Don’t Knock the Rock

A good idea to keep numbers of Spanish mackerel is to release small fish. Live releases are easier when anglers remove all treble hooks from plugs and replace the back treble with a single hook.

Anglers can find trophy Spanish mackerels at Sheepshead Rock for a short time this month.

Fisher Culbreth found Sheepshead Rock the hard way one May morning two years ago.

He knew big chunk Spanish mackerel were nearing the end of their short spring run off the Pleasure Island coast and had encircled the Rock like Indians assaulting a wagon train. So that morning, we launched at the Snows Cut Wildlife Ramp and headed out relatively calm Carolina Beach Inlet, then turned south.

After a short run of a couple miles, we were about a mile off the beach. Ahead of us we saw several boats clustered at one spot.

“Upon the Rock they stand,” I said.

Culbreth looked at me a little sideways, puzzlement in his eyes.

“Yeah, well, I don’t like to do it, but I’m gonna put down some trolling gear in hopes we can get one of the big Spanish mackerels that are here before we get to the Rock so we can get a good one for a photo,” he said.

Culbreth, a veteran fishing guide (Capture Charters, 910/262-1450) at Carolina Beach who normally specializes in inshore trips for red drum, flounders and speckled trout, dropped a couple of lines behind his boat. The terminus of one had a Yo-Zuri Crystal Minnow tied to it and the other, an old stand-by Spanish mackerel lure, a Clarkspoon Culbreth had tricked up with a couple of soft-plastic lures the size of glass minnows (“Sometimes I use Clousers,” he said) tied to dropper loops ahead of the spoon.

“That’s my own idea and it works good sometimes,” he said.

Culbreth tied his dropper-ized Clarkspoon to a planer to get it down deep.

Then we had a stroke of good — and bad — luck.

Jumping in front of us, leg-long Spaniards vaulted into the air as they attacked schools of glass minnows and anchovies.

“Get a rod with a Gotcha tied on as quick as you can and cast it toward ’em,” he said.

Jumping to the bow of the boat, Culbreth, with a rod in his hands, made a long expert cast, sailing a white Gotcha lure with a yellow head and gold hooks toward a swirl in the water 50 yards in front of our still-in-gear boat.

“Oh, there he IS,” he said after a few quick turns of his spinning reel’s handle.

The rod bowed deeply as a silvery Spanish ripped off line.

“Ohmigosh,” Culbreth said, “That’s a good fish.”

Then, quicker than he could say “dang it, why wasn’t I paying attention?” Culbreth looked at the stern just in time to see one of his trolling rods bent nearly in half.

We’d run across the outer edge of Sheepshead Rock and discovered why it’s also called “High Rock” by local anglers.

The planer with the Clark spoon had dug hard into something growing on the slope of the underwater protrusion and hopelessly was tangled. Culbreth jumped down, threw the props into reverse, and we backed up. For perhaps 30 minutes he fussed with his planer, yanked on the line, then circled to the opposite side from which we’d hit the Rock, all to no avail. He ended up breaking off his rig and lost his planer.

All the while, Spanish mackerel the size of the yardstick your 4th-grade teacher used to whack you across the neck with because of too much talking in class cavorted and leaped like mini-Trident missiles around the boat.

We were, to put it mildly, going nuts. To make matters worse, the bite suddenly ended.

“Sometimes boat traffic, people running through here with their big engines going, will spook the fish because the water’s so clear,” Culbreth said. “I forgot about us being in gear and trolling when we had all those big Spanish jumping in front of me, and I hooked up with that big one. That was a mistake on my part.

“Don’t worry about me doing it again.”

Normally, Culbreth will use a trolling motor or just let the wind drift him across Sheepshead Rock while he and his clients make casts to skyrocketing trophy mackerels.

Spanish mackerels — the ones everyone who fishes off the Carolinas’ beaches are familiar with — usually are small specimens, 1 1/2 to 3 pounds, and they’re caught mostly from spring through mid summer. Summer Spanish follow the big schools of baitfish that move up the coast as the water warms.

But during late April and through the first couple of weeks of May, the big boys — Spanish weighing as much as 6 pounds and more (the N.C. Division of Marine Fisheries will give citations for Spanish weighing at least 6 pounds) — show up.

“You can mark it down on your calendar,” Culbreth said. “The big Spanish are here starting April 22 to the second week of May, feeding on glass minnows; then they’re gone.”

These fish will be from Sheepshead Rock, about a mile off the beach at the end of Pleasure Island, all the way down south to Frying Pan Shoals, the underwater delta created by silt moving out of the Cape Fear River into the Atlantic Ocean.

“You usually can assure yourself of catching lots of ’em by trolling, but it’s more fun to catch them casting,” Culbreth said. “This (big Spanish bite) happens when the water temperature gets to 65 degrees; that’s just perfect for them. Then when the water gets hotter by only a couple degrees, the big ones disappear. It’s a short period of time you can catch the big ’uns here.”

Fishing near Sheepshead Rock during that small window of opportunity is effective, Culbreth said, because the hill that rises off the bottom is washed by currents that concentrate baitfish at its lee-side slope.

Culbreth said he also looks for color “breaks” in the water, where the water color changes from brown to greenish-blue.

“The Spanish can be right on top of the Rock, which can vary from 6 to 8 feet beneath your boat, depending on the wind and tide,” he said. “Sometimes they’ll be on the northeast corner of the Rock in 35 feet of water.

“The glass minnows will be concentrated at the edge of that color break.”

That’s nothing unusual and happens with all kinds of fishing. Freshwater bass anglers have known for years that baitfish congregate at offshore “humps” in the middle of big lakes, and they bump plastic lizards using Carolina rigs (a barrel sinker and 3 or 4 feet of leader) down the sides of those slopes. Kerr Lake striper anglers, using live gizzard shads or bream and Carolina rigs to put them to the bottom, slay striped bass by drifting across the “hurdles” at Buggs Island or use trolling motors to cruise across schools of rockfish.

Culbreth said a lot of people are wary about fishing at Sheepshead Rock because of the danger of losing tackle.

“Many people are afraid to come up here because of the rocks,” he said ruefully. “If you don’t know your way around here, it can be tough — and expensive.”

Sheepshead Rock anglers who target Spanish mackerels use the same techniques as bass anglers, plus they’re able to have a little topwater fun by using Gotchas or other plugs.

“I like to use a white bucktail (with a spinning reel or a bait-caster),” Culbreth said. “The Spanish are feeding on glass minnows that are 3- or 4-inches long, so any kind of lure that mimics a glass minnow will catch fish.”

He also uses plastic plugs, jigging spoons, jerkbaits and topwater poppers. A Chug Bug (topwater striper lure) or a Pop-R probably would catch them. Frenzy Baits makes a line of topwater poppers that catch Spanish.

“The trick is you really got to ‘burn’ a lure across the top of the water,” he said. “If you’re not cranking fast enough, a Spanish isn’t going to pay attention to an artificial lure.

“And you can’t crank a lure too fast. You can’t retrieve a lure faster than a Spanish mackerel can swim.”

When he’s using a fly rod, Culbreth said Clousers are good flies, but he likes big saltwater chuggers best.

One reason Culbreth likes to fly fish for Spaniards is he can avoid the multiple hooks of topwater plugs nicking his leaders when he’s fighting a fish.

“These fish really fight, and they’ve got sharp teeth,” he said. “You get one that’s twistin’ this way and that and the barb on a treble hook may nick your line. Then you could hook up with a really big Spanish the next cast and have him break your line.”

One way he avoids that problem is to remove both treble hooks attached to a plug’s O-rings, then he attaches a single long-shank hook at the back ring. Sometimes he disguises the hook with a bucktail.

Culbreth, who spools his reels with 20-pound-test braided line and 30-pound bite tippet leader, uses a landing net rather than swinging fish into the boat because he said once a fish is hooked, other big Spanish will follow it, trying to steal the lure — they think it’s a live bait — out of the hooked fish’s mouth.

“You put your hand in the water to grab a fish, and you’re liable to come back with a sliced-up hand or maybe even missing a fingertip,” he said.

One of his tricks is to bring along a few extra minnows for chum to cast in the water to get the Spanish excited and close to his boat. A handful or two of chum in the water sometimes creates a feeding-frenzied of Spanish and almost always results in a hookup when he casts a lure into the melee.

He uses 12-inch-long, 30-pound-test monofilament leaders (wire leaders aren’t flexible enough to impart good movement to lures). When he trolls he uses the smallest swivels he can use effectively.

The smaller swivels don’t make bubble trails in the water, Culbreth said, when a lure’s being retrieved. Bubble trails will attract strikes from Spanish mackerels and bluefish. And if a blue or Spanish hits the lighter mono or fly line above the swivel, they’ll cut through it like a knife through hot butter, which means the angler has to stop and tie a new rig.

When he’s casting lures, he doesn’t use a swivel, just ties the leader to the main mono with a fisherman’s knot or double sheet-bend knot.

One of the other benefits of fishing for big Spanish at Sheepshead Rock during late April and early May is the region also attracts false albacores (aka “Fat Alberts”), and Alberts will hit the same lures or baits as Spanish mackerels.

“The way to catch Alberts is to cast a Maria jig at ’em,” Culbreth said. “The headboat guys up at Morehead City like to throw a Stingsilver for Fat Alberts, but they don’t have a lot of luck.

“But if you burn a Maria jig (it looks like a baby octopus) through a school of Fat Alberts, they can’t stand it. If someone does, you’ll hear “Maria!” on the (marine) radio. And you’ll know what’s happened.”

About Craig Holt 1382 Articles
Craig Holt of Snow Camp has been an outdoor writer for almost 40 years, working for several newspapers, then serving as managing editor for North Carolina Sportsman and South Carolina Sportsman before becoming a full-time free-lancer in 2009.

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