I really hate talking about the weather at the beginning of this report, because that means it has been, or is going to be, extreme. It this case, it has been and is continuing to be unseasonably cold.
As one frustrated fisherman said last week, "This is February weather. I expect to be forced inside for a few days in February, but this is ridiculous. The air is too cold, the water is too cold, the wind is blowing and it's just too nasty to go fishing. What happened to our usually nice December weather?"
We got a little break from the cold over the weekend, but with the rain and wind, and forecasts of more of each, not many folks tried to get out on the water. There were a few empty trailers in the parking lots at area ramps, but there wasn't any waiting if you wanted to launch or retrieve your boat.
Monday and Tuesday nights were the coldest so far and there were reports of ice in many creeks, but I haven't heard of a fish kill or stun yet. Hopefully we will make it through without one.
Thankfully the frozen precipitation of Thursday stayed mainly inland of us a little. We're looking at a little warming and rain over the weekend, then a couple of nice days early next week, but the extended forecast has us getting cold again by Thursday. I'm certainly not asking for any snow, but, as cold as we have been, a little precipitation near the end of next week could set us up for a white Christmas.
While I've been around for more than a half century, I only remember one white Christmas along the N.C. coast. I believe that was 1989 and we were hit with a blizzard from a cold low that swept in off the ocean. I was living on a farm near New Bern and we got 18 inches of snow. I enjoyed watching my dogs playing in it, but it was pretty nasty otherwise. There were several days the high temperature was below or barely at freezing, so it didn't go away for a while. I don't want to disappoint any of you that are hoping for snow for Christmas, but I'd just as soon do without.
I'm sad to report it, but during the past week the water temperatures took a nosedive. Thursday morning the water temperature sensors at the nearshore ocean reporting stations were reporting temperatures only in the high forties. The water was only a degree or two warmer at the reporting stations 20 miles offshore and had dropped to the low fifties at the buoys near Frying Pan Tower and Diamond Shoals Tower.
The rapidly cooling water has slowed our fishing significantly. There are a few speckled trout, red drum and an occasional black drum biting inshore and along the beaches, but that is about it. Some black sea bass are on the rocks and wrecks within sight of the beach and there may be a few gray trout still around along the edges of the Morehead City Turning Basin and the rocks and artificial reefs just off the beaches along the southern N.C. Coast.
Gray trout limits have become a hot topic during this cold spell, especially along the southern N.C. Coast, where they are often caught farther than three miles offshore. It seems that the limit for internal and state ocean waters (0-3 miles offshore) is one fish, while in federal waters (3 to 200 miles offshore) the limit is six fish. You can verify this at www.ncdmf.net. I have received several e-mails and phone calls and it has been debated on several fishing websites as to what can and can't be done. One fellow said he would only fish at the WOFES and McGlammery Reef (places beyond three miles at the southern end of the state) so he could keep six. Unfortunately it isn't that simple.
I do not claim to be an expert on this, but receive numerous press releases from the state and federal regulatory agencies and try to pass that information on. This is a technical issue. The gray trout limit is a possession limit. While according to the regulations, you could possess six gray trout while offshore more than three miles, any more than one would become illegal once you returned within three miles of shore and were in the waters with the single fish limit.
There have been a couple of tickets given for this. I don't know if the cases have been argued in court, but this is District Court and even a plea at the magistrate usually results in approximately $150 of court fees and fine. That money would be much more wisely spent for a couple of nice meals out or for several fish dinners cooked at home. In addition to making you feel better, it would stimulate the economy much better if used somewhere other than paid to the Clerk of Court.
After a little push a few weeks ago, the bluefin tuna fishing slowed. There was a pretty good catch over the weekend off Hatteras and fishermen are wondering if those fish will continue to move south. The weather has not been particularly good to be fishing in the ocean, but fish that could be worth $5,000 to $10,000 each are a lot of incentive to go fishing. If you doubt this, just watch an episode of "The Deadliest Catch" on TV. There are whales being spotted, birds gathering over bait pods and other excellent signs, but no one has hit the jackpot in a while. Maybe the wind will lay out and it will happen this weekend or early next week.
A special note to anyone chasing bluefins, the current limits are a little different than usual and will be in effect through December 31. Under the current limits, a boat fishing with an angling permit (recreational or private, non-commercial boat) may keep one fish per day between 27 and 59 inches. Boats fishing recreationally under charter/headboat permits may keep two fish per day. One can be 27 to 47 inches and the other can be 47 to 59 inches. Boats fishing commercially under general permits may keep three fish with a minimum length of 73 inches.
While we had one or two days it might have been possible to make the long run to the Gulf Stream, I didn't receive any local reports. Wahoo and blackfin tuna have been biting and should still be around.
The trip to the Gulf Stream is shorter from Hatteras and fishermen from there have been catching yellowfin and blackfin tuna. On Saturday a group of self proclaimed kayak crazies from the Outer Banks and Virginia Beach chartered the Big Tahuna and headed out after tuna. They marked blackfins around the 240 Rocks and deployed the kayak fishermen with jigging equipment. The Big Tahuna would circle and mark pods of fish and tell the fishermen how deep to jig. Hatteras sleigh rides, smiling faces and lots of tuna were the reports at then end of the day. Congratulations!
A few bottom fishermen ventured out on the calmer days and reported they are still catching grouper, snapper, grunts, sea bass and triggerfish. Of course they have to release all the red and vermilion (beeliner) snapper as the seasons are closed. Grouper season will also close for four months beginning on January 1, 2011, so it might be wise to take advantage of any weather windows in the coming two weeks.
While some folks are still finding them, the trout bite has cooled with the water. Another part of the equation is definitely from the cold also. There are far less fishermen chasing trout than there were even just a couple of weeks ago. The current temperatures are tough to handle. Even with the new insulating and breathable clothing available to outdoorsmen, 30 degree temperatures with 10 to 15 knot and higher winds are brutally cold. Many folks will eat chicken until the weather warms again.
There have been reports of some favorite trout waters freezing over several days this week. One of them was North River, which froze and had a major trout kill last January. As of Thursday I had not heard of a trout kill or stun event. Let's hope they moved to deeper water this year and we won't have trout kills like last winter.
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 the most active and dependable of the inshore fish in this cold water. Some are being found in warmer inshore creeks and marshes, but the most consistent action has in the surf right along the beaches. Capt. Noah Lynk said he had been anchoring on the sound side and hiking across the island to catch them in the first slough along Shackleford Banks. They have also been reported off Bear Island, Lea-Hutaff Island and Masonboro Island. Sometimes the ocean schools are large enough they give a reddish color to the water and sometimes they can be seen through waves that are about to break near the beach.
Drum are usually willing biters and often will feed even when so cold they fight very lethargically. Several times I have found winter schools of upper to over slot drum that were feeding, but could be landed very quickly even on light tackle. They will spook is pursued too rapidly, so move slowly and quietly.
When the water is cold, fish respond to vibrations in the water. I often switch to three and four inch paddletail grubs and fish the lightest jig head that will get it to the bottom. Usually this is 1/8 ounce, but sometimes a little heavier is needed or a little lighter will do the job. This approach works well for trout and redfish.
While our water is cold and we are hoping for some bluefin tuna, a potential world record yellowfin tuna was caught last week off Baja, Mexico. The huge yellowfin caught by Mike Livingston of Sunland, Calif. weighed 405.2 pounds when weighed later in San Diego. Livingston, who was fishing from the long-range tuna vessel Vagabond, took almost three hours to land the huge fish. The behemoth yellowfin was 85 3/4 inches long and 61 1/2 inches in girth. The previous record of 388.75 pounds was caught by Curt Wiesenhutter and had stood since 1977.
The drop in water temperature has shocked some sea turtles and put them in peril. One group that was taken to the Pine Knoll Shores Aquarium to stabilize them was transported offshore on Wednesday by the Coast Guard and released into warmer water.
Karen Sota of the Karen Beasley Sea Turtle Hospital in Topsail Beach said turtles that are in obvious distress can use our help. She said to take them to a semi-warm area like a garage or laundry room to begin warming up and to call the Turtle Hotline at 252-241-7367. Since we all live by cell phones and turtles are endangered species, my suggestion would be to call the turtle hospital immediately so you are on record as helping an endangered species.
The South Atlantic Fishery Management Council (SAFMC) met in New Bern from December 5 through December 10. During this meeting they reviewed the stock assessment for red snapper that was completed in late October and made a change to Snapper Grouper Fishery Management Plan Amendment 17A, which was just put into action on December 3.
One of the provisions of Amendment 17A was to close approximately 5,000 square miles of ocean bottom off southern Georgia and northern to central Florida to all bottom fishing. This was implemented to protect against the mortality of red snapper that were caught but must be released. After reviewing the new data, the SAFMC decided the red snapper stocks were in good enough shape this part of Amendment 17A was not needed.
Fishermen had been telling the SAFMC this was the case for about 18 months and the council had to agree when the new stock assessment was reviewed. However, the provisions to close red snapper season indefinitely and to require non stainless steel circle hooks in this fishery beginning on March 3, 2011, still stand. This was the final SAFMC meeting of 2010 and details of the meeting should soon be available at the Council's website, www.safmc.net.
Congressman Walter Jones continues to lead the N.C. senators and representatives in their quest to clean up and simplify NOAA Fisheries, while making it more responsive to the fish and fishermen. Catch Shares are one of the NOAA sponsored programs fishermen object to and Congressman 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. He 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.
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. The conflicts of interest include paying Administrative Law Judges (ALJ) that are deciding cases brought against fishermen with funds derived from the fines. Jones said this fundamentally compromised the appearance, if not the practice, of impartiality in these cases.
We must let our congressmen know where we stand on these and other issues. 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.
I spoke with Capt. Seth Vernon of Double Haul Guide Service (www.captainsethvernon.com) in Wilmington over the weekend and he had some good news. Not only had he been catching redfish behind Bald Head Island, but he was wrapping up a special project.
Some of you will recall Seth as the driving force behind the short film, Redfish Can't Jump. Well, Seth's special project is a special that will run on WWIL Channel 10 in Wilmington at 7:00 P.M. on New Year's Day. It is an hour feature on redfish and Redfish Can't Jump, with some new footage and more to be shown.
In addition to relating to and identifying with the issues posed in the film, the photography and angles made if feel just like being there. I enjoyed watching the film and I look forward to seeing the special. Don't say it isn't a good time either. By 7:00 on New Years night you will be so ready for something other than football.
There is some debate on exactly how special this next bit of news is, but NC Audubon has purchased 30 plus acres of Lea-Hutaff Island. For those not familiar with the area, this is the island (used to be two islands) between Figure Eight Island and Topsail Island. Access is only by boat and the stated purpose of the purchase is to protect bird nesting areas and prohibit development.
The island is a favorite destination of beach goers and fishermen and protecting it from development is welcomed by most. Many fishermen feel the fall to spring surf and nearshore fishing for puppy drum off the island is as good as it gets anywhere. The concern is that Audubon may become heavy handed in its devotion to the birds and deny access as their suits have done at the Cape Hatteras National Seashore. Currently they say they will protect the nesting areas and have marked paths from the sound side to the beach, which is fine with everyone. As has been stated on many chatboards -- only time will tell with the rest.
The Chasin' Tails Outdoors Speckled Trout Challenge is ongoing through January 31 in Atlantic Beach. Capt. Matt Lamb at Chasin' Tails Outdoors said there have been some nice trout caught in the past two weeks, but none were large enough to upset the current leader, which is the 8.69 pound speck caught two weeks ago by Douglas Gorchess. 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. Visit www.ncdmf.net for details of the N.C. Saltwater Tournament and Citation Program.