May fishing: Bonito among spring arrivals on the North Carolina coast

Fresh fish: Atlantic bonito. Photo courtesy of Captain Matt Paylor

At this time of year, we are tired of the cold winds blowing us out of the water for days. Fleece sweaters and windbreakers wear out and have spots on the spots. Thoughts of summer and hot weather creep into subconscious, conscious and even unconscious thought. The cold bluster only gets old.

May brings with it the promise of warm southwest breezes and pleasant days on the water. The chance to finally get in a small boat and cross a creek, go into the ocean and catch a fish near the shore is the true sign of the approaching summer.

Check these water temperatures. When it exceeds 60, there will be Bluefish. Most of them will be small in stature, but they will be impatient. They will eat anything you throw at them. Place a template at the bottom. More than likely something will eat it. Pinfish. Spottail pinfish. Sea bass. All kinds of things.

A lake trout from an artificial reef displays distinctive markings. Photo courtesy of Captain Matt Paylor

We used to catch a lot of big lake trout this way. I keep hearing that they are becoming more abundant in Long Island Sound. I got a few reports here and there of more guys having them in this area. Not big like we used to have. You can only keep one, so be careful. Let me know if you find any. Mainly you will find small bluefish. Probably a lot of them.

The secret is out

When the water exceeds 65, an additional prize appears. Atlantic skipjack. It was a bit of a secret, but for the past few years on days when the conditions allow it, i.e. a southwesterly breeze less than 15 knots, you might find a lot of people on your favorite reef or wreck . This is because they are great fun to catch. They hit hard, run fast and are super aggressive. You can catch them casting, vertical jigging, trolling and fly fishing.

When the word comes out, the boats will appear. A real bonus is the fact that these are great fish to bring home for the table. Grilled or simply grilled, with a lemony butter sauce, maybe some capers or a soy-ginger glaze. Delicious. It’s a rare treat made even more so by their somewhat fleeting appearances in recent years.

The end result of a day of bonito fishing.  Photo courtesy of Captain Matt Paylor
The end result of a day of bonito fishing. Photo courtesy of Captain Matt Paylor

If you want to catch one, you have to be prepared in advance, then do a Special Forces style mission and be there on day one. You must be able to pick up and go.

My favorite method is fly fishing. I use an 8 weight rod and sinking line with a bait fish imitating the streamer fly attached to the end. Next is vertical jigging with a 2 ounce jigging spoon on high points on a wreck or hard bottom. Set up a gallery above the structure. Drop your jig down until it touches bottom. Raise your rod and let it float down. The strikes will come in the fall. Be on the lookout for surface-feeding fish and throw them at anyone you see. Also watch your sonar. If you see signs of fish on the bottom, try working your lure at that depth.

Captain Matt Paylor of Sound-N-Sea Charters in Morehead City trolls with deep swim stoppers such as the Yozuri Crystal Minnow Deep Diver. Add no hardware and limit your leader to the 30-pound fluorocarbon. Set up a trolling pattern around the structure. The blows will be sudden and powerful. Most skipjack we see here weigh less than 8 pounds. Use light rods and have fun. You might see a whale or even a thresher shark!

Revise your Spanish

When we see temperatures push towards 70, the Spanish mackerel will appear. The first will be a blitz of fish that could be the biggest specimens we’ve seen in some time. If you’re there when this happens, you might catch your biggest one. It happens to someone every spring. It could just as well be you.

It won’t be subtle when they first appear. They come to celebrate. I’ve seen birds swoop down on Spanish mackerel in the spring as far as my eyes would go on the beach. It gets crazy sometimes.

The Spanish mackerel has impressive dental work.  Photo courtesy of Captain Matt Paylor
The Spanish mackerel has impressive dental work. Photo courtesy of Captain Matt Paylor

Obviously, when they feast like that, they’re not too hard to find. Now you have to decide how you want to catch them.

I have always preferred fly fishing. Use an 8 or 6 weight fly rod and float line when feeding on top, sinking line otherwise. Small streamer flies tied to match the size of their prey. About 2 or 3 inches long. Throw him into the fray and hold on. If I don’t, I will use a very light spinning rod with a 10 pound test line and a small jig or spinning spoon. Secure it using a 40 pound fluorocarbon leader.

If you forget the leader, you will lose your lure because of their sharp teeth. No other hardware is needed and definitely don’t use a wire guide. They will see these things and recognize it as a fake. Cast where the fish are feeding and reel in as fast as you can. When the bigger ones hit, it feels like you’re hooked. They arrive so fast and immediately turn the other way. They will run a bit but they don’t have much stamina. Then it will turn into some kind of fierce fight.

Casting small lures and flies at 3 and 4 pound (or more) Spaniards when they crash on top is the best way to catch them. However, more fish are caught by trolling than by any other means. Captain Tom Roller of the Waterdog Guide Service in Beaufort tells me that he uses line planers and trolling weights with Clark Spoons and finds it an easy and productive way to fish all day.

Prepare the Spanish mackerels by filleting them properly. The fillets have a dark band down the middle that many people find unappetizing. Gently use your knife to remove it. Then cook them using a dry method like broiling or broiling. I’ll cover with any spice mix, whatever you like. I find these fish to be oilier than others and butter or other dressing isn’t really necessary, although you might want to have some on hand if you prefer. Keep it simple. Don’t add too much.

That’s pretty much what Spanish mackerel fishing is all about from start to finish.

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