Winter Fishing on the Outer Banks
By Mattie Dalia –
Brr! Winters on the Outer Banks can be cold… and wet and windy. But—there is still good fishing to be had for the hardy and fish hungry.
First a fall recap: It was stellar! The weather was beautiful and the water temperatures stayed warm. We had a great run of puppy drum, sea mullet, even pompano, up until mid-October. Afterwards, when the wind and weather shifted, lots of big red drum were landed on the piers, most notably Avalon and Jennette’s. The boats had great success with billfish and the other usual species, especially during the fall tournaments.
But let’s take a closer look at what we have to look forward to this winter.
Chartering a boat is one of the better bets during the winter. Being able to get to the waters of the Gulf Stream allows you reach migrating billfish in the earlier months. As we get deeper into winter and the weather cools even more, the tuna bite can get hot. Yellowfin, bigeye, bluefin and blackfin find their way into fish boxes. The main thing to watch for are suitable weather conditions—not for fishing per se, but rather to be in a boat. Have no worries, though. Captains do not run if it’s nasty and unsafe. Best advice is to get in touch with the fishing centers and captains to see how things are looking.
Rockfish is one of the biggest draws for Outer Banks fishing in the winter. The striped bass is an aggressive, hungry fish that is on the move. The ocean variety can range from 20 – 40+ pounds. Inshore boats have the best success chasing this fish near the shore and around structures like bridges. Many of the larger charter boats will opt out of deep blue water and provide rockfish charters. Striped bass love to hit eels and artificial lures. Looking for bird action on the water is a good sign Mr. Tuxedo is schooling. The nearshore boats will also get into the bluefish—hopefully the big ones will show up this year.
Most of the piers are closed during the winter months. The exception is Jennette’s Pier in Nags Head. The advantage that Jennette’s will give to the angler is to get to potential rockfish and bluefish that you can not reach from the surf. I also would imagine, just like fish at all the piers, that the stripers might bunch up, or “pause” at the pier for short periods of time. There was not much success last year at Jennette’s in the winter, but I’m sure more folks will be trying this year, especially if the stripers and blues are running down the beach.
The surf continues to produce fish in the colder months. However, it will be slower, especially as the water temperature dips below the magic number of 50 degrees. Up to that point, you can continue to catch speckled trout, puppy drum and sea mullet on cut bait and jig heads. Typically constant throughout the entire winter are the various sizes of bluefish, caught on metal lures and cut bait. If lucky, the colder months also produce striped bass from the surf on larger cut bait and eels. Make sure you have a N.C. Coastal Recreational Fishing License and, if driving the beach, the appropriate pass for your vehicle.
Tips and cool info
Striped bass regulations
There are various regulations for rockfish and differences between catches in the sound and ocean. Briefly, in the ocean, you can keep two rockfish a day, at least 28 inches, year round. In the Albemarle Sound, you can keep three a day, at least 18 inches during the season, October 1 through April 30. For other inland waters, there are different rules. Best bet is to check the N.C. Division of Marine Fisheries web site for all the scoop.
Beach driving in Nags Head and Kill Devil Hills
During the winter months you can drive the beaches of Nags Head and Kill Devil Hills, October 1 through April 30. However, know these facts: Nags Head requires a $25 permit, purchased at the town center and tackle shops. Kill Devil Hills is free to drive, but the sand can be soft and deep. Be careful of “pedestrians” on the beach, and drive safely!
Smoke some bluefish
For a delicious twist, trying smoking your blues. There are lots of how-tos on the web, but in a nut shell: Catch a mess of blues (I prefer tailors). Filet and skin. Soak in saltwater brine (2 cups water, 1/8 cup salt, 2 bay leaves) for 24 hours. Pat dry and let sit on counter for several hours to form a sticky surface (called pellicule—it helps the smoke stick to the fish). Fire up the smoker to 180 degrees and maintain for about three hours. Done. Put a dab of cream cheese on a Ritz cracker and top with a chunk of smoked bluefish. Heavenly.
Mattie Dalia has fished the coastal waters his entire life and made a lifelong dream come true by moving to the Outer Banks in 2006. You can usually find him in the evenings on Nags Head Fishing Pier, pursuing his favorite fish, el Spanish mackerel. Feel free to contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.