Yaupon Diner

The author gaffed and lifted Terry Heuser’s N.C. citation-size cobia, caught at Yaupon Reef, into the boat’s ice-storage compartment.

You can get anything you want at Alice’s Restaurant, as well as Oak Island’s most popular nearshore reef.

The dark shape, slowly circling the live pogy suspended beneath a balloon, suddenly whirled and streaked toward the surface.

The attack jerked the balloon out of sight as the reel’s clicker screamed and line melted off the whirring spool. Meanwhile, Craig “Toby” Odom strained to pull the bent-double rod from its holder.

“What you got there, Toby?” somebody said.

“I’m not real sure yet,” he said. “We had something circling that bait for the last few minutes but couldn’t tell if it was a shark or not. With a little luck, it’s a cobia and we’ll have some nice steaks for dinner.”

After an initial run, the fish came to the surface about halfway between the boat and the yellow buoy marking AR 425. Its shape first shone barely under the water then the tip of a dark dorsal fin broke the surface. Many anglers might have made the mistake of thinking it was a shark, but to Odom and his friends, the fin was all they needed to know he was hooked up with a cobia.

The fish gave its rendition of a classic cobia fight as it circled the boat once and allowed itself to be led close enough a novice might have tried to gaff it.

Odom had made that mistake previously, so he plinked the line a couple of times to aggravate the big fish into making a second run and tiring a little more. About 10 minutes later, the cobia came near the boat; Odom called for the gaff.

“It’s still a little green, but we should be able to handle it this time,” he said.

Directing traffic on the boat, he positioned one crew member with the gaff and another to be ready to open the fish box.

“As soon as you get the (gaff) hook in it, heave it right over the side and into the fish box,” he said to the gaff man. “When he gets it stuck, I’ll let you know and you open the fish box. As soon as he gets it in the fish box, slam the lid and I’ll stand on it.

“This fish is still a little green, and we need to get it in the fish box and the lid shut as soon as possible.”

With the crew following instructions, the gaffing procedure went smoothly. But the cobia didn’t like the accommodations; we laughed as Odom occasionally bounced when the cobia slammed into the fish box lid and strained its latch and hinges.

“Wow, that’s a nice fish,” Odom said. “I was hoping we might catch a cobia today.

“That’s one of the nice things about fishing here on Yaupon Reef; you never know what you might catch and quite a few species are possible.

“In many places we wouldn’t have been able to fish with this breezy wind, but because it’s from the northeast and this reef is so close to land, we can get here and fish fairly comfortably.

“If we don’t catch anything else, those three kings and this cobia make for a great day. I really like fishing here. This reef have given me some great catches and saved quite a few fishing days that were too rough to go anywhere else.”

Yaupon Reef (AR 425) is arguably the most popular artificial reef in North Carolina. The number of boats fishing there any given day from late April to mid December provide excellent testimony to defeat arguments to the contrary.

Yaupon Reef lies in 36 feet of water approximately 1 1/2 miles off Oak Island. Some people consider it to be off Yaupon Beach Pier and others consider it to be off 58th Street SE. Whatever direction one prefers, the armada that gathers there most days obscures the buoy, but it’s easily visible from the beach at these points. The buoy is located at 33.53.061N and 78.06.546W.

Yaupon Reef is popular for many reasons. It has an excellent reputation across the southeastern U.S. for giving up numerous tournament-winning king mackerel. Traveling tournament anglers always check it out.

Local N.C. anglers plus a few from the northern coast of South Carolina know it as a seasonal home to doormat-size flounder, cobia, gray trout, spadefish, Spanish mackerel, bluefish, red drum, sheepshead, shark, amberjack, jack crevalle, occasional runs of tarpon and a few more species.

Yaupon Reef’s popularity certainly benefits from the ease of getting there; it’s only about 6 miles from the mouth of the Cape Fear River, 7 miles from Lockwood Folly Inlet, and less than 2 miles offshore. The fleet that gathers there includes smaller skiffs and john boats to occasional large sportfishermen.

Nestled in the corner where Bald Head Island, on the east side of the Cape Fear River, extends into the ocean past Fort Caswell on the west side, Yaupon Reef receives a protective lee from any wind between northwest, going north and around, to east. Northeast is the predominant wind in this area for the fall fishing season and this factor saves many days that wouldn’t be fishable elsewhere. It also saves a few late spring days each year before the winds settle into their southwesterly summer pattern.

The materials comprising AR 425 are a conglomeration of tires, bridge rubble, concrete pipe, manhole covers, reef balls, concrete rubble from the renovation of Southport Marina and other objects. This reef is maintained and renourished by the Long Bay Artificial Reef Association, a non-profit group formed in 1984 to build artificial reefs in the N.C. section of Long Bay.

Yaupon Reef was one of the first artificial reefs off the N.C. coast and also the first state-waters reef to receive reef balls. It’s been a subject of several studies on how they work as reef material. Locally called “flounder motels,” reef balls have become a major attraction at Yaupon Reef for fish and fishermen.

Seasonally fishing at Yaupon Reef begins in March and April with the arrival of bluefish, sea mullets (locally known as whitings), and gray trout. In late April, Spanish mackerel arrive, and are followed by king mackerel and cobia during May. Once the water starts to warm during June, flounder and spadefish arrive to join the other species and by the end of June it isn’t a surprise to see occasional pods of rolling tarpons passing across the reef.

Good fishing continues well into the fall. Kings rule this reef until the water temperature drops below about 67 degrees. At this point Yaupon Reef returns to a trout and flounder haven with few equals, with the flounders holding into November, gray trout into December and some large red drum making surprise appearances the entire time.

The LBARA maintains a web site, www.lbara.com, that posts the improvements to Yaupon Reef and their six other artificial reefs. Their most current listing is included in the attached sidebar. An eighth reef site (AR 400) is approved and has been in the works for a while. The first structure is scheduled to be placed at any time and may be done by the time this issue is printed.

Capt. Andy Fisher is a Charlotte transplant who found Oak Island and the great fishing, then retired there. Yaupon Reef is one of his favorite places.

“I really like the idea of being able to catch a lot of different species of fish in the same trip,” Fisher said. “Being close is also nice as I can take my skiff on most days and only burn a few gallons of gas. With gas prices continuing to rise, this is especially important and may increase the number of people fishing Yaupon Reef.”

Fisher said during June a dozen or more species of fish can be caught at Yaupon Reef. He said gray trout, whiting, black sea bass, bluefish, red drum, sheepshead and flounder would be caught on the bottom, with Spanish mackerel, king mackerel, cobia, amberjack, ladyfish, spadefish, tarpon and sharks caught farther up in the water column.

Fisher said his favorite June fishing trip to Yaupon Reef would be for a combination of flounder, king mackerel, cobia and Spanish mackerel.

Fisher uses a lightweight reef anchor and finds a spot to anchor above sections of the reef that are holding flounder. Once in his spot for flounder, he sets out a pair of bottom lines with mullet minnows for flounder, a pair of larger surface live baits for kings and cobia and one other surface line with a smaller live baits for Spanish.

If there’s enough wind, Fisher takes his larger boat rather than his skiff so he may use a kite to deploy his king and cobia baits.

Jim Knight is LBARA’s vice-president and, as a resident of Southport since childhood, he has a special fondness for the area and its great fishing. Becoming involved with the LBARA was a natural step for him.

“I got initially got involved with the reef association to help build good reefs for myself and my family to fish,” Knight said. “Then, at some point, working to have the best reefs possible became something special in itself.

“I head to Yaupon Reef to catch flounder, cobia and Spanish mackerel. The year before last, we had a run of Spanish over 5 pounds that lasted almost the whole summer. I caught a bunch between 6 and 8 pounds myself. They couldn’t resist a mullet minnow or small pogy free lined or drifted back under a float.”

Knight explained reef permits are for 1-square mile. The buoy is placed as close to the actual center as possible. He said at one of the older reefs, various materials were placed throughout much of the permitted area of Yaupon Reef, so getting next to the buoy wasn’t necessary. He said the most recent additions to Yaupon Reef were sections of concrete roof panels and dock rubble from the renovations at Southport Marina last fall.

“One of the most overlooked fish at Yaupon Reef is sheepshead,” Knight said. “As a condition of one of the grants we received, the underwater plant growth and general condition of the reef have to be documented. This is usually done during the winter while the water is a little clearer; the divers always bring back lots of footage of sheepshead.”

“Most of the sheepshead caught at Yaupon Reef are caught by mistake,” Fisher said. “There would be a whole lot more caught if anyone fished specifically for them. Sheepshead like crabs, barnacles and such and the fishermen at Yaupon Reef are dropping minnows, cut bait, shrimp and things like that. I believe someone could go out there with a bucket of fiddler crabs and have an incredible catch.”

Odom, Fisher, Knight and quite a few other fishermen readily sing the praises of Yaupon Reef.

There are many different species of fish to be caught and the fishing heats up during June — just like the weather.

Flounder, king mackerel, cobia and Spanish mackerel garner the spotlight, but there are many other species lurking just outside that glow and they will be glad to gulp a nice bait offering and stretch your string.

About Jerry Dilsaver 1172 Articles
Jerry Dilsaver of Oak Island, N.C., a full-time freelance writer, is a columnist for Carolina Sportsman. He is a former SKA National Champion and USAA Angler of the Year.

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