Outer Banks Odyssey:
Inlet Species Variety
By Bruce Litton
Tides sculpt Outer Banks inlets into fish-attracting structures like channels, drops and shoals with sand bottom shifting frequently like the weather. Right now, the winter migration of bluefish and striped bass to the south has these two species lingering on, offering the chance of hooking big fish. The world record bluefish of 31 pounds, 12 ounces got caught in the surf near Hatteras Inlet, so no kidding, the potential for great catches is there. In April, big red drum can sometimes make brine seem coppery with huge, dense schools, and the summer smorgasbord of species begins to arrive in May, so if you haven’t planned an Outer Banks trip, this may be the time to think ahead.
Three major inlets—Oregon, Hatteras, and Ocracoke—connect the Atlantic to Pamlico Sound, each about a mile wide with fishing pressure fairly light. Don't let relative lack of boaters discourage you. The culture of Outer Banks fishing is very well represented from March forward by outfitters, piers and charter captains who know inlets fishing is excellent.
A Smorgasbord of Species
Spanish mackerel, bluefish, flounder, sheepshead, black drum, pompano, cobia and redfish serve as spring and summer attractions. It’s essential to have a good map of the inlet you choose even though sand shifts so often it will be less than reliable in some ways. The main channels stay pretty much in place.
Choosing what fish to pursue is a daunting prospect when you’re not clued in to which best currently run. Nevertheless, if you launch your own craft with wind absent or light, most likely you’ll happen on plenty. My first experience on Ocracoke Inlet in a rented skiff resulted in lots of flounder (same as fluke in New Jersey). We succeeded despite strong winds and complicated drifting, but once we employed the services of Captain Ryan O’Neal, we saw the beauty of associating with someone who has his finger on the pulse of the inlet, who knows exactly how and why to pursue what fish, and every time we’ve fished with him, we’ve done well both in numbers and variety. Over the years, the variety kept increasing. You don’t catch everything on one outing.
Whether you insist on fishing on your own or charter, it won’t hurt to be prepared with an overview of possibilities, unless you want a charter captain to surprise you. He may even have fish up his sleeve this article doesn’t anticipate.
Trolling and Casting Spanish Mackerel and Blues
Big catch of perfect plate-size cocktail bluefish
Spanish mackerel chiefly eat silversides, small menhaden and finger mullet, torpedo-like speedsters arriving in late May to travel in pods and large schools along the edges of channels, in cuts and just outside in the ocean. Bluefish often trail behind. Flat water, incoming tide and early morning ideal, Spanish feed by sight, so clear, in-flowing brine is best. Trolling with size-0 Clark spoons is standard. Tied directly to 25-foot leaders of 25-pound test fluorocarbon attached to size 1-planers, an additional spoon can be placed behind a 4-ounce trolling sinker for a shallow ride. The planer gets spoons down to eight feet at five to six knots. Simply place rods in the boat’s rod holders. Look for birds to find a school busting baitfish on top, but mackerel sometimes swim deeper. Trolling can be a search method without clear evidence of fish.
Matt Litton and one of his Spanish mackerel.
On occasion, schools mix so vast that trolling is much less effective than gunning and running once a surface blitz subsides and another frothing commotion is sighted nearby. Casting tandem 3/8 to half-ounce chartreuse jigs with medium power spinning tackle right into the frenzy results in instant hook-ups. Don’t use wire leaders because Spanish will avoid the jigs. Risk some bite-offs with 20 to 25-pound test fluorocarbon.
Spanish group in pods or schools by size. “Some mornings, the Spanish run a pound or two, others they’ll be about three pounds,” O’Neal told me our first time out. “The world record 13-pounder came from this inlet, and every summer we get Spanish over five pounds.”
Summer bluefish usually measure on the short side of cocktail class—perfect for the table.
Drift Slowly for Flounder
From late May into November flounder associate with inlet structures and carpet the bottoms of the deepest channels during summer: Wallace and South Point (Ocracoke), Hatteras and Oregon. Pamlico Sound stays slightly off-color, so when tide is falling, it stains the depths. Radically different than mackerel, lying in ambush on sandy floors like flattened footballs, possessing a kick to pulse upward and seize bait, flounder nevertheless also prefer clear water.
“They rely more on sight than smell, whereas bluefish or a drum will just smell it,” O’Neal said. “If the water is turbid, a flounder will too, but they lay flat and look up for baitfish such as small pinfish, finger mullet, two-inch baby flounders.”
Despite this preference for baitfish, flounder readily attack strips of squid or shiny-skinned mackerel belly on 1/0 hooks fashioned with vinyl strips, usually red/white and chartreuse/white colored. Known as the speck rig, a tandem hi/lo combination with a two-ounce bank sinker weighting it is just right for drifting at about a half to one knot. 1-½ to two knots drift a boat too fast for O’Neal’s exacting standards. He won’t take a client out to fish flounder if it’s too windy.
Medium power six-foot spinning rods with 12-pound test monofilament even hold their own against the rare encounter with a cobia. Some of O’Neal’s summer clients have boated cobia as large as 40 pounds on such outfits while fishing speck rigs for flounder. The outboard is fired and the great fish followed until pumped to the net.
“Let out just enough line to stay at an angle and let drift,” O’Neal told us. “When you feel something like added weight, open the bail and let out line for a few seconds before you set the hook.”
Tide Rips, Shell Bottom and Sheepshead
One look inside a sheepshead’s mouth gives you the obvious clue to look for crustaceans, mollusks and barnacles. The front teeth a delicate set, if not so strong they might seem breakable on the calcium they crush.
“Just like human teeth,” O’Neal pointed out. “Some people would kill to have a set like that.” Perfectly straight, those front rows look exactly like miniature human teeth.
Sheepshead as large as 12 pounds feed on barnacles attached to shells coating the bottoms of drop-offs, and 15-pound black drum sometimes mingle. Some of the tide rips associated with sharp drop-offs from sandy islands or shoals get packed hard with shells, and barnacles cover the shell pack. Round-bodied sheepshead feed mostly on barnacles as they relate to vertical structures. A ledge drop-off cut by a tide rip around a prominent shoal edge is perfect. The sluiceway of current—whether incoming or outgoing—is not an impediment to sheepshead holding against it.
They may station in eddies also. Anchor and don’t put too much line out. Notorious bait stealers, sand fleas gathered at the surf line and bucketed for bait disappear from 1/0-curve-shank bait hooks without you even knowing it, unless you set a hi/lo rig near enough to feel the bite.
If wind and current allow, you can position the boat to fish off the back. Current flowing directly from behind the boat will allow a straight, tight line between a two-ounce bank sinker and the rod tip to transmit the tell-tale taps of an interested sheepshead. These fish hit so eagerly, it doesn’t take long to be in steady action once you find them. Let the fish take the bait a couple of seconds. You can usually tell by a sudden strong pull to set the hook hard. Sheepshead attain weights of well over 10 pounds and fight hard with dogged resistance, yet medium power spinning tackle and 12-pound test line is sufficient.
Black drum associating with sheepshead along the same rips also take sand fleas. While summer drum are usually 15 pounds or fewer, giants nearing 100 pounds have been boated in the region.
Sandy Shoals for Pompano
Close cousin to the fabled permit, diminutive Florida pompano abundant in the Outer Banks surf and a little larger hanging out along pier pilings, these curvaceous fish come good-sized on inlet shoals and in the drop-offs at the edges of these sand spits, sometimes right down in pockets of deeper water between shoal humps. Two-pounders common, rare fish may exceed five pounds.
Ryan O'Neal and pompano
Inlets comprise a maze of channels, holes, shoals and tiny islets. Finding fish can seem like a bewildering free-for-all, unless you concentrate efforts and stick it out at a spot or two. It’s one thing to troll the edge of a channel at five or six knots for mackerel and blues, or even to drift for flounder through a channel at one knot, but to tease pompano to take sand fleas on hi/lo rigs can be a little bit like tempting permit to take a crab fly—that doesn’t happen very often.
Set bait and wait, anchored. More often than not, if you wait awhile for the first hit, the pace begins to quicken rather than slow. You’ll have more interest from these subtle feeders if you use hi/lo rigs without metal arms or any colored beads, just monofilament, hooks and a snap at the bottom for a two-ounce bank sinker.
While pompano inhabit similar structure as do sheepshead and black drum, take the shells and barnacles out of the equation and put a rig right up on top of a shoal in three or four feet of water, and another in the trough. Pompano cruise high and low, rather than position along a vertical drop as sheepshead do.
One way or another, you can almost always catch fish from March through the fall in Outer Banks inlets. So long as you don’t spread your effort too thin on any given day, it’s easily possible to make outstanding catches. And regarding those red drum, August is a magical month when on occasion huge schools begin to appear at inlet mouths. By October, serious struggles with these fish happen often. Have heavy rods handy with three or four-ounce bucktails. In any event, memories are made here that last a lifetime.
Charter Services and Launches
· Close to a dozen charter services are available at Oregon Inlet Fishing Center just off Route 12 on the north side of the inlet. Launch is available.
· Hatteras Harbor Marina, Hatteras Landing Marina, Oden’s Dock, and Teaches’ Lair Marina all offer inlet charters just off route 12. Launch ramps are available.
· Tarheel Charters (Captain Ryan O’Neal), Miss Kathleen, Ocracoke Inlet Charters, Drum Stick Charters, Fish Tale Charters, Rascal Sport Fishing Charters, The Gecko Charter Boat are all located in Ocracoke Village off Route 12. Public launch is at the end of Route 12 just before the ferry.