Ocracoke Inlet Summer
Spanish Mackerel, Blues, Flounder and a few Surprises
By Bruce Litton
For the roadways running from Corolla southward, Ocracoke Village is the end of the line on North Carolina’s Outer Banks. It’s a great angling destination because many fish species are abundant and boats are few in Ocracoke Inlet. Other inlets get accessed with greater ease. Getting to Ocracoke Island is a test of patience, or a relaxing ride. A 40-minute ferry trip from Hatteras is necessary, or over two hours from either Swan Quarter or Cedar Island some 25 miles across Pamlico Sound.
Ocracoke Inlet hosts Spanish mackerel flashing metallic sides like eyes winking, and blues rushing in from behind and below as if attracted to the light. Flounder fill Wallace Channel--on a good day you will want to move on to some surprising species after catching so many. A proud example is large cobia during summer. Sheepshead over 12 pounds, and black drum over 15, frequent tide rips where the inlet either flows into Pamlico Sound, or gathers it out. We've been fishing the Inlet with Captain Ryan O'Neal for many years.
“No wind today,” O’Neal said. “The water’s flat and that tide is just now creeping in.”
Ryan O’Neal is the youngest charter Captain on the southern Atlantic coast to earn the United States Coast Guard Approved Masters License—at 18. He has fished Ocracoke Inlet, Pamlico Sound, and the Atlantic for many years, and comes from a long family tradition of fishing these waters related to Ocracoke. My son, Matt, and I felt privileged to be in the living presence of the village’s long history, especially in direct relation to the fish of its surroundings. Throttle opening on the 150 Honda outboard on the 24 foot Privateer, ”the Tarheel,” we raced southward from the village harbor, Silver Lake, 2 ½ miles into the range of Oracoke Inlet’s Blair Channel until the skiff lowered off plane. O’Neal leapt from his seat, and deftly reached for trolling rods from holders on the canopy.
“Let’s get some Spanish!” He said.
“You’ll see, dad. Your losing streak on the piers is over,” My son said.
Size 0 Clark spoons, tied directly to 25-pound test fluorocarbon in lengths of 25 feet to size 1 planers lined up about a hundred feet out, left and right behind the stern. The outboard continued to propel the craft at 5 to 6 mph. From the stern’s middle, the same lure soon flashed behind a four-ounce in-line sinker for a shallow troll. The planer gets a spoon down as deep as eight feet.
“The Clark spoon imitates silversides?” I said.
“And small menhaden and finger mullet,” O’Neal said.
From May into October, Spanish mackerel move in pods and large schools along the edges of the inlet’s two main channels, Blair and Wallace, and also outside in the Atlantic. Available on occasion to surf anglers up and down the Banks, they also serve as a favorite summertime target from piers. But for reliable consistency, nothing beats trolling for these speedsters in the inlets. They are a beautiful, blue-toned fish with large, golden spots. Their bodies sleek with deeply forked tails propel them like torpedoes.
The previous day, a stop at Tradewinds Tackle in Ocracoke to inquire about fishing the inlet revealed a mounted 10-pound Spanish mackerel, and Alan Sutton at the register as he took a break from fishing. He said the Spanish began a migration from Florida earlier in the year. Naturally they are drawn to inlets for the forage concentrations. Mackerel are not available off the ends of piers in large numbers every morning, since although beaches have varieties of subtle structures, their slope is more and less even, the depths yawning into ever deeper blue expanse. Fish schools rove dispersed compared to inlet situations. Although Ocracoke Inlet’s two channels fill large expanse, sand banks well define them, and you can bet on finding Spanish somewhere along an edge of a cut or specific channel. Evening sometimes results in a run, although mornings not only feel fresh, the sun rises and fish seem to thrive for a few hours or more after darkness.
“It can make a difference on what side of the channel’s edge you troll,” Sutton said.
Looking for birds to find a roving school may help, but mackerel do not always feed right at the surface. Ultimately, trolling is a search method when mackerel or blues do not become immediately evident. But one factor above others is important.
“See how clear the water is?” said O’Neal, guiding the troll along Blair’s northern edge.
“We’re close to open sea,” I said.
“And the tide’s really comin’ in. Spanish are sight feeders. So I always look for action in the morning on a rising tide with clear water.”
It didn’t take long. A rod bent almost on cue when O’Neal spoke. My son’s first mackerel measured about 18 inches, which proved to be about average size. We caught a dozen or so by trolling along edges of Blair Channel, and about as many blues from one to three pounds. Bluefish tend to move in smaller pods, and situate slightly deeper behind mackerel schools. It’s as if they smell the scraps left behind from slaughters the Spanish race on ahead of in quick, frenzied, lightning formations. In fact, bluefish rely on scent to much greater degree than mackerel.
“Some mornings the Spanish run a pound or two, others they’ll be about three pounds. The world record 13-pounder came from this inlet, and every summer we get Spanish over five pounds,” O’Neal said.
Portsmouth Island beckoned about a half mile further south; a sand bank defines the northern terminus of Cape Lookout National Seashore. Soon we drifted in to almost chatting distance from a couple walking the water’s edge. Wallace Channel cuts the sand close and scoops it out to depths of almost 30 feet. Through summer into early fall, flounder are not the only desirable fish lurking among its mysterious current variations, forage, shellfish and other bottom obstructions, but they comprise the bulk of the fish. Sheepshead, puppy drum, black drum, cobia, and large red drum just outside the inlet on occasion, exist as worthy summer pursuits in these depths. Cobia often prowl nearer the ocean; sheepshead and black drum position towards the sound.
“With just the tide to carry us, no wind, we’ll move at about ½ to 1 knot, which is perfect,” O’Neal said. “1 ½ to 2 knots is too fast.”
Medium power, six-foot spinning rods and reels loaded with 12-pound test monofilament clinch-knotted to spec rigs, red and white, and chartreuse and white polymer on four size 1/0 hooks to each rig, stood by as O’Neal quickly baited them with fresh squid. Mackerel belly strips are also good bait. At the bottom of these rigs, three-ounce bank sinkers are attached to snaps, which take them directly down.
“Let out just enough line to stay at an angle and let drift,” O’Neal said. “When you feel something like added weight, open the bail and let out line for a few seconds before you set the hook.”
The large number of keepers didn’t surprise O’Neal. They averaged about 16 inches and could have been caught steadily all day. A flounder fights with a unique, head shaking persistence that feels like it might throw the hook at any instant. Sometimes they do get off. But in the middle of all the action with flounder, something a lot larger than what we had become accustomed to struck. This fish was no flounder, judging by the quick, steady runs, sudden turns, and smooth power.
“Cobia!” O’Neal said.
“Really!?” I said.
“Uh, huh. Small one.”
The brown stripe came into view. Less than 33-inch legal size, the cobia weighed over six pounds. Drifting spec rigs for flounder, O’Neal’s clients often catch cobia 20 to 25 pounds, occasionally as large as 40.
“Last year I boated one 69 pounds out on the ocean that hit a four-ounce bucktail,” he said.
Alan Sutton had concurred on three or four-ounce bucktails. An eight-inch plastic worm trailer adds appeal. Cobia can be pursued by trying to sight them. With calm surface and clear water favoring visibility, the object is to cast beyond the fish and retrieve the bucktail quickly and close to its protruding lower jaw to tease a strike.
Matt hung something on his spec rig that certainly was no flounder, judging by the sheer weight. This fish departed on a long, unstoppable run, but by the time O’Neal was at the wheel starting the engine to follow, the hook pulled.
“Could have been a big cobia,” O’Neal said. “Or it could have been a shark.”
Either one had been a great pleasure for my son.
Tide Rips Combined with Ledges and Shells Host Sheepshead
O’Neal showed how one look at the mouth of a sheepshead tells you where to look for them: among crustaceans, mollusks, and especially barnacles for them to eat.
“Just like human teeth,” he said. “Some would kill to have a set like that.”
Sheepshead are large, round bodied fish that relate to vertical structures—so a ledge that drops off from a sandy shelf cut by a tide rip around the edge of an island may be perfect. Find a spot like this along Wallace Channel towards the sound with lots of shells at the bottom and you may be on fish. O’Neal positioned the boat as best he could in wind against the tide to fish 16-foot depths.
“Normally I could position the boat so we could put our lines directly off the rear,” he said.
The situation presented little problem, but O’Neal expressed clear vision of the ideal. Fish struggled in no time. Black drum larger than 15 pounds may be mixed with sheepshead at such a hotspot, although the drum may be out in slightly deeper current away from such a ledge. Both species love sand fleas, which may be easy to collect in surf wash. But make sure you fill a bucket because sheepshead are great bait stealers. A simple double hook bottom rig with a two ounce bank sinker is sufficient. But keep a tight line.
“You won’t feel the bite with that much line out,” O’Neal said.
A cast had reached further out along the ledge. Setting the rig set closer resulted in a 5 pound, hard fighting sheepshead. We caught about a dozen, the largest over seven pounds. Often twice this many are caught in a few hours, frequently larger than 12 pounds.
Rising Tide is best for Flounder
Pamlico Sound stays slightly off color. At the public boat ramp in Ocracoke Village, for example, bottom is visible in about two feet of water. When tide exits, it takes the sound with it through the inlet.
“Flounder fishing is better in clearer water,” O’Neal said. “They rely more on sight more than smell, whereas a bluefish or a drum will just smell it. If the water is turbid, a flounder will too. But they lay flat and look up for baitfish such as small pinfish, finger mullet, or two inch long baby flounders.”
Any amount of wind can be tricky for drifting Wallace Channel. But light breezes will not necessarily ruin the fishing, especially if you use an electric trolling motor to compensate against them. If your boat is large enough, it won’t get buffeted about by breezes the way a small craft responds. A big boat will tend to move with the tide. But heavy winds can make this fishing almost impossible.
In windy conditions, to anchor and drift a rig port or starboard works. But it’s not the same as being carried evenly for hundreds of yards by incoming tide, showing those polymer colors and squid or mackerel belly bait to a lot more flounder in clear water, and perhaps to a big, curious, aggressive cobia.
Red Drum, Cero Mackerel, and Southern Flounder
Red Drum serve as Outer Banks theme fish, designated in 1971 by the North Carolina General Assembly as the state saltwater fish. O’Neal pursues them avidly. Although November is the best month, when reds over 40 pounds are an everyday happening, spotty action happens in range of the Tarheel skiff through the summer. Various cut baits are standard, and sea mullet seems to attract fewer rays than does bunker.
“We find them in troughs just outside the inlet,” O’Neal said.
Cero mackerel are a happens-chance fish, but they do enter the inlet, particularly in September through October. They are larger than Spanish mackerel, blue toned like them, but with a thin, dark, lateral stripe. Like Spanish, they slam trolled Clark spoons, and slice through clear, rising tides by the swift action of pelagic tailfins.
“They average about five pounds,” O’Neal said.
Southern flounder are a fascination for O’Neal. His family ancestors fished them commercially, gigging for large profits, impaling fish as big as 30 pounds.
“They gig them right up in the shallows. You can see them lying on the flats,” O’Neal said.
Late September is a good time to come across one of these finicky feeders. Compared to fishing summer flounder, the need to open the bail and allow the flounder undisturbed possession of the bait is greater. O’Neal says they are not as big as they once had bee
How to Get There – Approach Swan Quarter on U.S. 264, get on N.C. 45 South for 2.1 miles to 2nd Street, .1 mile to Oyster Creek Road. After about a mile’s drive, arrive at the ferry terminal, 748 Oyster Creek Road. Cedar Island is approached on U.S. 70 to N.C. 12, followed to the terminal at the point of the island. Hatteras is accessed by taking the Virginia Dare Memorial Bridge from the mainland, U.S. 264 on over Roanoke Island, which becomes U.S. 64 on the bridges over to Nags Head, and connecting to N.C. 12 south to Hatteras, or by taking N.C. 168, which becomes N.C. 158 from the northeast corner of the state, over Currituck Sound, into Kitty Hawk, continuing south on N.C. 158/12, and continuing on N.C. 12 to Hatteras and the ferry terminal at the end of the road. The Hatteras ferry will take you to N.C. 12 resumption at the northern end of Ocracoke Island; a 16 mile drive south takes you into Ocracoke Village. The Swan Quarter and Cedar Island ferry terminal is in town. Public boat ramp is at end of Irvin Garrish Highway to the right of the ferry terminal.
Accommodations – Anchorage Inn & Marina Motel, 205 Irvin Garrish Highway, (252) 928-3421; Blackbeard’s Lodge, 111 Back Road, (252) 928-3421; Edwards of Ocracoke, 216 Old Beach Road, (800) 254-1359; Silver Lake Motel, P.O. 1716, (252) 928-6721; Harborside Motel, Silver Lake Road, (252) 928-3111; Bluff Shoal Motel, Silver Lake Road, (252) 928-4301; Pony Island Motel, 785 Irvin Garrish Highway, (800) 928-4411; Ocracoke Island Vacation Rentals/Island Realty, 1075 Irvin Garrish Highway, (877) 646-2822.
Maps – NOAA Charts, www.charts.noaa.gov/OnlineViewer/11550.shmll; Marinas.com, www.marinas.com/view/inlet/889_Ocracoke_Inlet_NC_United_States.