Captains Ray Massengill and Greg Voliva of Down East Guide Service were taking a day off from their regular guide fishing schedules for a day of fun fishing.
Normally they ply the waters of Pamlico Sound for tarpon and red drum, the Roanoke River for striped bass and the shallows for red drum and speckled trout, or the shoreline near Morehead City for cobia or Spanish mackerel. Massengill even takes fishermen on trips in inches deep water for gigging flounder.
But this trip was to be the total opposite of such skinny water fishing. The professional fishermen were headed offshore for a day of catching grouper.
"A lot of fishermen don't realize how close the grouper can be to the hill," Massengill said. "You can catch them within 10 miles if you know the right places. Extend that distance to 20 miles and grouper can be caught anywhere there's a good ledge."
Both anglers have been commercial fishermen whose livelihood depended on catching enough fish to sell during a day of fishing. So they thoroughly know the haunts and habits of bottomfish offshore from Morehead City where Down East Guide Service is now based.
George Beckwith Jr. started the operation out of New Bern and Oriental in the 1980s primarily as a tarpon and adult red drum fish fishery. But he has since gained these two guides and expanded his Down East operation to cover a larger geographic area, including the offshore waters of Morehead City.
The day began with a bit of a twist. For those who catch king mackerel, the scene would have been extremely familiar.
While Voliva navigated, Massengill donned his rain gear and stood at the bow with a cast net at the ready. Pelicans diving showed the location of schools of menhaden just outside Beaufort Inlet at the edge of the surf.
Once Massengill began casting Voliva went forward to cast as well. Soon the livewell and the fish box were full of big, speckle-sided "shad."
It's interesting how many names anglers and commercial fishermen have for menhaden. But only in Morehead City are they called "shad." It can be confusing to outsiders who are fishing the Roanoke for hickory shad, or to inland reservoir anglers who use threadfin and gizzard shads as bait. But to anyone heading "Down East," shad are the same pogies they use for king mackerel bait.
After loading the boat with shad, the duo navigated offshore. The destination was an area 15 to 18 miles east where broken bottom occurs well inside the continental break.
The Northwest Places and the Big 10 Fathom ledges and Little 10 Fathom ledges are close together at this distance. Gulf Stream waters eddy that near the coastline at times.
Combined with steep drop-offs, these natural structure areas attract lots of fish, with bottomfish especially abundant.
Soon Voliva was winding the motor down. Instead of eyeing the GPS he had used to guide the boat to the area he switched up the gain and increased the scale on a color depth-finder, which most bottom fish anglers call a colorscope.
"The solid dark color is the hard bottom," he said, pointing to deep red bottom line of the screen.
"The broken area with different colors is baitfish or bottomfish, and the single marks above the bottom, are individual fish, which are probably groupers. The light-colored edge shows fish all along the bottom, or at least when we see that on the colorscope, we know the fish are there. It could be softer signals from live bottom or something else. But when you see that on the colorscope. it means it's a good spot to fish."
"We catch mostly gag groupers here," Massengill said. "But you never know what you're going to catch for sure. All you can do is bait a hook and drop it down to see what's there."
The boat was rigged with connections for electric-assist reels. A couple of spare batteries provided backup connections for extra bottom-fishing rods. The reels were attached to 6/0 reels spooled with monofilament and superbraid lines.
"The superbraid gives you a better sense of feel and helps you set the hook when there's wind or current," Voliva said. "But in the waters where we catch grouper that are only up to 60 feet or so, either type of line will work.
"When you fish from a small boat for groupers, you should only fish the calm days anyway. Mono works fine, so a fisherman can use what he has, with no need to re-spool the reel with expensive superbraid just for bottom fishing. You can use a manual reel just as well. But the electric reels save a lot of winding time."
Voliva found a likely spot with broken bottom and lots of fish marks. He turned the bow into the wind for a few yards. Then Massengill dropped the anchor.
"Nothing is as important once you find the fish on the machine as getting the right anchor course," he said. "The wind and the current may be doing two different things to the boat. It can be a trial-and-error process. You drop the anchor so the boat will swing back over the spot you've spotted with the colorscope. If the anchor line gets tight and you don't see the same spot, you have to re-figure your course and try again.
"Once you see how the boat is going to align, the compass heading will stay the same for subsequent drops, as long as you're near the same place and the current flow's the same or the wind doesn't shift."
The two anglers plucked menhaden from the ice and sliced them in half, leaving a head and a tail end. They were using one-hook rigs and two-hook rigs. The hooks were J-hooks. The hook point was buried through the chin and out through the head between the eyes of the head section or into the backbone of the tail section.
"You have to get the hook in the bone," Voliva said. "It makes it stay on the hook better than if you just hook it into the meat. It keeps them from stealing the bait."
During the first drop, there were lots of strikes, but from the wrong fish. Dogfish sharks and bluefishes were eating the baits meant for grouper.
This went on for several bait and reel cycles, until the pair had enough of the non-target fish action. They picked up the anchor, using an anchor ball to retrieve it by clipping the floating ball to the line and running the boat in a reverse bearing to the anchor course.
"When you move away from nuisance fish, you're probably moving away from good bottom fish, too," Massengill said. "Where there's bait, there's bottom fish. But if you can't get the bait to the bottom because of all the fish between the boat and the bottom, it's time to move."
It took three tries before the pair found a spot where the sharks weren't swarming. While the dogfish is high on the eating list for sharks and bluefishes taste fine to some people, groupers were the game of the day.
Voliva made a drop at a new spot, leaving the rod in the holder as the line free-spooled. The tip telegraphed the sinker had hit bottom, and he picked up the rod as he reeled in the slack. The anchor wasn't out yet since they were just testing the spot for sharks before going to the trouble of anchoring.
As he took in the slack line, the tip dipped. He set the hook and began reeling a fish to the surface. A big black sea bass soon struggled in the air as Voliva hoisted it over the gunwale and into the fish box.
"Paydirt," he said. "It's not a grouper, but a sea bass is a good indication you've found the right spot."
The anchor was summarily dropped and fish began to come over the side. Gag groupers made heavy bends in the short, pool-cue rods. Electric motors growled as they struggled to haul up the catch.
Then one fish slipped the hook.
"It's over now," Massengill said. "We will have to find a new spot. We may catch one or two more, but they will probably quit biting."
Commercial fishing for groupers teaches the professional fisherman the habits of the fish. While it seems more superstition than fact to a novice recreational fisherman, it's an old adage that once you lose a fish, it communicates to the other fish on the same ledge that there's danger afoot.
"When you lose a grouper, I think they move away from the ledge," he said. "You can see them on the colorscope, but they won't bite. Sometimes they won't even bite when you pull up to the ledge to start fishing. They have times they feed and times they don't. Once the bite quits for whatever reason, it's time to head to another spot."
"You never want to lose a fish," Voliva said. "That's why it's so important to keep the line tight. You use all the drag the line can take or that you can use without pulling the hook out of the fish's mouth. That first 10 feet will tell the tale. If you can get him above his ledge you can usually catch the fish. But sometimes they just get away."
Massengill grinned as he pulled out what he called his "secret weapon," a wriggling live menhaden from the live well. He handed one to Voliva and put on his rig as well for a last try before they picked up the anchor.
"A grouper will strike a live bait when he won't hit anything else," he said. "Bait stealers also don't seem to bother live baits as bad is cut baits, so we will give them a try."
They hooked the live baits in the chins and out the roof of their mouths and dropped them to the bottom slowly enough to keep from killing the baits with the descent. Voliva hooked a fish shortly thereafter. But before he could get it moving to the surface, the grouper made it into a hole in the ledge.
"Sometimes he goes into a hole before you can get him coming up," Voliva said. "There are several tricks you can use to get him out of there. You can keep the line tight and try to pull him out. But you might break the line. You can pull the line tight and strum it like a guitar string and the vibration will scare him out. Or you can put the line in free spool to give him some slack. When he doesn't feel the pressure, he thinks the coast is clear and swims out his cave."
"Here, let me see that rod," Massengill said. "I'll show you how to get a grouper out of his hole."
Massengill picked the rod up and down rapidly, jerking it upward sharply, then letting the line stretch and weight of the sinker bounce it back down. After a few cycles of such frantic action, the grouper rocketed out of the cave and he handed the rod back to Voliva so he could reel in the fish.
"Bouncing the rod with the hook that close to the sinker makes the sinker hit the grouper in the head," he said. "You couldn't stand it if someone was smacking you in the face with a half-pound chunk of lead and a grouper sure can't either. At least it gets it over quick. You either break the line, pull the hook or catch the fish."
Massengill holds a commercial grouper permit, so he can boat more groupers than the recreational limit. But while charter fishing, he sticks to the recreational limit.
What's important to recreational fishermen is Massengill's knowledge that fun fishermen can use the same center-console boats they use for king mackerel fishing, up-size their gear and have fun catching groupers close to shore. If they catch their mackerel limit and have grouper tackle along, they can often catch groupers from one of the same nearshore ledges where they are catching kings.
But anyone trying it should be forewarned grouper fishing is addictive. Once an angler gets hooked on groupers, he might start leaving the mackerel gear stowed until he catches his limit of bottomfish.