The Outer Banks in Winter
'Tis the season for redfish, striped bass, seatrout, and near-empty beaches.
After the summer and fall crowds recede, the beautiful sandy beaches of North Carolina’s Outer Banks become virtually empty. Excellent news for anglers, because the fish are still there in abundance and low, off-season prices are the norm at local hotels. There may be no better time to visit this famous surf-fishing destination.
The action remains good throughout the winter thanks to its proximity to the warm waters of the Gulf Stream. Hatteras Point-a long, curving finger of sandy beach that extends southward and then bends around to the southwest is just 12 miles inshore of the subtropical Gulf Stream. This point is also situated at the western end of Diamond Shoals, a massive bank of shallow water and shipwrecks that diverts warm Gulf Stream water right up to the beach, especially during any period of southerly winds. The combination of Hatteras Point and Diamond Shoals forms a massive natural trap that crowds large schools of baitfish inshore-at times right up into the surf.
Those in the know come to this area every winter to enjoy spectacular surf fishing. Red drum (channel bass or redfish, if you prefer) and striped bass ranging from 30 to 50-plus pounds make regular appearances. Smaller puppy drum and juvenile stripers from 5 to 15 pounds are common. Sloughs along the beach produce good numbers of 1- to 5-pound seatrout.
Wind and Weather
The passage of a strong cold front can slow things down a bit, but the fronts can also actually help the winter fishing. The southerly winds that precede the frontal passage push warm water inshore, creating a big surf full of confused baitfish and hungry predators. The action can be fast right up to the time that the wind switches into the west. Then things may quiet down for a day or two. But the fronts tend to move through rapidly, and the action soon picks up again.
“The key to success is water temperature,” says Dan Willard, a retired Coast Guardsman who works at the Red Drum Tackle Shop in Buxton when he’s not chasing fish. “If it’s 60 degrees or higher, big drum feed right into the surf at any time of the year. If it’s below 45, even the striped bass and puppy drum head for deep water.”
A change in wind direction from northerly to southerly can raise the water temperature by 10 to 15 degrees in just hours. From southeast to southwest is the most desirable wind. The stronger it blows, the faster the water warms.
The focal point of wintertime Outer Banks surf fishing is the small town of Buxton-really just a wide spot on State Highway 12-less than 3 miles from Hatteras Point. You’ll need a four-wheel-drive vehicle to cover the last mile or so of beach from the pavement to the point. However, there are also lots of places along the paved highway where you can park and hike across the dunes a short distance to reach the surf. Big striped bass and red drum can be taken from boats around the inlets whenever the seas are not too rough, and this is a good way to hook up when fish are not in the surf. There are also big bluefin tuna, 100 to 600 pounds, found offshore from within a mile of the beach to 30 or 40 miles out, depending upon conditions. Charter boats can take you out for any of these giants.
Tackle and Gear
Most anglers keep three rods on hand at all times. The workhorse is a “drum rod,” an 111/2- to 121/2-footer with 16- to 20-pound-test line for fishing bait for big drum and stripers. It must be capable of heaving 4 to 8 ounces of lead and a big chunk of bait well over 100 yards. In the middle is a somewhat lighter 91/2- to 10-footer with 10- to 12-pound-test for mackerel and other lure fishing-including big striped bass. Finally, a light 7-footer with 6- to 10-pound-test will handle puppy drum and seatrout in nearshore sloughs and in the open sound.
Most of the serious surf anglers I’ve talked to choose baitcasting reels for the two heavier rods and spinnning gear for the light rod. Capacity is most important, however, with at least 250 yards on each reel. Monofilament is the line of choice; thinner superbraids are nearly invisible and thus considered dangerous on a busy beach. Most anglers use circle hooks for their higher hookup rate and also because they rarely hook the fish in the throat or gut.
Proper clothing is a must for winter fishing. Because of the wide temperature range in both air and water, skip the heavy, bulky stuff and stick to light layers of warm synthetics that don’t easily absorb moisture. You will also need rain gear (keep that lightweight, too) and waders. Heavy waders, like neoprene, are cumbersome for wading a heavy surf. Lightweight waders are far more comfortable and allow you to wear the right layers underneath to match the conditions.
If you fly, the two nearest major airports are Raleigh, North Carolina (about 250 miles away) and Norfolk, Virginia (150 miles). There are also several regional airports, like New Bern or Greenville, North Carolina, that are a bit closer, but in the end you’ll still have to rent a car for the final leg and you really won’t get there any sooner.
If you drive, coming from the south you can take the ferry from Cedar Island to Ocracoke, and then another across Hatteras Inlet to Hatteras Village. Or, regardless of which direction you’re coming from, you can avoid the long ferry ride (although North Carolina’s ferry system is excellent and I found the crossing enjoyable, a welcome chance to relax) by driving in from the northern end of the Outer Banks. It’s all bridges from that end, whether you come via Kitty Hawk or Roanoke.