"Bayou Bill" Scifres
Dedicated to the conservation and enjoyment of Indiana's natural resources
About Bayou Bill
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North Carolina's Peerless Piers
Copyright © 2002 by Bill Scifres
(Published in North Carolina Game and Fish Magazine, September 2002 issue)

I had my doubts about this fishing day when I pushed the lobby door open and stepped out onto the planks of the Avon (North Carolina) Fishing Pier.

I could see my son-in-law, Adam Kendall, and his father, Neil, the length of a football field toward the end of the 710-foot pier, the railings of which were lined with “railbirds,” hopefully holding fishing rods and peering down at the gentle surf some 15 feet below.

Adam and Neil had gobbled an early breakfast that day and had gone to the pier soon after daylight. I had slept a little longer, breakfasted a little slower, and now I was about to get involved in another day of fishing on the Tarheel State’s famed Outer Banks, more specifically Hatteras Island.

I must admit, as a Midwestern bass and bluegill fisherman, and an outdoor writer, as well, I seriously doubted that this would turn into an exciting fishing experience. But as the old saw goes: We all make mistakes.

Twenty strides or so out on the weather-beaten planks (I wondered how many hurricanes they had survived), I encountered a lady, who could easily have been on Social Security, with a six-poundish black drum in her hand and an equally robust smile on her face. She was headed for the lobby tackle shop to see if her prize would qualify for a citation--there were no doubts about its eating quality or quantity.

(I told myself I would scale it, leave the skin on, lop off the head, clean out the cavity well, stuff it with a nice bread/tomato/onion stuffing, plop it into a shallow baking dish, surround it with pre-cooked potatoes, carrots and onions, drape it with a strip of bacon or two, and cover it loosely with foil. I would bake it at 350 degrees until the skin started cracking to tell me it was almost time for din-din. Then, I would dip out enough juice to make a flour/milk sauce while the broiler turned my dish a rich brown. So much for my gastronomic/culinary fantasies.)

With my pier-fishing outlook bolstered, I walked slowly over the planks to be stopped here as an angler hoisted in a spot, there by a flouncing whiting, and at length by an angler quitting his seat on a middle-sized ice chest to lift the cooler lid and deposit a nice blowfish. I couldn’t help seeing that he had a mess of fish and they were beautifully fresh.

“That’s your pole,” Adam said, pointing to a medium-sized Penn outfit that leaned against the railing, it’s line streaming out at a 90-degree angle from the pier. “I haven’t checked the bait for a while.”

With that, Adam lifted the lid to his (our) cooler to reveal half a dozen or so fish, a brace of whiting, a couple of small blues and a spot or two.

Thinking that I probably should “fish or cut bait,” I reeled in my bottom rig to find the bait of both hooks missing.

That whetted my angling appetite. After rebaiting the top hook with a finger-sized sliver of squid, and the top hook with a thumbnail-sized chunk of cut baby mullet, I simply lowered my rig as close as I could get it to a piling.

Before it reached the bottom, I could feel the familiar “tic tic tic” of a flounder (over the years I had learned this by wade-fishing the sound) and brought up a “flattie” that was a nice fish, but which did not meet the 15 1/2-inch minimum size limit for the ocean.

Adam told me our fellow railbirds had called the fishing rather slow, but as I looked up stem to stern along the pier’s two sides, I noted that anglers were cranking in fish with some regularity.

Then my eye caught the “T” at pier’s end with several anglers eyeballing sturdy-looking rods that leaned against the rail or were held tight-line fashion by their owners.

“That’s for guys who want to fish for big fish,” Adam told me . . .  “mostly red drum fishermen,” he continued, “I haven’t seen any action out there.” 

Thinking I should record some of the action, I picked up my camera and headed for the “T,” shooting a few action shots as I went. I asked one of the anglers on the “T” what he was fishing for.

“Red drum,” he said, and though his answer was terse, his manner and friendly demeanor revealed a likable person.

“How do you fish for red drum,” I asked.

“I don’t know whether you should rely on my ideas,” he said in a friendly, North Carolinian drawl. “I have been fishing for red drum for 45 years and I have never caught  a citation fish . . ."

We shook as I explained that I was an outdoor (fishing/hunting) writer with the hope that he would tell me more about red drum fishing, which he did.

(Incidentally, a citation red drum is a fish of 40 inches or longer. Red (puppy) drum between 18 and 27 inches may be taken, but fish shorter than 18 inches, or longer than 27 inches must be released immediately. This is a good conservation regulation aimed at perpetuating the species. NC regulations allow only one puppy drum per day.) 

I continued to fire questions on red drum fishing technique at Terry Shive, a retired school teacher and farmer. He kept spitting out answers while deftly holding the 25-pound-test line that lead to a frog tongue weight (sinker) of seven ounces, and his bait--a chunk of menhaden larger than a golf ball. The weight--and his bait--were on an inundated sand bar roughly 75 yards beyond the end of the pier. Terry says some drum anglers prefer 20-pound test line because its smaller diameter increases both the amount of line that can be spooled on a reel and casting distance. He adds that some anglers who use smaller free-spool reels even go to 17-pound test line.

Lighter line holds up well for drum fishing because most anglers use a heavier shock leader between their bottom rig and the tag end of the spool line. 

That my informant had admitted he had never caught a citation drum made his clinic no less interesting. It was obvious that he knew of which he spoke. The next few minutes would prove it.

I can’t remember what aspect of drum fishing Terry was telling me about when it happened, but suddenly the tip of his 12-foot, 2-inch, heavy-duty rod took a healthy arc. He grabbed the pole and set the hook in one frantic move and then put pressure on the fish with the rod.

You know the rest of the story. With son Jason giving his father timely tips, Terry’s battle with the big drum must have lasted 15 minutes and brought spectators from everywhere. The see-saw battle ended when Jerry Varnadore, a member of Terry’s party, lowered a drop net to bring up Terry’s first citation red drum. 

Terry’s prize measured 43 inches and pier manager Billy Hawkins estimated the weight at 23 to 25 pounds. Hawkins uses a formula for establishing the weight of red drum that helps get these beautiful fish back in the water as quickly as possible. His formula is length, times girth, times girth, divided by 800, and that suggested that Terry’s fish may have weighed roughly 30 pounds, but Terry would not quibble over five pounds when the important issue at the moment was getting the fish back in the water.

It was the best fishing clinic I had ever witnessed. I thought I had captured the whole thing on film--including the release. But I later learned my camera had wrecked that roll of film and five others. Fortunately, Varnadore’s wife, Kathy, was shooting the episode with another camera.

There still was much for me to learn about fishing ocean piers of the North Carolina coast--any coast for that matter. But I had learned the interesting way that pier fishing can be great fun and very rewarding along the North Carolina coast.

Before writing another word, I should emphasize that pier fishing neither starts nor ends at the Avon Pier, even though it is the most handy for me when we check in for a vacation at the town of Avon.

Dare County, the farthest north government unit that offers ocean fishing piers, sports eight of the 22  piers that are operational this year. This story will not address piers on sounds, bays, rivers and other waters of the state.

But before progressing with a county-by-county, north-to-south listing of the ocean fishing piers of North Carolina, we probably should point out that the hurricane factor (HF) makes delineation of said piers somewhat like the butcher who checks his fingers before he quits work each day.

Over the years hurricanes have erased many of the old favorite piers and severely damaged, or shortened, others.

Be that fact of coastal life as it is, an extensive investigation via telephone, e-mail, snail (US) mail, hearsay, and other modes of communication unveiled 22 piers that are open for fishing this year. Generally, the piers open at mid-March or early April and remain open through most of November, some closing soon after Thanksgiving. Some others close, but leave the gates open through the winter for those who want to fish.

Of the seven NC counties that front the Atlantic Ocean, six offer fishing piers. Only Currituck County, the state’s northernmost oceanfront county, does not offer fishing piers. The absence of piers in Currituck County probably can be traced to the fact that much of this barrier island is occupied by Currituck National Wildlife Refuge.

Heading south from Currituck County, one will find Dare County (eight fishing piers) next south, Carteret County (four piers); Pender (two piers); New Hanover (four piers), and Brunswick (six piers) before encountering the South Carolina line. Even with my faulty cerebellum, that translates into 22 piers . . . a heap of great fishing for so many species of saltwater denizens that it would be most impossible to enumerate them.

As noted earlier, those who have fished the NC coast over the years may find some of their old favorite piers on the missing list--thanks mostly to the propensity of the barrier islands to be battered by storms.

For example, Iron Steamer and Emerald Isle piers are no more in Carteret County, and Oceanic Pier in New Hanover County has been reduced to a restaurant of the same name . . .which, if you will pardon my slight digression, and love of good seafood, boasts a fine seafood bill-of-fare. Still, the old piers are missed by many anglers.

So what species may an angler expect to catch when fishing the ocean piers of NC? That is not an easy question to answer, but technically, it would not be outrageous to believe that one might--a very big might--tangle with anything that swims or slithers in the Atlantic Ocean, including skates (I call them phantom fish) and sharks, which to most anglers are throwbacks (not eaten).

True, it is not likely that many of the big-water denizens will often be found (hooked) from the piers, but then there is this theory that fish of any species will be “where you find them.” The smart angler never says never about any aspect of nature or, as it turns out, pier fishing.

If one had to make up a list of fish most likely to be hooked from the ocean piers of NC (which I must), the commonplace spot would have to be right up there.

When I discussed this facet of pier fishing with pier managers, pier owners, nearby bait shop operators, and no small number of anglers, some referred to the spot (Leiostomus xanthutuus) as the all-time “money fish” of the fishing-pier business.

I had to smile when I questioned them about the table qualities of spot, often hearing  the word: “Excellent.”

This profoundly commonplace species is not a scale-wrecker, seldom topping the one-pound mark. For this reason, many anglers who are in the dark about the spot’s eating qualities allow many other species to outweigh the spot on their preferred list.

Of course, the flounder, which could be one of several strains or species, are always one of the most popular fish among anglers because of their great eating qualities. But with a minimum size limit of 15 ½ inches on the oceanfront, you do not see loads of them in coolers. Still many of the piers up and down the coast report flounder of horse proportions (up to 10 pounds or more) every year.

Likewise, bluefish (no size limit, but no more than 15 fish per day) are taken often, and whiting, croakers, mullet, and two species of trout (gray and specks), pompano, blow fish (also know as puffers or toad fish and so good on the table that they are known as chicken of the sea), and numerous other small bottom fish come over the rails often. Even sheepshead are taken by those who tightline their offerings (barnacles or small shellfish) close to the pilings.

Schools of Spanish mackerel can turn the piers into a calamity of action, and the occasional battles with king mackerel of 30 pounds or more, cobia, tuna, black and red drum, and striped bass (rock fish in Yankee parlance) occasionally getting into the act.

Incidentally, the NC Division of Marine Fisheries offers printed matter on both minimum size limits and daily creel limits on fish taken along the NC coast, and on length/weight qualifications of the many species of fish for citations. The address is 3441 Arendell Street, Morehead City, NC 28557. The telephone number is 252/726-7021, and the web page address is http://www.ncfisheries.net.

Now that we have established the fact that fish of many species and sizes are taken from the NC coastal piers, another question revolves around how to catch them and what kind of tackle should be used.

In close I see anglers, using ultralight spinning tackle, snaking out fish with their little wands and 6-pound-test line almost at the breaking point. They catch plenty of fish.

But as I go further out on the pier, the rods become longer and more hefty and the reels are spooled with heavier line. They, too, are catching fish, at times pretty good ones--like the lady’s 6-poundish black drum.

Then, of course, there are the hefty sticks seen on the Ts and elevated decks at the ends of piers, used by those who cast five to seven ounces of weight 100 yards or more into the ocean.

Terminal tackle can be anything from a simple two-hook bottom rig for the smaller fish in close (in the surf), to huge sticks capable of casting five to seven ounce sinkers and hefty chunks of cut bait more than the length of a football field.

Terminal tackle can be as simple as my favorite (a bare one-fourth ounce jig head with a piece of fresh shrimp as large as the first joint of my index finger) to a three-rod setup (for kings and other big fish). 

The terminal rig for kings involves a big, stiff rod with heavy line and a nail sinker that buries itself in the sand. The nail sinker is cast as far out into the ocean as the angler can propel it. When it is solid, the taut line is used to transport a large live bait like a mullet or some other live fish to the preferred location on a smaller outfit known as “the fighting rod.”  When a king or some other large fish takes the bait, the connection with the anchor rod is released by a clothespin-like gadget. The fish then is fought on the fighting rod.

Those who fish in this manner usually pay more and have special areas--usually “Ts” or elevated decks--at the ends of many piers.

These anglers also are allowed a third rod--a bait outfit--that is used to catch bait.

And what does one use for bait on the piers? 

I have found fresh shrimp (the fresher the better and in the shell) as good as anything I have ever used. However, some anglers--including the aforementioned Shive--like to peel their shrimp and make several baits from one shrimp. Shive says running the hook into the shrimp pieces from the side tends to keep it on the hook better, the tail piece being wormed onto the hook. But finger-sized strips of squid or belly meat of any small fish also are good. Blood worms (even though I don’t like them) account for a lot of fish.

Shive also says there is a place for small hooks in pier fishing--especially when fish are running small. A big fish may straighten out a small hook, but more small fish will be taken with smaller hooks, he says.

Although most pier anglers opt for big chunks of fresh cut fish like the spot and others for larger fish, it seems to me that big fish do not hesitate to take small morsels which also are best for small fish. I like shrimp that are about the length of my index finger. Each shrimp is pinched into two baits, the big end and the tail end. And I want the point of the hook to go through the shrimp shell twice, or at least once. I like the white meat of the shrimp cradled in the bend of the hook.

Finally, when fishing strange places--say fishing piers--it is good to fish  by the “When in Rome” theory. “When in Rome,” the old saw goes, “do as the Romans do.”

So keep an eye for angling success on your fellow railbirds. Some of them will know how to catch fish and you can duplicate their performances.

By county (north to south or east to west) the piers are: 

Dare County: 
1--Kitty Hawk Fishing Pier (FP), 1,000 feet, Phone: 910/278-5962
2--Avalon FP, 675 feet, Phone: 252/441-7494
3--Nags Head FP, 800 feet, Phone: 252/441-5141
4--Jeanette's FP, 500 feet, (probably not open this year)
5--Outer Banks FP, 700 feet, Phone: 252/441-5740
6--Rodanthe FP, 840 feet, Phone: 252/987-2323
7--Avon FP, 710 feet, Phone: 252-995-5480
8--Frisco FP, 650 feet, Phone: 252/986-2533

Note: Access all Dare County Piers from NC Highway 112. 

Carteret County: 
9--Triple S Pier, 1,000 feet, At Morehead City, Phone: 252/726-4170, access from NC Hwy. 58 at Fort Macon State Park at east end  of Bogue Banks
10--Oceana FP, 1,000 feet, At Morehead City, Phone: 252/726-0863, access from NC Hwy. 58 on east end of Bogue Banks.
11--Sportsman's FP, 1,000 feet, at Morehead City, Phone: 252/726-3176, access from NC Hwy. 58 on East end of Bogue Banks.
12--Bogue Inlet FP, Pier, 1,000 feet, Phone: 252/354-2919, access from NC Hwy. 58 from west end of Bogue Banks

Pender County:
13--Surf City FP, 937 feet. At Surf City, southwest of Pender-Onslow county line, 
Phone: 910/328-3521, access from NC Hwy. 50 (Topsail  Street), 
14--Jolly Roger FP, 800 feet, at Topsail Beach, Phone: 910/328-4616, access from NC Hwy. 50 southwest from Surf City.

New Hanover County:
15--Carolina Beach FP  (Formerly North Extension FP), 850 feet, on south end of Myrtle Grove Sound north of Carolina Beach State Park, Phone: 910/458-5518, access from US 421 or NC Hwy. 3.
16--Kure Beach FP, 711feet, north of Fort Fisher, Phone 910/458-5524, access from Fort Fisher Blvd. 

Note on New Hanover County--Johnnie Mercer Pier, northeast of town of Wrightsville Beach (under reconstruction, but may be open this year--2002.)

Brunswick County: 
17--Yupon FP, 750 feet, southwest of the town of Southport on Oak Island, Phone, 910/278-6674, access from NC Hwy. 133 and Yupon Drive. 
18--Ocean Crest FP, 850 feet, 4 miles west of Yupon FP at Oak Island, Phone: 910/278-6674, access from East Ocean Hwy.
19--Long Beach FP, 1,000 feet. three miles west of Ocean Crest Pier at the town of Oak Island. Phone: 910/278-5962, access from NC Hwy. 133. 
20--Holden Beach FP, 700 feet, at Holden Beach, west of Folly River Inlet, Phone: 910/842-6483, access from Ocean View Blvd.
21--Ocean Isle FP, 765 feet, at Ocean Isle Beach, Phone: 910/579-6873, access off First Street. 
22--Sunset Beach (900 feet, at town of Sunset Beach 3 miles west of NC/South Carolina state line, Phone: 910/579-6630, access from NC Hwy. 179.


All columns are copyrighted by Bill Scifres and may not be reproduced in any form without prior permission from the author.  For reproduction permission and media usage fees, contact: Scifres Family, 6420 East 116th Street, Fishers, IN 46038

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