The way Carl Lewis sees it, schools of bluefish are lying poised off the North Carolina Outer Banks right now, waiting for the first hint of cool weather before they storm the beaches at Cape Hatteras and points north and south. "The big blues came in briefly yesterday for the first time," he said Thursday from Fishing Unlimited in Buxton, N.C. "It was the first thing this year that I'd call a blitz. We weighed several up to about 16 pounds. There were only a few fishermen out at the Point, and they said the fish were hitting real well for about two hours."
That should signal the start of the surf fishing season that beach anglers from New Jersey to Georgia eagerly await each fall.
Outer Banks surf fishing is its own phenomenon, unlike surf fishing elsewhere on the East Coast for three reasons -- the abundance and variety of fish avaiable in high season, the use of four-wheel-drive vehicles to pursue the fish and the presence of more than 30 ocean piers along the beaches, all built specifically for sea-angling.
High season is right now through early December, when fish are spurred by declining water temperatures to move inshore and feed up for the winter on massed baitfish. The traditional peak is around Thanksgiving week, but Lewis indicated the schedule is a little advanced this year, with blues arriving earlier than normal.
Last week at the fishing pier in Carolina Beach, near Cape Fear, I watched anglers hoisting in excellent eating-size spot up to a pound and plenty of smaller bluefish. Most were fishing cut bait on the bottom.
Elsewhere on the Banks surf and pier anglers reportedly were cashing in on small schools of puppy drum (small red drum) as these fish cruised the shoal water.
At the same time boats trolling a few miles offshore were catching king mackerel, mostly five to 15 pounds, which run wild off Carolina in the fall and early winter, and a few more big kings were being caught off the piers and beaches when they strayed close to shore.
The headboat Winner Queen was sailing from Carolina Beach to the Gulfstream every day that 25 or more paying anglers showed up. Catches of grouper of 20 pounds and more were occurring on every day-long trip and great stringers of snappers and grunts were common among all fishermen with modest skill.
But the boat fishing is tailing off. I shared a seven-hour charter trip with five other men Wednesday and it gave a fair indication of how terrible a boat trip can be in October off the Outer Banks, where even a mild east wind can drive the sea to a stormy chop.
We stayed within three miles of shore, first trolling for kings and later bottom fishing for small drums, trout and black bass, the bass being most plentiful.
The fishing was respectable, but the conditions so poor that three of our party were sick before an hour had passed and even the captain claimed he was feeling queasy.
Many of the charter boat skippers are closing down for the fall and switching to commercial fishing for kings, where there is no room for amateurs. They can catch up to a ton of king mackerel on hand lines in a day, and that's much more lucrative than babysitting a party of sport fishermen.
So fall fishing becomes largely a beach phenomenon, and that is no bad thing.
Outer Banks surf fishermen are a busy, well organized breed who follow the fish in their four-wheel-drives and get the latest report from their brothers by CB radio.
They zoom up and down the beach where marauding blues are biting. When the blues move offshore, which is not uncommon, they'll crowd a slough or a break in the sandbar where flounder are congregating and feeding. At night they fish for big red drumfish.
The angler without a four-wheel-drive is at a disadvantage, but not without his ways. There are parking areas along the length of the 75 miles of beaches as far south as Ocracoke, and a short hike generally leads to a good sluice where the water runs back across the bar. These breaks in the sand bar are excellent areas to cast out a bottom rig with cut bait or squid and wait for flounder and small blues tostrike. It makes for a pleasant day if one stays away from the traffic jam of jeeps.
The piers, which dot the shore from Kitty Hawk south to the state line, are scenes of a wide variety of fishing effort, from sinker bouncers chasing spot and flounder with light tackle to the deadly serious pursuers of big red drum and kingfish who line the ends of the piers, particularly at this time of year.
One of the best fishing books I've read is Robert J. Goldstein's "Pier Fishing in North Carolina" (John F. Blair Publisher, Winston-Salem, N.C., $6.95). It tells all anyone needs to know about pier fishing, and enough extra to keep even the most ardent surf angler interested.
But the best way to uncover the mysteries of Outer Banks fishing is to make the six-hour drive and start asking questions at the tackle shops, on the beach and on the piers. Bring a heavy surf stick for long casting and a light one for smaller, close-in species, plenty of bottom fishing rigs and some shiny lures for breaking bluefish.
No time could be prettier to see migrating waterfowl on the wing, when the sun still warms the easy afternoon, when the surf crashes in ahead of easterly blows and when the beach is uncrowded by summer vacationers.
National Park Service campgrounds at three sites -- Oregon Inlet, Cape Point (Buxton) and Ocracoke -- stay open until Dec. 15, and there are a multitude of private campgrounds along the way. A number of motels are at Kitty Hawk, Buxton and Ocracoke.