go and tied it securely for the trip.
The big shark hit a mullet that was being trolled on a Bazen Custom Rod paired with a Shimano Tiagra 80W reel that was spooled with 130-pound line. Viltoft’s fish measured 90-inches fork length (tip of the nose to the fork in the tail) and had a 164.75-inch total length (tip of the nose to end of the upper caudal lobe).
For more information on Viltoft’s catch or other N.C. state record fish, go to the Division of Martine Fisheries State Saltwater Records webpage at https://deq.nc.gov/about/divisions/marine-fisheries/public-information-and-education/coastal-fishing-information/nc-saltwater-fishing-tournament/north-carolina-state-saltwater-records or contact the North Carolina Saltwater Fishing Tournament staff at firstname.lastname@example.org.
The Southport Yacht Club will begin its 2023 Education Series with a free practical boating seminar that will be held from 10 to 11 a.m. this Saturday, February 25, at the Cape Fear Maritime Museum. The “Rules of the Road” seminar will cover the boating navigation rules with special attention paid to situations boaters may encounter in the Cape Fear River. The speaker for the seminar will be Pat Lynch, Education Director for Southport Yacht Club.
It is recommended that participants bring a copy of the U.S. Coast Guard Rules and Regulations Handbook. This handbook is required to be carried on all vessels 39 feet and longer. To reserve a seat email email@example.com.