HATTERAS ISLAND, N.C. — The south end of the Outer Banks of North Carolina is a long way from the hills of West Virginia, but no matter where you go, you’ll find Mountaineers everywhere.
“I grew up in Webster County in the town of Cowen. My mom’s family are long time Webster County folks,” said Captain Jay Kavanagh owner and Captain of Bite-Me Charters. “I left the state and went to college in Virginia and then came back to Morgantown to go to graduate school.”
Kavanagh still maintains deep roots in the Mountain State. He proudly explained the wood trim on the interior of the boat’s cabin was cut and custom milled on the Cherry River in West Virginia.
Armed with a Masters Degree in Forestry, Kavanagh headed for the Carolina Coast after graduation and went to work in the North Carolina fishing industry. He also married into a fishing family. Jay’s wife is a native of the Outer Banks. Her family has owned the best known gathering spot for sportsmen in the region Frisco Rod and Gun for many years. In 2000, Kavanagh took the plunge, bought his boat, and decided to try his luck in the charter business. Seventeen years later, he’s still going strong.
“We have great fishing all year round out of Hatteras and we do run charters 12 months out of the year, of course we’re not as busy in the winter time,” he explained. “Typically spring and fall are good fishing for your meat fish, tuna, dolphin, and wahoo. Summertime is good fishing for dolphin and bill fish. We have great fishing all year long, it just depends on what you want to try to catch.”
I chartered a trip with Captain Jay on the Bite-Me as an added activity to an Outer Banks vacation in June.
“We have a lot of people who schedule a trip around their vacation,” he said. “Late summer we move the boat up to Oregon Inlet because the marlin bite actually moves up there. This is a good place to catch a big blue marlin. That’s the largest of the bill fish species.”
During 2017, as of our trip, the Bite-Me had boated 7 blue marlin, four of them above 400 pounds and two at more than 500 pounds. The blue marlin are released and anglers proudly display a marlin flag in the end of the day photo.
The day starts early with scenery only few get to enjoy. The sun made a dramatic rise on the Atlantic and seeped through a pallet of low hanging clouds. Boats began the run out of Hatteras Harbor for the Gulf Stream in a row. It’s a short trip. Trolling starts 20 miles off shore less than an hour’s run from land.
“That’s one good thing, we’re fairly close to the Gulf Stream,” Kavanagh explained. “Hatteras Island sticks way out into the ocean so we’re closer to the fishing.”
First mate Catlin “Cat” Peele set various lines at various depths in hopes of raising fish. A mix of live bait, artificial streamers and chains of colorful teasers bounce along the surface in the boat’s wake trying to attract anything hungry. The sunrise continued to create a spectacular early morning backdrop.
Although finicky at first, after several hours Captain Jay found what he was hunting, floating grass.
“That’s sargassum grass, sometimes called gulf weed. It grows on the surface out here in the Gulf Stream and it’s really the beginning of life,” he said. “If you can find that grass you can generally find life.”
Kavanagh, from experience, noted the last large patch of grass on the downwind side is typically where the dolphin or mahi-mahi will school up to feed. His prediction was as solid as a bird dog pointing quail. Moments after the first pass there were more bites than there were people on board to handle a rod. As quickly as Cat unhooked a fish and tossed it into the ice chest, the same line would hit the water and immediately have another fish on.
“Their schooling instinct is so strong, as long as you leave one hooked in the water, they’ll stay with you,” Kavanagh said. “You saw that, they followed us around like puppy dogs.”
The flurry of activity came in two waves. Both lasted 7 to 10 minutes and produced a total of 25 fish. Content with enough dolphin to satisfy our appetite and make a successful trip, we changed tactics in search of something larger. Kavanagh radioed other captains in the vicinity of his discovery and told them to have at it. Cat set different rigs and we pulled to the outskirts of our honey hole. The new goal was to find marlin, wahoo, tuna or sail fish.
“Primarily this time of year we’re fishing for dolphin and bill fish species,” he explained. “But we could also possibly catch yellowfin tuna, blackfin tuna, wahoo, king mackerel, amberjack, just about anything that swims.”
Those bigger fish weren’t to be for us on this day as my crew became sun weary. We headed for home with a mess of fresh fish and memories of a fantastic trip. A lot of West Virginians head for the Outer Banks on their vacation week, why not spent at least one day of your beach week aboard the Bite Me with a fellow West Virginian.