By Jill J Easton
The Outer Banks of North Carolina are a contrast and a conundrum, but well worth a visit. There are stretches of wild areas, easy access to pier fishing, awesome offshore activity, cranky traffic, many built-up areas, and in the summer there are many, many people.
In the winter and early spring, the OBX pace relaxes, nature becomes more accessible and the very expensive rental and motel prices go down considerably. Like so many beach areas, both locals and visitors breathe a sigh of relief and enjoy the areas that were overwhelmed with sun and water worshipers during the hot months.
Pier and Beach Fishing
First and foremost, the fishing picks up in the fall. Land-based anglers start catching bluefish, bigger red drum, and rockfish (striped bass).
“Come back next week, the bluefish should be running by then,” this was the mantra of every one of the dozens of pier fishermen I talked with in early October. “In a few days schools of big blues often run all day under the piers and the big red drum start coming in.” (Red drum are called redfish in the Gulf of Mexico.)
Beach fishermen confirm the same thing. (Beach driving requires a Beach Driving Permit available from the National Park Service.)
“Bluefish are exciting to catch and even better to eat,” said Carol Mowers who fishes on several prize-winning fishing teams and is a board member for the North Carolina Beach Buggy Association. “We look forward to the bluefish runs and spend as much time out here as possible when they are coming through. We try to get enough to smoke some, but they usually don’t last that long.”
Bluefish generally school by size and head south along the coast as winter gets closer according to The Atlantic Marine Fisheries Commission. The organization says that schools covering areas of tens of square miles will follow warmer water both inshore and offshore. The schools are made up of similarly sized fish, so find a school of big blues and you can fish all day.
Note to people who haven’t caught bluefish: They bite, they have sharp teeth for killing and even on land they continue to snap. I once saw a seasoned fisherman faint after looking at the bloody mess that was his finger after a supposedly dead bluefish bit him and wouldn’t let go.
By the beginning of December only Jennette’s Pier remains open, and then only from eight to five. Rodanthe Pier may, or may not, be open in December. Most of the fishing piers reopen for the season on the first weekend of April.
Offshore fishing includes tuna and billfish which only improves during winter’s colder months. When the cool Labrador Current meets the warm waters of the Gulf Stream it creates a feeding frenzy.
Unfortunately, getting out there means having a sea-worthy boat, or chartering a six-fisherman boat for a trip offshore. All winter trips are weather dependent and weather changes quickly. Most charters are several thousand dollars a day, but the long trip to the fishing grounds and the expense is worth it if your group comes back with a hundred-plus pound bluefin tuna or two.
If you plan to go offshore fishing, check with the captain to be sure a stretch of good weather is in the forecast and be prepared to wait several days before the right combination of calm seas, wind and weather come together. It is also a good idea to take the full complement of six healthy anglers since tuna and marlin fishing are not for the weak of arm. These fish go deep, pull hard and don’t quit until they make their final death spiral. A big tuna may take 30 minutes to land and a medium-sized marlin can take three times that long.
By the time the third fish was landed on the last tuna charter I fished, we traded off the rod five times. This is not fishing for sissies, but each angler on our boat brought home 70 + pounds of beautiful tuna filets that would cost more than $10 per pound in a high-end market.
For the Non-Fishermen
There is a lot to do for non-fishermen too. My favorites wild areas were Cape Hatteras with its lighthouse and wild beaches that go on for miles. Jockey Ridge, on clear evenings hundreds of people come out to say goodbye to the sun, parasail and fly kites. Currituck is the best place to see the wild horse herd. (Note, it is a four-mile walk to the horse area. The beach buggy tour is worth the cost.) The Wright Brothers field at Kittyhawk is another great stop. It is amazing to realize that jet planes are flying today because of that first flight of only 852 feet piloted by Wilbur Wright.
OBX food is exceptional; oysters, shrimp, scallops, crabs and salt water fish all need to be eaten and enjoyed.
There is so much to tell about OBX and not enough room to cover even a few of the things to see and do. Go for the fishing, but take an extra day to explore and enjoy, you will probably be hooked.