The cooler weather during the past week has cooled the water a little, but so far it hasn't been enough to really affect the good fishing we have been enjoying this fall. Besides, as I am writing this, the temperature outside is pushing 70 again and it is the middle of December. Maybe this winter will stay mild and be a great relief after the past two.
There has been just enough wind that many offshore fishermen, particularly those with smaller boats, have been staying at the docks, but that changed the middle of this week and quite a few boats are headed offshore today. The wind has been blowing the inshore boats around some, but it hasn't prevented them from fishing. Certainly there are days that are better than others and even a few days that haven't been real good, but for the most part fishermen have been catching fish -- and in a variety of locations.
With the approach of winter and the cooler air temperatures, I spend more time checking the weather and water conditions before committing to a trip. I used to be more macho (or wacko as my wife says) and would go on marginal and poor days, but I have decided that being wet and cold doesn't add to my fun regardless of how well the fish are biting. I can dress for cold weather, at least until it reaches extremes, but if I have to allow for wet also, I'll probably be waiting for you to get back and tell me about it.
Several times I have mentioned places I check the temperature (air and water) and weather / sea conditions. Knowing most of you have forgotten that, I'm going to mention them again. Have a fishing plan based on the weather is wise any time, but especially so during the winter.
I use the Carolina Regional Coastal Ocean Observing System (RCOOS) for my water temperature information. The website is http://carolinasrcoos.org/ and they have inshore, nearshore and offshore reporting stations. These stations also report the current air temperatures, plus other weather and water conditions.
The "Reefcast" section of the Frying Pan Tower website (www.fryingpantower.com) is the best wind and wave predictor I have found. This site uses a graph for wave heights and intervals and another graph for wind direction and intensity and both are plotted five days out. If you are fishing inshore, you don't need the wave predictor, but checking the wind velocity and directions graph is a must.
I still check the NOAA marine weather forecasts (http://weather.noaa.gov/cgi-bin/fmtbltn.pl?file=forecasts/marine/coastal/am/amz250.txt) and compare them, but my experience has been that Reefcast has been correct far more often.
Neither of the weather forecasts gives air temperatures unless you go deeper into the websites. For these I like the hourly pages at www.weather.com. This allows seeing how the day will warm or cool and track the amount and timing of sunshine or clouds. The hourly chart also shows how the wind is predicted to build or calm.
This is a good point to also recommend filing and following a float plan. A float plan is a good idea even during the middle of the summer, but could be a lifesaver during cold weather. The float plan should include when you are leaving, locations you are going, what time you anticipate returning, how many people and who are on the boat, a description and the registration numbers of your boat, plus your vehicle information and where you are departing. This should be left with a relative, friend or at your marina.
This only works if you follow the float plan and notify your responsible person when you return. Let's hope it is never needed, but if something happens and you need help; search and rescue personnel will find you much more quickly if they know where to look.
The wind blew most of the past week and built enough chop and swell that only a few larger boats headed offshore. Those that went to the Gulf Stream found some eddies just on the inshore edge that were holding wahoo and blackfin tuna. There was even a story I couldn't confirm about one nice catch of yellowfin tuna from Morehead City. There are some yellowfins north of Cape Hatteras up to Oregon Inlet. Expectations are that these fish will be around for a few more weeks unless the weather turns particularly cold and nasty.
For those who want to chase some king mackerel, this is typically the time when some big ones are in Raleigh Bay between Cape Lookout and Cape Hatteras. Most of the time they are around many of the rocks and wrecks from about 100 feet deep and out. The primary key seems to be finding water that is 67 degrees or so over structure that is holding bait. Most fishermen say the really big kings prefer live baits, like bluefish, gray trout, menhaden and such.
There are smaller kings here and good numbers of smaller kings around Frying Pan Tower off Cape Fear. These smaller kings are feeding heavily and will readily hit frozen cigar minnows, a variety of king spoons and sea witches rigged with strip baits. One successful fisherman said he had really good luck by shifting to neutral over bait pods and letting the baits sink, then putting the engine back in gear. He said he got strikes most of the time when the baits started rising.
I haven't seen the official notice yet, but received a message this week that the commercial gag grouper allocation has almost been filled and the feds anticipate closing the season on Dec. 21. This is only 10 days before the scheduled annual closure, but at a time when the grouper are biting and fishermen really need the money.
On the recreational side, offshore bottom fish are biting and grouper season will join the closed seasons on Jan. 1, so if you want some for the winter, you've only got two weeks to get them. This is a good trip that can easily be paired with king fishing and can be made to work with offshore trolling too. Remember that red snapper, beeliner and black sea bass seasons are closed. The better bottom bouncing action begins at about 80 feet and is good out to about 120 feet. The species that can be kept include gag, red and black groupers, pinkys (red porgy), grunts, porgies and triggerfish.
I spoke with commercial fishermen this week at several points along the state and they said schools of menhaden were gathering on the Cape Lookout and Frying Pan Shoals. This is similar to about three years ago when we last had a good bluefin tuna run. They said they would be paying close attention during their next trip and maybe even spend a little time looking for them. Hopefully they will find them and this will be a good winter for catching bluefins.
While they are primarily a commercial species, bluefin tuna create quite a bit of excitement. The feds have changed the regulations this year to increase the daily limit and extend the January season into March (see www.nmfspermits.com for details). This could be a much needed boost for area fishermen who are struggling with so many closed seasons. It could also help the sluggish local economy. I expect selling a 500 pound fish for $35 a pound would create some sort of personal stimulus package for most folks. It sure would for me.
Trout continue to be "the fish" for inshore anglers. While being almost non-existent from last winter through the summer, they began appearing at the end of September and numbers have exploded since then.
If there is a negative with the trout, it is that many of them are just a little too short to invite home for dinner. However, with the latest cooling of the water, more large trout have arrived and limits are being filled. A few big enough to be genuine attention getters were caught during the past week. I heard of several 27 to 29 inchers that were released without being weighed. That is a ballpark seven to nine pound trout and a genuine trophy. One was brought in to the Chasin' Tails Speckled Trout Challenge and it weighed just over 8.5 pounds.
While the trout are hitting a variety of soft plastics and MirrOlure and Rapala hard lures, the closest thing to fool proof is using live shrimp for bait. I haven't heard anyone say they have caught (and released) 100 or more in a day yet, but I won't be surprised when I hear it and I'm happy to hear it. Only a couple of months ago, I was wondering if there would be enough trout to catch a limit this fall.
The most popular spot for trout on the entire N.C. coast is the Cape Lookout Jetty. Masonboro Inlet Jetties are probably second. They are also being caught in the surf and in most creeks off the Intracoastal Waterway from The Alligator River all the way to Little River.
Puppy drum are also biting well. They are in many of the same locations as the specks, just farther up towards the bank or on the shallow flats rather than in the holes and channels. I've got a little puppy drum story this week I think you will find interesting.
Last week I was invited to go to Wilmington and go striper fishing with Jerry Helms and Jerry Swain, who are old friends from growing up in Southport. I knew Wilmington fishermen had been catching some stripers at the mouth of the Brunswick River and along some of the downtown bulkheads, but the Jerrys wanted to go above there and I had caught them there before, so we went.
It was funny enough having three Jerrys on the boat. If someone said "Hey Jerry," you can be sure heads turned and they got an answer. Once we got used to that the fishing went smoothly, but not productively -- at least not for the stripers we were targeting.
We fished in the Northeast Cape Fear River and caught puppy drum to above the power line that crosses the river near the I-140/US 17 Bridge. The lack of rain this fall has allowed the salt water to back up the river and the salinity was high enough for red drum that far up. This makes me wonder how far the pups have gone up the Neuse and Tar/Pamlico Rivers?
The South Atlantic Fisheries Management Council (SAFMC) met last week, December 5 through 9, in Raleigh and the fishermen who attended the meeting were disappointed and frustrated. Two of the things they discussed were black sea bass and fishing quotas and the fishermen said they and the fishery managers must have looked at different studies and stock assessments. They are that far apart.
A detailed summary of the meeting is to be posted on the SAFMC website, www.safmc.net. The basics are that even with a new stock assessment that shows the recovery is progressing better than anticipated; there are still plans to increase the minimum size and retain the same allocations. The SAFMC is also planning to proceed with individual fish quotas (IFQs), which is a different way of saying catch shares.
We are late enough in the year the only tournaments going on are the annual saltwater tournament run by the Division of Marine Fisheries (www.ncdmf.net) and the Chasin' Tails Outdoors Speckled Trout Challenge (www.chasintailsoutdoors.com) which run until the end of the month. The Marine Fisheries Tournament is for the whole state with fish being weighed at any certified weigh station. The Chasin' Tails Tournament is from the store of that name in Atlantic Beach.
Last Friday afternoon Rick Best was fishing at the Cape Lookout Rock Jetty and landed the current leader in the 2011 Chasin' Tails Speckled Trout Challenge. Best caught an 8.58 pounder to take the lead and establish a mark near the weight of past tournament winners. Best's fish can be beat, but there are only two weeks to do it. He said he was fishing with live shrimp and was releasing 20 inch fish all afternoon.
Fellow competitors have until Dec. 31 to top this catch and may register until Dec. 26. There is a special Wild Card Weight each month and the fisherman closest to it wins a new trout fishing outfit. For December that weight is 2.95 pounds which is easy enough for anyone to catch. For more information visit www.chasintailsoutdoors.com.
There is some talk about hastily putting together a speckled trout tournament on Christmas Eve, with weigh-in at the Ocean Isle Fishing Center. It hasn't been confirmed, but info should be available at www.oifc.com and I'll have more information next week.