Well folks, Easter has finally arrived. Either Friday (Good Friday) or Monday (Easter Monday) is a holiday for most folks and some N.C. public schools are on spring break this week, with the others taking next week. What that, and the recent run of mostly nice weather, means is that there will be a crowd at the coast this week and next. Easter weekend is always the opening of the beach season for the year and the coast will see the first big crowd of 2011. The weather looks a little stormy heading in, but then shaping up to be a nice weekend.
Most of us were fortunate with the storms and tornadoes that ravaged N.C. on Saturday. Unfortunately there were numerous folks across the south and especially in North Carolina that did not fare as well. I was living in Greenville in the early 1980s when a similar, but smaller weather system brought tornadoes and did incredible damage across the area. I saw that damage first-hand and knew I never wanted to see it again. The pictures I saw on TV beginning late Saturday show a disaster that is worse. We should keep these people in our hearts and prayers as they deal with this and try to recover.
With the exception of the nasty front that brought the tornadoes on Saturday, we've been having reasonably good weather for a couple of weeks now. The water temperature is still just a little low, but hopefully we are beyond any more of the freak cold snaps that keep it cool and it will get caught up in the next few weeks. I saw some kids swimming Sunday, but the water is still only in the low to mid sixties.
While it didn't warm as much as I had hoped during the past week, the water temperatures are slowly creeping upwards. The reporting stations show the surf zone at 63 to 66, which is another degree or two warmer than last week. As you head offshore, the temperature creeps to the 67 degree range at about 100 feet deep. A few more fish are showing up and the action is improving. Once we get a few degrees warmer, all fishing should begin improving rapidly--and it's pretty good in some places already.
The most outstanding report from this week come from one of the charter boats at the Ocean Isle Fishing Center, which is near the NC/SC state line. They reported catching a few Spanish mackerel last week. This is a couple of weeks early and in cool water, but I won't complain unless they don't spread up the coast. I'd like to have some fresh Spanish for the grill right now. That would make an excellent meal this weekend.
The other indicator that spring is really here is the arrival of Atlantic bonito. These are the real bonito, not false albacore or little tunny that many fishermen mistakenly call bonito. Bonito are excellent table fare and I have even used them as sashimi. False albacore are much stronger tasting fish and generally not considered prime candidates for the dinner table. Both are smaller football shaped cousins in the tuna family and they sometimes travel together, so getting a fish identification chart or book and learning to tell them apart would be a good thing.
The best bonito reports came from between Masonboro Inlet and New River Inlet. Some should be around Cape Lookout, up to Ocracoke, but they may be mixed with schools of false albacore. Both fish like Clarkspoons trolled pretty quickly and smaller flashy spoons and jigs retrieved pretty fast.
There are several species of fish holding in the offshore waters. The closest in are king mackerel and bottom fish. Both of these begin at about 30 miles offshore in depths of approximately 100 feet. Bottom fish will be holding around bottom structure in most areas. Grouper, black sea bass and red snapper seasons are closed, so the keepers are beeliners, triggerfish, porgies, hog snapper and grunts. Kings will be holding over structure that holds bottom fish as long as there are baitfish and the water temperature is roughly 67 degrees or warmer.
The warm water eddies along the edge of the Gulf Stream are also holding some fish. This is a little farther offshore and generally tends to require several hours to get there, even in calm conditions. The hot fish there right now is blackfin tuna. Some folks do not regard these fish as highly as their yellowfin cousins, but I have never had one that didn't taste excellent. Blackfin tuna are a white meat tuna and you can serve them any way you would serve yellowfin. There are also a few yellowfin being caught, but the yellowfin numbers are better off Cape Hatteras and to the north.
Wahoo are also patrolling the temperature breaks along the edges of the eddies and are a frequent catch. The first dolphin of the year began showing in offshore catches a week or so ago and are growing in number. There were also reports of a marlin and some sailfish caught north off Cape Lookout and Cape Hatteras. Those are real good signs the offshore fishing is about to fire up.
Pier fishermen are having bites and catching some fish too. The main catches are sea mullet, black drum and bluefish, but a few flounder were also reported, even though most were shorts and were released. Some blowfish are also being caught and things will improve as the water continues to warm. In only two weeks we'll be in May and most fishermen think the water will have warmed enough to heat up the fishing.
Inshore fishermen are catching puppy drum, speckled trout, flounder, sea mullet, gray trout, black drum, bluefish and flounder. The Morehead City Turning Basin has been a hotspot for sea mullet and gray trout and many of the sea mullet are large. Jigging speck rigs tipped with small pieces of fresh shrimp has been the hot ticket for sea mullet and also catch some gray trout. Shiny jigs, like the Sea Striker Jig Fish and Stingsilvers, work well for the gray trout.
A good mixture of fish, including puppy drum, bluefish, trout and flounder are being caught around Cape Lookout, especially along the Cape Lookout Jetty and through the surf out to Shark Island.
While some trout are biting, the season for specks is closed until June 15 in Coastal and Joint Waters, so along the coast its snapshot and release time. The trout season is open in Inland Waters and there are some creeks off the Intracoastal Waterway and Neuse River that are classified as Inland Waters. However, to keep specks caught in Inland Waters, you cannot go back to Coastal or Joint Waters with them in the boat.
Several coastal boat ramps have opened or will be opening soon. The Carolina Beach and Fort Fisher Wildlife Ramps opened two weeks ago, with the renovations on the Ocean Isle Wildlife Ramp being completed last week. The new Emerald Isle Wildlife Boat Ramp, which is now the largest coastal ramp, opened to a large crowd last Friday. The hope was to have the new Radio Island Ramps open for this weekend, they aren't quite completed. It will be sometime next week before they are open to the public.
The South Atlantic Fishery Management Council has several committee seats open and is looking for interested qualified people to fill them. There is one seat on the Golden Crab Committee, eight seats on the Snapper-Grouper Committee, two seats on the Wreckfish Sub Committee and ten seats on the Spiny Lobster Committee. For more information on these committee openings, including an application, visit the SAMFC website at www.safmc.net.
Last week I received a notice and reported that the Coast Guard was planning to close Oregon Inlet due to shoaling so severe a dredge can't keep up with it. That was true, but only for boats of 80 feet and longer and more than 100 tons capacity.
However, since then it appears the efforts of our Senators and Governor have reached the right folks. Last Friday the hopper dredge Merritt was moved from Ocean City, Md. to Oregon Inlet and has been working there on a 24/7 schedule since last Saturday. At this point, the Coast Guard has adopted a "wait and see approach" so the inlet has not been closed. Expectations are the extra capacity of the Merritt, plus being able to work 24 hours a day instead of 12, will be enough to save the inlet channel -- at least for a while.
Last weekend I attended the East Coast Canoe and Kayak Festival at the James Island Park in Charleston, S.C. This is presented by the Charleston County Parks and Recreation Commission and was a huge success. There were vendors with everything you could imagine related to canoes, kayaks, stand-up paddleboards (SUPs) and a few surprises. I believe even non-paddlers would have fun at this event.
In addition to the vendors, there are kayak and canoe trips, demonstrations and loads of seminars. Sunrise and sunset paddle expeditions in the salt marsh were crowd favorites.
This was also the place to try out canoes, kayaks and SUPs. There is a lake in the park and most of the manufacturers brought their demo fleet and plenty of representatives and pro-staffers to keep things running smoothly. It was an excellent opportunity to try out and compare a wide range of watercraft. I had a really fun ride during Saturday's gusting winds in the Hobie Tandem Island sailing kayak. It would rock up and pull one outrigger out of the water and just take off.
House Bill 353, the bill to give gamefish status to red drum, speckled trout and striped bass, is currently waiting in the House Committee on Commerce and Job Development Subcommittee on Business and Labor for several studies to be returned before being scheduled for discussion and a vote. Several sponsors said they were gathering economic information and being sure the wording was correct.
Several reports were released this week that were prepared for legislators regarding HB 353. The figures, which were compiled from the records at the N.C. Division of Marine Fisheries (NCDMF) in conjunction with the Marine Recreational Fisheries Statistics Survey (MRFSS), are greatly different from the picture painted by commercial fishermen. According to the 2010 NCDMF compilations, there were 1,114 fishermen that sold one or more of these species and that only 87 of those had income of $2,000 or more from sale of all three species combined. The three species combined accounted for less than 2 per cent of the states commercial fishery landings and records show most were shipped out of state, not to local fish markets or restaurants. Interestingly enough, the reports show that N.C. supplies almost 90 per cent of commercial red drum landings nationwide.
There were also job analysis and other figures that show 12,424 jobs tied directly to recreational fishing, plus 2,434 indirect and 2,900 induced effect jobs for a total of 17,758 jobs related to recreational fishing. The report also shows recreational fishing itself was worth $1.6 billion to the N.C. economy, plus another $1.2 billion in related durable goods.
I dislike having to manage the fishery by legislation, but the Marine Fisheries Commission (MFC) seems to be unable or unwilling to do the job in a reasonable manner, so maybe legislation is the way. Many forget now, but it was legislation that established the MFC and made it responsible to the legislature rather than the Wildlife Resources Commission and it may be time for more legislation to bring it back in line.
Fishermen are urged to contact their local legislators and the members of the committee to express their feelings regarding this bill. The bill, with information on its sponsors and its progress, plus a list of state legislators, their committee assignments and contact information, is available at www.ncleg.net.
Last week I mentioned some N.C. legislation to require labeling fuel pumps that dispense ethanol enriched gas. Ethanol is a problem for marine and small engine use and many mechanics will espouse long and hard on its negatives. Ethanol became popular because of excise tax subsidies on it, but now there is federal legislation (HR 1075) moving to repeal the subsidies. Once these are gone it shouldn't have a competitive advantage over other gas and maybe the distributors and stations will return to stocking real gas. Many of you e-mailed questions and comments about ethanol and I'll talk more about it in the coming weeks.
HB 421, entitled Fuel Tax Refund for Marinas, was introduced by Rep. Frank Iler. This bill would allow marinas to get a quarterly refund of the excise tax for gas delivered to tanks marked for boat use only or something similar. Several marina owners have stated this would allow marinas to refund the excise tax of approximately 16 cents per gallon to boaters and fishermen at the time of the sale, but the bill does not state this. This tax is currently available for annual refund to boaters and other off road users, but only if they keep records and file for it. For more information, view HB 421 at www.ncleg.net and use the links there to let your legislators know if you support this bill.
The amendment that was attached to HR 1473, the federal budget bill, by N.C. Representative Walter B. Jones, Jr, to prevent the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS or NOAA Fisheries) from spending any money to pursue Catch Shares as a fishery management tool in Atlantic and Gulf of Mexico Waters passed the House last week and was forwarded to the Senate. It was expected to be passed there also and be sent to the president soon -- maybe by the time you are reading this.
Catch Shares, which are also sometimes called Individual Fishing Quotas, are federal permits to harvest a certain amount of fish and can be bartered or sold. Fishermen have rejected them at meetings throughout the Atlantic and Gulf States, but NMFS managers continued to push forward and ignored the fishermen's input. The Jones Amendment, which was widely supported across party lines, removes the funding for NMFS to pursue Catch Shares.
There are no fishery meetings in N.C. in the coming week. The meetings will resume in May. In the meantime there are a couple of state and federal fisheries proposals that are still open for public comment:
* The South Atlantic Fishery Management Council (SAFMC) is accepting written comments on Amendment 18 to the Coastal Migratory FMP (king mackerel, Spanish mackerel, and cobia) and Amendment 10 to the Spiny Lobster FMP relative to establishing ACLs and AMs to prevent overfishing and other management measures. Details on these amendments and directions to comment are on their website at www.safmc.net.
* The N.C. Wildlife Resources Commission is accepting comments through May 2 on changing the Inland Waters regulations for speckled trout, red drum, gray trout and flounder to match the regulations in Coastal and Joint Waters. Comments may be mailed to the WRC at 1721 Mail Service Center, Raleigh, N.C. 27699-1721 or e-mailed by visiting the Commission's website, www.ncwildlife.org, and clicking on the "Proposed Fishing Rule Changes Submit Comments" link on the right side of the page.
The Cape Fear River Shad Festival will be held at Cape Fear River Lock and Dam Number 1 this Saturday, April 23. Lock and Dam Number 1 is off Hwy 87, just a few miles above Riegelwood. The activities will include a shad tournament, food, many activities related to the lock and dam and shad fishing and an Easter Egg Hunt. The festival is sponsored by the Lower Bladen -- Columbus Historical Society. For more information call 910-685-6735 or 910-655-2801.
The Oak Island Parks and Recreation Department will hold their annual W.A.I.T. (Women Anglers In Training) ladies only fishing school next Saturday and Sunday April 30 and May 1. Saturday will be a classroom day learning about tackle, equipment, knots and techniques for catching different species and Sunday will be a day on the water for the ladies to put all that information to use. Options for Sunday include pier fishing, inshore fishing from boats and ocean fishing from boats. For more information call 910-278-4747.
The Fayetteville Fly Tiers in association with the Fayetteville Area Anglers Network (FAAN) and the North Carolina Wildlife Resources Commission will hold a Fly-Tie-A-Thon at the John E. Pechmann Fishing Education Center in Fayetteville, N.C. on Saturday, April 30. Proceeds from the event will benefit the March for Babies program of the March of Dimes. In addition to the fly tieing exhibition and tutorial, there will be fly casting demonstrations, activities for the kids, items for sale, silent auctions, refreshments and more. For more information visit www.flytieathon.com.
The Martini's Hook a 'Hoo Rodeo Fishing Tournament will be held April 22 through May 1. Fishermen select one of the 10 days of the tournament to fish dependent on weather and their schedule. This is an annual fishing event put on as a fundraiser for the Shriner's Burn Center. In 2010, 51 boats fished during the tournament to help raise over $12,000. The Weigh-in location is just across the S.C. state line at Harbourgate Marina in North Myrtle Beach, with Captains Meeting and Awards at the Midtown Bistro. For more information visit www.hookahoorodeo.com.
The Eric Powell Redfish Tournament will be held April 30 from New River Marina/Power Marine Outfitters in Sneads Ferry. On the same day there will be a barbecue dinner, raffle and auction during the weigh-in and awards. Eric Powell, who managed New River Marina in Sneads Ferry and is the son of Dale Powell who runs Power Marine Outfitters at the same location, was diagnosed just before Christmas with rapid onset ALS (Lou Gherig's Disease). In late March he returned home after a lengthy stay at Duke Medical Center and still requires much detailed medical attention. His friends are organizing a redfish tournament in his honor and to help offset some of his medical expenses.
Guaranteed prizes will be offered, including Lady and Junior Angler Awards. Unlike many redfish tournaments, participants will not be limited to two fishermen per boat and fishermen are welcome to carry their wives and children. For more information call Capt. Ricky Kellum at 910-330-2745.