Spots Are Running

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Text and photos by Ray Linville

“They’re running” is a phrase that you hear often. It could be at the start of a NASCAR race in Charlotte, a 10K run in the Triangle, or a warning about bulls charging in Pamplona, Spain, but right now it’s a phrase referring to a seasonal phenomenon on the coast.

The fishing pier at Carolina Beach is lined with hopeful anglers who want to take home a few spots.

For many coastal areas in North Carolina at this time of year, “they’re running” means that spots are running near the shore and it’s time to head to a fishing pier. The spot is one of the most popular fish caught on rod and reel. It is caught not only from piers but also from bridges, jetties, and small boats as well as the surf. When this small panfish is running along the N.C. shore, the fishing piers are hopping with activity. The spot is usually traveling in schools, and filling a cooler doesn’t take very long.

If you don’t catch spots yourself, a seafood market such as Blackburn Brothers has them available.

According to the N.C. Division of Marine Fisheries, spots are “hot” to catch from August through October. During that time, they transit our shores as they head down to southern U.S. coasts and the Gulf for winter. In fact, when I was at Blackburn Brothers Seafood in Carolina Beach, an employee said that spots are always running when Major League Baseball’s World Series is being played.

The spot is easily recognized—it has a distinctive, large black spot near the gill opening and 12 to 15 dark, angled bars across its back. It may grow to 14 inches in length and weigh up to almost half a pound. Because of its small size (the largest one ever caught weighed only 2½ pounds), the spot is typically prepared whole and is rarely filleted. The spot’s sweet, distinctive meat makes it a favorite at many restaurants and seafood markets in coastal areas. The spot has a mild flavor with a medium-dense texture.

The front door of the restaurant Something Fishy lets everyone know that spots are running.

The spot is celebrated not only at the dinner table but also in local culture. Just north of Wilmington in Hampstead (Pender County), the N.C. Spot Festival is held annually in late September. Spot dinners are served throughout the festival that features music, arts and crafts, and other activities.

The streetside sign of Boathouse Restaurant in Wilmington simply says, “Spots.”

Elsewhere along the coast, restaurants that serve locally caught fish feature spots when they are running. Because I’m not talented at fishing, I pull into a locally owned restaurant in the Wilmington area when I see a sign that says, “Spots.”

Because this fish is popular with recreational anglers, almost 3 million are caught each year (another ½ million are caught by commercial fishermen). In fact, N.C. recreational anglers catch more spot than any other variety. If you plan to fish, make sure that you have a N.C. coastal recreational fishing license, which can be purchased on a 10-day, annual, or lifetime basis (anyone younger than 16 years old is exempt).

The menu board at Gulfstream Restaurant has three spots on the plate.

Fishing is not only entertainment, but it has also provided needed food for many families. For many years, coastal fishing has been an important source of food for poor families, particularly during the system of farm tenancy, as Marcie Cohen Ferris explains in her book The Edible South. Because rent for small tracts of land required most of what families made from cotton, peanuts, and sweet potatoes, and the soil was depleted after generations of planting tobacco, many families depended on coastal fishing to provide food for their tables.

A plate of spots usually comes with two sides, such as collards and black-eyed peas.

When spots are running, many memories are evoked—some good such as family fishing adventures, some sad such as struggles to place food on a family table. Whether a spot dinner is enjoyed at a restaurant or after a day of fishing, now is the time to celebrate this fish’s role in our food culture.

Little is left on a plate when someone arrives hungry for spot.


Coastal Recreational Fishing Licenses and Permits

N.C. Coastal Recreational Angler’s Guide

N.C. Fishing – What’s Hot and When

N.C. Spot Festival

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