Big Oak Island reds are biting near shore

Bull reds, turned on by mullet moving out of marshes into the ocean off Oak Island, N.C., are well within range of the beach for anglers fishing from kayaks, piers and small boats.

Schools of big drum are just off the beaches

Things begin to change in the ocean in September, and one of the good changes is when schools of red drum, most of them quite a bit larger than the 18- to 27-inch slot limit, begin to show just off the beaches at North Carolina’s Oak Island.

The bite has been occurring for about 10 years and has become a highly anticipated event. It appears to key on when the mullet begin abandoning the marshes to head through inlets to the nearshore ocean. It can be as early as late August, but it picks up steam in September and October, slowing in November.

These are the big, over-slot reds. There may be some in the 36- to 38-inch range. But most are at least 40 inches, and a few exceed 50 inches. Targeting them has become a passion for fishermen, either from boats, from kayaks launched from the beach, and from piers. And sometimes they even wander into the surf.

These big drum were first discovered by flounder fishermen plying the nearshore artificial reefs. King mackerel fishermen slow-trolling live baits for nearshore smoker kings also hooked some unexpectedly. Red drum this size are almost constantly feeding.

A variety of baits and lures catch these fish

Anglers catch these trophy fish on a wide variety of baits. Live finger mullet and menhaden, and cut pieces of menhaden and mullet are great options. They also hit metal jigs and bucktails jigged off the bottom for flounder and gray trout. Large soft plastics fished several feet below loud popping corks also catch plenty.

Mark Patterson, founder and president of the North Carolina Kayak Fishing Association, spends a lot of time chasing big reds in the fall. He fishes live bait, chunks of natural baits, and lures, depending on the availability of fresh bait and water quality. Sometimes, flash is more important. Other times, scent is more important. The big reds also respond to the sound of popping corks. One thing all fishermen agree on, regardless of the rig or bait, is to use large, non-offset circle hooks so the big fish won’t be hooked deeply and the hook can be easily removed.

Yaupon Reef, AR 425, is a popular spot, but the big drum are also at other artificial reefs, old blockade-runner wrecks and a spot off Caswell Beach called the Hot Hole, where water that cools Duke Energy’s nearby nuclear plant is released back into the ocean. It is usually a few degrees warmer than the water around it, which attracts baitfish.

This is a fun fishery, and when the big drum are schooled tight, fishermen may catch 10 or more in a half-day  trip. Patterson urges fishermen to use good equipment and fight the fish aggressively to bring them to the boat quickly and release them in good condition for survival.

Jerry Dilsaver
About Jerry Dilsaver 1171 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.