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Old Article --Waters Behind Hatteras Island

Fly fishing the Outer Banks of North Carolina
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Old Article --Waters Behind Hatteras Island

Postby bhorsley » Sun Apr 12, 2009 5:54 pm

Fishing the Water behind Hatteras Island

If you have a pioneering spirit and do not object spending your day alone, the waters behind Hatteras Island are waiting for you.

The waters of the Pamlico Sound behind Hatteras Island, from Oregon Inlet south to Hatteras Inlet inside the “reef”, are like a vast savannah of aquatic vegetation, its grass flats broken by sloughs, channels and sand shoals. This variety makes the perfect habitat for crabs to live and shed and for small fish like pinfish, pigfish and croakers to hide and live and feed. In addition, shrimp and glass minnows inhabit these grasses. The one common problem for all these small critters is that they are food for a variety of roving predators. In the warm months these waters are home to hunters like speckled trout, bluefish, flounder, grey trout and redfish or puppy drum.

These rich fishing grounds can be difficult to access by boat, which means that you may be all alone back here. But with a little knowledge and a pioneering spirit you can find success in an area that is usually reserved for herrings and the occasional waterman. As with any other shallow area, smaller boats are better than deeper-draft larger boats. Sea kayaks and light boats, such as an aluminum Jon boat, are ideal for exploring these shallow waters. You can drag them off a trailer and launch them in shallow water along road sides and unofficial ramps. These waters also can be accessed by bigger boats launched at Oregon Inlet, Rodanthe, Avon, Buxton, Frisco or Hatteras Village, but a detailed knowledge of the water is needed to keep a fishing trip to become a pushing trip.

Areas of Interest
Not all areas of this shallow water are home to fish. Places like high sand shoals or big sand flats have little cover or food and they are general devoid of game fish. Big and small reds will on occasion sun on top of these shoals, but they are very spooky and will move to deeper water as soon as they feel another presence. Bluefish will also herd bait on top of the shoals, but once the bait gets scattered, it is hard to fish for them.

The features anglers should look for are “spotty bottom”, solid grass, sloughs, depressions or settles, particularly along big sand shoals.

What the old-timers call “spotty bottom” is an area where there are grass humps or small areas of live grass from the size of a five- gallon bucket to as large as a 23-foot boat or even larger. To be considered a spotty bottom, these grass areas must be interspersed with sand bottom or not solid grass but a mix of sandy areas and grassy areas. These are perfect places for small fish like pigfish, pinfish, spots and croakers to live and feed. Small crabs, shrimp and bay anchovies all favor these areas. This large food source attracts predators like speckled trout, flounder, reds and bluefish. The most productive spotty bottom is in water depths from 3 to 6 feet.

The other main feature to look out for is solid grass. There are large areas of solid grass extending from just a few inches to several feet off the bottom. Crabs like to molt or shed in these areas. Of all the features inside the reef, this area gets the least attention from anglers, but they are proven areas for big speckled trout. Flounder also are throughout the grass and shallow waters — if you watch the commercial fishermen who fish for flounder, they spend the bulk of their time over the solid grass.

Also keep your eyes open for sloughs and settles or depressions. Sloughs and channels are deeper areas that intersect the shallows, providing ways to navigate the shallow waters. The grassy areas on the edge of the sloughs can be red hot spots for speckled trout, and settles and smaller sloughs are favored by schools of reds. Along the edges you can often find “spotty bottom”, making theses areas some of the most productive spots. If you can find a point or turn in the slough, this structure can be even better, as the point or turn makes a natural ambush spot.

Dealing with Float Grass
Eel grass and other grasses have a tendency to break off and float. Nothing ruins a fishing trip faster than having to shake grass from your lure after every cast. There are a few tips for dealing with float grass. Behind the reef, wind direction will help determine where the most grass will be. Hatteras Island north of Cape Point in Buxton for the most part runs north/south, and below Cape Point the island turns and runs east/west. So if you are fishing north of Buxton, east winds will push the grass off the shoreline and out in deeper water, making the area along the bank less grassy. Southwest and west winds push float grass to the beach and outside spots are in cleaner water. Mid-summer when the water warms into the 80s and after several days of high winds, the floating grass and submerged grass can become very thick, making the area impossible to fish. On days like this, try areas with more current, like the dredge islands behind Hatteras Inlet and the water behind New Inlet, where the current and wind seem to line up the grass in streaks, making it somewhat easier to fish.

Target Species and Seasons
Late spring, summer and fall are the prime times for this fishery. For the area around Oregon Inlet, the summer months are prime, and farther down Hatteras Island, it starts earlier and finishes later.

Speckled trout are some of the most abundant predators in and around the sloughs and grass lumps. They arrive to spawn as early as March and spawn off and on through the summer. Bluefish hunt the grass and sloughs in packs as well as singles. Good places to find bluefish are along slough edges, holes or settles. Spring and fall are the prime times for blues. In the heat of the summer they move off over the reef into the deeper, cooler waters of the open Pamlico Sound. Flounder are prevalent inside the reef most of spring, summer and fall. They prefer solid grass but can be caught over sand bottoms, particularly near the inlets.

Besides the speckled trout and flounder, the fish that bring the most interest and frustration are the redfish, puppy drum, reds or whatever you call them. They could be called the most popular inshore fish in the southeast. North Carolina is known for it big reds, and back in 1981 Chico Fernandez landed a 42 pound, 1 ounce red on 12 tippet and it is still the world’s record on 12 tippet. This fish was taken inside the reef in 4 to 5 feet of water. The average red is from 18 to 24 inches. Soon after they reach 28 inches they change habits and join the adult population either in the ocean or farther down the Pamlico Sound.

Reds seemingly have neither rhyme nor reason why some years they are abundant and other scarce. Anglers see few if any tailing fish, but the fish they see are waking or caught in the blind. They are creatures of habit — find them in a hole and they will stay there most of the summer. Anglers will also find reds in the shallow bays and coves along the shoreline and around Gull Shoal Island just south of Avon.

Gear That Works
Spinning or plugging tackle is perfect for these waters. Spinning rods from 6 to 7.5 feet spooled with 8 to 12 pound line are perfect. Mono or braid is a personal choice. Some anglers feel like the lack of stretch in braided lines makes it harder to get the proper twitch on soft plastic baits, and others feel like the extra sensitivity of braid is a plus. The afternoons tend to be windy so spinning rods work better when throwing light jig heads into the wind. Plugging rods are perfect for covering long distances with gold spoons or popping corks.

In the vast, dizzying array of plastic baits, what really works? Ask 10 speckled trout fisherman and you will come up with 10 different answers and 10 different reasons for their choice and success.

Productive colors for the grasses range from fluorescent greens to dark root beer. The traditional shape for soft plastics has been curly tails. The newer innovations over the last 10 years have been the introduction of the Saltwater Bass Assassins, Finn-S. These baits can be fished with light lead heads and hopped or fluttered across the bottom over grass and oysters. Most trout like to take the lure on the drop, and these light heads are perfect for this area and style of fishing. When fishing in shallow water, in not too strong a current, small ¼-ounce jig heads seem to be the preferred size with light-tackle anglers. Color and shape of the heads is a personal preference. Many guides prefer round, unpainted heads. When fishing in more current and deeper sloughs, larger heads like the 3/8 to ½ are better. Whatever bait you use, confidence is very important — you’ve got to believe in what you are throwing.

The biggest recent innovation is the Berkley Gulp. These scent-impregnated baits are super catchers, and they can turn rookies into pros. They also have a downside — pinfish, crabs, lizardfish, pigfish and croakers also love them. Some days, after a ton of bites, the only thing you have to show for it is a bag full of short baits missing tails and appendages. The biggest difference in fishing scented baits over unscented bait is that when you get a bite the fish does not let go.

Surface commotion will draw attention from several of the resident predators. Speckled trout are suckers for grubs fished behind popping corks, as are bluefish. Reds also respond well to popping corks and corks and beads like the Cajon Thunders. A typical setup is a light grub head on a 3-foot leader behind the cork in the sloughs and shallower water 1 to 2 feet. The longer leaders are hard to throw but are still very effective even in 5 feet of water. The surface plugs like the Top Dog and others have not caught on like they have to south but will surely take both big trout and reds. Swimming stick baits are traditional favors in some parts of the country, but the grassy conditions make them almost worthless. If the reds are around, do not forget the old stand by, the Johnson Gold Spoon. They are very effective and are also a weedless, which is a big plus.

On the Fly
These waters are made for fly fishing. Speckled trout, bluefish, flounder and reds all have a taste for flies. Just because there is little sight-fishing doesn’t mean the fly rod is not a fun and effective tool. Seven to nine weight fly rods are perfect. The most versatile fly line is the intermediate — this slow-sinking line will let you fish the full water column. Leaders can be as simple as a straight 6-foot shot of 16 pound or an 8 to 10 foot tapered leader. If there are lots of bluefish in the mix, you might want to add a short shock of 25-pound fluorocarbon. The hot flies are either Bob Clouser’s Deep Minnow or versions of them. Good colors are black over orange with copper flash; olive over white with copper flash; chartreuse over white with sliver or gold flash; and brown over tan with gold flash. Other flies like Seaducers and Bend backs will also be effective. Small poppers will make fly fishing for bluefish even more fun. A good motto to keep is “if they can be caught on a grub they can be caught on a fly”.
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