This was more of a tourist week than a fishing week, but some fishermen have been doing really well. The weather had been so hot it was affecting the fishermen and may have been bothering the fish too. It's hard to believe how much difference a few degrees can make, but these past few cooler days have been welcomed with open arms by the fishermen and somehow I just can't help but feel the fish appreciate it too.
It hasn't cooled enough the fish are biting hard all day, but it seems the mid-day bite might be a little more active than it has been the past several weeks. The best times to fish are still early morning and late afternoon and that is for fish and fishermen alike. However, sometimes things like work have a bad habit of getting in the way and you just have to go when you can and make the best of it.
If you aren't aware, the new moon often affects the tides as much as the full moon. I believe the low tides are lower around the new moon, but the high tides are often a little higher than usual. When the high tides are higher than usual, it is a good time to find puppy drum up on the flooded marsh feeding on sandfiddlers, small shrimp and minnows. The activity is called tailing as the fish often wave their tails partially out of the water as a counterbalance for grubbing along the bottom in the shallow water.
The new moon is coming July 11 and should bring high enough tides the pups will move well into the grass again. Seeing those tailing pups has other effects too. I don't know about anyone else, but it causes my blood pressure to rise and my adrenaline to spike. I'm sure I can cast at least 10 yards farther to get a bait to a pup I can see tailing.
If you chase pups up in the marsh, be prepared to have a few cut your line on the sharp edges of the marsh grass. I usually fish this way using a braided line, which has much more abrasion resistance. You should be prepared to get out of the boat and walk toward a fish hooked while tailing to help prevent cutoffs. I like to use weedless spoons, like the Johnson Silver Minnow in gold color to fish for pups in the grass. There is something about that gold flash that seems to really get their attention.
Flounder are also biting inside the inlets and tend to gather along structure that has current. Oyster rocks at the mouths of small creeks are good as are bridge bumpers, bulkheads, rip-rap and jetties. Live bait fished on Carolina rigs is a good setup for flounder. Many folks like mud minnows and finger mullet, and they catch well at times, but I really like peanut pogies. You'll probably catch some drum too, but I don't know anyone who would think that was a bad thing.
In the ocean the good fishing starts with Spanish mackerel just off the beach and continues offshore to kings and dolphin. Spadefish are being caught at many of the ocean reefs and some beeliners and grouper are biting at around 80 to 100 feet deep.
Dolphin are a favorite of most fishermen and they have been sporadically caught within sight of the beach for several weeks. The odds are better a little farther off, but if you find bait and a little grass or floating structure in water that is clean, you may find a dolphin or two. With the water warm, you shouldn't be too surprised to jump a sailfish about anywhere. One has been caught (and released) at the Cape Fear River Sea Buoy and another was jumped, but got away, just a few buoys outside Beaufort Inlet.
Frying Pan Light Tower was built at the end of Frying Pan Shoals in the early 1960s. It served as a lighthouse for the shoals until the early 2000s, when it was decommissioned. The federal government has been trying to sell it since. The first two auctions didn't provide a buyer, but perhaps the third time is the charm. Richard Neal of Charlotte was the high bidder of the third auction that closed with the opening of sealed bids on May 13. A short time ago, Neal called and said he had completed the deal and was now the new owner of this unique structure.
"I've now spoken with many people from several of the areas close to the tower and universally they are very excited that the tower will not be demolished or fall into the sea," Neal said. "It's our goal to repair it and make it available for just a few simple uses; a place Captains can stop, bring passengers, and reserve it online to enhance their charter service offerings; a place Divers can use, rest, and have as a stable secure dive location and also enhance their service offerings; a 'bed and breakfast' that can be reserved for the weekend, or a week and can include services such as arrival by helicopter, fishing by charter; and lastly, but most importantly to us--a safe haven for anyone who due to engine problems, mechanical issues, weather or with an emergency medical need can get help. If they are caught by a surprise storm, then moor to the buoys and come aboard. If a medical issue, we would have a place for a helicopter to land. And of course, if possible we will have cell phone service for those within cell radius for normal or emergency calls. It will be a most unusual 'ocean front' vacation or retreat location."
Neal said he was one of the bidders in the second auction, but the price rose beyond his means very quickly in that ultra-competitive auction and he soon became a spectator like everyone else. That auction was won by Lee Spence, an owner of Shipwrecks Inc. of South Carolina, with a bid of $515,000. However, after winning the auction Spence declined to complete the purchase, first saying he would have to inspect the tower before paying the balance of his bid and then decrying collusion between several of the bidders. The charges of collusion were not pursued.
According to the auction manager, Louis Mancuso of the GSA, the rules of that auction specifically said no inspection was possible or would be allowed. When Spence did not complete the sale, the auction rules allowed the structure to be offered to the second place bidder at the top bid amount. When they also declined the purchase, the auction was closed with the structure not sold.
When the sealed bid auction was announced, Neal decided to bid again, even though he could not afford a bid in the range the bids had jumped to previously. He decided to offer his bid and see where things went. He said he was out of the country when the bids were opened and had the international data and roaming disconnected on his phone, so he called on May 14 to see who had won.
"So, as I was setting in the airport in Mexico City on May 14th, and about to return to the states, my first call was to the government official who was overseeing the bids," Neal said. "I asked him, 'So who won the auction?' and was astonished to learn that indeed my life was about to change when he said, 'Why, you did!' The next thing I said was 'Please don't joke with me. Really, who won?' When he again confirmed it indicating that as a government official, he wasn't allowed to joke about it, I set down and tried to absorb my new responsibility...I'm still absorbing it."
Neal said he hadn't yet been on the tower to do his own on-site survey, but was hoping to get in a visit in the next week or so. He said he was relying on pictures from when Coast Guard crews manned the tower and pictures taken by a recent survey team to judge conditions and estimate repairs until his visit. Neal has his airplane pilot's license and had flown out and viewed the tower as best he could before bidding.
Neal said he would be interested in talking with any craftsman who would like to be involved with the renovation of the tower. He said a little bit of every construction skill will be needed and some things will need to be replaced rather than repaired. He said those folks who assist with refurbishing the tower will receive a priority if they would like to spend some time there after the project is completed.
"The bottom line is that this will take a lot of help from many communities and people who want to see this amazing facility with its emotional ties to their lives repaired, restored and returned to service as a place for everyone to have access to for the foreseeable future," Neal said. "I am applying for grants to help with the repair and get the tower operating, especially as a safe haven for fishermen and divers, as quickly as possible."
There was an interesting chain of events associated with Frying Pan Tower after it was decommissioned. The master plan for the tower was 40 years of service and then to be disassembled and brought back to land. It served its 40 years, but then the game changed. With a lack of funding to disassemble and transport the structure, it was offered at auction and has been auctioned three times before the sale was completed.
The first time the tower was offered at auction, there were no bidders. After that auction closed, the Coast Guard became interested in a plan proposed by the Long Bay Artificial Reef Association (LBARA) to disassemble the tower and use the materials for an artificial reef at the site. This is similar to a project pioneered in the Gulf of Mexico that is called Rigs to Reefs.
The Coast Guard agreed with the LBARA that it would be far less expensive to disassemble and clean the tower on site and sink the pieces nearby, than to have to transport it all back to land. This plan progressed to the point that AR 400, the Robert "Bob" Black Artificial Reef, was permitted and started. The tower sits in the southwest quadrant of the area designated for the reef and the Capt. Greg MicKey, a 166 foot menhaden boat, was sunk a few hundred yards northeast of the tower on August 4, 2007.
The second auction received the most attention when the bids soared to above the half million dollar level. This was an on-line auction and everyone had access to the competitive bidding process. Lee Spence, an owner of Shipwrecks Inc. of South Carolina, won the second auction for Frying Pan Shoals Light Tower with a bid of $515,000, but later refused to complete the purchase without an on-site inspection. As noted earlier, it was clearly stated before and during the auction that there would be no inspection due to the dangerous condition of the tower and it was a "where is-as is" purchase.
When the purchase fell through after the second auction, Rube McMullan, of Ocean Isle Fishing Center in Ocean Isle Beach, offered the suggestion that either the state purchase it to preserve it and either refurbish it or offer it to a concessionaire to be used as an offshore fishing and diving center. While that plan was very popular with fishermen and divers, it never made any headway and gradually fell by the wayside.
The third auction was much simpler and was completed before most folks realized it was happening. There was no attempt to hide it, this auction was just conducted as a sealed-bid affair and there was no sensationalism generated by it. Richard Neal placed the top bid and is now the owner of what he refers to as "a most unusual 'ocean front' vacation or retreat location." I believe most of us would agree with that.
The government's description of Frying Pan Shoals Light Tower (4-U-NC-0749) for the auction was pretty basic, but accurate. The description said the light tower is a steel oil drilling platform, known as a "Texas Tower" on top of four steel legs that has been modified to be used as a lighthouse. The eighty (80) foot light tower is located approximately 25 miles southeast of Southport, NC and marks the shoals at the confluence of the Cape Fear River and the Atlantic Ocean. The platform consists of two floors. The subfloor is a living area of approximately 5,000 square feet that includes five bedrooms, kitchen, office, storage area, recreation area and toilet facilities. No public utilities are available.
The tower no longer serves as an aid to navigation. The purchase of the light tower does not include submerged land. The property will be sold as is and where is. With regard to occupancy, the tower is subject to federal and state control and requirements for submerged land and improvements therein. The light tower was built in Louisiana and brought by barge to Frying Pan Shoals in 1966. Due to the age of the structure, lead-based paint and asbestos may be present.
The light tower is potentially available by helicopter and boat. However, the platform cannot support a helicopter landing and the ladder to the light tower has been destroyed. An inspection is not possible because of limited access.
The only discrepancy known of that description is another report stating the U.S. Coast Guard Frying Pan Shoals Offshore Light Tower was placed in operation on November 24, 1964 to replace the famous old 133-ft. Lightship (WAL-537) which guarded the shoals 28 miles southeast of Cape Fear, N.C., since it was built in 1930. Newspaper accounts report a "changing of the guard" ceremony on that day. The lightship circled the tower and gave three farewell whistle blasts before departing for her new assignment at Cape May, N.J., as a Relief Lightship.
With Neal's renovation, the former Frying Pan Light Tower will continue to tower above the ocean at the end of Frying Pan Shoals. It has served as a welcome beacon to fishermen returning from farther offshore for more than 45 years and will continue to do so, plus become even more helpful when cell phone and other media relay equipment is added. Neal's plans have it becoming a safe haven for fishermen and divers and one heck of a weekend getaway or vacation retreat. Frying Pan Tower is to be revived and fishermen and divers along the N.C. coast are thrilled.
Ivey Gaskill moved from Harkers Island to Southport in the early 1960s to serve on the Coast Guard Cutter stationed there. He later transferred to the Lighthouse Section of the Coast Guard and served at Frying Pan Tower during the time it was a manned station. During the second auction I spoke with him at length and he told me several tales of his time there. Ivey said life on the tower wasn't bad at all and they ate a lot of fresh fish. He said there were some really big fish and sharks seen in the lights around the pilings almost every night.
One of Ivey's tales was about when his crew had to ride out a hurricane on the tower. He said back in the 60s and 70s the equipment that predicted hurricanes wasn't as good as it is today and one snuck in on them. By they time they realized what was happening it was too late to get a boat to them, so the Coast Guard sent a helicopter and when the helicopter got there the wind was too strong for it to land. He said they waved it off, then battened down the hatches and held on.
Ivey said it was hard to believe how much the tower, which was ordinarily rock solid, swayed in the hurricane force winds. He said the waves were almost slapping the bottom of the lower part of the platform and spray from the waves was going over the top. He said you could see the windows on the side facing the wind flexing in, but they held.
Frying Pan Tower has seen a lot and if things go well for Richard Neal, it will be around to see a lot more. Hopefully he doesn't get to top Ivey Gaskill's hurricane story.
Several Marine Fisheries Commission Advisory Committee meetings are scheduled during the next week. Those meeting include:
* July 8, 5:00 P.M., MFC Central/Southern Management Area Striped Bass Fishery Management Plan Advisory Committee Meeting, NCDENR Regional Field Office - Washington, NC.
* July 8, 5:00 P.M., MFC Albemarle Sound/Roanoke River Striped Bass Fishery Management Plan Advisory Committee Meeting, Chowan County Agricultural Ext. Center - Edenton, NC.
* July 12, 1:00 P.M., MFC Habitat and Water Quality Advisory Committee
The Cape Fear Blue Marlin Tournament was the fourth of seven N.C. Governor's Cup Billfish Conservation Series Tournament for 2010 and was held July 1 to 4, from Wrightsville Beach Marina in Wrightsville Beach. Because of my holiday schedule, I had not received the final results at my deadline for this. For more information visit www.capefearbluemarlintournament.com.
Several tournaments are on tap for this weekend. The Hatteras Grand Slam begins Friday, July 9 and fishes again Saturday from Village Marina in Hatteras. This is an offshore multi-species tournament for billfish and gamefish. For more information visit www.hatterasgrandslam.com.
The East Coast Got-Em-On Classic King Mackerel Tournament will be held July 10-12 from the Carolina Beach Boat Docks in Carolina Beach. In this tournament, participants may choose to fish either Saturday or Sunday. For more information visit www.gotemonliveclassic.com.
The second of three tournaments in the Redfish Action Challenge Cup will be held July 10 from Town Creek Marina in Beaufort. This is a 2 person team tournament for redfish. For more information visit www.redfishaction.com.
The Barta Boys and Girls Club Billfish Tournament will be held July 15 to 17 from the Beaufort Town Docks in Beaufort. This is the fifth of seven tournaments in the 2010 Governor's Cup Billfish Series. For more information visit www.bartaboysandgirlsclubbillfish.com.
The Carolina Custom Shootout is an offshore tournament for custom Carolina-built boats and will be held from Pirate's cove Marina in Manteo July 15 to 17. For more information visit www.fishpiratescove.com.