Hundreds of small fish have been washing ashore with the waves on Ocracoke Island over the past several weeks, in a phenomenon that’s both unusual and a part of the greater migration process along the southern Outer Banks.
Fall is primetime for fishing on Ocracoke and Hatteras Islands, and as several larger species make their venture to open waters, these treks can result in some unexpected side effects.
“This time of year, we start seeing the fish leave the sound and start to winter in the ocean,” said Melinda Sutton, who owns the 47-year-old Tradewinds Tackle in Ocracoke with her husband, Alan. “But what’s happening is that the bluefish are swimming in the water, and are pushing the bait fish up to the shoreline, and when the waves come in, the fish get stranded on the beach.”
Bluefish are the likely culprit for the smaller fish washing ashore in recent days, (as opposed to other migrating species like red drum), simply because bluefish are more active in the daytime – or when lights are brighter – which is when these incidents are occurring.
“We think it’s the bluefish that have been in the sound all summer and are heading out to the ocean, and it’s not a [straightforward] north-south migration from here,” said Sutton. “Even in our Oyster Creek area, where there are canals bordering houses, we’ve had reports of more and more fish in the water.”
“We’ve recently had our full moon – or harvest moon – so it’s really bright at night, and the drum prefer the lower light conditions,” added Sutton. “Meanwhile, the bluefish are more attracted to what they can see, and when they can spot that flashing, silver [color].”
Bluefish are also extremely aggressive, and will often chase bait through the close-to-shore surf zone, herding them toward the beach. This behavior is known as a “bluefish blitz,” as thousands of big blues will attack schools of smaller baitfish in mere inches of water.
As the hub of fishing activity and information on Ocracoke Island, Sutton said that she has received plenty of reports from folks on the recent events, and their unusual nature.
“A gentleman who has lived here his whole life told me that he has never seen anything like it,” she said. “The smaller fish are literally running away from the bluefish.”
Most reports come from the South Point area on Ocracoke, but similar incidents have been spotted in other locales too, including the north end of Ocracoke near Hatteras Inlet, and also on Hatters Island from Buxton to Hatteras village.
Tradewinds Tackle shared a viral post on Facebook with incredible photos from Ocracoke Island local, Heather Johnson, of small spot that had washed ashore in recent days, but there have been several species that have been affected by this Ocracoke Island bluefish blitz.
“Last week it was silversides – small bait fish – as well as jumping mullet or finger mullet,” said Mutton. “There have also been reports of little trout or Spanish mackerel. They are just scaring any smaller fish to the [shore].”
It’s not perfectly clear why this phenomenon is happening in 2022 as opposed to previous years, but there are a few key factors that likely play a role.
For one thing, the 2022 hurricane season has more or less spared the Outer Banks, as of the end of October. “We normally have some sort of storm event by this point that shifts the typical activity, but that hasn’t happened yet this year,” said Sutton, knocking on wood.
For another thing, (and especially for the many folks who are involved in the fishing industry on a daily basis), it’s a solid sign that the local fishing industry is in good shape.
“It’s definitely weird, but I think it’s a good sign on the whole,” said Sutton. “This past week, there was a healthy school of spot that washed ashore, but it was chased by an equally healthy school of bluefish, so I think that says a lot about our local waters.”