Brunswick County’s Redfish and Cobia Revival
Brunswick is the southernmost coastal county in North Carolina. It extends from the South Carolina border at Little River Inlet in an east-west direction out to Cape Fear and Smith Island, where the county line turns inland toward Wilmington. It varies greatly from the Outer Banks, but is home to a thriving recreational fishing community and offers a wide variety of fishing opportunities, from the coastal rivers and backwaters to bluewater action along the western edge of the Gulf Stream.
Two of the most popular nearshore fisheries are the spring cobia migration and the fall redfish migration. Both runs bring these coveted gamefish within reach of boats of all sizes, and both species are recognized for their fighting ability and quality as table fare. They attract private boat fishermen from all over the state, as well as tourists to the charter boats, hotels and restaurants giving a major boost to the regional economy. But both fisheries had been suffering for decades due to the lack of forage the fish needed to hold them in the area. This is where our story begins.
The McMullan family first came to Ocean Isle Beach as tourists more than 30 years ago. They quickly fell in love with the quaint beachfront town on a barrier island between Shallotte and Tubbs Inlets, and purchased a house there in the early 1980s. The fishing offered by the area had a great deal of influence on their decision.
The family patriarch, Rube McMullan, reveled in watching his sons Brant and Barrett grow up in these surroundings. In their teens when they weren’t in school, they were fishing or working as deckhands on local charter and head boats. They both earned their captain’s licenses at age 18, and have been successful fishing guides ever since.
In 2003, they built the Ocean Isle Fishing Center (OIFC), a beautiful marina, ships store and tackle store, along with the Giggling Mackerel Restaurant at the foot of the bridge onto the island from the mainland. The OIFC (http://www.OIFC.com) has grown to become the epicenter of sportfishing in the area, with light tackle guides and offshore charter boats running from its docks. Local and visiting private boat fishermen use the facility as a base of operations for their own fishing adventures.
The brothers put on fishing seminars, organize offseason trips for customers and friends to exotics ports-of-call, and also host a number of highly regarded tournaments each year, including the SKA sanctioned Jolly Mon and Fall Brawl Kingfish tournaments that draw anglers from far and wide.
Fishing from their Yamaha-powered Yellowfin® center console, the McMullans are extremely successful tournament fishermen. The father and sons, wives, and even their children comprise Team OIFC, and they are a force to reckon with on the Southern Kingfish Association’s tournament trail competing in the pro division. Until recently, they held the record for the largest kingfish ever caught in an SKA tournament (74 pounds), and have been crowned the National
Champions an unprecedented three times in 2009, 2011 and 2013.
“The big purse seiners would come through here and wipe out the menhaden from Cape Fear to the South Carolina border,” said Rube McMullan. “Before they came, the fishing would be red hot with plenty of live pogies (a local nickname for menhaden) available to catch and use for bait. They are our key inshore forage fish and the prey for a lot of the most popular species we fish for. After the seiners left, the beaches were devoid of life for months on end.”
The McMullan clan is highly protective of the fisheries in their home waters, and they are not afraid to get involved when they see fishing practices that are detrimental to the fish stocks and recreational fishing in general. One of the biggest offenders they came across was
the industrial harvesting of menhaden, a critically important forage fish, along the beaches of Brunswick County. The large purse seine vessels, along with support boats and spotter airplanes, would arrive in the area for a few weeks each year and scoop up tens of thousands of metric tons of the small fish right along the beaches.
Before they’d arrived each spring, the schools of menhaden and the many species of gamefish that feed on them would be abundant. After the area was strip mined, there was nary a menhaden to be found and the gamefish that weren’t caught and killed as bycatch left the area because there was so little remaining forage for them to eat.
About seven years ago, Rube and his sons mobilized OIFC’s growing customer base, friends and other tournament anglers to do something about this travesty. The Fishing Center had organized its own “Captains Club,” and many of the professional captains and private boat owner/ fishermen who were members were also successful business people who lived locally and around the state. Rube put together a plan that became key to solving the problem.
“We knew the chances of getting a stateside ban on menhaden purse seining would be almost impossible because of the powerful commercial fishing lobby that dominates North Carolina politics, so we decided to work on a local bill that would ban the practice, but only in the ocean waters off the Brunswick County,” Rube explained. “This portion of the state has very few commercial fishermen and none involved in menhaden seining. With the help of our State Representative, Bonner Stiller, the bill’s language was worked out and then introduced.
Then the Captain’s Club members and other area fishermen went to work contacting representatives from all over North Carolina, putting pressure on them to vote for the bill. To the surprise of a lot of folks it passed and was implemented. That was about six years ago and the positive results speak for themselves.”
According to Captain Brant McMullan, the abundance of menhaden in local waters increased almost immediately and now lasts all spring, summer and fall with the bait schools growing larger with each successive year. The abundance has impacted the inshore and midwater fishing in a dramatic fashion. In the spring, cobia migrating north into local waters usually stay well offshore but now that the menhaden are thick, they have been moving inshore well within striking distance of boats of all sizes. In September and October, the redfish (red drum) move into the area along the Brunswick County beaches and devour the roaming schools of menhaden often with yards of the beach. The inlets from Little River in the south to Cape Fear in the north hold redfish consistently, and fishermen love it.
Fishing for both species is relatively straightforward. Leave any of the inlets and cruise the beach to look for menhaden schools in shallow water. They can usually be seen flipping on the surface. Castnet a livewell-full of the obliging baitfish, and you’re ready to go fishing. The cobia will be a bit further offshore, often around the many wrecks and artificial reefs located eight-to-25 miles out in 60- to-120 feet of water. You can chum with live bait or ground chum to attract them. Live menhaden are fished on a simple bait rig that consists of a two ounce egg sinker on the main line above a small barrel swivel, a short leader of heavy fluorocarbon below and a 7/0 light-wire circle hook. Pin the menhaden on the hook up through the bottom jaw and out the top or through the nostrils. Then flip it out to the cobia and hold on tight!
The same rig works for redfish in the fall. The reds come right to the beach and can often be caught blind casting plastic shad lures into the schools of menhaden or drifting live bait on the bottom through the schools. The reds frequently travel under the schools. If that doesn’t produce, travel to one of the half dozen inlets in the area and fish around the mouth, drifting with live menhaden fished close to the bottom. Make sure you continue to watch your depthfinder for fish concentrations. You can expect to catch some very big redfish, typically 20-to-40 pounds, and they are present in great numbers because their favorite food is present, thanks to the efforts of the McMullans and their merry band of politically active friends and customers.
Since the Brunswick Country menhaden ban went into effect, the fishing has been so good that groups further up the North Carolina coast began lobbying for a similar ban and within a few years, against all odds, the state imposed a ban on all industrial harvesting of menhaden in North Carolina territorial waters out to three miles. The McMullan success story proved so convincing it was emulated by other North Carolina fishermen, but it has had even more far-reaching positive effects on both the fishing and the recreational fishing community.
Their efforts spawned a renewed interest in fisheries conservation and fisheries politics amongst anglers with organizations like the Recreational Fishing Alliance, which lent advice and support to the McMullans during their quest for a county ban, and the Coastal Conservation Association, whose numbers have grown in recent years. A new RFA-North Carolina chapter was formed two years ago, and that organization has been working on political and regulatory issues within the State as its membership grows stronger with each passing month. North Carolina anglers now have a strong voice at the State level with representation in the legislature in Raleigh and with the Division of Marine Fisheries.
It all goes to show that when recreational fishermen ban together, they can accomplish great things. Divided, it’s difficult to be heard, but united they demonstrate that sportfishing is a major socioeconomic force in coastal states all around the country that cannot be denied.
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Source: Sportsmans Lifestyle.com