Mark Stacy of Ocean Isle Fishing Charters enjoys catching inshore fish year-round but specializes in speckled trout and red drum as Thanksgiving approaches. He knows the cooling weather is getting the fish fired up, and best of all, he knows what they like to eat and where to find them. It makes for fun and productive fishing.
Easing away from the dock at Sheffield's in Ocean Isle Beach, N.C., he said, "There have been some small pogies in this creek since summer, let's see if we can catch some before we head out. The larger reds like pogies and sometimes a big trout will gulp one down too."
Brandon Sauls grabbed a cast net and moved to the bow of Stacy's bay boat to be ready when the baitfish showed. It didn't take long. Once in range, Sauls let fly with a perfect circle of cast net.
"That's probably enough, but let's get one more net full to be sure," Stacy said. "We'll let them go later if we don't use them. We might even use some for live chum."
A few minutes later, with a baitwell full of small pogies, Stacy (910-279-0119) turned the boat towards the waterway and headed out of the creek. At the mouth of the creek, he saw a mullet minnows and paused long enough to add a hundred or so of them to a second baitwell.
"If you haven't figured it out yet, I like to use live baits," Stacy said. "Sometimes these fish will hit Gulps and such, but it's rare they turn down live bait. We'll pull in a creek down here a little ways and catch some shrimp too. That way we'll have some of everything and there won't be an excuse not to catch fish. We're lucky that our water stays in the tolerable temperature range for bait for so long and we can catch it."
Sauls, who is also a guide, is a "big trout specialist" - Stacy's words - who has a shrimping license and a small boat just for shrimping to make sure he's got live shrimp as long as they're around.
"We believe it makes a big difference," Stacy said after they added several more nets of shrimp to the baitwell.
When he had his bait, Stacy decided the tide wasn't quite where he wanted it to be for speckled trout, so he went deeper into the creek and baited outfits with mullet minnows for puppy drum. It was merely a matter of seconds before Sauls reared back on his rod and announced he was hooked up with a small red drum.
Stacy and Sauls were fishing close to calabash, and the section of marsh that produced the puppy drum straddles the state line. Sauls' little red may have been of legal size in South Carolina waters, but it wouldn't be in North Carolina, and in some of the creeks, it is very difficult to determine your exact location, especially with respect to the state line. Because he crosses back and forth across state lines, Stacy adheres to a bag limit of only fish that are legal in both states.
After catching a half dozen or so reds and watching a section of oyster-covered bottom appear from beneath the water's surface, Stacy announced the tide was right to head for Little River Inlet. He eased out of the small creek, headed south in the Intracoastal Waterway for a mile or so and turned into another small creek. After swerving around exposed oyster rocks for a few minutes, Stacy rounded a turn and entered Little River Inlet at the base of the northern jetty.
"We'll try this side first," Stacy said. "This northeast wind will be trying to push the boat away from the jetty, but if we can get anchored right, the corks will be behind the rocks, and we should be able to get a good drift."
Stacy eased the boat close to the jetty, and on his signal, Sauls eased the anchor over the side. Stacy passed out spinning outfits rigged with pencil floats using adjustable bobber and set at five feet, and No. 6 gold treble hooks to hold the bait. With a live shrimp impaled on each treble hook, he passed the outfits off and began to offer directions.
"Cast up to about 10 feet off the jetty," Stacy said. "What you want to do is drift along the jetty about that far off of it as long as you can. If you get too close, you'll get hung up occasionally and be in there with all the bait thieves. If you're too far off, you're just wasting time. Keep the bail open to let line out so the bait will drift, but be prepared to shut it and reel the line tight as quickly as possible when you get a strike. If you get the line tight while the fish has the cork under water, you'll hook up most of the time."
It took several drifts before a cork disappeared. Suddenly the cork just wasn't there anymore, a signal to get the line tight that didn't have to be explained.
Stacy and Sauls had caught and released several small trout when Sauls reeled down tight and leaned back while the rod bent deeply and his little reel began squealing as it gave up line.
"This may be the one I've been looking for," said Sauls. "It's shaking its head like a trout, but sometimes they transform into something else before you get them in. Hopefully this one stays a trout all the way."
In a minute or two, Stacy got a quick look and proclaimed it to be a nice trout. A few seconds later the trout flashed to the top, Stacy scooped with the net, and a nice trout joined the crew on deck.
Several moves along the jetties produced more specks, but nothing to compare with Sauls' big girl. The catch there also included several nice black drum, a couple of red drum and some assorted less-desirable fish until the falling tide stopped running.
"Reel in, and let's try something else during this slack tide," Stacy said. "The tide is moving in other places, so let's head somewhere else. There are a few other places that have been holding some trout, and once the tide changes we can work back into some small creeks and catch some reds and maybe even a flounder."
One shell-covered bank looked like it would be productive, but the bait thieves were attacking so fast and furious the trout didn't have a chance to get to a bait. Stacy said that the abundance of bait thieves was one of the problems with the water staying warm for so long. He said after the water temperature cools down to below 65, they would move on, and the shrimp would last long enough for the trout to see them.
One small creek on the North Carolina side of the state line was loaded with small puppy drum that were feeding along the edge of an oyster rock that was slowly disappearing under the rising tide and reinforcements must have kept coming in with the tide. There were numerous times fish were caught several casts in a row and several doubles pumped the fun factor too. Mullet minnows were the prime entrée on their menu that morning and Stacy had a baitwell full of frisky mullets and willing anglers.
HOW TO GET THERE/WHEN TO GO: The Little River area is accessible from both Carolinas via US 17, which parallels the coast. US 501 is the primary highway into the greater Myrtle Beach area from inland South Carolina. SC 9 and 90 access North Myrtle Beach from inland. Calabash and Ocean Isle are just a few miles north of Little River. Public ramps are located in Ocean Isle Beach, N.C., on the inland side of the bridge at the waterway and at Sunset Beach on the mainland side, and on both sides of the ICW at Sea Mountain Highway in Little River. Fishing for red drum can be good year-round. Trout are more partial to the cooler waters in spring and fall, especially as fish become active and feed heavily before entering the winter.
LIMITS/REGULATIONS: The border between North Carolina and South Carolina runs through the Little River area, and the boundary is unmarked. Both states require saltwater fishing licenses, and there is no reciprocal agreement, so it is wise to have licenses from both states.
The size and number limits are different for each state. For red drum, N.C. allows one fish in an 18 to 27 inch slot, while S.C. has a 15 to 23 inch slot and a limit of 3 fish. Speckled trout have a common 14 inch minimum size, but N.C. allows keeping only four, while S.C. allows keeping 10.
ACCOMMODATIONS: Brunswick County Chamber of Commerce, 800-426-6644 or www.brunswickcountychamber.org; Harborgate Marina, www.harbourgatemarina.com; North Myrtle Beach Chamber of Commerce 877-332-2662 or www.northmyrtlebeachchamber.com.
TACKLE/TECHNIQUES: Red drum and speckled trout are easily handled on medium-light to medium-action spinning tackle. Seven-foot rods and 2500 to 3500 series reels spooled with 8- to 15-pound mono or superbraid. Live shrimp are the primary live bait for trout, but redfish aren't as picky and will readily hit mullet minnows also. Live baits can be suspended under floats or dragged across the bottom on the lightest jigheads that will hold them in place.
GUIDES/FISHING INFO: Capt. Mark Stacy, Ocean Isle Fishing Charters, 910-279-0119, www.oceanislefishingcharters.com; marine Service Center of Little River, 843-399-9283. See also Guides & Charters in Classifieds.
MAPS: Capt. Segull's Nautical Charts, 888-473-4855, www.captainsegullcharts.com; Sealake Fishing Guides, 800-411-0185, www.thegoodspots.com; GMCO's Chartbook of North Carolina, 888-420-6277, www.gmcomaps.com.