NAGS HEAD -- Outer Banks Fishing Unlimited, 919/441-5028. Outer banks Surf Guides, 919/441-5023. Bob Preston, 919/441-7374. BUSTON -- Outer Banks Safais, 919/995-5183. Red Drum Tackle Shop, 919/995-2671. H . h Guide Service, 919/995-4781. HATTERAS -- Sound Sider Bait and Tackle Shop, 919/986-2468.
Two simple words, really -- outer Banks -- but be careful how you drop them these days. The mere mention of this 175-mile-long broken chain of barrier reef at this time of year can send surf fishing addicts into paroxysms of regret that they are not thigh-deep in the pounding Hatteras surf, heaving lures into the Atlantic as its salt spray washes over their faces.
All anglers are fanatics, but surf anglers most of all. It matters not a hoot that it takes six to seven hours to reach this ocean-shore fishing mecca on the northeast edge of North Carolina. For there is little substantive surf fishing any closer to home.
Nor does it matter that surf fishing is a highly seasonal sport, with long periods of merely mediocre angling. Especially not at this time of year, for with October and November on tap, the two finest months for Outer Banks surf fishing are at hand.
The Banks stretch from the Virginia state line all the way to the Carolina mainland near Morehead City. Washington-based anglers generally confine themselves to the portion from Nags Head south to Hatteras. Although this entire length is open to surf fishing now, there are restrictions on access for four-wheel-drive vehicles.
Specifics on where, when and how you can drive onto the beach are contained in a free bulletin, Outer Banks Surf Fishing, available from the Travel and Tourism Division, 430 North Salisbury Street, Raleigh, N.C. 27611. Regulations concerning use of offroad vehicles within the Cape Hatteras National Seashore, which runs from South Nags Head to the sourthern end of Ocracoke Island, are at the seashore office in Manteo.
"Surf fishing last fall was not up to the quality levels of recent years," says North Carolina travel and tourism director Joel Arrington, "but it was still good by any less lofty standards." Part of the problem was baitfish -- or rather a lack of them. "We saw less menhaden and mullet last fall than usual, which may account for the falloff of catches in the surf last year."
The baitfish were around last year, as they are this fall. It's a question of whether they venture into the sloughs near the beach and draw sharp-toothed predators in pursuit.
"Large bluefish are as plentiful as they have ever been, although there are not as many fish over 20 pounds as there were in early '60s." says Arrington. If bait and gamefish movements resume their former patterns, the first bluefish runs should begin in early October. Smaller fish show up first, with the heaviest specimens passing by on their migrations to wintering grounds in November. Hatteras Inlet, in fact, is where the world-record blue of 31 pounds, 12 ounces was taken in January of '72.
Gray trout are primarily a deep-water fish, but at times in the fall they pass close enough to the beach for good catches. If you're not a strict surf purist, angling at the bridge to Manteo and off the catwalk at Oregon Inlet Bridge can be exceptional when ties are right. Pamlico Sound has been overflowing with the big grays this summer, and many should be caught as they migrate offshore in coming weeks.
Speckled trout, once on Outer Banks mainstay, have been scarce in recent autumns, but one guide who works Pamlico took a good number this summer.
Stripers as big as children used to invade the Carolina surf between December and February, but fishing for them at this point is almost like angling for mermaids, even during the prime winter period.
Channel bass prospects are brighter, even though fishing for the big red drum was down last fall. "Channel bass fishing (puppies mostly) will get off in late September and pick up into late November, with the largest fish occurring in November at False Point for surf fishermen and at Avon Pier, where more giant red drum are caught than anywhere in the world," Arrington says.
If plans take you to the Carolina beach within the next few weeks, fishing for a little-known but delectable species -- the pompano -- should be at its prime. "These fish feed just behind the curl (of waves), primarily on mole crabs (sand fleas)," says Arrington. "Anglers have their best success when the water is clear or only slightly murky, which means that pompano fishing is best in good weather.
"The best bait is a soft mole crab, one that has just shed, but even hard ones are effective. They are easy to gather in the surf, either by hand or with a small wooden box with a 1/4-inch wire mesh over the bottom.
Conventional two-hook bottom rigs with small light-wire hooks are recommended. Often you need only an ounce of lead."
Spots, flounder and, of all things, stray tarpon are also hooked in this transition period from summer to fall.
Through most of October wet wading is not uncomfortable, but by early November, chest waders are required.
Surf tackle is specialized, mainly in the fact that rods are long -- 9 to 12 feet -- and reels are large enought to hold lots of line. This combination enables the angler to throw the heavy lures and reach fish that sometimes hang tantalizingly just out of reach of more diminutive gear.
For pompano, spots, and flounder, a 7- or 8-foot rod and reel with 8- to 12-pound line will suffice. Blues and trout dictate a 9-foot rod and 12-to 17-pound mono. For channel bass, use 20- or 25-pound line and a stout pole of 9 to 12 feet. If you don't want to invest in such specialized gear for a once-a-year fling, it can be rented at tackle stores, where tips on best baits and areas to fish are also available.
The foot-confined angler can find good fishing on the Outer Banks now, but the mobility offered by four-wheel-drive vehicles is definitely an asset.
Guides are well worth the investment, particularly for the beginner. When split between three or four anglers, the going rates of $100 to $125 a day are reasonable. Listed below are some guides working the Nags Head to Hatteras portion of the pouter Banks.