5 Favorite Saltwater Game Fish In Carolina

Flounder, redfish, specks, grouper and dolphin offer a wide variety of exciting fishing adventures for North Carolina anglers. (May 2007)

Captain Ray Massengill of Down East Guide Service plays a big gag grouper 10 miles offshore of Atlantic Beach.
Photo by Mike Marsh

There is plenty of salt water along the North Carolina coastline and not just along the beaches and in the open Atlantic. It's true that the many species of grouper guard the deep recesses of the rocky ledges and live bottom areas from 10 to 60 miles offshore, while other fish, like dolphin (which has been called the "perfect game fish,") swim freely wherever the winds and currents take them.

But some of the state's best saltwater action occurs up the coastal rivers and bays, away from the ocean. Here, fish such as spotted sea trout, red drum and southern flounder will make any angler's day with a nibble, a hookset and a hard tug at the end of the line. Toss in the summer flounder that can be caught from inside the inlets on out to 10 miles offshore, and you've covered one of the broadest spectrums of the sport of fishing to be found anywhere in the world. These five fish exemplify the best fishing a Tar Heel fisherman can ever experience.

SPOTTED SEATROUT

The spotted seatrout, or "speckled trout," is one of the most highly sought fish in saltwater. Specks, as many anglers call them, are one of the few game fish that can be caught more readily by using lures than by using live or natural baits.

Two good winters in a row (which for seatrout mean no prolonged intervals of subfreezing weather) helped create one of the best speckled trout bites in most anglers' memories.

Pamlico Sound is the northernmost limit of the speckled trout spawning range because of temperature. While most anglers believe a speckled trout is a cold-water fish, exactly the opposite is true. Trout are relatively active feeders early in the season and again in the fall, but cold weather in the winter can severely reduce stocks of the fish in North Carolina.

For the time being, North Carolina anglers are making catches of super-sized specks with regularity. Where most of the state was once notorious for producing "hammer handles" of 10 to 12 inches, now big "gator" specks of 4 to 8 pounds are being landed everywhere there is a known speckled trout fishing hole.

To find specks, find structure. Speckled trout feed on small baitfish and shrimp. A big speck feeds on pinfish, pigfish and croakers as big as an angler's hand. All of these baitfish are found along grassbeds, jetties, submerged pilings, piers, rock seawalls and channel edges -- so that is where anglers are going to find specks.

At times, a good run of baitfish, especially mullet, menhaden or shrimp, will attract specks no matter where it occurs. The bait will jump from the water, "showering" across the surface as speckled trout lunge through the massed bait in a feeding frenzy.

Wherever an angler spots such action at the surface, the obvious choice is using a topwater lure or popper fly. Specks attack a hard bait fished in a "walk the dog" fashion or a popper jerked once, then let sit still inside its own widening concentric circles. Specks will absolutely crush topwater lures, especially early and late in the day. But speck anglers fishing the bait concentrations should always have a topwater lure tied onto one rod ready for action.

Live baits work extremely well for catching speckled trout, too. When fishing the bait schools, it's a simple matter to use a cast net to catch enough bait to fill a livewell or bait bucket. Mud minnows and live shrimp can also be bought at seafood dealers, bait and tackle shops and marinas.

Live baits for specks are usually fished on float rigs. The float allows the bait to swim enticingly while suspending it above the bottom. Specks are usually caught in shallow water above or near structure, so float rigs also prevent the hook from hanging on the structure.

A popping float rig, which consists of a stiff wire running through a plastic float with plastic beads on both sides, has become very popular in North Carolina waters with the introduction of scent-impregnated, biodegradable baits.

The soft bait is hooked on a jighead suspended 2 feet below the float on a mono leader. As the float drifts past likely structure, the rod is lifted and then dropped sharply, causing the beads to pop against the float twice -- once on the lift and once on the fall. The sound attracts trout to the bait.

Specks can also be caught with the old standby lures -- the solid hard-plastic swimming minnow imitations and the grub hooked on a jighead.

FLOUNDER

The two species of flounder most likely to be caught by North Carolina anglers are summer flounder and southern flounder. The summer flounder is mostly caught at hard structure areas just offshore of the beaches, while the southern flounder is the flatfish of inshore waters. Still, their ranges overlap, so either fish may be caught during any single fishing expedition.

Drifting inlets is a common way to catch flounder. The bait is fished on a Carolina rig (better known on the coast as a flounder rig). The rig consists of a swivel, egg or torpedo sinker, 18-inch mono leader and a wide bend or Kahle hook. Some sinkers have integral swivels to prevent twisting and these are the best style to use in swift waters to prevent line twist. For slow drifts, the standard sinker sliding on the line above the swivel of a standard Carolina rig works fine. All that is needed is enough sinker weight to keep the bait on the bottom.

The most important part of any flounder rig is the hook. The outer parts of a flounder's mouth have thin membranes and the fish, with its flattened body, can put on an incredible burst of power that will dislodge a poorly set hook. Flounder that throw the hook after being fought for a while usually do so just as the fish spots the landing net. The odds for a tossed hook skyrocket if the fish's head breaks the surface.

The lesson learned from a thrown hook is "use enough hook," to paraphrase the famous Southport outdoorsman and author, Robert Ruark. Large, wide bend hooks get the job done and should be sized according to the size of the bait and the fish expected to bite.

Southport is famous not only for Ruark, but also for the state's biggest flatfish, with summer flounder abounding at nearby artificial reefs and southern flounder abundant in the Intracoastal Waterway and the Cape Fear River. Every year, dozens of citation flounder weighing more than 5 pounds are caught from the are

a. However, Morehead City, Swansboro and Topsail Beach also have reputations for producing big flatfish.

Drifting baits is effective because it presents the bait over a large area, which in turn is an advantage because flounder do not move around much. They ambush prey as it swims by, preferring to hide on the downstream sides of sandbars and structure facing upstream. A boat drifting on the current and dragging live bait, a strip of fish or scent-impregnated artificial strip presents the bait in a natural manner. Some anglers shut off the motor while drift-fishing. But it's a better idea to keep it idling in the event the line gets snagged and you have to back up to free it -- or in the happier event that a big fish strikes and you want to drop the bait back on a slack line to give the fish time to eat the bait.

The slack line at the bite can be critical to success. Nobody ever waited too long to set the hook into a flounder. However, everyone has lost fish by not waiting long enough.

Big flounder like big baits. Trophy anglers swear by fishing a live menhaden 6 or 12 inches long. But plenty of big flatfish are caught on smaller baits.

Anchoring the boat or using a trolling motor and casting to oyster beds, sunken boats or gaps in grassbeds will produce flounder. When casting, some anglers switch from Carolina rigs to jigheads or bucktails tipped with strip baits, shrimp or minnows. Others use soft-plastic trailers or scented artificial trailers on their jigheads. Flounder also readily strike gold spoons fished along rocky places where it is impossible to cast anything else because of hang-ups. A spoon with a rattle on it plays quite a jingle as it bounces off oyster shells and rocks, and it will catch flounder from places most anglers won't even attempt to fish. A float rig can also be used to suspend live bait above potential hang-ups.

RED DRUM

Red drum, also called puppy drum, channel bass or redfish, are as close to an "everyone's fish" as swims in the brine. They are caught by almost any method an angler can name. They are caught from the surf, from ocean piers, from private docks, at the inlets, at inshore and offshore artificial reefs and natural ledges, and in all inshore areas.

Sight-fishing is the most exciting way to catch red drum. The juvenile fish of the estuaries can be up to 30 inches long and weigh 12 pounds or more. These fish form schools of a few to hundreds of fish that can turn the water the color of newly minted pennies as light reflects off their colorful sides.

Two-man "teams" work well for this type of fishing. One angler poles from a platform above the outboard, while the other stands on the bow ready to make a cast. The angler on the platform usually is the first to spot the fish and points them out to the angler with the rod, using a clock face code and estimating the distance. The bow points to 12 o'clock.

The angler may see the fish or not, casting a fly, jig or spoon and making adjustments in the event of a miss. Sometimes it's best to cast ahead of the fish and let the lure rest on the bottom. Twitching it as a red drum swims near entices the strike.

Stalking a tailing fish is exciting. A sharp bump on the deck and the fish swims away. But as the boat closes the distance and the angler casts to a fish he can see, the excitement can be so overwhelming even experienced fishermen sometimes flub the cast and spook the fish.

Redfish are also caught with live and cut baits. Surf-fishing for red drum at Cape Hatteras in October is the stuff of legends. It's here that adult fish of 40 pounds or more come near shore while migrating. Surf rods heaving heavy sinkers and menhaden fillets get surf-fishermen into the action.

However, smaller tackle and any cut bait works well for most surf-fishermen in other areas of the coast. Any reel that holds 250 yards of 15-pound-test is capable of catching a redfish. They are unlikely to toss the hook, so they can be played with a heavy drag.

Anglers also catch red drum by casting live baits on float rigs or Carolina rigs at structure areas and beneath docks.

DOLPHIN

The dolphin is in the running for the most beautiful fish in the ocean. They light up with neon green, yellow, gold, blue, turquoise and silver when they leap from the water during a battle. But they lose their color seconds after being landed. Therefore, anyone wanting to see a dolphin's splendor must go to sea to catch one.

Among the fastest growing, most prolific of game fish, dolphin spawn continually and migrate the oceans far beyond what anybody has been able to determine. They are prey for marlin, sharks and other large fish.

In turn, dolphin prey on flying fish. Therefore, dolphin lures are designed to imitate flying fish. Trolling a few dolphin-specific lures in a trolling spread pulling a dozen lures or more makes good sense. The lures that dolphin prefer are usually smaller than lures that attract billfish. However, trolling a few of the smaller lures can stave off a day of boredom when the trip is a strikeout for other big-game fish.

Dolphin come in all sizes, from bailers and shingles (small fish that don't have to be gaffed so they are lifted by the leader) to the big male "bull" dolphin with the sharply angled foreheads called "gaffers" that require gaffs for landing. Females are called "cows" and lack the prominent forehead.

Fast-trolled skirted lures fished "naked" or with strip baits, or rigged natural baits such as mullet or Spanish mackerel are tickets to board the dolphin express. Trolling speeds can be 7 to 12 knots or even higher, because a lure can't be pulled fast enough to take it away from a dolphin.

The Gulf Stream or eddies moving inshore off the Gulf Stream hold dolphin, and summer is the best time to catch them. Anywhere an angler spots floating weed lines dolphin are nearby. Anything floating -- board, cooler top or other flotsam -- also attracts dolphin. If flying fish are present, it is certain dolphin are hunting below.

Once a dolphin is hooked, others will follow the hooked fish. Putting the rod in a holder and leaving the fish in the water brings other fish near. Anglers who cast flashy lures with spinning rigs to the visible dolphin following the hooked fish can truly put dolphin into the boat because the action is so fast.

GROUPER

There are many grouper species along the coast. The most commonly caught grouper are the red and gag because these species occur nearest the beaches.

Grouper lurk along offshore ledges and hard-bottom areas. They can be caught all year long, but most anglers fish for them in warm weather months on days when the wind is not blowing.

To catch grouper takes electronics. A GPS or Loran unit coupled with a good color depthfinder is a critical combination for grouper anglers. Any fishing chart has well-known hard bottoms for catching grouper marked. But once an angler arrives, he m

ust fine-tune his search.

Light-colored echoes usually show baitfish concentrations on the bottom. Grouper are less likely to show on the screen because they swim close to the structure.

Most grouper are caught with heavy-action boat rods with 4/0- to 6/0-sized reels and line weights of 50 pounds or more. The rig is a two-hook bottom rig tied with 130-pound mono or greater and large circle hooks.

Any cut fresh or frozen baitfish will catch grouper. But to guarantee strikes will be more likely the result of grouper more than other bottom fish, the best grouper fishermen use live pinfish or live blue crabs. These baits can be caught in traps set from a dock and kept alive in a livewell.

Some anglers fish for grouper from party boats and go to the extra trouble of wheeling along an aerated cooler with a 12-volt battery to keep the water aerated for pinfish. However, blue crabs can be kept alive on ice for use as grouper bait.

GUIDES AND CHARTER INFORMATION

Capt. Carl Snow, Capt. Shane Snow, Fish Witch II Charters, Carolina Beach, offshore trolling for dolphin and other big-game fish, as well as inshore fishing, (910) 458-5855.

Capt. Butch Foster, Yeah Right Charters, Southport, trolling or light tackle fishing for dolphin and other game fish, (910) 845-2004.

Capt. Dave Dietzler, Cape Lookout Charters, Morehead City, red drum, speckled trout, flounder and other inshore and nearshore fishing, (252) 240-2850.

Capt. Fisher Culbreth, Capture Charters, Carolina Beach, sight-fishing for red drum, and fishing for speckled trout, (910) 262-1450.

Capt. Ray Massengill, Capt. Greg Voliva, Down East Guide Service, Morehead City, grouper and nearshore fishing, (252) 249-3101.

Party boat fishing for grouper and other bottom fish, Capt. Stacy Fishing Center, Morehead City, (800) 533-9417.

Find more about North Carolina fishing and hunting at: NCgameandfish.com

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