I’m not sure what exactly constitutes a tradition, but this was the second year in a row that I and at least one of my boys joined the Liquid Fire Sportfishing crew for a run from Morehead City to target the hot king bite that happens off of Hatteras every late fall.
In the days leading up to our trip, no fewer than two Hendersons apologized to me, explaining that they were sorry that the 39’ SeaVee needed work and wouldn’t be operational, so instead we would have to take the 32’ Contender this year. I replied each time, with deliberate but respectful sarcasm, that the Hurleys wouldn’t cancel the trip over this matter but would find a way to enjoy ourselves anyway.
Instead of running 70 mph like we did in the SeaVee, the Contender liked 50, so once again we ran inside up to Drum Inlet (this is where I insert another sarcastic remark about it taking forever this year to get to Drum Inlet going only 50 mph), found our way past the shoals flanking us on either side, turned north, and this time the bait was right outside the inlet up on the beach.
There was already a group of about eight boats idling around, each boat with a person up in the bow holding a net, when we slid slowly into the outskirts of the pack. In our bow, Josh readied the 14’ net, and Crockett kept scanning for the telltale signs of bait and communicating to his dad, Mark, whose eyes were no longer as sharp as his kids so his role was to take the wheel.
Josh and Crockett saw a flip on the surface, Mark turned the boat, Josh threw the net, Crockett pulled the net up once it had made contact with the ocean floor, but when he pulled it up we saw just 10 pogies. A second throw of the net brought up none.
Catching pogies in the winter can be a struggle. The water is clear, the baits are skittish, and the baits we were trying to target certainly felt the pressure of the circling boats.
“We caught all of them,” Crockett announced with a smile as he pulled up the net after Joshua’s third throw hit a big school that we had seen both on the surface and on the machine. Mark, on cue, grabbed the transfer pen.
“You don’t have to dump the net on the deck,” explained Crockett about the strategy of the transfer pen. “The slime coat could get washed off the fish if you dump on the deck before they go in the livewell. Then they don’t last as long throughout the day.”
Having the menhaden go directly from cast net to transfer pen (a big holding net), and then scooping the menhaden out of the transfer pen with smaller bait nets and putting them directly in one of the two waiting livewells, means no human touch at all.
“You get at least twice as much life out of the bait this way,” Crockett continued. “If the slime coat is taken off, they’ll turn red a lot quicker and be tired throughout the day, and then you won’t get as many bites.”
We ended up with about 100 baits in the two livewells—10 pogies from our first throw, about 75 pogies from our second, and those were in addition to the dozen or so bluefish that the Hendersons had caught near some dock lights around the corner from the Morehead public boat ramp before meeting us at 6:30.
Pleased with the ease at which we had loaded up with bait and liking that we had both blues and pogies, Crockett added, “You want different options. If something’s not working, you have different baits to try. You want as many different options as possible. Sometimes the kings will key in on one specific thing, and it’s frustrating if someone else has the bait of choice and you don’t.”
From Drum Inlet, we headed up the beachfront until off of Ocracoke, and at that point we began to head a little further offshore. Still, when we came off plane to drop our first bait in the water, we were within sight of Hatteras Village buildings showing on the horizon. We were at the area referred to as the Bad Bottoms, and so was a mix about 30 or so other “go fast” boats, sportfishers, and commercial guys.
“This time of year there’s a lot of bait coming out of the Pamlico Sound through Hatteras Inlet,” Josh told me as he pulled a couple of three-hook king rigs out of a tackle bag, “and the bait kind of collects in this area known as the Bad Bottoms. The kings just show up in this area, mainly following the bait balls, so if you find the bait, you typically find the kings.”
“There’s no real structure. There’s no ledges or anything. It’s just a whole area that they call the Bad Bottoms, and it’s probably 70-80 square miles at least.”
The three-hook king rigs were necessary because of the size of the pogies we had netted. Each of the pogies was a good 11-12” long, and that’s measuring to the fork length. If you’re bait is big enough to warrant a fork length measurement, then the three-hook rig is necessary.
“We use the three-hook rigs for the bluefish mostly because the blues tend to be longer,” Mark said, holding up some wire. “The pogies usually get the two-hook rigs, but with these pogies you’d barely get the second hook through the back of their head. With that third hook coming down to their tail, you have a better chance of hook-ups.”
All three hooks when in the first pogie—one in the nose, one in the back of the head, and one down the back and close to the tail. Crockett gave a small cast off the back to get the pogie away from the boat, Josh was on the wheel, and Mark started prepping a second bait. That second bait, though, would end up having to wait, because our first bait lasted less than 10 seconds before we heard the clicker.
Crockett handed the rod to my middle child James, and the two of them made their way to the bow. Just like catching bait and just like rigging the baits and getting lines in the water, the Hendersons clearly had a system in place for hookups, a system that everyone understood and employed this time, and every time, we got a bite.
Crockett, standing next to James and with gaff in hand, communicated to Josh behind the wheel by holding up one finger (engage one engine), two fingers (engage two engines), or a fist (no engines), as well as pointing in the direction of line and fish.
“When a fish hits, especially when we’re in a tournament and we think it’s a good fish,” Josh described, “we’ll get everything in. We’ll bring in all the other lines and we’ll focus on solely that fish. However, if it’s a day where there’s a lot of fish and you want to upgrade because you need a bigger fish, and it’s possible because you have enough people on the boat, then somebody’s fighting the fish, you have the gaff man up by the angler, somebody’s on the wheel, and with a fourth man you can tend a bait off the back of the boat just in case there’s another one swimming around.”
As soon as we were turned and pointing towards James’ fish, Mark put another bait in the water, and the second bait of the day also lasted less than 10 seconds.
James continued to fight his fish in the bow, while Owen went to work off the back of the boat. James’ fish was now almost directly underneath the boat.
“We’re trying to stay on top of the fish, especially when you get in crowds like this,” Josh said, pointing around at the fleet. “These fish will run underneath other boats, and if you’re not on top of your fish, you can get cut off pretty quick.”
James’ clicker had gone quiet, as his king made a last few circles just out of reach of the gaff. Owen’s fish, though, was still taking line. The sound of the clicker was part of the Henderson’s system, as the clicker helped everyone on the boat know what Owen’s fish was doing, and that knowledge is even more important when a novice angler is on the rod.
“I need to know if the fish is till running,” Josh continued, “how fast it’s running, and how fast I need to turn around and get on top of it”
The next two hours or so were nonstop. There was rarely a moment that we didn’t have at least one fish on, and most of the time we had two or three hooked up. One of my boys would be in the bow, the other would be in the stern, and while I moved back and forth between them, simply enjoying the experience of watching my growing boys catch big king after big king, there was a very good reason why I spent more time towards the back of the boat.
These kings were aggressively feeding, and if you kept your eyes on the baits in the water, then you were often rewarded by some type of visual pleasure. Sometimes it would be a big boil on the surface, followed by another big boil before screaming drag, but at least a half dozen times I got the thrill of watching 30-50 lb. king mackerel sky on baits.
Here’s another way to describe how good the bite was. When the rush of activity finally slowed down a little, Crockett and Mark were content enough that they didn’t fight Josh when he suggested they pull out the kite. These fish clearly weren’t leader shy, so Josh’s motivation was more to play with the kite and show me yet another arrow in their quiver.
The wind had come up over the morning to about 10 mph, and the kite easily went out. Josh sent out one bait through a clip attached to the kite line, explaining to me that in a tournament they would send out two kites, each with three lines clipped in, but for our day, one line and one kite would suffice.
The rig is different when they’re using the kite. For starters, they keep a cork on the line so that you can better see the line going into the water. Then the hook rig is shorter. The reason for a shorter rig is so that you can hook the pogie just in the back. If you put a hook through the nose of a pogie when using the kite, then the pogie can’t dangle and is forced to face up towards the kite. You don’t want that. You want bait freedom. You want your bait just under and on the surface splashing around and bringing attention to itself.
Out kite bait did splash around and bring attention to itself, and soon enough a king noticed. There was a boil followed by just a slight drag pull, likely a result of the bait in the king’s mouth but the king not yet knowing it has a hook in its mouth. Then the king must have felt the hook and it was showtime.
Often people will say they don’t care much for king mackerel fishing, but it’s hard to imagine that anyone wouldn’t get excited hearing the clicker scream as over a hundred yards of line are dumped in a matter of seconds, or watching a 40 lb. king fly out of the water to heights well above the T-top.
If this sounds like your type of fishing trip, then Capts. Josh and Crockett Henderson and Liquid Fire Sportfishing primarily fish out of Dudley’s Marina in Swansboro, though they’ll travel to Morehead if that’s the better action. In addition to nearly year-round king mackerel trips, they also offer nearshore trips (for spanish and blues), live bait trips (for amberjacks, mahi, and more), bottom fishing trips (for grouper, snapper, and sea bass), and Gulf Stream trips (for mahi, wahoo, and tuna).
You can find out more information about Liquid Fire Sportfishing by visiting www.liquidfiresportfishing.com, on Facebook at @liquidfiresportfishing, or by calling (252) 723-1113.