Updated: Jun 2, 2022
This year’s edition of my annual spring OBX paddling/camping/birding/fishing adventure with my friend Jeff featured some novelty. This was my first trip focusing on fishing; I fished about as much as I birded, often both at once. This was also our first trip to North Core Banks, the skinny 20-mile stretch of coast immediately south of (and once connected to) Portsmouth Island.
As usual, our trip started in the wee hours of the morning, leaving my house in Jeff’s new truck, kayak trailer in tow. We eventually arrived at the Morris Marina in a faraway town called Atlantic, drove aboard the ferry, and puttered across the sound to an even farther away place. I’d say North Core Banks is the least accessible coastal destination in North Carolina, from both a distance and logistical perspective (though Portsmouth Island proper might be a bit worse). That’s not necessarily a bad thing—during our stay on the island, we saw barely more than a dozen other humans (slightly fewer than our normal trips to South Core Banks/Cape Lookout).
The lack of human presence was complimented by a lack of human infrastructure. The National Park Service historically maintained a series of cabins on the island, along with gas and ice, but these haven’t been operational since Hurricane Dorian reshaped the island in 2019. The lack of infrastructure wasn’t a problem, but the island reshaping was. As we drove up the island, trying to find sound access points for our kayaks, we quickly realized that our satellite maps were out of date. Most maps showed the island pre-hurricane (with several well-defined access points), while some showed it immediately post-hurricane (with numerous inlets connecting surf to sound). Even the best map neglected to mention that basically all the mid-island access points and inlets were now overgrown with impenetrable scrub. The lack of sound access was frustrating, but the scenery was a consolation; the ponds and dunes that interrupted the backroads made for an interesting, primal landscape (more on that later). We saw some wildlife on our travels, including some Eastern Cottontails (how did they get here?), a Salt Marsh Skipper, and the first of many Common Nighthawks. Nighthawks are all over North and South Core Banks, and are the bird I associate most closely with these camping trips.
Eventually we made it to the north end of the island, where a small inlet separates North Core Banks from Portsmouth Island. We decided this was our best option for kayaking (and our only access for 15 miles), so we put our boats in the surf and motored up the inlet towards the marshy sound. (My kayak trolling motor debuted on last year’s trip; this was the maiden voyage of Jeff’s motor setup.)
The weather was mild but cloudy—great for paddling, mediocre for photography. We spent about 5 hours moseying around this fascinating area. The inlet was small, maybe 40 yards across at the mouth, with sandflats transitioning into expansive marshes and smaller tidal creeks and lagoons. I saw a fair number of birds, including 170 Red Knots, lots of other shorebirds, 5 species of terns, Black Skimmers, a late Northern Harrier, some Marsh Wrens, Seaside Sparrows, and more. Besides birds, we saw one Diamondback Terrapin and a lot of fish.
Fish were the main attraction here. Jeff and I brought in 6 Red Drum and hooked 2 others that got away. We kept 1 for dinner and returned the rest—most of which were well over the size limits. The biggest was a 32” monster I got to haul in. This was our most productive fishing of the trip.
We eventually drove back down the beach to the far south end of the island, in search of a campsite (and alternative sound access points). We settled on a spot near an abandoned house, so flat and duneless that you could see both the ocean and the sound with a turn of the head. After some unproductive surf fishing and a grilled drum dinner, we settled down for the night.
Friday morning presented the best paddling—well, motor kayaking—conditions of the trip, with almost no wind and mostly cloudy skies. We put in at a soundside washout beach (created by Dorian) near our campsite before parting ways. I headed north, hugging the marsh and exploring a few tidal creeks before reaching Old Drum Inlet (which is no longer an inlet).
The birding was great; the best birds included Black-necked Stilt (flyover), Wilson’s Plover, Piping Plover, Whimbrel, Gull-billed Tern, and a trifecta of marsh sparrows, including Seaside, Nelson’s, and Saltmarsh. Other interesting wildlife included a Terrapin, a Seaside Dragonlet, and some mollusks, including Eastern Oysters, Atlantic Ribbed Mussels, and Marsh Periwinkles.
I didn’t do much active fishing this morning, but I trolled an artificial lure about 40 yards behind my boat as I made my way north. By the time I got to the shallow basin behind the old inlet, I had forgotten the line. Then, two things happened in quick succession. First, I flushed a large ray. Then, about thirty seconds later, I hear my line start running. Did I just hook a (the?) ray, without pliers or even a knife to cut the line? Fortunately, it turned out to be a nice Red Drum, which was a lot of fun to fight from inside the kayak. (Jeff also caught a Southern Flounder while fishing elsewhere in the sound.)
As the morning wore on, I headed back towards the campsite. The clouds thinned, the wind picked up, and I was thankful for my kayak motor. After getting back, we did some surf fishing near the south end of the island. I got to bring in a Bluefish, our only surf fish of the trip. While on the beach, I also saw 8 Northern Gannets heading north, as well as some Bottlenose Dolphins.
In the afternoon, we hopped in our kayaks for one more fishing trip, putting in at the so-called “honey hole” on the sound side of Old Drum Inlet. We made a short trek to a marshy point, attempting to fish a deep channel connected to the basin. It seemed like good habitat, but we didn’t have any luck with fish. The most interesting wildlife were hundreds of Thinstripe Hermit Crabs clinging to the muddy banks of the marsh.
After a long, active day, we both ended up crashing well before the sun set. From a fishing perspective, this was our second-best day (including Redfish, Bluefish, and Flounder). From a birding perspective, this was probably the best day of the trip.
Saturday was sunny and windy, so the kayaks stayed on the trailer. I began the morning wandering the dunes, marshes, and sandflats near our campsite. There was an interesting assortment of wildlife, including birds (a trio of Nighthawks, some shorebirds, etc.), mammals (Eastern Cottontail), herps (a deceased sea turtle near the sound), dragonflies (Spot-winged Glider and Seaside Dragonlet), and other invertebrates (robber flies, Hairy-necked Tiger Beetles, and a Seaside Grasshopper).
After some unproductive surf fishing at the south end of the island, we headed back to the honey hole at Old Drum Inlet. While there, we caught several Pinfish for bait, Jeff saw a live sea turtle (that I missed), and I saw a gull-billed Tern. Then we headed north.
Around the middle of the island, we stopped and explored an interesting series of ponds created by Hurricane Dorian, surrounded by vegetation. I hiked around on a search for wildlife and came across a White-eyed Eastern Towhee, a Prairie Warbler, various other birds, several Salt Marsh Skippers, and more Seaside Dragonlets. The sun brought out some lizards, too—probably Six-lined Racerunners, but they scurried into the scrub before I could get a good look.
We eventually made it to the inlet at the north end of the island, where we hiked out to a marshy point in search of Red Drum. The fishing wasn’t as productive as Thursday, and we managed to bring only one drum to shore; it got away as we tried to secure it. The birding also wasn’t quite as good as Thursday, but the wind created some interesting opportunities for photographing terns.
After a fun southbound drive down 20 miles of nearly uninhabited beach, we had a big Redfish dinner (from our Thursday catch) and called it a night.
The weather Sunday was terrible. A large low-pressure system parked just off the coast, sending cold, clouds, rain, and strong winds from the west. The system stayed put until Wednesday or Thursday, and the sustained winds picked up to 30+ mph. We had to depart the island a day early to avoid being stranded for the better part of the following week. That would have been miserable!
We spent most of the day inside the truck, waiting for the ferry to rescue us. A few highlights punctuated the monotony. First, just before packing up, I saw a Bank Swallow battling the winds near our campsite. Later, while surf fishing in front of the Park Service cabins, we each reeled in a Southern Stingray—cool animals, but frustrating to fight and even worse to unhook. As our departure time grew nearer, we moved over to the soundside ferry dock. The timing was perfect. About 30 minutes before the ferry arrived, several gulls dropped down to forage in the flooded banks. One caught my eye: a Black-headed Gull, a rare visitor from Eurasia and by far the best bird of the trip. It moved on after a couple minutes, not to be seen again.
With this surprisingly good finish, we boarded the ferry, buckled up for a bumpy ride across the sound, and hurried home.
By the numbers:
A lot of transit time, including many miles by car, a full tank of gas driving on the beach (averaging about 6 mpg), 8 miles by ferry, and ~10 miles by kayak.
Only 67 species of birds—unsurprisingly low given the lack of habitat on the sparsely vegetated island, but high quality, with 21 I hadn’t seen yet this year, and 4 or 5 that I probably won’t see again this year.
Other animals: 5 species of fish (all caught, 2 lifers); 2 mammals; 2 reptiles; 3 dragonflies/damselflies; 2 butterflies; 3 crabs; 4 beetles (all lifers); 1 grasshopper; 1 fly identified (others present); 3 mollusks (1 lifer)