The nearshore ocean off North Carolina’s Oak Island has attracted fish and fishermen for decades. It is one of only a few south-facing beaches along the coast of the Carolinas, and the unique westerly flow of water running out the Cape Fear River carries bait down the beach for a ways instead of sweeping it to the north like at most other inlets. This unique movement of water holds a variety of baitfish along the beaches, and big fish move in to enjoy the buffet.
Frying Pan Shoals to the east also blocks most northerly swells from reaching Oak Island, keeping the nearshore ocean calm -- a trait that attracts plenty of fishermen. The fastest-growing group is kayak fishermen; they flock to the area in fall when big king mackerel and red drum arrive to feed on the abundant bait, and the calm waters provide ideal conditions for fishing from a kayak.
Kayak fishermen were first drawn to Oak Island for the spring and fall king runs, but over the past decade, the fall run of bull red drum has exploded. Hordes of kayak fishermen now descend on the nearshore waters to do battle with kings and bull reds.
Bull reds longer than 40 inches are eligible for a N.C. Division of Marine Fisheries Outstanding Catch Citation, and most of the ones caught off Oak Island meet or exceed the minimum. They are caught from piers, from boats and occasionally by surf fishermen, but it’s the kayak fishery that’s exploded, in part because there are numerous public-access areas where they can be launched.
Jonathan Grady of Fayetteville, N.C., who operates Yakn’ Off Outdoors Guide Service, is one of the best of the kayak fishermen off Oak Island. He has built a reputation for catching big drum and king mackerel, especially in kayak fishing tournaments. His 38½-pound king is the unofficial state record for a kayak-caught king, and no one has touched his feat of catching and releasing a dozen citation-sized reds in a day.