Surf ‘n’ Turf Stripers

When the temperature plummets and the wind’s right, nothing beats a striper blitz at the Outer Banks.

From the top of the dunes, the sight resembled a scene from a war movie. Gannets and gulls screamed, swooped and dove into the water. The geysers that erupted indicated the kind of speed that carried the birds to the stunned baitfish.

But almost no humans were at the beach to witness this feeding frenzy. One wondered how often such a wondrous sight occurs with no human witnesses.

However, with trucks and cars carrying sharp-eyed anglers constantly traveling N.C. 12 at Hatteras Island during the winter, Outer Banks fish “blitzes” don’t go undetected for long during the prime winter surf-fishing months.

The birds indicated to knowing eyes what was happening underneath the surface and, with so many trucks equipped to deal with just such a situation, someone was likely to get involved. News travels fast among N.C.’s Surf Angler Nation and soon the beach was crawling with trucks and anglers carrying long rods.

With so many fish in the water, most casts produced an instant strike. Often the action was just beyond a narrow slough, and fishermen had to wade out to a sand bar to cast into the melee.

Fishing in such conditions is hard work, but the rewards are there for those willing to put in the effort.

Ocean-run striped bass average approximately 40 inches in length (about 20 pounds) and in the blitz mode they can be caught as long as anglers can keep up with them as schools of linesiders move up and down the beaches.

The minimum keeper length for ocean stripers is 28 inches and the limit is two fish per angler. Being able to drive at the beaches above the water line makes the effort much easier since by the time one fish is in the wash, the school is often 300 or 400 yards farther down the beach.

Since artificial lures for catching stripers weigh just a few ounces, relatively light tackle can be used. A 20-pound fish on 12-pound-test line with a light plugging rod is what fishermen dream about throughout the summer and fall as they await the return of cold weather and the “rockfish” migration into Tar Heel waters.

Stripers swimming at N.C. coastlines during winter aren’t that unusual. These big aggressive fish come pouring into our waters from the north nearly every year — or as long as the weather is cold enough to move them south.

The trip for some of these far-ranging “bass,” as Yankees call them, begins as far north as Maine — with a majority of fish originating at Chesapeake Bay — and ends somewhere near Cape Lookout and the towns of Beaufort and Morehead City.

During December and January, the Oregon Inlet charter business thrives by taking customers on boats for the two-stripers-per-day limit. Boats filled with anglers troll or cruise the beaches, looking for diving birds, which is usually the signal of active feeding frenzies. However, if the birds aren’t diving, captains also watch their fish-finders, looking for big schools of menhaden (“bunker” to the Yankees) that appear like black clouds on their scopes.

Sometimes, the stripers are just outside of Oregon Inlet, but fishing for them there takes an experienced captain. With a northeast wind, it can be a rough, dangerous time to be on the water so close to the shoals. Every year, a boat or two is lost to a big ground swell that swamps it or after being grounded on a shallow sand bar created by winds and tides inside the ever-shifting channel.

Sometimes fishermen are lost.

However, the good thing about surf fishing for December-January stripers is it’s usually not that dangerous (unless you consider hypothermia or getting hit by a flying bucktail or big spoon during a careless walk behind a casting angler).

But surf fishing definitely requires alertness and some elbow grease. Blitzes of stripers, such as the one described earlier, don’t happen every day, so it’s always best to be alert when driving along the deep sandy beaches.

Most of the stripers are taken by anglers who use “eight and bait,” as most Hatteras fishermen call a large hook, a heavy sinker and a big chunk of mullet or menhaden.

This kind of fishing is difficult only because of the cold and wind that make life uncomfortable on the windswept beaches of the OBX during many winter days.

Stripers aren’t normally caught during bluebird days. Old hands at the sport note if it’s a good day to hunt ducks, it’s probably a good day to catch stripers.

The difference is that hunters shoot ducks with the wind to their backs but catching a striper while surf fishing usually means the wind will be blowing right at the beach and anglers.

A steady northeast wind usually is the key weather event that brings stripers toward the beaches and within casting distance of surf fishermen. And during late November through early January, a steady northeast wind is a good excuse to head for Hatteras.

One of the good things about striper fishing in the surf is anglers don’t necessarily have to be long-range casters to reach or catch them. In fact, a lot of folks don’t catch stripers because they cast over them into water that only has an occasional fish.

Stripers prefer strong currents, heavy surf and bottom structure. Smooth water isn’t what they want.

A primary consideration is what veteran surf anglers call “action.” To be able to fish in that action, anglers need to be able to cast at least 8 ounces of weight. Sometimes they’ll need 12 ounces of weight to keep their baits in the strike zone.

To do any kind of job requires the right tools. Carpenters need a hammer and nails to frame a house. For surf fishing for striped bass, nothing’s better than a good drum rod.

Bottom rigs will work fine for stripers, but a high-low rig — with a floater about 3 feet off the bottom to attract fish — are popular as well.

Stripers are not major bottom-feeders as are red drum; they’re more visually oriented and work higher in the water column. And that’s why a rig that suspends baits off the bottom works better when fishing for striped bass in the surf.

To find these fish when the birds haven’t revealed their location, anglers should look for “cuts” (openings) between sand bars or places where they can cast just across the sand bars.

When shoreline currents are swift, surf fishermen should try to find areas where the water is shallow and fish just upcurrent of them. A strong current flowing down the beach carries enough water to create a cut when it encounters a sand bar that runs straight out from the beach. It’s simple physics that the huge volume of water must escape and a cut in the bar is the result.

Find a “cut” in a sand bar with a good beach current, and it’s almost certain to contain striped bass and probably some red drum as well.

Stripers may come into casting range at almost any part of Hatteras Island, but the beaches between Salvo and south to below Avon are the best places to start to look for fish during times of a northwest wind.

Pea Island National Wildlife Refuge is potentially just as productive, but there is no access to that refuge’s beaches except by walking.

During times of southwest winds, anglers should search for fish starting at the Cape Hatteras Point and south, once again fishing with the wind in their faces. Of course, the famed Point is potentially good at either time since it faces east at one side and south at the other.

Since long casts aren’t extremely important, fish heads often become the bait of choice. Spot or pogie (menhaden) heads are considered by many to be better than anything else for striper.

At Oregon Inlet, eels are popular, but many experienced striper fishermen agree that “snot snakes” are not worth the money and effort.

“Because (eels) aren’t naturally out in the open ocean, they’re only more effective at the inlet,” said Frank Folb of Frank and Fran’s Tackle Shop of Avon.

Stripers — similar to big red drum — are frequent nocturnal feeders. Anglers would do well to remember when fishing cut bait, their chances to catch a linesider double when weather conditions are overcast and double again when it’s dark.

During days marked by a a northwest wind and a strong current, surf fishermen should take their chances and drive the beaches, keeping a sharp lookout in hopes of finding a striper “blitz.”

The real joy in catching stripers occurs when using artificial lures, but first it’s necessary to find a big group of feeding fish. A good network of angler friends is priceless when it comes to communicating where the hot spots may be.

During the day described at the start of this story, probably half of the anglers at the beach were friends who had called each other to share the fun. Simply put, everything else (tackle, bait, etc.) being equal, if you have friends on the beach you should catch more fish.

During days with a high probability of active, feeding stripers in the surf, it’s a good idea to call tackle shops where you have friends. If the information comes from a knowledgeable angler or tackle shop, many anglers would think nothing of leaving Avon for Kitty Hawk if a blitz is occurring “up the beach.”

Otherwise, the best tactic is to drive the beach and look for the birds.

Blind casting may produce fish, but it’s even harder work than fishing three or more bait rigs. If you catch two fish in quick succession using bait, try artificials.

When a blitz occurs, anglers can catch fish by casting silverware, ink pens and house keys — if they have hooks. The best advice is to use tackle and lures one may cast easily.

A large grub on a Hopkins jig or a Stingsilver works well at times.

If a blitz truly is occurring and an angler has a big topwater lure, that’s the time to cast it. It’s amazing to see a big striped bass fighting for the plug on top of the water. It’s something every surf fisherman should see at least once in his lifetime. During a blitz, it’s also a good idea to switch to single hooks on spoons because treble hooks are tough to extract from a struggling fish’s mouth while standing in pounding surf.

Anglers should be aware that surf fishing during cold weather has some inherent dangers in the strength of the current and the temperature of the water. Wade carefully and belt up and seal yourself against water intrusions (don’t use leaky waders) as much as possible.

Stripers prefer water temperatures between 45 and 60 degrees and that kind of cold can bring the onset of hypothermia within minutes if an angler is doused and doesn’t get dry and warm quickly.

As for tackle, casting or spinning tackle work equally well for striped bass. And, if a crowd of anglers hasn’t discovered your hot spot, anglers can catch fish by using a fly rod.

For casting plugs or lures, 12- or 14-pound test is fine. But reels need to hold a minimum of 200 yards of monofilament line to make sure a fish doesn’t “spool” (take all the line) the angler.

It’s not unusual for striped bass in winter to reach 50 pounds or more and these fish fight hard — plus the current is in their favor. Some anglers may not have the experience or strength to to stand and slug it out with such a big striped bass. It’s better to fight the fish as you walk down the beach with him and let him tire himself before trying to bring him to shallow water for a release.

Surf fishing basically means a “run-and-gun” approach, whether driving the beaches and watching for signs of feeding activity or walking and casting.

If an angler decides to leave his truck, he should bring along an extra lure or two in case a fish breaks off a lure or the line snaps.

Once a blitz concludes, anglers probably can catch a ride back up the beach on the back of someone’s truck. If the action remains hot and heavy, get ready to walk back to your vehicle. When the party’s going strong, you can’t expect anyone to leave and give you a ride.

Striped bass fishing cranks up at the Outer Banks when the water drops below 60 degrees, and the fish will remain active until the water drops below 45 degrees. During a normal year, the season usually occurs somewhere between Thanksgiving and Groundhog Day.

After New Year’s, it’s not hard to find a room at the Outer Banks villages, but places to eat are limited. Bait can also be a problem. It’s a good idea to call before going to check if baits are available. If not, stop at a fish market. Fish markets usually will have spots, which are great striper baits and keep longer than menhaden or mullet.

Anglers can find information about fishing activity at the Cape Hatteras National Seashore through a variety of ways, including telephone calls or the Internet. Frank and Fran’s Tackle Shop maintains a web site and posts a report every day at Red Drum Tackle also posts daily at These web sites have links to coastal weather sites, including sites that give water temperatures.

So during December and January, if cabin fever gets the better of you and the wind is blowing, pack up the truck and head for the “Banks” for a chance at a big ocean-run striped bass.

It’s an experience any angler will treasure.

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