Count me among those who can't stand the thought of someone else hooking a surf creature while I'm plodding through winter marsh creeks hoping to fool a pickerel or crappie.
A phone call to a North Carolinian reasured me that Hatteras Island offered little more than wind and rain, but he quickly added, "Down around Wilmington, the locals are finding enough speckled trout at Wrightsville Beach inlet to make it worthwhile."
Enough said. Little more than 360 miles later, the jalopy turned onto Route 74, the beach access to a slice of deserted Carolina heaven. The temperatures seemed stuck in a 56-degree pattern. Only a looney surf-boarder and half a dozen brown pelicans dotted the beach a few hundred yards south of Mercer's fishing pier, popular with summer visitors but deserted now.
At the Wrightsville Beach inlet jetty, three men in chest-high waders were hellbent to test their rubbery clothing. With every on-coming breaker they'd leap in unison, shouting, "Aah, that one got me." For surf fishermen, "got me" always means a few quarts of icy saltwater spilling into the waders and adding to the delectable misery only a surf fan can enjoy.
Between the "got me's" and the jumping, however, the trio found success -- a gorgeous spotted sea trout. Now my waders were dragged from the car. A nine-foot light-action rod was unfurled, the line fed through the guides, a handful of jigs and diving plugs stuffed into a little box and crammed into a sliver of a pocket inside the waders.
A wader who had just left the water came over and said, "The tide is starting to fall now. Probably won't be good much longer. But use the smallest diving plug you got and cast out along the wall. Let it fall, then start hopping it back. Reel a bit, stop, then reel again. The trout will do the rest."
The diving plugs he referred to were flat-nosed red/white models, akin to a bass angler's summertime surface lure. Only these models sink like a rock and, because of their weight, can be thrown 40 or 50 yards on 10-pound testline.
The first lure was lost on bottom rock piles no one bothered to warn me about. Then I received a "that one got me" wave that filled the waders roughly to the knee-caps. It's amazing how quickly cold water warms against soggy jeans and wool socks.
But in the end, a two- or three-pound speckled trout hopped onto my leaden jib dressed with a bright green plastic twister tail. It was all I had to show for 360 miles of driving. My companions fared much better. Living around this part of the Atlantic, they know more about the tides and temperatures. Besides, the next day's strong wind and rain drove even the surfboarder to safer confines.
Was it worth the long ride? You bet. Wrightsville Beach during the worst of times is better than staying indoors back home.
Meanwhile, Ken Lauer, the famed surf-fishing guide from Buxton, on Hatteras Island, says the first week of March could herald the arrival of channel bass from Cape Point in Buxton, south to Ocracoke. It all depends on how winter chooses to behave itself. If it stays as warm as it was during January, the big red drum could come into the surf by the end of February.
Along with the drum there should also be a few beach-water croakers and just an outside chance for striped bass. The bluefish generally don't arrive until April, but gray sea trout are in the deep offshore waters right now. All it takes is a few days of warming sun to drive them into the shallows. That, too, can happen in March or April. Carolina surf-fishing experts predict that 1983 will be a banner fishing year.