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Variety spices N.C. saltwater fly fishing


While a persistent winter storm iced in the parking lots at the state fairgrounds in Timonium on Thursday afternoon, a top fly-fishing guide clicked through a series of slides showing sunny, T-shirt weather and monster stripers, channel bass and blues taken on saltwater flies.

At first glance it might have been the lower Chesapeake Bay or Maryland's coastal waters, but the scenes were from North Carolina, where saltwater fly fishing has taken off over the past few years, inside and outside the Outer Banks.

"Michael Jordan could stand up in most of the waters we fish in," said Sarah Gardner, an exhibitor at the Bass Expo who was heavily involved in fly fishing Chesapeake Bay waters until moving to the Outer Banks last spring. "But the fishing down there is incredible, and there is a little more variety than in the [Chesapeake] bay."

Coastal Carolina waters hold many of the same species as the Chesapeake, but because of spring and fall migratory patterns, anglers there encounter them earlier or later in the year.

In late February or early March, the shad run begins in the rivers that feed the sounds, followed by spawning runs of white perch and striped bass.

In April big bluefish migrate within 10 miles of the coast, and as the waters warm, speckled trout, big channel bass, croaker, flounder and Spanish mackerel move in. By late summer, Gardner said, tarpon, too, are on site.

"There are times when I don't know whether to bring a 4 weight [rod and line] or a 14 weight," said Gardner, a licensed captain who runs an 18-foot center console well-suited to the thin water of the sounds and back country. "The fishing can change that quickly in an hour."

In order to deal with the various species, Gardner prefers to keep her tackle simple -- poppers and Deceiver and Deep Minnow patterns, rods in the 7 weight to 9 weight range and spare spools holding intermediate and sinking lines.

"Using variations of the popper, Deceiver and Deep Minnow, it doesn't matter whether it is a bluefish or a tarpon, you can catch them using these flies," Gardner said. "But for albacore and other offshore species, you need bigger and better tackle."

Gardner and her fiance, Brian Horsley, run Flat Out Fly Fishing Charters in Nags Head and fish a 20-mile stretch of the Outer Banks 90 percent of the time. But when conditions are right, they will set offshore for larger species.

"What we have offshore down there now, for example, is giant bluefin tuna," said Gardner. "With them it's not so much catching a big fish as it is catching one small enough to get in the boat."

The coastline craze off the Outer Banks has become false albacore, a "lunacy" that Horsley and Gardner said runs from early summer to November.

"It is incredible on a fly rod," said Gardner, recalling a 60-pounder caught last fall. "I don't think I ever had such a fight in my life."

According to Horsley and Gardner, the technique for hooking up with false albacore starts with seeding the water with live bait fish to tease the big predators into the strike zone.

"Then you see these long, silver shapes rocketing up through the water and it's, 'Oh, my God!' " said Gardner. "It's not like rockfish breaking in the bay. It is insane. It goes from one fish to this explosion of fish in an instant."

Horsley recommends 9 to 11 weight gear for false albacore with either intermediate or sinking lines, depending on depth of the fish, and Deep Minnows or Deceivers of 5 or 6 inches.

"For false albacore fishing, there ain't a better place on the planet," said Horsley, who grew up fishing the Outer Banks surf in the 1960s. "But a day of fishing down there can span from amberjack and albacore on big tackle to speckled trout in the shallows on 6 weights."

Fishing the sounds for speckled trout, stripers and other smaller species, Gardner said, is an excellent place for novice fly anglers to start out.

"You don't have to have a boat, either," she said. "There is good wade fishing with a fly rod -- which is not always the case in Chesapeake Bay." (The bay has limited public access to shorelines).

"But all along the National Seashore there is very good access for waders."

The increase in inshore fly fishing over the past several years, Gardner said, has brought "a lot more women into the sport and in most cases clients who are fairly new to the sport don't have to use heavy tackle."

Come spring, bluefish and stripers move inshore on the Banks to feed heavily as they begin their northerly migration, herding baitfish against the shoreline and providing a prime opportunity for fly anglers working the surf.

"Your first sign is the gannets that begin to gather over them just off the shoreline," said Gardner. "This is your signal that you better get ready for action."

Pub Date: 1/17/99

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