As the beach crowds thin and the air chills along the North Carolina coast, kingfish must sense the calm. No more splashing kids, loud watercraft nor gauntlet of baited hooks.
In the fall, king mackerel take over the beach. They spread out along the shoreline, following and feeding on schools of mullet, spot, bluefish and oily pogies - the piscine equivalent of a plate of cheese fries.
In the midst of the flipping baitfish, Capt. Brant McMullan hurls a heavy, double-weighted 10-foot cast net. He culls the haul boat-side before loading the livewell of his 33 World Cat Tournament Edition. He'll spend the rest of this October day on the hunt.
McMullan, who owns Ocean Isle Fishing Center, knows kingfish; he has competed on the Southern Kingfish Association pro circuit for 10 years, with 50- and 51-pounders to his credit. He says - and most anglers know - that big kings frequent North Carolina shores in late June and July. But by the time the first cold fronts arrive, the water cools to 71 degrees and the bait smorgasbord appears, summer anglers have all but disappeared, leaving the October/November run of smokers mostly untapped.
In fact, McMullan operates the Fall Brawl King Classic in late October to offer anglers a reason to extend their season. Last year's tournament attracted 89 boats, with more than $35,000 in prize money awarded.
Weather usually dictates fall strategy. On the first late October day that I joined McMullan offshore, bright, chilly yet sunny conditions and lolling seas called for kite fishing and chumming at anchor about a mile off the beach. McMullan teased his buddy Jeremy Dixon, telling him he brought him along so he could grind chum. Undaunted, Dixon took to the chore with relish.
As Dixon crushed the pogies into aromatic mush, OIFC captain Chris Burrows deployed a red SFE kite with two lines and rigged liveys under two balloons, dangling the baits six and 10 feet below the surface.
McMullan had spooled 20-pound mono onto Shimano Speedmaster reels on Star rods. His leader system started with 10 feet of 30-pound fluorocarbon, followed by 18 to 24 inches of 40-pound AFW wire and two No. 6 or No. 4 4x treble hooks. McMullan likes to snell the trebles on his pogy rigs because the hooks lay and pull straighter. He uses braided wire in 40- to 60-pound-test and snells the hooks just as he would with mono. He pulled out a fifth rod for the spread and dropped back a free-lined live bait, hooking the pogy through the nose with the front treble and pinning the second treble near the tail.
To add even more fuel to the fire, McMullan began live chumming with pogies, bouncing a few off the engine cowlings. The kingfish, however, seemed to ignore these overtures. So McMullan put on a clinic, hauling in the kites to slow-troll "the old-fashioned way."
Switching on the Nautamatic auto-pilot, McMullan turned to the cockpit, where he and Burrows deployed three single-pogy rigs with Cape Lookout "Smokers Only" skirts, a tandem-pogy rig close and a skirted dead ribbonfish on the downrigger. The World Cat, with its twin Yamaha F250s, trolls at 2.4 mph with both engines in gear. But he can bump it back to 1.4 on one engine.
In about 26 feet of water, a half-mile from the beach, we hooked a hefty bluefish - a great big-king bait, McMullan crowed. But the smokers had yet to hear the dinner bell. We theorized that the tide was still rising, and - this close to the inlet - that would make a difference. We deferred to the afternoon.
According to a 2006 stock assessment, the South Atlantic migratory group of king mackerel, which includes North Carolina fish, is not "overfished"; however, scientists are uncertain whether overfishing is occurring. The final report, published in March by the Southeast Data, Assessment and Review program, showed a 66.7 percent chance that the south Atlantic group is experiencing overfishing at a low level.
South Atlantic king mackerel mix with their brethren from the Gulf of Mexico in south Florida during winter. Scientists declared the Gulf mackerel stock rebuilt this year - a sterling success story following 25 years of commercial and recreational management.
Current federal recreational regulations, adopted by North Carolina and all other South Atlantic states, allow a three-fish bag per day (two off Florida); kings must measure at least 24 inches at the fork. A mature, reproductive fish measures 28 inches and is usually two to three years old. King mackerel (Scomberomorus cavalla) are believed to live up to 26 years and are capable of growing to about 5 1/2 feet long and weighing 100 pounds.
Kingfish spawn along the outer continental shelf from May through October; they generally can be found in depths of 115 to 600 feet from Massachusetts to Brazil and in the Gulf of Mexico.