Fishing usually is fun for everyone who gets involved in the sport, and anglers often share their experiences, with a couple of exceptions - when cash is on the line at a tournament or a limited supply of a favorite fish exists.
When either of those conditions are present, anglers - who usually love to talk about their exploits with a rod and reel - can become as secretive as CIA agents.
During a bright, bluebird fall day last year, a fishing trip for deep, structure-oriented flounder turned into a game of cops'n'robbers.
After spending about a hour gathering approximately 200 finger mullets with a cast net at Myrtle Sound near Wrightsville Beach, Tim Barefoot, Capt. John West, Mike Jenkins and a visiting writer traversed Carolina Beach Inlet in West's twin-engine fishing platform and headed south, paralleling the shoreline. With four anglers, we had at least 150 baitfish in the live well.
"First thing you've got to do is have plenty of baits," Barefoot said. "You're going to need a lot of baits when going offshore for flounder. Some (baitsfish) will get stolen (by gamefish), and you'll lose some to break-offs because if you're fishing near a wreck, you will get cut off plenty of times."
Fishing deep structure during the early fall months (August through October is prime time for this type of fishing) requires at least 50 live finger mullets per man, more if they're available. Many varieties of bait-stealers (pinfish, crabs) will reduce bait numbers, and sometimes a toothy predator (bluefish, mackerels) will scissor through monofilament leaders.
"We're going to a place I know has some flounder," said Barefoot, who has led a local project to support flounder hatcheries. "I'm pretty sure nobody else knows about it, and I hope nobody sees us and comes over to visit. We caught several nice fish there a couple days ago."
After about a 15-minute boat ride south, Barefoot and West checked GPS numbers and the fish-finder to make sure we were at the right spot.
"There's a lot of live-bottom places off the beach here," said Barefoot, a one-time commercial fishermen who gave up that pursuit several years ago and, with some partners, created Barefoot Rods & Tackle, whose light-weight, durable Magigraff rods and premium gaffs are featured products (www.fishingbarefoot.com).
"A lot of people like to fish at wrecks during fall for flounder, but that's where you get a lot of cutoffs, and you also can end up spending a lot of time messing with amberjacks, which are fun to catch but not too good to eat," Barefoot said.
One reason N.C. ocean flounder anglers are so reluctant to give up their prime fishing locations - except in the case of known "community" holes, such as the Yaupon Reef, which consistently produces doormat-size flounder - is it involves the expenses of boat upkeep, fuel, repairs, boat rides and hours of fishing and experimenting to find the best spots. Naturally, guys who routinely return to the dock with loads of big flatfish want others to put in the same effort. Good friends might receive an unsolicited tip at times, but because flounder are so popular, anglers who uncover honey holes aren't quick to reveal their locations.
However, anglers can fish successfully at "community holes" with other boats in the area, but they use a little secret - they don't fish directly above the reef or wreck.
"If you fish a hot spot that everyone knows and is fished a lot, you can be pretty sure the biggest flounder will be caught out," Barefoot said. "But you can fish small pieces of structure near a community hole - a single piece of pipe, a single rock or one 'reef ball' that's away from the main reef, and those places often will hold good-size flounder."
But it was clear Barefoot preferred to fish his best flounder spots without a lot of intruder boats.
Another lesson that must be learned is tides and wind directions and applying that knowledge to anchoring correctly near good structure.
"Anchoring at a reef means first, finding the structure, then figuring out the tide (movement) and wind, so you'll be able to put your boat - and your baits - in the right places," Barefoot said.
"You want to drop anchor upwind of the structure and let the anchor rope out so the boat isn't directly above the structure but near enough that you can cast toward the outside edges. It's not a good idea to mark a spot, drop your anchor and drift directly over a reef or wreck."
Fishing in 40 to 60 feet of water requires a basic understanding of currents, too, so anglers will know where their baits actually contact the bottom. Because this type of fishing requires being in fairly deep water, drift caused by tidal currents will put a bend in an angler's line, just as it puts an angle in an anchor rope. Except at dead low or high tides, in swift current a baitfish dropped directly down may not reach the desired structure for several yards behind the boat. Anglers who fish directly above a wreck or reef actually may have their baits land at the opposite side of a structure, causing consistent hangups when they work their baits back toward them.
So casting also is crucial and usually requires some tackle to be sacrificed to Davy Jones' locker until anglers discover the edges of wrecks or reefs.
"If you don't lose some tackle, you ain't fishing in the right spot," Barefoot said.
Flounders, however, don't live on wrecks or reef structures; they live near them. When hunting baitfish, flounders cover themselves with sand, burrowing into a clean bottom just enough to camouflage their presence. Ideally, a flounder's ambush spot will be near some object that provides a haven for baitfish. When a baitfish swims within range, a flounder shoots up off the bottom a few feet, sand boiling in a cloud, and inhales the unlucky minnow. Then it settles back onto the sandy ocean floor to repeat the process.
Ideally, after a few casts, an angler can discover sandy bottom areas near structure, as opposed to a ship's hull (and attendant jagged edges) and avoid losing too much tackle.
The first spot West and Barefoot set up shop was within sight of the ocean-front hotels and motels off Carolina Beach, about 1 mile from the shoreline. A light northeast wind helped push the boat's stern toward our chosen spot.
After letting out perhaps 150 feet of anchor line, then securing the rope around a bow cleat, Barefoot, Jenkins and West took rods and reels from holders at either side of the console. Each dipped a finger mullet out of West's baitwell then hooked the 5-inch-long wigglers underneath their jaws and punched the hook tips through the top of the baitfishes' nostrils between their eyes. This vertical-hook alignment allows baitfish to swim more freely and remain lively.
"I like to use Eagle Claw plain-shank straight-eye bronze hooks (for flounder)," Barefoot said.
Bronze hooks, unlike stainless steel, will deteriorate in saltwater if a flounder breaks the line, is hooked deeply or is too small to keep. A quick snip of the leader will allow an under-size fish that's swallowed a bronze hook to survive. The hook will dissolve after a few days in corrosive salt water.
Some anglers prefer circle hooks, but Barefoot said his experiences with circle hooks haven't been as productive as with straight-shank hooks.
Barefoot supplied Magigraff rods, mated to Ambassadeur 6500-C reels, to everyone on the boat. The reels were spooled with 50-pound-test Power Pro braided line with 18 to 24 inches of 50-pound-test monofilament leaders, attached to main lines by 75-pound swivels with a glass bead between the swivel and 3-ounce barrel weights.
Saltwater anglers call this setup a flounder rig, while freshwater bass anglers call it a "Carolina" rig. But the function in both instances is the same - to get baits or lures to deep fish as quickly as possible and allow them to swim off without feeling resistance.
"You can use 30-pound-test leaders, but a big flounder can chew through a 30-pound leader," Barefoot said. "I never use smaller leaders. I'm done fishing for 2-pound flounders. I want to catch big ones."
After soaking baits for perhaps 45 minutes, Barefoot was ready to move.
"If they're not biting at a particular spot, I'm going to move," he said. "I don't like to waste time at a place where nothing's biting."
Another factor that forced the move was a second boat with three anglers that eased near our fishing spot, stopping within 75 yards of West's boat.
"Let's go," Barefoot said.
Within seconds after pulling up the anchor, Barefoot directed West to parallel the beach on a southerly heading. After motoring just out of sight of the second boat, Barefoot, looking back at the spot we'd just left, said to West, "head offshore."
West turned the steering wheel left and guided his boat away from land. After motoring perhaps a half mile, Barefoot looked at some GPS coordinates on a sheet of paper and directed West to turn north.
"Those guys will think we're headed south," Barefoot said. "This is a good spot out here, too. I found it several years ago, and nobody else knows about it. There's some kind of boat on the bottom - it might be a tugboat. The only problem is we're gonna lose some tackle because it's got sharp edges."
Barefoot and West once again maneuvered the boat into the proper position, let out the anchor that allowed the boat to drift within casting distance of the unseen wreck 60 feet below the keel.
After a few minutes, West slowly regained the slack in his line and set the hook. His rod tip dipped sharply, and he had a fight on his hands with a fat
4-pound summer flounder.
The technique to catch deep flounder requires some work. It's not simply a matter, in most instances, of feeling a tug on the line and setting the hook.
"The main thing you've got to have when you fish for flounder is a little patience, but you can't wait too long because (the fish) will take you underneath something when he feels that hook," Barefoot said. "Sometimes a big flounder will hit (a bait) like a freight train. But most of the time, it's a light tug on the line."
The mistake most anglers make is not allowing enough time for a flounder to swallow a bait. A flounder has to turn a baitfish in its mouth so the fish is going headfirst down its gullet, otherwise its fins can "spine" the inside of a flounder's mouth. That process takes a few seconds as a live baitfish usually struggles to escape a flounder's jaws.
Often, after feeling the first movement of a flounder's head, anglers will try to set the hook. Sometimes that works, but a flatfish, more often than not, will open its mouth a little to avoid the "spine" of a hook's barbed tip. And the jerk of a rod pulls baitfish and hook out of the flounder's mouth.
Anglers often remark after retrieving a baitfish with teeth marks on it that a flounder had "scaled" the baitfish, but actually the baitfish lost its scales by being pulled across the flounder's sharp teeth by an impatient angler.
For fishermen who want to try a little deep-structure flounder fishing, the best times are July through October, when nearshore baitfish still are plentiful. Good community holes near Oak Island include the Yaupon Reef (AR 425, about 1 mile from Yaupon Beach) and the Tom McGlammery Reef (AR 420, west of Bald Head and south from Southport). Near Wrightsville Beach, try the Meares Harris Reef (AR 370, 3.5 miles from Masonboro Inlet) or the Phillip Wolfe Reef (AR 378, 2.6 miles from Carolina Beach Inlet). Good live-bottom areas include the John's Creek area near Masonboro Inlet and Sheepshead Rock off Kure Beach.
Besides flounder, anglers may catch other species at nearshore reefs and wrecks.
During our fall trip, Barefoot landed black sea bass, and Jenkins boated a keeper gray trout.
"You never know what you'll catch out here," Barefoot said.