Massive schools of baitfish collide at exactly the right time and place to create fly-fishing nirvana.
Every year when August draws to a close I get twitchy. It’s as my wife and I are wrapping up our summer guiding season at Oregon Inlet, NC, when an uneasy feeling sets in. Soon, our urge to migrate is too strong to ignore.
Our annual fall migration puts us about 100 miles south from our summer Outer Banks, NC, home. After loading up our two boats and packing vehicles full of gear, we drive four hours, cross 10 bridges, and then arrive at Harkers Island. It’s here where we’ll guide clients for the next three months for everything from red drum to acre-wide schools of blitzing false albacore.
Lying in the shadow of the Cape Lookout Lighthouse, Harkers Island is situated in the middle of Down East North Carolina, an area where understanding what the locals are saying might require translation. The dialect here is a strong Down East Brogue, evolved from the old English once spoken here by seventeenth century English settlers.
While the pace of life is slower on Harkers Island than our summer home farther north, the fishing can be manic. And it’s all about the geography. Jutting like a spear out into the Atlantic Ocean, Cape Lookout has a series of shoals and sandbars that extend almost 10 miles off the beach. As bait flushes out of the many inlets to the north, the schools of tiny baitfish eventually have no choice but to cross the Cape Lookout shallows. It’s a perfect ambush point for game fish.
The baitfish that survive the gauntlet of Cape Lookout’s shoals move into the calmer waters on the west side of Cape Lookout. Here, Bardens and Beaufort Inlets host their own bait migrations. The bait fares no better than on the western side, as predators—primarily large pods of bluefish, Spanish mackerel, and false albacore—position themselves outside each inlet. Both east and west sides of the Cape Lookout shoals host epic blitzes that sometimes are visible as far as the eye can see.
The baitfish schools are mainly made up of several types of bay anchovies, thread fin herring, Atlantic spearing and menhaden. The large concentration of bait attracts game fish predators of all sorts, which makes the area a fly fisherman’s utopia.
Our first month of early fall Cape Lookout fishing requires a wide range of rods to make the most of the opportunities we and our clients hopefully will encounter. One to five-pound bluefish are the most prevalent at this point in the season along with Spanish mackerel that can be world-class in size. The 690-4 and 790-4 SALT or MOTIVE fly rods are a perfect choice for both of these fish.
False albacore are smaller at this time of year than later on the in the season, so the 890-4 SALT or ONE rod will have more than enough backbone to whip these speed demons. If you have to limit yourself to one rod for early season blues, Spanish macks, and false albacore, an 890-4 SALT will get it done
Over the near-shore wrecks and reefs are amberjacks that on occasion can be coaxed into taking a fly. These brutes are tackle destroyers, so a Salt 12 weight is a good choice. There is always the possibility for running into pods of big redfish, and a 1090-4 and 1290-4 SALT rod will deliver 600-grain fly lines and big flies down to these 25 to 40-pound beasts.
Cape Lookout has more big sharks than another place along the North Carolina coast and they will readily take flies. Most of the spinner and blacktip sharks are from 100 to 300 pounds and will destroy anglers and tackle alike. Don’t go to a barroom fight without your brass knuckles. You’ll want a 1290-4 to give you a fighting chance, but a 1490-4 will even your odds slightly
As a guide I love fishing Cape Lookout. The fishing is very visual, the landscape filled with breaking fish and screaming birds. Throw in the seas, wind, tide, and current and it makes it a challenge to get my anglers into position to make a cast. And it’s that challenge that makes me happy. Watching my anglers get more comfortable fishing in the wind, setting hooks, and fighting fish makes the occasional pounding worthwhile.
I am ready, bring it on!
You can follow our Sage Ambassador’s season progress by checking us out on Instagram: @BrianHorsley and @CaptainSarah