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Effects of Coastal Storms on North Carolina Fishing

Here in eastern North Carolina we are “blessed” with hurricanes, Nor’easters and the like. We all remember the “storm of the century” back in March of 1993, and most recently the massive late season hurricane Sandy. I frequently get asked what impact these storms have on our fishing.

The physical effects of these storms include wind creating rough churned up seas, and rain producing dirty water and lowering the salinity of the water, creating a mixture of chemicals, natural and not in the subsequent runoff and flattening many of the holes and bars we like to fish along the Bogue Banks surf.

With Sandy, we had an extraordinarily large cyclone creating large long period swells, a storm surge of many feet around the full moon, and unlike many early season tropical storms, Sandy has also been associated with a dramatic cooling of our unusually warm air and water temperatures. Even while we were still feeling the effects of Sandy, air temperatures dropped into the 50s and lower, surf temperatures measured at Bogue Pier has already dropped to 67-degrees from 73-degrees and Bogue Sound dropped from 72-degrees to a season low of 60-degrees in just a few days.

The turbulence associated dirty water and runoff quickly scattered the mobile fish and shrimp baits, important in attracting and holding the fish, to deeper water along with the fish that feed on them. As such storms approach us, just prior to the actual maladies to be inflicted by the storm, often the fishing picks up. I remember having one of my best above slot red drum fishing the day immediately prior to hurricane Isabel in September of 2003, which subsequently moved up the coast with devastating effects and even creating “Isabel Inlet” to our north on the Outer Banks.

After major events like Isabel and now Sandy, recovery of the beaches and water quality can be slow. In the aftermath of such storms, we normally get a northeast wind from a cold front that, unlike the northeast winds associated with a coastal cyclone, calms the waters allowing the sediment to settle out leading to the iconic clean and green waters of the Crystal Coast again. As the seas calm and clean, the baitfish come back along with the predators, fishing returns to normal.

I know people often say there is also an effect of the low air pressures associated with these storms, however there is no scientific evidence for this. Think about it, sea water is 1000-times more dense than air, and fish routinely move up and down in the vertical water column, which results in larger pressure changes than a slight change in air pressure.

Last year with Sandy, because of its size and unusual storm track, the associated winds impacted us for the better part of a week. Then the progressing cold front behind it settled in and further cool our waters, even producing some frost inland. However, this should have the effect of instilling a more seasonal sense of urgency recently lacking in our local fall fish and fisheries. Hopefully bait and fish held up in the sounds and rivers will move more aggressively out of the internal waters to the surf and suds. Here I’m not only talking the predatory speckled trout, drum and flounder but even the lowly spots. I am hopeful that this year the peak of the speckled trout season will be back to the time around Thanksgiving, which is more usual than some of the past recent years where the bite has been a month earlier. I would also guess the trout should soon be thick at the Lookout Rock Jetty, and I also hope the Bogue Banks, Shackleford and Cape Lookout surf.


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