Tidelines – April 12, 2018
The early springtime bite just off the beach is now steadily improving with the warming water temperatures and migration of bait closer to the beach, but before welcoming in some of the highly anticipated nearshore species, such as Atlantic bonito followed by spanish mackerel, Capt. Trevor Smith, of ProFish NC Charters out of Wrightsville Beach, and I wanted a trip to say goodbye to a welcomed, albeit under-fished, wintertime species.
Our target was tautog, and we headed past the Masonboro Inlet rocks (where smaller tautogs can be found) and beyond the Liberty Ship (where you have a small chance to find a respectable tautog or two) on out to some hard bottom areas in the 5-10 mile range that Trevor really likes for finding quality ‘taugs.
The hard bottom areas hold crustaceans, and since tautogs aren’t fish eaters, a nearshore ledge is the perfect foraging habitat for helping us find some delicious-to-eat tautogs to take a piece of cut shrimp on a circle hook.
After making a couple of passes around our first area of ledges, Trevor put down his longer-shaft (perfect for offshore) Minn Kota i-Pilot trolling motor and hit the anchor button on the remote control. We were sitting on the low side of an 8’ ledge, with his electronics showing dark marks on the bottom that included a few patches of red, and it was those few patches of red that had Trevor the most excited about the probability of locating our target species.
I stood on one side of the boat and Colin stood on the other, and we were both armed with a Hanta rod rigged with a 4/0 circle hook leadered with 30 lb. Yo-Zuri disappearing fluorocarbon. Trevor put a pile of cut shrimp on the gunnel in front of each of us, and we dropped down, following Trevor’s instructions of letting the bait hit the bottom and then reeling up 1-1.5 feet so that the bait dangled where the tautogs could see it.
While the bite came immediately for both of us, unfortunately the bites weren’t tautog.
Colin and I both brought up undersized sea bass, dropped down again, and brought up more undersized sea bass. This pattern lasted for several minutes, and then Trevor moved us about 15 yards down the ledge.
The sea bass action continued at the second location, with fish ranging in size from 5-10” and nothing really coming close to a keeper fish, and then Colin’s rod took a much more noticeable bend followed by some struggling pulls of drag.
The struggling continued up through the water column, and soon Trevor was netting our first tautog of the day—a 4 lb. fish with a mouth uglier than a sheepshead’s.
We celebrated Trevor’s catch and then went back to picking through sea bass to try and locate our second tautog of the day.
“You’re going to weed through untold amounts of sea bass,” Trevor explained. “When you find the sea bass, that’s great. Fish in them for a little bit, but then get away from them and drop down when you’re out of them.”
“It’s like when you’re fishing for flounder off the beach. You don’t go fishing for them in a wad of sea bass. You go where the sea bass end and then out another 20 yards to start fishing.”
While the sea bass tend to inhale the baits that are dropped down, the tautog is more subtle. A tautog bites more like a sheepshead, so the better hook set technique is to lift up on the rod tip. I felt a gentler tug on my bait, lifted the rod tip up with a slow reel retrieve, and now it was my turn to see the rod bend down and feel the erratic drag pull of a fighting tautog.
My fish was a little smaller but more ornate than Colin’s, and Trevor identified this second fish as a female.
While our eight mile spot produced a few more keeper fish, we decided to try new habitat in the five mile range to see if the sea bass-to-tautog ratio was any better closer in. It wasn’t, but we played the numbers game and put a few more fish in the cooler.
Complaining about small sea bass is commonplace now for any nearshore angler, and on our day we probably landed close to 80 sea bass without one keeper in the mix. Trevor, who years ago helped out with a Marine Fisheries study, explained that our sea bass are maturing out at a smaller size. The studies he helped with show that many of the smaller sea bass are older fish—they just aren’t growing up to be over the 14” mark, a product of how this fishery over the years has been managed and/or mismanaged.
Trevor will be targeting tautog for just a little while longer into April. Tautogs prefer water temperatures from 53-59 degrees, and on our day the water was reading 57.8. He has plenty of options, though, for anglers wanting to put some spring fish in a cooler.
Mid to late April will soon bring in the Atlantic bonito, and then bonito are followed by plenty of spanish chasing acres of glass minnows. Late April into May then ushers in the bigger grunts and keeper sea bass.
Inshore, April mostly means red drum, and then May welcomes in the true start of the flounder season (with some chopper blues moving through both inshore and nearshore waters, too). And May also welcomes in the cobia run, another very popular spring and early summer species off of Wrightsville Beach.
Give Capt. Trevor Smith, of ProFish NC Charters, a call to line up your late spring fishing fix, or get in the books for just-as-strong summertime action. You can reach him directly at (910) 547-0000, or visit him online at www.topsailbeachfishing.com.
After you go fishing with Trevor, let me know if you, too, were impressed with his trolling motor. I know I had underestimated Trevor.