“Cured In Salt” Fishing the North Carolina….Wrightsville and Carolina Beach
In early 1992, after suffering a significant business setback, my family and I packed our car and minivan, as well as a rented U-Haul and headed to the coast of North Carolina. No jobs and the only money borrowed from my Mother-In-Law. Just me, my wife and 3 kids heading into the great unknown, or “Our Great Adventure” that call it to this day.
After getting jobs or at least referring to them as jobs, I thought it was time to try getting into saltwater fishing. With no knowledge of the sport or a boat to fish from. That’s when I spotted a small dock on the intracoastal waterway that was badly in need of repair near Carolina Beach, NC at a place called Sea Breeze. For 2 summers I fished with the black guys each Saturday. I quickly earned the name of “sun screen” for obvious reasons. With an old rod and spinning rod from my freshwater fishing days, I spent those great summer Saturdays catching Croakers, Spots, Pigfish and an occasional Lizardfish while my small son caught fiddler crabs in the nearby marsh. I would also set crab traps off the dock to make the day complete.
These were the days that will always be remembered, the days that will forever serve as the beginning of a new life. A life that had been scared by business setbacks and all the pain that went with it. A pain that would be cured by the salty water that surrounded me and all it had to offer. The road since then has been filled with lots of great experiences and most of all, thanks to the relationships having been built with so many wonderful people. Fishing has brought me many memories that I love to share with my family and friends. “Cured In Salt” is my perspective of fishing the North Carolina Coast. While I’ve fished all over America, my best memories are about fishing here…..near my home and the people that mean so much to me. North Carolina has always been my home and its coast will forever be the place with the cure for what ails me.
In many respects, Carolina Beach is the fisherman’s Mecca. For countless years, tourists have made their way to Pleasure island to board the Winner Queen and its sister boats to go out and fish the ledges near Frying Pan Shoals. In the afternoon these boats would return to the charter basin with grouper, snapper and other species hanging from the upper decks. Those decks are nearly always filled with sunburned anglers ready for a warm shower and a cold beer. For years the Winner family maintained the fleet of up to 3 head boats operating out of the Carolina Beach basin. Today the fishing fleet has been reduced to only one boat.
For years the Carolina Beach charter basin was also the home of a great number of sporting fishing charter boats. Boats like, Captain Freddie Holland’s Music Man and Captain Carl Snow’s Fish Witch. At that time it was common to hear Captain Freddie on the VHF radio, laughing and joking with the other charter captains on the way to the inlet. Every afternoon the long line of sportfishing boats would come in the inlet, turning left onto the ICW and then into the basin for docking, cleaning the fish and a good scrub down for the next day’s trip.
While there are still a significant number of sportfishing boats in the Carolina Beach fleet which are still located in the downtown basin, the numbers are fewer. This in not due to a decrease in fishing or the interest in visitors. Instead it’s a significant shift towards inshore fishing and the use of smaller boats. Many of today’s Carolina Beach charter fleet are boats that go back to the boom days of the fleet. These are mostly found in the area of light tackle guides like Captain Dennis Barbour and Captain Amanda King. Dennis has been a familiar name in both fishing and Carolina Beach for a number of years. He is the former mayor of Carolina Beach and owns the largest tackle shop on the island (Island Tackle and Hardware). Dennis now sports a brand new fully rigged center console that can do double duty by fishing the structure locations off Pleasure Island and coming inside when the weather dictates. Amanda King of Second Wind Charters also provides light tackle fishing. This trend in the light tackle approach takes advantage of the numerous amounts of structure such as docks and piers around the area. It also increases the fishing days by allowing anglers to fish on windy days and avoid having to transit the many times treacherous inlet of Carolina Beach. This challenging access moves water from the Captain Intracoastal
Waterway and the nearby Cape Fear River, making the current swift but the Flounder fishing fantastic. You can drift the inlet or anchor at the junction of the waterway, but take plenty of rigs. The bottom is littered with debris like old cars from the old days. A back up anchor is also recommended. The same is true with Snow’s Cut, just a mile from the inlet. The fast moving water with lots of structure makes for a great habitat for large Flounder. The south end of Snow’s Cut empties into the Cape Fear River. In recent years the river has seen more fishing activity thanks to the increased interest in fishing for Redfish, Speckled Trout and again Flounder. The Cape Fear also has become popular thanks to lighter pressure on the fishing resources than the nearby oceanfront and waterway.
Another added benefit is the light boating traffic found on the Cape Fear. With light ship traffic and an occasional recreational boat moving by, the river is free of wakes and fishing distractions. Just south of Carolina Beach is a shallow bay known a “Buzzards Bay”. This estuary is filled with Redfish and Flounder as well. A shallow water boat is needed to navigate the area and watch out for the tide. Low tide can leave you sitting. For the offshore fisherman, Carolina Beach is in close proximity to the Frying Pan Light, the home of great bottom fishing. The nearshore fisherman can also find lots of Spanish and King Mackerel in the warmer months as well as large Bluefish. The nearshore fishing also has a number of locations with significant underwater structure that results in large populations of baitfish that attracts larger fish. This is commonly found just off Fort Fisher with the large Spring Spanish Mackerel.
Still today, Carolina Beach serves as one of North Carolina’s busiest charter fishing locations with thousands coming every spring, summer and fall to fill their coolers. It’s a great fishing destination that’s supported by lots of fun things to do. The downtown area features the historic boardwalk with the old arcade with authentic ski-ball machines and shooting galleries. And of course, it’s the home of Britt’s Donuts, and their world renowned hot donuts during the summer season. Carolina Beach also has a wide array of restaurants that can handle almost any appetite.
The best part about fishing around Carolina Beach is….it’s FUN. No pretense here. It’s a great place to fish where the Flounder are big and the good times are even bigger. It’s a place to bring the family and fish during the day and then hit the boardwalk at night and grab a Britt’s donut. Ride around in a rented golf cart and end up at the miniature golf course and play a few rounds. May have a cold beer at the Fat Pelican with friends and lying about the day of fishing while you sit outside enjoying the beach breeze and listening to the music play. When the day is over, all you have to do is do it again. It’s here every day.
Wrightsville Beach is one the most scenic fishing locations along the entire Carolina Coast, if not the East Coast. The beautiful water with its aqua color and many creeks and estuaries make for a perfect backdrop to a day of fishing. Unlike Carolina Beach, the charter fishing options are somewhat hidden. There is no charter basin with signs promoting the area’s fishing. Instead, the guides primarily work on phone and online reservations. The Wrightsville Beach charter fleet is spread through the surrounding marinas and boat ramps. This concept fits seamlessly with the residents efforts to minimize commercial traffic. With that said, the area has a big supply of guides. As a fishing guide there in the mid 90’s, there were less than a dozen charter boats and fishing guides, with only about half of them being light tackle operations. At that time, there was little interest in fishing for Redfish, Flounder or Trout. Even with the small boats like mine, we strayed out of the inlet when conditions permitted and trolled for Spanish and Bluefish, as well as running out to the many nearby wrecks for various species.
While the charter and guide fleet is basically hidden, there are many to choose from. With those options comes a number of well known and respected captains. Captain Lee Parsons is the first to come to mind. He’s spent his entire life fishing the surrounding waters and gets the fishing results to prove it. His detailed knowledge of fishing for Redfish, Speckled Trout and Flounder is amazing and every trip is filled with his knowledge and expertise. Another talented inshore guide is Captain Rennie Clark. His Redfishing with Topwater lures strategy is unparalleled. Rennie’s focus and dogged determination was honed thanks in part to his career as a Elite Redfish Tour Series professional. Captain Jot Owens that carries a national resume’ of light tackle fishing experience is also a great option. Jot planted his roots as a deck hand and commercial fishing and moving up the angling ladder.
The offshore options are a bit more limited, however they are well known with great names like Captain Jimmy Vass and his boat Fortune Hunter. Jimmy is a longtime favorite not only thanks to his expertise, but also due to his humor and friendly nature. Next is Captain Robbie Wolf and his boat Whipsaw. Whipsaw was built in the mid 70’s and run by Robbie’s father, Ed. The boat still makes daily trips under Robbie’s command and serves as the oldest running charter boat in North Carolina.
Wrightsville’s fishing and setting is considerably different from Carolina Beach. Masonboro Inlet provides one of the easiest inlets on the entire East Coast to transit. The jettied entry makes it easy for boats of all sizes to come in and out on most days. Those same jetties also serve as a great location for bait habitats that results in great Redfish and Flounder Fishing. The water quality is breathtaking with a light aqua color commonly present. There are countless creeks and estuaries around Wrightsville. These shallow creeks hold oyster beds and protective grass for bait fish and their predators such as Redfish. Creeks like Bradley Creek were once considered one of the best Flounder fishing zones in North Carolina. Today it still holds many species in good numbers. Nearly every creek offers significant structure in the way of boat docks that attract both bait and target fish.
The setting of Wrightsville Beach is beautiful. The picturesque landscape combined with the beautiful homes makes for a fisherman’s dream. The small downtown is the evening gathering place. It’s bars and restaurants provide a casual nightlife atmosphere for locals and visitors with locations like King Neptune with its Pirate bar and Jerry Allen’s Sports Bar. The waterside dining is some of the best in North Carolina with the Blue Water Grill, Fish House and Dockside offering dockage and great food on the ICW.
My days as a fishing guide out of Wrightsville will always be special memories. It’s where I learned the trade from guys like Lee Parsons. Lee and I often laugh and say that Lee taught me everything I know about being a fishing guide. But he didn’t teach everything he knows about being one. Even though it was over 20 years ago, I still remember going out Masonsboro Inlet and listening to the VHF radio and hearing Captain Jimmy Vass on the Fortune Hunter call out….”Big Money” as he caught sight of my boat coming out the inlet. Many times after a half day charter a few guides would meet at the Middle of the Island restaurant for lunch and about 5 glasses of ice cold tea while telling about that day’s trip. Although Middle of the Island has been gone for years, the sounds of the laughter and memory of the cold tea remain clear in my mind.
In 2001 I traded in my faded fishing shirt with the frayed collar and shorts for a pressed shirt and long pants to enter the corporate world. My fishing days in Wrightsville and Carolina Beach’s became far more limited. They became a few hours squeezed in between trips to places like New York or Miami and Los Angeles. Those trips allowed me to fish at great places with names like Islamorda, Grand Isle and Puget Sound, but they were never the same as the North Carolina coast. These places didn’t have the character or comfort of the Cape Fear Coast. Most of all they didn’t have my fishing memories like Jimmy Vass calling for “Big Money” on the radio and the cold iced tea of the Middle of the Island or the site of the Winner Queen coming in Carolina Beach Inlet laden with Snapper and Grouper and a warm Britt’s Donut. But on those few days I made it to the water, I was able to relax and shed the stresses of my job. Again I was being “Cured In Salt” in a place I love the most, the North Carolina Coast.