Numbers of North Carolina saltwater gamefish important to most anglers continued to improve or hold their own last year, according to the stock status reports of the N.C. Division of Marine Fisheries.

However, some fishes were in trouble, and the DMF
didn't have enough information about many others to make a decision as to their health.

Notable exceptions to healthy stocks included southern and summer flounder and gray trout (weakfish).

Striped mullet were upgraded to recovering along with sharks.

Weakfish dropped from viable to overfished, a puzzling development, according to DMF biologists because Atlantic coast-wide commercial catches have declined for several years, which should have allowed gray trout to rebound.

Summer flounder (ocean flounder) dropped from viable to concern, and more harvest reductions may be forthcoming.

The good news is Atlantic croakers, black sea bass north of Cape Hatteras, ocean-run stripers, dolphin, wahoo, gag groupers, king and Spanish mackerel, speckled trout, spots, menhaden and shrimp are classified as viable. Bluefish, monkfish and red drum are recovering.

Species in the "concern" category include white and yellow perch, reef fishes, American (white) shad, summer flounder, bay scallops, oysters and blue crabs.

Overfished species included black sea bass south of Hatteras, stripers in waters other than the ocean, southern flounder, river herring in Albemarle Sound, spiny dogfish, sturgeon, tautog and weakfish.

The DMF didn't have enough data to decide about classifications for catfishes, American eels, river herring outside of Albemarle Sound, sea mullet, hickory shad and hard clams.

Here's a look at some of the most important recreational saltwater species for Tar Heel anglers.

Spotted Sea Trout
"I think at this point (March) we made it through the (2005-06) winter and shouldn't have to worry about speckled trout kills caused by cold weather," said Beth Burns, a DMF biologist based in Wanchese. "We should have another good year class."

North Carolina's last winter (2002-03) of extremely cold temperatures caused inshore coastal water temperatures to plummet, stunning and killing thousands of speckled trout. But three straight mild-weather winters have allowed speck numbers and individual sizes to flourish. One of those fish was a whopper caught at Frisco.

"It's not a typical catch, but John Coleman of Galax, Va., caught a 10-pound, 13-ounce speckled trout from the surf at Frisco," Burns said.

Coleman's monster speck, landed Dec. 8, 2005, was 32 3/4 inches in length and 16 1/2 inches in girth and hit a pink grub.

"They grow so fast," Burns said, "if nothing weather-wise happens to them. The females can put on 2 pounds in a year. Coleman's fish didn't even look like a trout - it looked like a salmon."

Most N.C. speckled trout aren't landed from the ocean but from inshore waters, including Pamlico Sound, the creeks near Beaufort and Morehead City, Swansboro, the New River, Topsail and down the Cape Fear River all the way to Southport, Oak Island and the creeks and rivers from Holden Beach to the South Carolina line.

Flounder
North Carolina has two main species of flounder, southerns and summers.

Summer flounder are mostly caught in the ocean as they prefer saltier water. Southerns are inshore fish, for the most part, preferring brackish water; most are caught from inshore waters behind the barrier islands.

"Southerns are still considered overfished," DMF biologist Chris Batsavage said.

The commercial catch of southern flounder has dropped nearly 1 million pounds per year, from a 10-year average (1995-2004) of 3,374,870 pounds, profiting netters $5,911,311to 2004's 2,453,381 pounds, earning netters $3,878,115.

The DMF, at the direction of the Marine Fisheries Commission, placed a Dec. 1-31 closure on netting of flounder in 2005, although experts critical of that decision said a Nov. 1-Dec. 31 closure would have been more effective. During normal weather years, most flounder are netted, particularly from Pamlico Sound, during November. By December, southern flounder usually will have migrated into the ocean for the winter.

"We had a warm winter (in 2005), so there still were a lot of flounder in the estuaries during December," Batsavage said. "But commercial landings still were pretty low, as were recreational catches."

Batsavage said new restrictions - eight fish limit, 14-inch size limit - for inside waters hook-and-line and giggers should help southern flounder rebound, although the DMF won't know for certain until 2008 when it conducts its next stock assessment.

Batsavage said he didn't think allowing continued netting of flounder during November would cause stocks to plummet as they did with blueback and alewife herrings because "they're different fish and have different life-history patterns. Herring are anadromous (sea-going) fish that come into the estuaries to spawn, while flounder go from estuaries offshore (to spawn). Degradation of habitat for herring also is a factor that isn't affecting flounder."

He noted last year's cool spring and summer probably curtailed flounder catches.

"We've put in new (catch) regulations for southern flounder and feel they will work," Batsavage said.

Summer flounder are listed as concern, but he said these fish are in a better situation than their southern cousins.

"The overall stock abundance is increasing; they're not overfished, although fishing mortality is still higher than we want it to be," Batsavage said. "Fishing mortality is steadily decreasing, and the spawning stock biomass is steadily increasing since the early 1990s."

Since summer flounder are mostly ocean-going fish, coast-wide reductions in their numbers also can affect N.C. regulations. The Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission sets parameters for commercial quotas, minimum mesh sizes for trawls, minimum size limits, recreational bag limits and has a moratorium on new entries into the fishery. The ASMFC allows the states to set creel and size limits within its federal management frameworks.

Red Drum
If there's a success story relative to N.C. saltwater fishing regulations and management plans, it has to be red drum.

"Red drum have been looking up the last several years," said DMF biologist Lee Paramore. "There've been many reports of big fish.

"We've probably had, with the current year, the third strong year class in a row."

Reds (smaller ones are called "puppy" drum) are plentiful. The DMF, which placed a one-fish-per-day, 18- to 27-inch slot limit on recreational anglers several years ago and only allows netters to take seven fish per day (and 50 percent or more of the net catch must be something other than reds), has seen spectacular results. Basically netters have been guided into a "bycatch" (accidental) fishery, so fewer people are targeting red drum to sell.

The yearly quota remains at 250,000 pounds but DMF figures show during 2004 netters only landed 54,086 pounds.

However, some anglers report reds, especially slot-size fish caught by flounder and mullet netters, often are discarded and wasted.

Rec anglers reported huge schools of reds at inshore waters during early 2006, some claiming schools of 1,000 fish or more. Three Jacksonville anglers reported catching and releasing 200 reds one day this past March near Bogue Inlet, some as long as 30 inches.

"Anglers caught puppies at Cape Point into February and March," Paramore said.

Gray Trout (Weakfish)
Now comes the mystery fish story.

Most gray trout live north of Hatteras, but there's also a Pamlico Sound population.

Recreational anglers have seen an increase in landings the last two or three years, Paramore said. But the northern migratory stock that comes down from Delaware Bay and other northern states has taken a plunge.

"It started in the mid 1990s, and it's not clear why it's happened," Paramore said.

Gray trout fly netting was banned south of Cape Hatteras during the early '90s and the stock revived (the 2004 recreational catch was 271,600 pounds, almost 130,000 pounds more than the 10-year average). But now the coastwide population has started dipping again. Currently the ASMFC and DMF consider gray trout overfished.

"We're currently working on a stock assessment," Paramore said. "We saw a nice recovery until '97 or '98, but now they've plummeted."

Paramore said the current thinking among biologists is gray trout numbers have dropped for some other factor than fishing.

"It's hard to measure commercial effort," he said. "We don't know how much gear they're setting, and a lot of time (gray trout) are in a mixed catch with other species."

Paramore said because there are so many croakers, commercial netters may be targeting them instead of gray trout, which should work in the grays' favor.

"We just can't account right now for the big drop (in weakfish numbers)," he said. "It's really been dramatic - cut in half each of the least three years. Gray trout may be going through a (down) cycle."

Black Sea Bass
The situation with sea bass is similar to that of gray trout - strong numbers north of Hatteras and trouble to the south.

"It does seem crazy there'd be that much difference, but there is," the DMF's Burns said. "But the stocks north and south are different."

North of Hatteras the commercial effort is more by trawls and not centered in N.C. waters.

"A lot of the commercial fishing for sea bass occurs off New York in the deepwater canyons," Burns said. "South of Hatteras it's done mostly by small commercial boats using 'bandit' reels and pots. The fishing north of Hatteras is more seasonal, too, mostly done during winter. South of Hatteras people fish for sea bass throughout the year."

Fritz Rhode, a Wilmington-based DMF biologist, said a recent stock assessment of black sea bass in his area indicated they were "in the crapper. But North Carolina and the recreational anglers are having a hard time accepting the numbers."

Rhode basically said the DMF disagrees with the most-recent sea bass stock assessment by the South Atlantic Marine Fisheries Council.

"The DMF and anglers have raised a lot of issues regarding the (stock) assessment and inadequate data," he said.

Rhode said DMF had two one-year grants to study sea bass, and its data showed a wide range of ages in the southern sea bass population - numbers indicating a healthy stock.

"But we got the data too late to be used in the (SAMFC) assessment," he said.

As a result, Rhode said, black sea bass commercial quotas for North Carolina may be slashed in half from the previous 500,000 pounds figure.

"Or they could raise the size limit to 11 or 12 inches," Rhode said. "That would be devastating to the commercial industry and recreational anglers."

Rhode said size at harvest isn't a factor because sea bass are sexually mature at 8 inches total length.

"(SAMFC) decided to rachet down the quota over three years and raised the (minimum) size limit an inch (to 11 inches) for everyone, which caused a sigh of relief," he said.

Rhode said SAMFC will be given new DMF stock status numbers for sea bass south of Hatteras and may dial back its regulations to permit more harvests in the future.

Mackerels
King and Spanish mackerel are another success story of Atlantic coast marine management.

King populations, which migrate from Florida to Massachusetts each year and back again, rebuilt after the Florida net ban of commercial netting that began in 1981.

N.C. king mackerel fishing, and the state's many tournaments that boost coastal economies by millions of dollars from May through October, benefitted from the Florida net ban. King mackerel numbers declined up and down the Eastern seaboard until Florida voters took nets out of that state's waters.

Even though N.C. netters (mostly in winter) land and sell about 1 million pounds of king mackerel each year, the stock is considered viable and the spawning stock biomass (fish that are old enough to reproduce) is healthy.

The SAMFC restricts commercial catches to 3500 pounds per trip while recreational anglers can only keep two kings per day and they must be at least 24-inches long.

Recreational catches for N.C. king anglers have remained constant the last 10 years, approximately 1.2 million pounds per year. However, citation-size fish (30 pounds minimum size) have dropped from 372 per year on average from 1995-2004 to 216 in 2004.

Spanish mackerel also are enjoying good health and numbers, with the SSB in good shape and fishing mortality low.

The DMF classifies Spanish mackerel as not overfished, even though recreational landings have been increasing slightly. Commercial and recreational anglers each land about 500,000 pounds per year.

If you're fishing for Spanish, remember only to keep 15 per person per boat. Spanish must be at least 12 inches in total length.

Bluefish
Bluefish are listed as recovering.

The DMF's stock assessment strangely classifies blues in an overfished category, although they're not experiencing overfishing.

Fishing mortality has been decreasing steadily since 2000 although bluefish aren't at the level fishery managers want.

"This (2005-06) was the first winter since the early 1980s that we saw some big bluefish at the beaches," DMF biologist Burns said.

Burns said bluefish catches in the surf are largely dependent upon the numbers and kinds of baitfish in the water, weather conditions and currents. Simply put, blues apparently are finding enough to eat farther offshore where catches of "chopper" blues and sightings of schools of big bluefish continue.

Tougher regulations for bluefish (only five fish of the 15- fish-per-day limit may be longer than 24 inches in length) could have something to do with their resurgence.

Striped Bass
Stripers (rockfish or just "rocks") are in good shape in N.C. waters.

Tougher catch regulations for recreational anglers, less netting, cooperation by dam operators at the Roanoke River (optimal water flow for spawning stripers for almost 20 years has been the rule) have been huge boosts for stripers. Netting restrictions and reduced recreational creels also were put in place. As a result, striper numbers have exploded.

Some critics believe striped bass numbers have grown so large they may have reduced raccoon perch, herring and other prey species in coastal rivers, sounds and streams. State biologists are reluctant to make that claim.

But biologists acknowledge stripers are voracious feeders and provide great sportfishing opportunities from November through February up and down the central and northern beaches, with inshore waters north and south of Oregon Inlet usually the focus of the best fishing and biggest fish. Other good fishing usually occurs at the Cape Lookout shoals, starting in December each year, especially near Shark Island.

David Hiebert landed the N.C.-record 62-pound striped bass Dec. 30, 2005, while fishing offshore from Avon with Capt. David Bronson aboard the Triple Crown. Stripers of that size originate from the Chesapeake Bay or Hudson's Bay area and migrate south each winter in N.C. waters.

During the spring, anglers catch stripers at Albemarle Sound, at the Manns Harbor Bridge, and in coastal rivers, especially in the Roanoke River during their spawning runs.

Tautog
DMF biologist Burns said the ASMFC also lists tautogs as overfished, but that's a coastwide (Maine to North Carolina) assessment.

"We're on the southern end of tautog range," she said. "We've asked the Council to de-list us. We just don't have that many tautogs."

Mostly caught during winter, recreational anglers catch 90 percent of the 'togs taken each year.

That number is so small the SAFMC doesn't require the DMF to monitor tautog harvests nor participate in harvest reductions in its Fishery Management Plan for this fish.

Reef Fishes
The SAFMC follows 73 species of reef fishes with 17 overfished, 16 not overfished and the status of the other 40 unknown.

Overfished species include vermillion and red snappers, red porgy, sea bass, red and snowy grouper, golden tilefish and gray triggerfish.

"Vermillion snappers aren't as overfished as sea bass," the DMF's Rhode said.

A quota has been recommended for vermillions but not signed by the SAFMC, Rhode said.

Such a quota for commercial fishermen might be the average catch for the last eight years with the potential the quota could be met by September or October and the fishery shut down.

Rhode said snowy grouper, an offshore reef fish, "are gone" and the fishery is almost non-existent. Snowy grouper are concentrated in deep water, as much as 600 feet, and commercial operators used "bandit" (heavy electric) reels to fish for them.

Rhode said because snowies are so difficult to fish for, he suspects data about their actual numbers may be shaky - there may be more snowy grouper than show up in commercial and recreational catches.

The ASMFC and SAFMC are concerned about reef fishes, and Rhode said Marine Protected Areas, although not adopted, are still on the table as possible solutions.

"They're looking at MPAs and not just for black sea bass and snowy grouper," he said.

The agencies probably would use gag groupers as an index species for all reef fishes.

The current recreational bag limit for gags is two fish per angler with a March-April bag limit only and closed sale (no commercial fishing during those months).

Dolphin/Wahoo
Dolphins are "viable" species currently, along with wahoo.

The good news for dolphin is they're such as fast-growing species, they respond quickly to reductions in numbers. However, they've never faced heavy commercial pressure. And with more regulations placed on long-line commercial anglers, fishery managers are worried netters may turn to dolphin and wahoo.

Concern likely was triggered when recent total recreational catches of dolphin dropped significantly. The 10-year (1995-2004) average recreational catch was 4,123,544 pounds, but during 2004 that number fell to 2,982,445 pounds (a 28-percent reduction). Citation-size fish (35 pounds) are also down, from 328 during the 10-year average, to just 155 citation dolphin in 2004.

Wahoo, like dolphin, also are a pelagic fish, covering great distances of ocean, but they don't "school" like other species. Scattered catches by charterboats are common, but day trips usually result in only one or two wahoo.

But saltwater biologists are worried wahoo also could be new targets for long-liners.

Sharks
The DMF and SAFMC disagree somewhat about sharks.

"We just had an assessment workshop on large coastal sharks," Rhode said. "Sandbar and blacktips seem OK."

The feds have had regulations in place since 1993 to protect sharks and a commercial closure began in 1997 to protect juvenile sharks.

"(North Carolina) is one of the main pupping areas for sand bar sharks," Rhode said. "That's why (the feds) shut off shark fishing beyond the 3-mile limit (federal jurisdiction). Black tips grow to 6 to 8 feet, and their dorsal fins became popular in sharkfin soup."

The DMF's 2002 large coastal shark assessment indicated, however, blacktip and sandbar sharks were not overfished, and the large coastal shark complex has improved.

Rhode indicated the DMF wants to liberalize shark regulations. Currently N.C. anglers only may fish for certain sharks (54 to 84 inches in length) and are restricted to one shark per vessel or from shore per day.

Menhaden
The fish that makes the saltwater world go 'round is the menhaden, or "pogey" as it's called by coastal Tar Heels.

"Stripers, bluefish, trout, offshore king mackerel - all those fish eat menhaden," DMF biologist Trish Murphey said.

And that's not to mention big flounder, speckled trout, Spanish mackerel, red drum and an assortment of other fishes.

Menhaden, some experts claim, are responsible for keeping coastal waters semi-cleansed of pollution because they eat microscopic-size plankton. Opponents of "reduction" fishing in the Chesapeake Bay said the increase in red-sore disease on many gamefish, particularly striped bass, was caused by Omega Protein's reducing menhaden by millions of pounds. Maryland has banned Omega boats from its territorial waters in the Bay.

North Carolina apparently no longer has a local menhaden reduction fishery as Beaufort Fisheries closed shop in 2005.

"We had no reported (reduction) menhaden catches in 2005," Murphy said.

Fortunately, North Carolina also had no intrusions by Omega factory boats last year. North Carolina Sportsman has been told there is a "gentleman's agreement" by Omega that its Virginia-based menhaden fleet won't use purse seines in our waters.

"In the future, if they come inside 3 miles, they'll be subject to our regulations," Murphy said.

DMF harvest regulations note the season for menhaden is always open beyond 1 mile of the beach but closed in estuaries, with a few exceptions.

Maryland and other states have kept factory-harvests of menhaden tightly controlled or banned the practice completely to prevent "local depletions" of this important baitfish. The interesting thing will be N.C.'s reaction if Omega turns loose its 10 or 12 boats in N.C. waters after it reaches quota or depletes pogies in Chesapeake Bay.