The temperature drop last week received an exclamation point on Saturday when sleet and snow fell as close to the coast as I-95. As if the cold wasn't enough after wearing T-shirts and shorts so long into the fall, the major change had to be punctuated with frozen precipitation. Thankfully it wasn't too bad. I was in Raleigh Sunday, and while the roads were clear and flowing, there were cars and the hills at many interchanges still covered in white. Some may remember the Christmas blizzard of 1989, but this is way too early in the winter for us to have weather like this.

This has been a genuine cold snap for us. There have been overnight lows in the teens and twenties and several days that barely saw highs in the forties. There is a warming trend forecast to begin today (Friday) and warm into the sixties by Sunday, but Saturday and Sunday will see some rain. When the weather cools again on Monday, it is supposed to be colder than this week for a few days, so get ready. Last week I suggested it might be time to get out the wool socks, snuggies, winter coats and gloves. This week there isn't a question.

The water temperature is dropping also and in the last few days it has dropped a degree a day. We had been holding onto the high fifties, but along the beaches it has already dipped to around 51, with some rivers and creeks only in the high forties. I went to a favorite trout spot I can drive to on Wednesday and there wasn't anyone else there. When the trout didn't bite for the first time in many weeks, I had to understand why. Maybe the warming trend over the weekend will help prevent the water from cooling much more right now.

Beginning last week, the big news, figuratively and literally, has been bluefin tuna. Fishermen had been seeing a few and lots of good sign for a couple of weeks and finally a few were caught. The bluefin fishing should get better in the coming weeks and that's just right for Christmas. The wind is the limiting factor right now and should be decent Friday and Saturday, then blowing up again for Sunday and Monday.

The Coast Guard, N.C. Marine Fisheries, N.C. Sea Grant and NOAA have scheduled the 6th annual Blue Fin Tuna Town Meeting to be held tonight, December 10, from 6:00 P.M. until 9:00 P.M. at the Crystal Coast Civic Center in Morehead City. Topics of discussion will cover proper catching and care for maximum payback, quotas, safety equipment requirements and fishery requirements. The meeting is free and open to the public. Anyone interested in attending should contact Barry Everhart at 252-247-4526.

It was windy most of the last week, but a few larger boats headed offshore on the couple of better days. Those that headed to the Gulf Stream found the wahoo and blackfin tuna biting and those that stopped a little closer in found kings in the upper part of the water column and some hungry bottom fish around the rocks and wrecks.

Grouper, snapper, grunts, sea bass and triggerfish are all biting, but be careful what you put in the fish box. The red snapper closure was just extended indefinitely (see the information on Amendment 17A below) and beeliner (vermilion snapper) season closed November 1 and will be closed through April 1. Grouper are still a plus for the fish box, but will close for four months beginning January 1. Some large black sea bass are being caught and many fishermen credit the increase to restrictions on their commercial harvest.

King mackerel had been holding at around 20 to 25 miles offshore, but many fishermen believe this cold snap will push the bait farther offshore and the kings will follow. The key to catching kings seems to be finding water that is 67 or warmer and some structure that is holding bait. Several bluefin fishermen said they found schools of menhaden in the ocean that were thick enough to cast net or snag. While it isn't as crucial right now as it can be during the summer, some fishermen believe having live bait is an advantage for catching kings.

The good thing is the kings are hungry and are feeding. Frozen cigar minnows, spoons and lures are also catching them. I expect there will be groups of fishermen chasing kings if we have some nice days. It would be a bonus to head a little farther off after a morning of fishing for bluefins and catching some kings before heading in.

I have spoken with trout fishermen that say the cold of the past week has helped the trout fishing and some who say it has slowed or even shut the bite down. There is no doubt the cold has reduced the number of trout fishermen out on a daily basis. Most of the trout being caught are still those young of the year that are barely too short to be keepers, but they sure are fun to catch. While most of the trout being caught are smaller, there are some larger ones mixed in and those are the ones that keep you coming back.

As I say almost every week, the best trout bait is a live shrimp. When catching large trout, $5to $6 a dozen sounds like a bargain. However, when the trout are mostly "shorts," that sometimes seems a little steep. Heck, some of the bio-baits are $6 to $7 for six and begin ripping with the second or third fish, so the cost comparison is close.

This cold snap has put a hurt on the supplies of live shrimp and it will get worse as the water continues to cool. Hopefully they will be available at least through Christmas. Once the shrimp are gone, mud minnows will become the most readily available live bait. Thankfully, that is true for the trout also and they switch to them to continue eating unless it gets too cold.

Last week I mentioned lure fishermen have been catching well with the bio-scented soft plastic grubs and suspending MirrOlures. Sometimes in deeper water the bait needs to run deeper. For the soft baits, that is as simple as switching to a heavier jig head. For MirrOlures, this can be done by switching to sinking lures. Two series that have been Carolina favorites for decades are the 52M and TT series. The main difference I see is the TT lures have spots on them. TT is the designation for Tiny Trout.

Fishermen who like the way the suspending MirrOlures fish have been adding stick-on weights called suspend-dots or suspend-strips to make their lures fish deeper. MirrOlure listened to their calls and developed the 18MR, which is a sinking version of their popular 17MR and catches very well.

Trout fishermen should be aware that on November 30, the speckled trout limits changed. The new regulations allow for a bag limit of six specks. The minimum size is 14 inches and only two can be longer than 24 inches.

Puppy drum are also around and feeding in the cooling water. Some are working along the beaches all along the coast. A hot spot for the past several weeks has been around Shark Island on the Cape Lookout Shoals. A few pups stayed inside and more will be returning as the supply of food in the ocean dwindles. Drum are usually willing biters and a personal favorite lure is a four inch paddletail grub on a light jig head. White and new penny are usually good colors and sometimes something with a green back will work well also.

Gray trout are being caught on rocks and artificial reefs in the nearshore ocean and around the Morehead City bridges. Be aware that gray trout limits have been reduced to a single fish per day, with a minimum size of 12 inches. Finding a keeper gray hasn't been a problem, but adding something to it to make a meal has seen a few challenges.

While many have already headed for the ocean to spend the winter, a few flounder were being caught in inshore waters until last week. This cold snap should end any consistent inside flounder fishing until the late spring.

While the Joint Legislative Committee on Seafood and Aquaculture (JLCSA) met November 23 at the Pine Knoll Shore Aquarium and voted to recommend to the N.C. Congress that convenes in January to grant the Marine Fisheries Commission (MFC) their requested exemption to the Spotted Sea Trout Fishery Management Plan Amendment having to meet the requirements of SL 2010-13, there is a rising swell of unrest about this. Some of this is thought to be part of the same political groundswell that threw out many Democrats and gave congressional control to the Republicans during the November elections and some is growing unrest with the failed policies of the state's marine fisheries. Whatever the reason, many fishermen, and quite a few political pundits, are expecting the newly seated congress to reject the recommendation from the JLCSA. If the congress does not grant the exemption or adjourns before voting on it, the Speckled Trout FMP Amendment must be redone to meet the requirements of SL 2010-13.

SL 2010-13, which passed unopposed and was signed into law by Governor Perdue in June, 2010 requires any changes in fishery management plans to end overfishing within 2 years, restore the fishery to viable within 10 years and have at least a 50 per cent chance of success. By the admission of the MFC and Division of Marine Fisheries, the amendment currently under consideration for speckled trout will not meet these requirements. They stated they did not expect the bills for the new law to pass so quickly and thought they would have this FMP Amendment approved before the bills became law. The state agencies expressed concerns that reducing the recreational bag limit to two trout and reducing the commercial fishing take to limits required to meet the requirements of SL 2010-13 would cripple both fishing industries and create massive waste.

The South Atlantic Fishery Management Council began their winter meeting on December 5 and will continue through today, December 10, at the Hilton Riverside Hotel in New Bern. This will be their final meeting of 2010 and a copy of the overall and committee agendas is available at the Council's website, www.safmc.net. There was a public question and answer session Dec. 8 and a public comment period on Dec. 9. I plan to have information from the meeting in next week's column and it can also be found on-line at www.safmc.net.

In a Fisheries Bulletin dated December 3, The South Atlantic Fisheries Management Council enacted Amendment 17A to the Fishery Management Plan for the Snapper-Grouper Fishery of the South Atlantic. This Amendment takes over for the Interim Rule closing red snapper and continues the closure indefinitely. The Interim Rule was to expire on Dec. 5.

In the Fisheries Bulletin, there were provisions to delay implementing several provision of Amendment 17A. One provision was to delay the requirement for non-stainless steel circle hooks in all snapper grouper fishing north of Latitude 28 (approximately Melbourne, Fla.) until March 3, 2011. Another was to delay closing approximately 5,000 square miles of ocean bottom off southern Georgia to central Florida to all bottom fishing until June 1, 2011. The Bulletin said the closure was delayed to allow review of recent red snapper studies that show red snapper stocks are in better shape than originally thought.

There had been some concern that closing this area would push commercial fishermen from there into waters off the Carolinas and there could be issues of local depletion. Information on Amendment 17A may be found at the South Atlantic Fishery Management Council's Web site at www.safmc.net.

NOAA Fisheries has introduced the concept of catch shares as their latest concept of fishery management. While promoted as a conservation measure, this is an attempt to force fishermen to purchase the right to harvest shares of a public resource. At its best this is not good and at its worst it could force small commercial and charter operations out of business, while not allowing new fishermen access to the resource.

Congressman Walter Jones has filed a request to block funding of the program to implement catch shares from being in any fishery that includes North Carolina fishermen, but needs support to help prevent the adoption of catch shares. We should all contact our elected officials and make sure they understand our desires to support viable fisheries in reasonable manners, but not allow federal agencies to manage in an unreasonable manner. A list of federal congressmen and their contact information is available at www.usagov.gov and a list of state congressmen and their contact information is available at www.ncleg.net.

Congressman Jones is also concerned about the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's (NOAA) Proposed Policy on Prohibited and Authorized Uses of the Asset Seizure and Forfeiture Fund (RIN 0648-XZ29). A recent Inspector General-commissioned audit of the NOAA Fisheries Asset Forfeiture Fund (AFF) found extensive waste, fraud and abuse by the agency. It also confirmed allegations from fishermen that allowing NOAA Fisheries to retain the proceeds from forfeitures, seizures, fines and penalties against fishermen gives the agency an incentive to continue its abusive enforcement practices against fishermen.

Congressman Jones recently sent a letter to NOAA Fisheries Administrator Jane Lubchenco insisting this conflict of interest must be eliminated. In that letter he states that while the draft policy includes encouraging elements, it falls short of that goal.

Jones pointed out that NOAA Fisheries mismanaged the Asset Forfeiture Fund (AFF) in a variety of ways. While the agency's draft policy includes proposals to curb some of these abuses, Jones said it is extremely troubling that the agency's draft policy would allow proceeds from fines, penalties and forfeitures from fishermen to be used to pay the salaries of the Administrative Law Judges (ALJ) deciding cases brought against fishermen.

Jones said, "Not only is this use of funds not authorized by the Magnuson-Stevens Act, it is terrible policy. The right to a trial before an unbiased, impartial judge is a bedrock principle of our democracy. If fisheries law judges are compensated with money from judgments against fishermen, the appearance, if not the practice, of impartiality is fundamentally compromised."

I believe the response to this letter will be very interesting.

Fishermen and beach goers should review the Final Plan/Environmental Impact Statement for Cape Hatteras National Seashore ORV Management. This massive, two volume document was released November 15 and is available on the National Park Service Planning, Environment and Public Comment (PEPC) website at http://parkplanning.nps.gov/caha. A limited number of hard copies, CDs or Executive Summaries of the Final Plan/EIS will be available on request from the Superintendent, Cape Hatteras National Seashore, 1401 National Park Drive, Manteo, NC 27954, or by phone at 252-473-2111 Ext. 148. Copies were to be provided to local libraries in Manteo, Kill Devil Hills, Hatteras Village, and Ocracoke and should be on file there.

This is a very restrictive document that appears to be the groundwork for closing even more of the Cape Hatteras National Seashore to ORV use, fishing and even pedestrians. I would advise reviewing it thoroughly and letting your elected official know how you feel. A list of federal congressmen and their contact information is available at www.usagov.gov and a list of state congressmen and their contact information is available at www.ncleg.net.

The 8th Annual Gordie McAdams Speckled Trout Surf Fishing Tournament began Oct 23 and concluded last Saturday, December 4. It was conducted by the Emerald Isle Parks and Recreation Department, with the weigh-in station at The Reel Outdoors. David Parker, Emerald Isle, held the lead for the last several weeks and survived the final weekend. Parker's winning speck was 22.5 inches long and weighed 4.23 pounds.

Mike Brady, Emerald Isle, finished in second place with a 3.31 pound trout that was 21.74 inches long. Danny Glover, Emerald Isle, was only a couple of ounces behind in third at 3.24 pounds. Lee Throckmorton, Emerald Isle, won the prize for weighing the first fish and Don Haas, Newport, was closest to the mystery weight of 2.35 pounds with a 2.36 pounder. For more information visit www.emeraldisle-nc.org/eiprd.

The Chasin' Tails Outdoors Speckled Trout Challenge is ongoing through January 31 in Atlantic Beach. Capt. Matt Lamb at Chasin' Tails Outdoors said the cold has spurred some big trout to begin biting and the lead could change several times before the end of January. The current leader is Douglas Gorchess, with a very nice trout that weighed 8.69 pounds. The second place trout, which led for several weeks and was larger than the trout that won the first two years of this tournament was caught by Carl Edwards and weighed 8.37 pounds. For more information visit www.chasintailsoutdoors.com.

With the exception of the Chasin' Tails Outdoors Speckled Trout Challenge in Atlantic Beach and the year long, N.C. Saltwater Tournament and Citation Program run through the N.C. Division of Marine Fisheries, the 2010 tournament season is about over. The 2010 N.C. Saltwater Tournament and Citation Program runs through the end of December and the Chasin' Tails Outdoors Speckled Trout Challenge runs through the end of January. For more information on the N.C. Saltwater Tournament and Citation Program, visit www.ncdmf.net.

Good Fishing
Capt. Jerry Dilsaver


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