Tuning In and Turning On
Our après-lunch plan involved a 30-minute run east to 50 feet of water at Lighthouse Rocks, off the end of the Cape Fear Ship Channel. The emerald-green water looked promising.
At about 4 p.m., the tandem-pogy rig began showing signs of nervous-bait syndrome. After a momentary pause and collective breath-holding among McMullan, his father, Rube, and myself, we watched the sea literally explode into action. The switch was flipped, and we released four kings to 25 pounds in 30 minutes. These were not the 40-pounders we had hoped for, but they put instant smiles on our faces.
"OK, I'm not quite as mad at 'em," McMullan said, expressing at least some vindication. As with any fishing, when the king bite is on, the bite is on. When it's not, well, we still call it "fishing."
On day two, the wind freshened out of the west-southwest. We ran first to Christmas Ledge, about 15 miles out of port - much farther offshore than our day-one spots. Even these nearshore fish become skittish sometimes, it seems. So plans need to be fluid.
As we hopscotched to different locations in 35 to 50 feet of water, we kept in mind the previous day's "afternoon" bite. And sure enough, the pattern repeated.
At the Myrtle Beach Rocks in 44 feet of water, the temperature of the green brine registered 67.6 at 2 p.m. McMullan's wife, Amy, who has fished on a pro SKA women's team, heard her reel sing. The king walked her around the boat before submitting - this time - to the gaff.
Amy's fish fit that 20- to 30-pound school slot too. An hour later, Rube McMullan stroked a similar fish. It seemed that on this trip, our smoker would prove elusive.
Time It Right
Fall usually means uncertain ocean conditions as fronts begin to stir up the seas. So plan several days to target these fish, if possible. Thankfully, Ocean Isle, positioned near the South Carolina border, is among the easiest North Carolina coastal towns to find off the interstate, whether you trailer your boat or book a late-season charter.
Finding that 40-pounder rests on the whims of chance. But even the 25-pounders can "smoke" light tackle. Couple that with the fairly short run to fish and the off-season peace and quiet, and you might just decide it's time for a beach party!
Try out these GPS lat/lon numbers for fall king mackerel near Ocean Isle Beach, North Carolina:
Shallotte Inlet Rocks
33º 51.038' N, 078º 21.469' W
33º 46.369' N, 078º 05.595' W
Myrtle Beach Rocks
33º 38.693' N, 078º 48.415' W
Ocean Isle Time
October brings what must be an almost audible sigh from Ocean Isle Beach. Full- and part-time residents can have their brightly colored, sand-swept resort town back.
Of course, Ocean Isle keeps its doors open, but business hours grow shorter and festivals grow fewer (though don't miss the North Carolina Oyster Festival and the NC Festival by the Sea, both in October.)
Ocean Isle is located just north of the South Carolina border and about 20 miles north of North Myrtle Beach. If you're flying, head to the Myrtle Beach AFB or Wilmington New Hanover County airports. If you're driving, Ocean Isle is about 100 miles east of the Florence, South Carolina, exit off Interstate 95.
I stayed at the well-equipped and comfortable Ocean Isle Inn (800-352-5988; www.oceanisleinn.com), situated above a pristine dune line overlooking the Atlantic. Rooms come with a refrigerator, microwave and wet bar. I enjoyed leaving the balcony's sliding doors open to let in the cool wind. After Labor Day and into early October, rates (referenced at press time) range from $89 to $119 but drop by mid-October to $89 for an oceanfront room and $79 for an Intracoastal "sound" view.
Capt. Brant's Ocean Isle Fishing Center (910-575-FISH; www.oifc.com) features a fully equipped tackle, marine and gift store, water-sports activities and rentals, as well as offshore and inshore charter trips aboard its four vessels.