Despite an air temperature in the 70s, three anglers needed jackets to insulate the thin outer skins of fishing shirts against a wind-chill factor generated by a 30-mph boat ride.
Fisher Culbreth was ready to go at daylight, as is usual for one of the hardest-working inshore captains at Carolina Beach. Launching his Capture Charters boat at the N.C. Wildlife Resources Commission boat ramp at Snow's Cut, he navigated northward to Carolina Beach Inlet, negotiated its bars and breakers, then headed south, shouting over the roar of an outboard.
"The big Spanish mackerel are here," he said. "On a day like today, we're sure to get into some fish."
A "day like today" meant a day with little to no heavy wind (a slight breeze came from the west at daybreak). A few days earlier, Culbreth's 23-foot Pathfinder was wrecked during a highway accident, so this day he was back to fishing from a 19-foot Carolina Skiff.
Fortunately, for catching the early run of Spanish mackerel at "High Rock," the smaller craft served perfectly. As the boat traveled the coastline a mile or two offshore, the sun illuminated the constantly changing skyline of Carolina and Kure beaches.
Condominiums and hotels, sprouting like mushrooms, created a modern rendition of Pueblo Indian dwellings - dun and brick-red walls, except for flashes of sunlight reflected off tinted windows.
Seabirds flitted, circled and dove into schools of tiny baitfish Culbreth called glass minnows. The minnows are fry of several species that are almost transparent, constituting much of the food source for the spring run of Spanish mackerel. It seems an oxymoron that the biggest Spanish mackerel of the season arrive with the smallest of baitfish - but they do.
"We won't even mess with those fish," Culbreth said. "I fished them yesterday, and they were small fish. They intercept a lot of fishermen heading out for a day of trolling. But the bigger fish are down south."
We passed the distinct tide line where the darker waters of the Cape Fear River clashed with the emerald seawater of the Atlantic. The tide line held the attention of Spanish mackerel and seabirds for a mile or two south until it dissipated.
Then we passed the yellow ball buoy of AR 378, the Phillip Wolfe Reef that held the attention of more sea birds and jumping Spanish mackerel. This time Culbreth slowed for a look.
"Sometimes the big ones get this far north," he said. "But I'm pretty sure they'll still be south."
Culbreth watched for a few moments and his nephew, Joey Culbreth, jumped up on the bow to get a better view.
"Nothing but little ones," he said. "Let's keep going."
He resumed his position behind the center console, as Culbreth hammered down the boat to planing speed.
After passing the Confederate Monument at Fort Fisher, he slowed again. More birds. More Spanish mackerel jumping.
But this time the splashes were larger. He un-holstered a rod from a rod-holder faster than "Gunsmoke's" Marshall Matt Dillon (James Arness - not the punk actor with the pouty look) could drew his pistol.
"This is what we're after," he said. "Look at the size of those fish."
Indeed, while we had seen many schools of fish during the ride to Sheepshead Rock, they were small- to medium-size compared to the fish leaping from the water to chase baitfish in front of Culbreth's boat.
It was the end of April, and the fish had been there for a few days. The smaller fish up north would soon be mixing in with the larger fish, diluting the odds for catching a citation Spanish mackerel weighing more than 6 pounds.
"I don't know why the biggest fish arrive here first," Culbreth said. "But by the time you hear about them and get ready to go, the huge schools of keeper-sized fish arrive. Once they do, I believe the big fish are still here. It's just a problem with getting your lure in front of a big one before a little one sees it and takes it away."
Culbreth made a few casts with a Got-Cha lure, a metal tube lure with an angled front end to make it dig deep, especially designed for pier fishing. The heavy weight for the size of the lure made it ideal for casting long distances.
"When the fish are up, you want to get close enough to make a cast, but not close enough to spook them," he said. "If you get too close, you can scatter the school or drive them deep.
"I like to sight-fish for big Spanish. It's more exciting than trolling, although I think you catch more fish than by trolling, especially early in the day. I resort to trolling when the fish aren't showing or when other trollers arrive on the scene.
"Trolling is the worst thing you can do with these big Spanish mackerel. You get several boats in here trolling for them, and it ruins the topwater bite."
Culbreth and his nephew cast to a boil. The water was so clear and the sun was so low, it was easy to see the streaking mirrors that simultaneously slashed their lures.
"It's like a fire drill," Joey Culbreth said. "You can just crank small a Spanish in, but these big guys are fighters all the way. If you don't watch out, they'll have your lines tangled.
"You have to give them their head and let them run because they are so strong they can rip out the hooks even if they are imbedded in a jawbone."
Their drags screeched repeatedly but for decreasing durations. Eventually the Culbreths captured their fish then released them.
"The big Spanish mackerel are better-eating than king mackerel," Culbreth said. "But I can't eat all I can catch. I would just as soon leave them alive for my clients to catch another day."
Culbreth routinely catches 4-pound Spanish mackerel at the end of April and the average is 3 pounds. He will catch a few that top 8 pounds each season, using spinning, trolling and fly-fishing tackle.
"We fish with whatever my clients prefer or whatever works best," he said. "I get lots of fly fishermen, and Spanish mackerel are ideal targets for them. You can see the fish so you can cast to them. They're very aggressive and will hit anything flashy. If you want to fly fish, though, you'd better get there early. The wind rises with the daylight in spring. After about 9 or 10 a.m., you're too tired of catching them or casting to them with a fly - or the wind gets up and you usually finish the day with spinning rods or trolling."
Lots of bluefish mix with the early-arriving Spanish mackerel. Culbreth uses 20-pound Spiderwire Superbraid line with his spinning rods because the line offers sure striking power with its low stretch, outcasts monofilament of the same test weight in distance and offers some increased durability against the sharp teeth of bluefish and Spanish mackerel. He ties a 30-pound fluorocarbon leader to the line without using a swivel.
"A Spanish will think the swivel is a glass minnow and strike it, cutting the line or leader," Culbreth said. "And, when you get excited, you can reel the swivel all the way to the rod tip and break it, which is even worse. You could use one of those small-diameter expensive Spro big-game swivels, buy why go to the trouble and expense when all you have to do is tie a double uni-knot in the leader and line?"
When casting with spinning tackle, Culbreth uses a variety of lures in addition to Got-chas. They include heavy-metal Stingsilver spoons made in many colors and weights, various-size bucktail jigs and 4-inch Yo-zuri stickbaits. He uses 7-foot graphite or Kevlar spinning rods in medium action mated to 2500 and 3000 series reels such as the Abu Garcia 774 Cardinal.
"The trick is to cast a lure beyond where you see the fish surfacing, then reel it as fast as you can go," he said. "You can't reel a lure fast enough to take it away from a Spanish mackerel.
"You want to draw that impulse strike. He sees it flash by and has to make his mind up right then to eat it or let it go. Fish it slow, and he won't even look at your lure."
For fly-fishing, Culbreth uses 7-weight and 8-weight rods and reels. He spools them up with matching fly lines in intermediate weights with clear sink-tips. He uses the same rods and reels he uses for sight casting to red drum so he never has to change fly reels or lines.
He backs his fly lines with every inch of 20-pound Dacron backing line the reels will hold. Then he ties on a 6-foot tippet of 12-pound fluorocarbon and 6 inches of 20-pound-test single-strand wire.
If the fish get finicky and won't strike the fly because of the wire leader, he ties the fly to the leader. Losing flies to snippy-toothed Spanish mackerel happens occasionally. But he does what it takes to get the fish to eat the fly.
"The heavier line helps you cast if there's a wind and lets your fly sink," he said. "You can twitch it back in and the up-and-down motion makes it look like a wounded glass minnow. The action you impart to the fly to make it look like an easy meal creates the same impulse strike you try for when you're casting with a lure."
When a bunch of trollers arrive to scatter the Spanish mackerel schools or when an overhead sun drives them deep, Culbreth grudgingly switches to using planers with spoons. He uses heavy 7-foot Fenwick Salt Stick rods, paired with Abu Garcia 5600 C4 Ambassadeur reels for pulling No. 1 planers and medium-action rods with the same reels for his top rods.
On his top-rod reels, he uses 50-pound braided lines. His top rods troll big-lipped, deep diving lures, usually Yo-zuris because they have a lot of flash and an action that drives Spanish mackerel wild.
"I use No. 1 planers because the bigger ones will hang up on the bottom," he said. "The Fort Fisher Ledges go up and down and extend for several miles southwest to northeast of Sheepshead Rock, and there are places that are fairly shallow.
"Sheepshead Rock gets as shallow as 7 feet. I troll along the ledges watching the depth-finder, watching for other anglers who are trolling and for birds working. I use 15 feet of 30-pound mono leader with a double ball-bearing swivel tied to the planer by another short leader about 1-foot long when trolling with spoons.
"I don't use braided lines with the planer rods because it bites into the spool under all the pressure. A No. 1, 0 or 00 Clarkspoon is all you need for a lure, and I use silver models.
"If you get a spinning spoon and don't tie the ball bearing swivels between the planer and the leader, you can get severely twisted lines that are knotted up so bad they may even tangle your other lines."
Culbreth trolls at 5 1/2 knots. If fish follow the lures but don't strike, he speeds up.
"Think fast for Spanish," he said. "If fish are jumping and you can't get a hookup, speed up. Most of the time, you can get the impulse strike."
To land a super-sized Spanish, the Culbreths grab it by the tail then free the hooks with pliers.
"Like the disclaimer says, 'Don't try this at home' unless you know the risks," Joey Culbreth said. "Even small nick from a Spanish tooth bleeds forever. If you don't wear gloves or have experience at landing them with the tail-grab method, use a rubber net.
"The hooks won't get hung in the mesh, so you get your line back in the water faster, and it's easier on the fish because he gets back in the water faster."