Twin 250 Yamaha four-stroke engines mumbled quietly as they warmed up, and the turbulence of the engines' vibrations on the otherwise quiet water of the boat harbor foretold which boat was being readied for a day of fishing.
Anthony Ng was scurrying about, heading back and forth from his pickup and from stem to stern in his 30-foot Grady White Bimini center-console boat. He fiddled with the controls, adjusting the electronics, checked his engines then loaded fish boxes onto the boat with the help of a fellow angler.
Once the fish boxes were aboard, they went back and forth from shore to ship, loading baits and ice until the boat was ready for a long journey.
"It's a perfect day to go way offshore to catch some grouper," said Ng, who is owner of Fish-Ng Accessories of Winterville. One of Ng's products is a Precision Auto Reel, an electric-assist motor drive for bottom-fishing reels that helps anglers reel up grouper and other bottomfish from deep-water structure.
"A good day for grouper fishing for me is any day it's comfortable day to be on the water," he said. "I don't want to go on a long trip for grouper on a rough day. But even if the wind and seas are calm, there's still a risk because you don't know what the current will be like until you get out there.
"If I can get off work and conditions are good, I try to go fishing. I've never found a way to catch grouper while I'm sitting at home.
"A southerly wind like we have today is more likely to give good luck with bottom fishing because the current will normally run out of a southerly direction. Anytime the wind and current are going same way helps you catch grouper. Sometimes it's good when the current is from a northerly direction, but a south wind has less of a risk."
No angler should ever doubt Ng's ability to catch grouper. This deep-water expert has caught nearly every species of bottomfish present off the North Carolina coast. With his fast, seaworthy center-console boat, Ng can cover a lot of water in a single day.
This day he was heading out of Beaufort Inlet for a spot closer to Wrightsville Beach than it was to Atlantic Beach.
"I go with Anthony whenever I get the chance," Moore said. "I know we head offshore we're going to get some grouper. I like to catch grouper and I like to eat grouper. They are beautiful fish and taste great."
"Grouper fishermen along the southern N.C. coast cover a lot of the same water no matter where they dock their boats," Ng said. "The important things are to have calm seas and a big-enough and fast-enough boat to get to the good spots."
WR2 is the number of the buoy that marks the wreck of the Cassimer, a 5,030-ton, 390-foot tanker sunk after a collision with the freighter Lara, Feb. 26, 1942. Nearby is a rock formation or hard bottom called WR2 Rock.
This area was Ng's destination, a trip of 32 nautical miles south-southwest from the Beaufort Inlet sea buoy, taking about an hour to reach heading into the light southerly airflow and light wave action.
Ng slowed as he approached the wreck. He was within a few dozen yards of one of his hot spots when he switched the scale on his color depth-finder and eyed the screen intently.
"I fish wherever there's a ledge," he said. "It can be a rock formation or live-coral formation. Any change in the bottom contour could hold grouper."
Ng's colorscope showed he was looking for fish in about 110 feet of water at the shallow side of the ledge. He watched the dark red colors of the bottom echoes and was excited when he saw the less distinct lines of paler colors above the bottom. These pale shapes, he said, were fish.
"I'm looking for any color change or big marks that look like fish," he said. "There seems to be some down there, so we're going to give them a try."
Ng turned the bow of his boat into the wind and current, which were coming from the same direction. Moore dropped a 45-pound fluked anchor with 35 feet of 3/8-inch galvanized steel chain over the side. It struck bottom, and he let out another 20 feet or so of anchor line.
"A heavy anchor with lots of chain lets you stay on your spots better because you won't be as likely to swing off of them," Ng said. "It doesn't drag like a lighter anchor, so you don't need as much scope on the line."
Moore began to slice baits, retrieving frozen cigar minnow and sardines from one of the fish boxes. The baits were still frozen when they were impaled on the hooks. The fish were sliced into two pieces, roughly in half. Each half was impaled with a hook.
"It's important to hook the bait in the bone," Ng said. "It keeps the small fish from stealing the bait. I put the hook into the chin and out the head of the head end and put it near the tail right through the backbone of the tail section."
The baits were lowered to the bottom by disengaging the clutches of 6/0 reels. The electric Auto Reels were plugged into electrical outlets along the gunwales of the boat.
"I use the same battery to run the reels that I use for starting my engines so I can charging up the battery when I'm running from place to place," Ng said. "Some fishermen leave the engines running, but I don't.
"The reels don't use very much power. I always have a backup battery. I have a backup for everything because anything that goes out on you can cost you a day of fishing and that would be frustrating when you run this far off the hill."
Ng and Moore started reeling up bottomfish right away.
The rigs were double hook bottom rigs with 8/0 and 9/0 J hooks. The dropper leaders were tied with three-way swivels and 24-ounce sinkers carried the baits to the bottom. The reels were spooled with a dull green superbraid line. The rods were Tsunami standup rods in straight-butt and bent-butt styles.
"I use the bent-butt rods for fishing deep ledges since a lot of the fishing is done with the rod in the holder," Ng said. "But this is relatively shallow water, so either style will work. I use J hooks and hold the straight-butt rods so I can set the hook as soon as I feel a strike.
"I use 130-pound Western Filament Tuf Line because it has no memory, which prevents backlashes and it has no stretch so you can feel the bite."
Ng's rod tip twitched rapidly and he looked like he was cocking a trigger he held the rod so intently. Suddenly a larger bend was put in the tip and he jerked upward while reeling fast. The rod bent down and almost hit the side of the boat.
"This is a nice one," he said. "Get out the gaff."
A scamp grouper was soon at the surface. He was gaffed and placed in a fish box with ice.
"The first sensation I was getting is a rapid-fire bite like a machine gun," he said. "That's a small snapper or other bait stealer. If you want to catch them, you have to go to smaller hook."
Moore set the hook hard and his rod also bent downward. The electric motor ground so much it sounded as if it would bog down. But irresistibly, a red grouper was reeled to the surface and soon joined the scamp grouper on ice.
"I like catching the little snappers and porgies," he said. "But there's nothing as exciting as winding up a big grouper without knowing for sure what's on your line until it gets to the surface."
Ng said he has caught red porgy (silver snapper), red mouthed grunts, pink snapper, vermilion snapper, red snapper, gag grouper and many other types of reef fish while fishing the WR2 area. He and Moore fished the spot until it paid out, then he lifted the anchor.
Moore used a clevis to attach an anchor ball. Ng headed at a 30-degree angle to his anchor course then straightened the course as the boat passed the ball. Ng also has an electric windlass to retrieve the anchor. But when he's moving from place to place he finds it more convenient to use the anchor ball to lift his anchor.
"If you head straight along your anchor course, you'll run over your line and wrap the propeller," Ng said. "I want to try another spot. The current was pushing us off our mark."
Ng used a plotter to determine the location of the ledge as he passed above it. He said by plotting his course, it made it easier to determine to which side of the ledge he had drifted.
"Sometimes you can move a few miles and get out of the current or find an area with less current," he said, "sometimes you can't. If it takes more than 3 pounds of lead, I give up on grouper and go trolling or light lining or do something else.
"It's always good to have a back-up plan in case the current is too strong for grouper fishing."
Sometimes Ng uses a light line while bottom fishing. He has caught wahoo, king mackerel, amberjack, sharks, dolphin and many other species while grouper fishing. Still, when he's in a grouper mood, the fish are usually biting well enough that he has his hands full.
"When the grouper are down on the bottom, the other fish are always there, too," he said. "But if you're fooling with the top lines, it's going to interfere with your bottom fishing.
"The best thing to do is wait until you have all the bottomfish you want or fill your limit of grouper before setting out the light lines for free-swimming fish like king mackerel."
The duo dropped the anchor again after Ng saw another ledge with fish marks on his depth-finder screen.
They dropped baits and soon Ng was tied into another big fish. This time, however, the fish didn't budge when he set the hook.
"When you set the hook, you have to hold on and get him up off the bottom as fast as you can," he said. "You can't let off or give the fish any slack.
"If he gets into a hole, he can cut you off. I don't lock down the drag completely because you have let him have a little pull with the drag so the hooks won't rip out or pull. But 30-pound grouper aren't uncommon, and they can get in a hole no matter what you do. I try to set the hook and crank at same time and get his head out of his hole. But with a couple beats of his tail he gets back inside and cuts you off."
Ng let the line go slack for a few minutes. The fish swam out of his hole and the angler held down the thumb button and reeled in a big, fooled red grouper.
"You can twang the line like a rubber band and the vibration will get him out of his hole if you're using mono line," he said. "But superbraid has no stretch so the method doesn't work. If he doesn't swim out on his own, you have to keep pulling until something breaks or he comes on out."
Ng is now 43 and has been "field testing" his reels and other products for more than 14 years. He's learned a trick or two about landing big groupers by "going long."
"You used to catch more grouper in shallower water," he said. "Manual reels are fine for 30-foot depths. But in deep water even strong men give out after a couple of drops. Electric reels also make grouper fishing possible for women and children.
They help you go long. Out here's where the action is."