From Nags Head southward to Ocracoke, the Atlantic Ocean off the Outer Banks of North Carolina has long been known as Gamefish Junction. More than a score of varieties of game fish—from blue and white marlin to dolphin, sailfish and tuna—are taken there each year. But to surf casters the great delight of the Banks is the channel bass, that ugly, brutish, copper-colored croaker who reaches his ultimate in size within sighting distance of the famed Cape Hatteras lighthouse. For some reason the really big bass are taken almost entirely in the Outer Banks area or in nearby Virginia waters. There the 50-pounder is commonly taken, fish weighing in at above 60 pounds are by no means rare and once, 20 years ago, these beaches yielded a 75½-pounder to Captain Bernice Ballance, a surf-fishing pioneer who was the first Hatterasman to use a rod and reel on the Outer Banks in place of the old hand line.
It is in the vicinity of Cape Hatteras each fall and spring of a normal year that the big channel bass school up out of deep water to make their feeding forays among the bait in the sloughs between sandbars and shore. You can't exactly set your watch by them, but sometime between mid-March and mid-April they are expected to swarm into the Hatteras surf or to surface outside in vast, ruddy schools that Outer Banks people call "acres of red." They are then so numerous that at times a man in a boat cannot see an ocean patch that is not colored by their red backs. Then, in a few weeks, they move northward for a summer in the waters of Virginia and Chesapeake Bay. As northern waters cool, they return to the Outer Banks in late October or early November. That has been their normal pattern within the memory span of the oldest Hatterasman, though once they were common as far north as Long Island.
But last spring the run into the surf at Hatteras was so poor that many a puzzled, disgruntled surf fisherman trudged the beach from slough to empty slough asking his surly self if it could be possible that still another great sporting fish, the Hatteras channel bass, might be going the way of the Peconic weakfish and the Kennebec salmon.
During those cold and windy weeks the bass sulked far out of casting range, unwilling to thrust sensitive snouts into a murky surf that contained almost as much sand as water. They were then most easily found halfway out to the Gulf Stream, which is 12 miles from the Hatteras point. A fair number were taken from boats by trolling or, especially at night, by still-fishing, but the beaches were mostly unproductive. As the surfers cast fruitlessly or brought in only bluefish and such lesser species, some interesting theories developed to account for the reluctance of the bass to venture into the surf.
"What we need is an east wind," one veteran explained. "An east wind would clean the water." Another hypothesis, especially favored by such men as burly, leather-faced Captain Edgar Styron, who charters his powerful boats, the Twin I and Twin II, out of the town of Hatteras, is that the beach buggy, by its lights and its vibrations, scares the bass out of the surf. Scores of the buggies, which can be rented at filling stations on the islands, prowl the sands day and night.
"The bass are very skittish about light," Captain Edgar (pronounced "egger") declared. "If you light a pipe at night you'd better have your backside to the water."
Fishing at night, Captain Edgar and other charterboat skippers douse their lights when approaching an area where fish are known to be. And certainly in proportion to the numbers of fishermen engaged many more big bass are taken from these boats than from the surf.
"I remember when my daddy used to take me fishing," recalled another old hand on the Banks, Charles F. Gray Sr. "I couldn't run around and play while he fished because he said even a footfall on the sand would frighten the bass. Now you can imagine how much pounding the beach takes from those buggies."
So exercised are some Hatterasmen about the hypothetical menace of the beach buggy that one of them recently startled a buggy driver into a brake-slamming stall by appearing suddenly in the beam of his headlights with a drawn pistol and threatening to shoot out the lights. He didn't have to. The driver put them out.
But the fishing photophobes are hard put to explain why it is that The Point on the Cape is sometimes the very hottest spot on the entire island, though on it stands Cape Hatteras lighthouse, flashing a beam of 250,000 candlepower, vastly more powerful than any put out by a beach buggy.
And when word is spread by sea-going grapevine that "they're murdering the bass" at Waves, or Salvo, or Buxton, or anywhere else along the 170 miles of the sandy Banks, there's no quicker way to get to them than by beach buggy, rods flopping in the wind, the sand churning smoothly under the wheels.
This fall, remembering the dismal spring, some surfers came down to Hatteras quite confident of disappointment. Those who arrived before November I almost surely were disappointed, for only a few bass, and those quite small, wandered into the surf during October. But then, just in time for the Cape Hatteras Anglers Club's fourth annual surf-fishing tournament, a horde of healthy bass, one of the biggest runs ever, hit the North Carolina surf. The heaviest taken by a contestant was a 50-pounder. Fifty-three others were beached during the competition, 11 of them going 25 pounds or more. It was the tournament's most successful meeting in its brief history. Moreover, outside the confines of the tournament fishing area hundreds of other bass were caught—in the surf, from boats and from fishing piers. The largest reported was a 61½-pound beauty landed near Salvo.
As a fighting fish, the channel bass—which is really not a bass at all but belongs to the family of drums, weakfish and croakers—conveys more of a sense of power than of speed and trickery. His first run is a relentless surge—just fast enough to keep a heavily braked reel turning, just strong enough to half-persuade the fisherman that he will run out of line before this muscled opponent can be stopped. Second and third runs are shorter and, finally, the fight resolves itself into a pumping operation in which the fish is slowly beached or brought to gaff.
Crustacean feeders by preference, with jaws so powerful that they crush oyster shells as if they were eggs, channel bass will, in fact, eat just about anything. The usual surf bait is cut mullet, fresh or salted, cast into a slough with a three-or four-ounce pyramid sinker. But when the bass are chasing schools of bluefish or weakfish in the sloughs the surfmen often take them on a flashing Hopkins lure.
New law for fish hogs
What fishy whim kept the bass out of the surf last spring and brought them into it in such startling numbers this fall is beyond knowing. It was, nevertheless, a superb run of fish, rivaling the spectacular showing of three years ago, when 500 were taken on a single Sunday. Many a maritime observer holds that at least part of the credit for the current fall run must go to Ed Fike of Ahoskie, N.C., a former outdoors writer for the Norfolk Virginian-Pilot. Fike was horrified a few years ago when he discovered commercial netters scooping up thousands of the big bass and selling them to cat-food canneries. And there was, at the time, no limit on the number of large fish an individual angler might take. This was a serious threat to the propagation of the species, since only the mature bass, about 30 inches or longer, are able to spawn. Confronted with what he felt might be the extinction of a noble game fish, one that is almost as important to the fisherman as the striper, Fike began a fight for regulation. Now North Carolina law forbids both the sports angler and the commercial fisherman to take more than two big bass a day. Virginia has adopted a similar law, and only commercial fishermen, fish hogs and cats can object.
There are, of course, many people who feel that the big channel bass is fit only for cat food. And it is true that as a table delicacy it would rate quite low on the Escoffier scale of greatness. However, some fishermen hold that the small so-called puppy drum, up to 15 pounds, is quite pleasant. Captain Ballance, now 77 years old but still fishing daily, says that a big female, fat with roe, is reasonably edible. The big males, however, are coarse and tough.
For such as these big ones, the dissident Captain Styron offers a recipe that, he insists, makes the big drum "as good as crabmeat." The dish, called a "Hatteras hurry-up," is a kind of chowder.
"You shred the meat of the big drum until it's like crabmeat," Captain Styron recommends. "Then you cook it with potatoes, onions and meat grease."
"Meat grease" is Banks talk for bacon fat. With it one might try a delicate Chablis.