Three-way drum: piers, surf and boats are all good along North Carolina’s Oak Island in October

North Carolina anglers head for piers, boats and the surf this month to battle big red drum that move into the waters off Brunswick County, drawn by gobs of bait.

Red drum are responding to conservation management strategies, and one of the most-obvious signs is the growth of the nearshore ocean fishery for trophy reds off North Carolina’s Brunswick County, from Cape Fear west to Little River Inlet on the North Carolina-South Carolina border. Fishermen pursue the big drum each fall from the surf, by boat and from the decks of ocean piers.

George Arndt caught this 41-inch red drum off Yaupon Reef on Oct. 24, 2019.

This fishery began about 20 years ago around Little River. The big drum began arriving in late August and stayed through September on the shoals just beyond the inlet’s jetties, occasionally venturing into the inlet to feed on scores of mullet minnows heading toward the ocean. These fish still visit, but the center of the action has shifted to the northeast to North Carolina’s Oak Island, and the bite has stretched into November.  

Many fishermen believe the huge amount of bait entering the ocean through the Cape Fear River’s inlet has created this shift. Whatever the reason, many large redfish gather along the beach and around the nearshore artificial reefs off Oak Island. 

There are similarities in the fishing, whether in the surf, from the piers or on boats. The biggest thing is the use of circle hooks to prevent deep-hooking these big fish, as they must all be released. Many rigs are similar, with the big difference being sinker preferences and whether the sinkers are fixed or slide.

Andrew Imes of Sunset Harbor, N.C., loves to fish, and big drum are some of his favorite targets. He double-dips, chasing them in the surf and from boat or kayak. He begins earlier in the year on their Neuse River run, but come fall, he fishes off Oak Island almost every day he isn’t working. Imes has a guide business, Oak Anchor Outdoors (919-614-2633), for clients interested in surf and kayak fishing, but he reserves his boat for adventures with his father.  

“Surf fishing is something anyone can do,” Imes said. “All you need is a good surf rod, a reel that has a smooth drag and holds a lot of 20-pound line, rigs and bait.”

Imes uses a rig that has a 2- to 3-inch bite leader of 80-pound mono between an 8/0 circle hook and a 100- to 150-pound swivel. This ties to an approximately 15-foot shock leader of 80-pound mono, which then ties to the 20-pound line coming from the reel. A 3- to 5-ounce frog-tongue sinker slides on the shock leader with a bead on each side to prevent it sliding past the knot or onto the swivel.

Andrew Imes, Josh Johnson and Brian Klamer all caught big reds from their kayaks just off the beach at Oak Island.

This allows fish to pick up the bait without feeling anything. Once the sinker slides to the end of the shock leader, it pulls the hook into the corner of the drum’s mouth. All large drum must be released, and this helps prevent deep-hooking while turning the hook into their lower jaw where it can easily be removed.

Imes’ favorite surf baits are spot and croaker heads. He also uses live cob-size mullet, but mostly when he’s fishing during daytime hours. Once the sun begins setting, the fish respond well to the fish heads and chunks of cut bait.

A frog-tongue sinker will slide along the line, allowing a red drum to pick up a bait without feeling the weight. A bottom-sweeper jig is a weapon used by many kayak anglers for big reds.

“This fishing is about locating the fish, and finding schools of bait is the best way to do that,” Imes said. “Riding on the beach isn’t allowed, so I stop at beach accesses and look for schools of bait. Sometimes you can see the bait, but most of the time, diving pelicans give them away.  

“When I can’t find bait schools, I go to Caswell Beach because it’s closer to the mouth of the river, and that’s where the bait comes out,” Imes said. “There is only one public access, and it’s usually pretty crowded. I generally wait until later in the day when the crowd leaves and fish into the evening.

Imes said many fishermen are overly concerned with how far they can cast, but it isn’t always that important. Sure, there are times longer casts help, but many times the big drum are prowling just outside the breakers, especially late in the afternoon and into the evening.

Elliott Estes will fish anytime and anywhere, and his favorite target is big drum. He mates on Oak Island’s Angry Pelican Charters (www.angrypelicancharters.com) and fishes for drum or flounder most afternoons once the boat is cleaned and ready for the next day. He said the ocean piers get him to deeper water more quickly, and his schedule matches when king mackerel fishermen are leaving the pier each afternoon and the pier end is open. Many piers reserve their ends for king mackerel fishermen from opening until near dark, and drum fishermen can’t use that section until the mackerel fishermen leave. This varies from pier to pier; it’s wise to call the pier in advance.

Estes uses a slightly different rig. The hook is a large, non-offset circle hook, and the bite-leader section is only a few inches like the others. This attaches to a 100- to 150-pound swivel, with another 5- to 6-foot section of 80- to 100-pound mono from the swivel to the 40- to 60-pound shock leader. A 100- to 150-pound snap swivel slides on this leader between beads and attaches a 3- to 5-ounce pyramid sinker.  The beads and knots limit the sinker to only sliding along this section of leader. He fishes with 15- to 20-pound mono on the reel.   

“Before you head to the pier, get your bait ready,” Estes said. “I use a variety that includes mullets, pogies (menhaden), pogey and spot heads, crabs and even yellowfin belly. Pogey and spot heads or mullet chunks are good baits most of the time, but if the sharks are bad, blue crabs are excellent baits, as drum like them and sharks no so much.”

Estes said if the bite is slow, you can fish two rods, but when it picks up, only fish one. He said to fight the fish hard to get it in and release it quickly. To remove the hook, they must be hoisted to the deck or beached. Estes believes using a pier net to lift and lower the fish causes less stress. 

Big drum move in schools, and there are often more than a few. Donna Paris fishes both Oak Island piers for kings and catches a good number of big red drum incidentally. Both are carnivores and eat many of the same baitfish, so drum sometimes hit baits intended for kings. Paris recalled one time on Ocean Crest Pier when a huge school of large drum swarmed the end of the pier and ate every mackerel bait. Thirty-some fishermen were suddenly fighting drum, and it was a bit of a boondoggle for a while.  

Imes said fishing in his boat or kayak allows him to reach deeper water than he can casting from the beach and gives the option to move with schools of bait. Fishing is very similar. The baits stay the same, but he switches to a shorter rod so it isn’t unwieldy and switches to a rig with a 2-ounce trolling sinker, which doesn’t hang up as often, tied in-line a few inches above the hook. To cover more bottom, he sometimes switches to a 1- to 2-ounce bottom-sweeper jig, sweetened with a quarter crab or a 1- to 3-ounce bucktail jigged along the bottom.

“When I launch my kayak or get into the area by boat, I’m immediately looking for schools of bait,” Imes said. “Sometimes, you never get more than a couple hundred yards off the beach. I have enjoyed some awesome days at roughly pier-end distance off the beach.

“If I can’t find a school of bait, I head to one of the nearshore artificial reefs,” Imes said. “Yaupon Reef is the most popular, and it is a huge reef. There is almost always at least one school of drum there. I use my fish finder to locate them and begin fishing. It doesn’t take long to hook up if you find the school first.”

It isn’t a revolution, but when the big drum invade Long Bay every fall, think of one way by land and two ways by sea to have a great time catching (and releasing) the invading redfish.

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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