It was a cool, brisk morning in North Carolina for early September, especially at 5 o’clock in the morning. However, the only weather we cared about was what the ocean would be like 30 miles off. I checked the report one last time before I fully committed and got out of bed. The report was perfect! A West wind at 5-10 knots. That report meant that the ocean would be flat calm. I jumped out of bed with excitement. It’s not everyday in NC that the ocean gives you such a beautiful day to go fishing. September brings many fishing opportunities including bull Red Drum, huge King Mackerel, and Cheetah like Wahoo. However, I was not going after any of these species. I had one fish on my mind, the Gag Grouper. In North Carolina we have many different types of grouper species including Red, Scamp, Snowy, Yellow Mouth and the powerful Gag. The Gag, is one of the Groupers that is hardest to catch. The Red and Snowy will bite any hunk of meat a fisherman can throw on the bottom. The Gag is different. They will only attack a live bait thrashing around on the ocean floor.
I got out of bed and brushed my teeth. Then, I went into my buddies’ room where I expected Thompson and Kidd to be sleeping. They were no where to be found. They were even more excited then I was and had gotten up a little earlier. I walked down stairs where they had a cup of coffee waiting for me. After we enjoyed a minute of peace it was time to get to work. We loaded 25 fishing rods onto the boat (you can never have too many), the yeti cooler filled with squid wing and Cigar Minnows (just in case we couldn’t find bait), ice in the fish box, pimento cheese sandwiches, the bottom fishing anchor, and plenty of beer. My final step was to wake up my father and get him on the boat. We were off!
Our first piece of business was to find bait. As anyone form NC knows, the most plentiful live bait is Menhaden or “Shad” as we call them in Morehead. We traveled to my favorite bait spot and within two throws of the 12 foot cast net, we had all the bait we would need for our adventure! We even threw some back just so we wouldn’t over-fill the live well. After that, I turned the boat Northeast and hit the open seas. It took us about an hour to go the 35 miles we needed to get out to the first spot.
We had finally made it to my secret spot. I did one last check of the rods to make sure our modified Carolina rigs were ready to go. No Grouper could beat out our 6000 sized Penn reels and the 80 pound fluro-carbon leader we were using! After idling around for a few minutes, and not seeing a good spot that I wanted to anchor on, we decided to drift. While my dad controlled the boat and Thompson and Kidd where getting their bait on their hooks, I dropped down a line. It didn’t take long for the 6 ounces of lead to get my Menhaden down 110 feet to the bottom. It was not down there for more then 5 seconds before I felt a massive thud.. I screamed “there he is!” and cranked as hard as a could to get the creature off of the bottom. Whatever it was beat me by getting my line into the reef below. My line snapped instantly. I had missed my chance and now I needed another one. We spent the next 20 minutes drifting around the same spot. Thompson and I continued to drop live Shad to the bottom as well as a few Cigar minnows. We picked off a few Vermillion Snappers which we call “Beeliners” and a few “endangered” Black Sea Bass, but no Groupers. Kidd was dropping down a chicken rig on a smaller rod baited with squid wing. He was picking up Beeliners left and right. The whole time we were drifting, I was keeping an eye on the bottom machine to find a suitable place to anchor. In my opinion, it is much easier to catch bottom fish when the boat is anchored. After a while I had found what looked like the perfect spot on the reef. We position the boat ahead of the reef, dropped the anchor and landed exactly where we needed to.
After 20 more minutes of fishing, we had picked up a few more Beeliners and Sea Bass but no Groupers. I decided I was going to throw a light line out the back just in case a Cobia or King Mackerel swam by. I put my bottom rod in the rod holder and proceeded to hook the Shad through the nose. I had just launched the shad out the back of the boat when my bottom rod literally bent over. I dropped everything and ran over to the rod and started trying to man handle this fish off of the bottom. It was everything I could do to get even an inch of line back on my reel. It was literally like I was reeling up the whole ocean floor. I knew this was a big fish. After I had reeled up a good 30 yards of line, the fish began to float. This was a great sign that it was a Grouper. When these fish are dragged up through the different atmospheres of the ocean, they begin to expand with air and it can cause them to float. Often times, once the fish is at the surface, it’s air bladder can be seen coming out of its mouth.
I kept working this fish to the top and a short while later, I saw a dark blob emerge from the darkness of the ocean. I knew it was a Grouper. I told my dad to grab the small gaff. Once the fish was on the surface, I could see how monstrous it was. It was one of the biggest fish I have ever seen. I stuck the gaff through the creature’s mouth and hauled it into the boat. We all were amazed at what had just come up from the depths of the ocean! It was the biggest Gag I had ever seen. On my 30 lb Boga Grips, the fish weighed just at 26 pounds.
After that fight, I was tired and everyone else was fired up to catch a fish. Within minutes, we were putting more Beeliners, some Trigger Fish, and a few Sea Bass into the box. The next thing I saw is Thompson’s rod bent over. He was fighting another monster. However, unlike my fish, his fish did not give up. This is a sign that this fish was not a Grouper but something a little different. We were all curious as to what this fish could be and after 20 minutes we saw a giant fish surface a few yards out. It was a monster Amberjack. The beast far outweighed my Boga Grips so I have no idea how much the thing weighed, but it was huge. One of the biggest ones I have ever seen.
After that battle Thompson was exhausted. He decided to take a little break while Kidd and I kept after the fishing. This time my dad even decided to get in on the action. We were pulling in Beeliners along with the occasional Trigger or Sea Bass like it was our job. We almost had our limit on Snappers so we started only keeping the bigger ones. Thompson was just getting back in the game when we all heard the ‘zzzzzzzzzlle” from one of the reels. I looked around to see whose reel it was. No one was reeling in a fish so I was very confused. This is when all 4 of us, at the same time, realized it was the light line that we had all forgotten about. Thompson got to the reel first. None of us had any idea what the fish was. It was screaming like a King but staying low in the water like a Bonita.
After a 20 minute fight, we were extremely curious as to what this fish could be. After about 5 more minutes the fish came up next to the boat. This is when I exclaimed, “Aw it is just a Bonita so it won’t matter if it comes off.” I decided that I was going to gaff it anyway for bait. After the fish circled around the same spot, 15 yards away from the boat, for another 5 minutes, it finally came within gaff range. I reached out, and I’m ashamed to say, missed my first shot. This was when I got a great look at the fish. I knew it was not a Bonita but a huge Blackfin Tuna! I really hoped that we weren’t gonna loose the fish especially because I missed the first gaff attempt. The second time the fish swam around, I got my redemption. I stuck him, right in the back. I lifted the massive tuna into the boat and we all hooped and hollered with joy. It was certainly the biggest Blackfin I had ever seen.
After the excitement of the massive tuna, we decided that it was time to call it a day. It was only 1 o’clock but we had enough fish to clean. We were cruising on the way in when Kidd and I noticed a small hump on the bottom machine. We decided that we should investigate. Once we got back to where I marked the spot, the bottom machine lit up like a christmas tree. We had to check this place out. So we got the anchor back out, and positioned the boat. In my haste, I did not position the boat in the proper place and missed my mark by a good 30 yards. We decided to fish the new spot anyway. On my first drop I felt another huge thud, and this time I hauled up a nice keeper Gag. This is when I first realized that this spot was going to be a good one. We were not even close to my original mark and we were still catching fish. For the next hour we continued to catch Triggers, Beeliners, and Seabass one ofter the other, throwing most of them back. We weren’t fortunate enough to catch another Gag but I suspect we had at least 1 or 2 more on. We did end up missing a nice Mahi out the back of the boat but we did catch a nice Barracuda that was eating a Trigger we had brought up. All in all it was one of the best fishing days I have ever experienced! A days that will stay in my memory forever. I am very fortunate to have been able to spend it with my buddies and my dad! The camaraderie made an already incredible day even better.