Sunday, June 22, 2014

Piers: North Carolina Outer Banks Fishing

King mackerel at Frisco Pier. The pier was since destroyed by Nor'easter

Outer Banks North Carolina Piers Always Produce

By Bruce Litton

Spring through fall, the six functioning Outer Banks fishing piers produce fish almost on a daily basis. Fishing begins with blues, sometimes speckled trout (weakfish), and flounder early in spring. By May, Spanish mackerel get caught with an occasional cobia coming over the end rail.

Piers provide a distinct contrast to summer surf fishing. The surf barren of big fish besides sharks at night, king mackerel, cobia, sometimes tarpon, barracuda, jack crevalle, and big sharks strike at the pier ends. Pilings attract baitfish and Spanish mackerel cut through nearly each morning along with cocktail blues and sometimes weakfish. Black drum find bait on bottom occasionally; fluke can be abundant; and kids love pompano, croakers, and spot. The pier pilings produce barnacles, which seem to make sheepshead magically appear from the ocean basin to feed on them. Fall has big bluefish storm through, stripers wandering south of Chesapeake Bay, and red drum that seem to find the region home. The rails close during winter.

All six piers have stood for many decades, so fish populations know all about them. If you’re headed to the Outer Banks for vacation, you should know about them too. From Avalon Pier northernmost in Kill Devil Hills, to Avon Pier on Hatteras Island, they’re open each day and into the night. Since summer offers the most species to pick and choose, I’ll highlight these opportunities. Most of us who visit the Banks from New Jersey, New York, and Delaware come during summer, but don’t rule out the fall if you want to hook a trophy red drum. Known locally as redfish, they are North Carolina’s official saltwater state fish with artistic depictions serving as motto for many Banks establishments.

Early Morning Gotcha Rippin’

Some of the best action happens before sun-up until two hours afterwards, Spanish mackerel the most popular attraction. The same Gotcha jiggers I’ve written about for vertical jigging walleye are the only show on deck for Spanish mackerel. With the tie loop on top of the lead headed hollow plastic or aluminum tube, and the jig head slanted to work the lure downward on retrieve, the jigger is retrieved with a long spinning rod (8 or 9 feet) held tip downward over the rail. So hold tight and keep the jigger cutting left and right by firm snaps of the rod. Lift the tip to the 3 or 4 o’clock position and snap it to the 6, keeping retrieve speed fast. Spanish mackerel travel in fast moving pods and schools, speedsters that have no time to scent out forage but sight baitfish like falcons, so don’t bother with wire leaders, risk losing a Gotcha or two to razor sharp teeth. Using fluorocarbon helps, but if you want low line test for cast distance (12 pound low diameter), use a Seaguar knot or other to attach a 20-pound test fluorocarbon leader to monofilament. A barrel swivel can turn these sensitive fish away. Spanish generally run from one to three pounds and the world record 13-pounder got caught at Outer Bank’s Ocracoke Inlet.

Cocktail blues strike the jiggers also, pods coming and going. Some years feature speckled trout and some don’t. Bucktails effective for specks, they also hit jiggers intended for mackerel. Flounder, as fluke are called in the South, may also hit best early, so a choice must be made. However, flounder tend to hit well in the middle of the day, which Spanish rarely do, although Spanish tend to return in the evening.

Black drum infrequently show, most likely to hit early. Clam bait is not available, so either freezing salted clams and bringing them down or using Berkeley Gulp! Clams is a way to try.  A fish finder rig is best. You can strap a surf rod to the rail and keep the drag set light while you fish for other species nearby.

Summer Flounder Behind the Rollers

Most of the flounder inhabit the outer slope of the outer bar behind the first breakers. Some will be closer to the beach, and fewer will be in the depths. The typical pier is 600 feet long; expect most of the founder fishing within the first 300 feet. You can cast parallel to the wave formations and sometimes see a flounder hit in clear water.

Shrimp and cut bait strips rigged on a size 1 bend hook tied to 30 inches of 12 to 14-pound test leader attached to a bead chain sinker work effectively. I like to use one ounce, but most anglers use two-ounce sinkers and do fine. Fluke don’t easily drop the bait, although the beak-like configuration of the mouth does mean frequently missed hits.

Here’s a tip not to forget. If you will stay near a lagoon canal that empties into Pamlico Sound, you can bring a killie pot to collect bait no one else has. We just toss a couple of fried eggs into the pot I bought at Dicks and come up with dozens hours later.

Bottom Fishing and Messing Around

Most of the bottom fishing is from mid-length to pier’s end, although the very end is usually occupied by big game devotees. Hi-low rigs most effective, some cocktail blues hit shrimp or cut bait on fireball rigs with the red-painted float at the hook. Hi-low rigs are sold prepared to fish at all piers. A one-ounce, bottom holding pyramid sinker works when seas are light and lighter tackle efficient.

Croaker, spot, sea mullet, bluefish, weakfish, and a few sheepshead and pompano get caught on bottom rigs. Years ago, reams of white perch visited the Kitty Hawk Pier no longer in existence. I checked the books and found that white perch do turn up in salt water sometimes. The best all round bait for any of these species but sheepshead and bluefish are bloodworms. You can cut bloodworms into quarters or even smaller bits and save a lot of money. Frozen squid comes in one-pound blocks and works well. If you want to hook a hundred-pound ray, put the squid head on a big hook and just try to get the fish over the rail. Shrimp is a great bait and good for sheepshead also, although sand fleas may be better with their crusty coating. Pompano take sand fleas also. Collect sand fleas in the surf wash inches under sand; keep them cool in a bucket with a layer of eel grass from the Pamlico on top.

Hi-lows are standard. People use them because they efficient and effective. But light freshwater spinning tackle with eight-pound test, size 6 plain shank hooks and split shot can be just as or more effective in unconventional ways. Last year, Matt Litton discovered pompano right against pilings in the current sway. He couldn’t get them to hit on a hi-low rig, but refused to give up. So he tried the basic freshwater approach--hook and split shot--without asking me about anything. Leaning over the rail, he pointed rod tip downward and with a heavy shot was able to swing shrimp bait in current around pilings to catch fish after fish. He knew about drift from trout fishing.

Big Game

The end of a pier is the point of awe beyond which the enormous ocean swallows all intent, so it’s fitting that the most admired angling is performed there. Open water gamefish—particularly king mackerel—get caught with the use of two rods per angler: a long surf rod outfitted with an eight-ounce anchor sinker, and a conventional big game rod with a hook harness and live baitfish. A stand-up rod and Penn Squall reel will do, for example. It needs to be tackle with 80 pound-test quality braid and rated for it. Two years ago, a 15-year old boy caught a 107 pound tarpon at Avon pier. This is why wide diameter lift nets await at each pier’s end.

In short, here’s how it’s done. The anchor sinker is cast as far out as possible, so a 12-foot surf stick is best. The line from the fighting rod—small live bluefish, pompano, croaker, or spot in hook harness—is attached to the tight anchor line with a release clip that allows the presentation to slide down until the baitfish is suspended at the surface. This should give some idea as to why a long cast for the pronged anchor sinker is important. Big game is shy of meandering around the pilings, but sure enough, in the middle of day a big mackerel or other will slash into a splashing cocktail blue like the tyrannosaurus took a goat in Jurassic Park.

Matt & I with pompano, Avon Pier

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