I arrived at the dock at 7:30 in the morning with my friends Darren Shepard and Marc Malkin to meet Capt. Dan Rooks and the crew of the Tuna Duck at Hatteras Harbor Marina, in North Carolina, and right away I got the feeling this wasn't going to be just another fishing trip as I watched mates Mike Edwards and Marvin Aldridge load onto the boat a large plastic tub containing what could be described - at best - as a recreational gill net.
Rooks smiled when I asked him what the net was for, responding in his typical easy Carolina manner, "bait."
We soon realized what he meant as we made our way out of Hatteras Inlet and north along the beach, to the site where a couple of other charter boats and even the well-known partyboat Miss Hatteras were getting in on the action. Singles and doubles of pelicans diving in the muddy water betrayed the presence of jumbo menhaden - prime forage for the big, late-season king mackerel roaming the Atlantic reefs off Cape Hatteras.
"The bait is spread out," said Rooks. "Usually you can cast-net them, but this time of year, they aren't really thick enough. So we set the gill net and then try to maneuver around, marking them on our fish finder and hoping to scare them into the net."
My own experiences with menhaden (aka bunker or pogies) in Florida, Georgia and South Carolina had convinced me that they were delicate baitfish that didn't take netting and handling very well. These Outer Banks, or OBX, versions - near three-quarter-pounders or better - proved me wrong. Edwards and Aldridge expertly struck the net, gently removing the big bunker from its mesh. After several sets, we finally had enough of the mega-liveys in the well to head offshore in search of our silver treasure: big kings.
Follow the Boats
Rooks, who has made a living as a waterman all of his life, is well in tune with the commercial fleet comprising the artisanal fishery that is the lifeblood of Hatteras Village.
"The commercial boys have been working a pretty good school of fish over some rough bottom in about 22 fathoms of water," said Rooks. "And it looks like the weather is going to deteriorate as the day wears on. But we should be able to get in a pretty good half day of kingfishing."
Suffice it to say Rooks' idea of a good "half day" of kingfishing ranks right up there with as good a full day of kingfishing as you can have anywhere in the Southeast. The first bait in the water resulted in a 20-pounder - the smallest fish of the day. Over the next four hours, we landed a dozen fish, scaling to 32 pounds, and hooked at least that many more. Around 1 p.m., Capt. Rooks asked if we'd had enough - and we had. Although it's not like me to leave fish while they're biting, the impending cold front had caused us to change our travel plans; we had several hours ahead of us in the car to get to Norfolk, Virginia, and our awaiting flights.