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Favorite Saltwater Fish In North Carolina

Favorite Saltwater Fish In North Carolina

There are many bright prospects for saltwater anglers on the North Carolina coast. Here's the scoop on some of the hottest fishing for the upcoming season. (March 2009)

Doug Shores (blue shirt) and Tim Barrier caught these king mackerel at Kure Beach Pier. Trolley rigging for kings is popular at ocean piers. Photo by Mike Marsh.

Saltwater game fish populations are subject to more ups and downs than an amusement park roller coaster ride. While fishery management plans can and have smoothed many of the peaks and valleys in the indices of many of North Carolina's favorite saltwater fish, there is little that can be done when environmental factors exert an even larger influence on populations of a specific species than can be offset by tweaking such angler-induced mortality factors as commercial quotas and by catch and recreational angler retention and catch-and-release mortality figures that can run as high as 15 percent.

Long-term statistics are one of the best ways to predict which species an angler has the best success of finding and catching when he tries his luck in the brine. But even statistics have their weaknesses. Fish that are abundant on a coastwide basis may be absent from a localized area where they may have been found in the recent past. Conversely, some highly migratory fish like striped bass, summer flounder and weakfish, may be so abundant in some places that their numbers appear utterly inexhaustible even as fishery managers may say they are in short supply in the overall scheme of things.

So, we've tried to narrow down the playing field, selecting those fish anglers should target if they want to have the best chance of catching something instead of going home disappointed. Using statistics and analyzing anecdotal evidence may not be the perfect way to predict angler success. But it's way ahead of playing a guessing game. For the best saltwater success, anglers should set their sights on red drum, flounder, speckled trout, bluefish, king mackerel, Spanish mackerel and dolphin so they can head for the coast properly prepared.

Red drum are called by many names, but they are still the same fish. In fact, the red drum is so esteemed it is the official North Carolina saltwater fish. The biggest drum are called channel bass, old drum and adult drum. They are distinctly different fish in size, habitat and name than juvenile fish, which are typically called redfish, puppy drum or rat reds.

The juvenile fish are less than 4 years old and live mostly in the estuaries and along the surf zone. Once they achieve adulthood at a length of 27 inches and a weight of 10 pounds or so, they head for the open Atlantic.

Anglers run into the adult fish when trolling near the bottom or bottom-fishing within 20 miles of the coastline, especially in fall and winter. Keeping ocean fish is illegal and all of the adult fish are outside the legal inshore slot size of 18 to 32 inches anyway.


But anglers who want to catch and release these huge redfish, which can easily top 50 pounds, head for a few specific places. One place that has become legendary is the lower Neuse River/Pamlico Sound area, where adult fish migrate to spawn each year beginning in July. They stay around until August or September.

Just before and after they arrive inland, they make an appearance at the inlets and beaches. Runs of old drum occur at Cape Hatteras, Cape Lookout, Bald Head Island, Ocracoke and all of the nearby inlets. Massive schools of huge red drum are easy to spot as they chase baitfish along the bars. Anglers casting live baits, cut baits, spoons and big soft-plastic lures on jigheads may hook and land a dozen in a half day of fishing.

In the sound and river, the fishing is different. Anglers spot the fish by watching for oil slicks surfacing from crushed menhaden when the big fish are feeding. At night, the old drum migrate along the navigation channels, sandbars and the dropoffs at the edges of the sandbars. Big cut baits fished on the bottom are the ticket to catching huge red drum when they are inshore.

Red drum populations continue to increase as a result of restrictive recreational and commercial landings. In the 1990s, North Carolina recreational landings ranged from 191,819 in 1992 to 561,892 in 1999 with an average of 362,211 fish. In the 2000s, landings have fluctuated between a low of 328,490 in 2003 and a high of 679,066 in 2006 with an average of 352,700. Recreational landings are based on weather conditions and the strength of the previous year's spawn to produce slot-sized fish. The trend for the last three years' recreational landings has been upward.

The two most common species of flounder in North Carolina waters are the southern flounder, which inhabits inshore waters and the summer flounder, which inhabits nearshore and offshore waters. At nearshore reefs and ledges as well as at the inlets and fishing piers, the two species mingle. Identification can be tricky, but a pattern of three eye-like spots with the point of the triangle toward the head identifies the summer flounder in most cases.

Anglers catch flounder by using lures, cut baits, shrimp, squid and minnows. But the favorite baits are live menhaden, mullet, mud minnows and killifish.

Flounder hunt along the bottom, typically resting on the bottom covered with sand to further camouflage their already dappled upper topsides. When prey passes overhead, the flounder surges up and engulfs it with a mouth that opens incredibly wide and is full of jagged teeth. But it returns to the bottom to swallow, and this makes it tough for inexperienced fishermen to detect the strike. Set the hook too soon and it is pulled out of the fish's mouth.

The most popular way of fishing is by drifting or trolling live baits along the bottom of an inlet, bay or estuary. But structure fishing is often done from anchored boats or from boats with trolling motors. Flounder orient to anomalies in the bottom or along the shoreline and especially like to hunt near wrecks and artificial reefs, boat docks, ocean-fishing piers, clay outcrops, riprap, rocky ledges, oyster beds, sandbars, bulkheads and jetties.

In the 1990s, recreational landings of southern flounder ranged from 34,558 in 1993 to 80,540 in 1991 with an average of 56,701 fish. In the 2000s, recreational landings have ranged from 114,335 in 2001 to 198,179 in 2004 with an average of 144,510 fish.

In the 1990s, recreational landings of summer flounder ranged from 148,853 in 1995 to 511,263 in 1990 with an average landing of 302,862 fish. In the 2000s, recreational landings of summer flounder ranged from 86,017 in 2003 to 350,573 in 2000 with an average of 199,979 fish.

Spotted seatrout, also known as speckled

trout or simply "specks" are at the northern limits of their range in Pamlico Sound. Cold winters can wipe out the spawning stock. But through the 2007-08 winter, no cold winters had occurred in the past four or five years, resulting in spectacular fishing for this gorgeous game fish.

Anglers catch specks at inlets, from ocean-fishing piers, in the surf and along structure areas in the estuaries, such as grassbeds and oyster reefs. They are notoriously migratory, with a maddening habit of biting well one day, then vanishing the next.

Best places to fish for big specks include the New River, Wrightsville Beach, Cape Lookout and Fort Macon rock jetties, Ocean Crest Fishing Pier at Oak Island and the shorelines of Pamlico and Core sounds. Anglers have good luck catching specks by using scented soft-plastic trailers hooked on jigheads, hard-bodied plastic minnow imitations, topwater lures and live shrimp or minnows fished on float rigs. The biggest specks typically strike live baits or topwater walk-the-dog type lures.

Speckled trout have such a boom-and-bust cycle that fishery managers have a difficult time with them. They are probably more susceptible to cold spells than to fishing pressure because of their high reproductive and growth rates. Continued warm winters will mean larger numbers of larger specks. At anglers' requests and owing to the increasing number of super-sized specks, the size limit for entry into the NCDMF Saltwater Tournament awards program increased from 4 pounds to 5 pounds in 2008.

In the 1990s, recreational landings of speckled trout ranged from 146,236 in 1996 to 457,636 in 1994 with an average landing of 299,027. In the 2000s, recreational landings have ranged from 104,163 in 2003 to 562,897 in 2006 with an average of 300,545 fish.

Bluefish may be the subject of the biggest success story of recent fishery management history. The species is now fully recovered from excessive fishing pressure during the 1990s, thanks to a federally approved, intensive fishery management plan. The plan set recreational bag limits and size limits that had wide variations from state to state.

That the plan worked is a testimony to science and the dedication of anglers who scratched their heads and wondered what had happened to the big chopper bluefish, which can top 12 pounds. Now that these "Hatteras Blues" have returned, anglers are catching and retaining an increasing number of them. At one time, the commercial quota had withdrawn the excess from the decreasing percentage of fish stock being retained by recreational fishermen. But that re-allocation will likely soon end as North Carolina anglers are rediscovering the joys of catching and eating one of the toothiest, jumpiest, fastest and most aggressive fish ever hooked and landed with light tackle.

Big runs of huge bluefish are now occurring everywhere, from the mouth of the Cape Fear River northward to Cape Hatteras. In spring, they show up at artificial reefs between 10 and 20 miles offshore first. Then they move to the inlets and piers by mid-May. After reaching the inlets, they move into the sounds and rivers. In winter, the biggest bluefish can be found along the northern coast at the inlets and outer banks from Ocracoke to Hatteras northward.

Big bluefish will eat anything. Metal and hard-plastic lures work best and heavy mono or wire leaders will keep the fish from biting off the lures. Live and cut baits also work well for catching bluefish. Presentations that work for bluefish run the entire range of saltwater techniques. Trolling, drifting, anchoring and casting, float-fishing, bottom-fishing, surf-fishing and pier-fishing are all methods anglers can use for catching bluefish. Most anglers prefer keeping the smaller fish. But larger fish can be tasty as well when properly prepared.

In the 1990s, recreational landings ranged from 289,619 in 1996 to 2,228,907 in 1990 with an average landing of 681,525 fish. In the 2000s, recreational landings ranged from 780,444 in 2002 to 1,246,512 in 2005 with an average of 885,999 fish.

King mackerel may be the most intensively managed game fish in the ocean. Fishery managers have studied kingfish so much that they know how to tweak the size and bag limits to obtain an objective of a specific number of fish surviving to reach a certain size. As the subject of more tournaments than any other large pelagic fish species in North Carolina, king mackerel are extremely important fish for local economies. The recreational catch versus commercial catch ratio favors recreational anglers on a 60 percent to 40 percent basis, with 5 percent of all king mackerel landed by humans taken in recreational king mackerel tournaments.

The current size and bag limits of three fish measuring 24 inches have been in place for many years and anglers and fishery managers are happy with the consistent results. Plenty of big kings weighing more than 30 pounds are caught each year.

King mackerel are fairly easy fish to catch, roaming everywhere from the surf zone to the Gulf Stream. Land-based anglers catch them by suspending live baits from trolley rigs at the ends of ocean-fishing piers. Anglers in boats target them by using lures, hard-plastic baits and live baits.

The best places to find kings are structure areas, with natural ledges and artificial reefs top choices. Open-water areas that hold concentrations of baitfish also have many king mackerel. Kings are close to shore in summer and fall and then move out to warmer waters at 35 to 55 miles in winter. Kings will strike baits and lures intended for much larger game fish, such as wahoo and yellowfin tuna. Slow-trolling a live menhaden is the ticket to catching most tournament-winning kings.

In the 1990s, recreational landings ranged from 75,590 in 1996 to 196,069 in 1990 with an average of 129,586 fish. In the 2000s, recreational landings ranged from 67,273 in 2002 to 145,420 in 2005 with an average of 113,141 fish.

More kids cut their teeth on Spanish mackerel than by catching any other saltwater game fish. When Spanish mackerel swarm the inlets and nearshore artificial reefs in May and June, anglers catch them by trolling spoons and lures or casting any hard flashy lure into water churning with feeding fish beneath flocks of seabirds.

Spanish mackerel are abundant and easy to find by watching for birds that feed on the minnows the fish chase to the surface. When the fish are on top, casting a fly, topwater popper, small spoon or jig is a fun way to catch them. When the fish are deeper, jigs with spoons and feather or tinsel are better to use, but the same light spinning or baitcasting tackle can be employed in either case.

Pier-fishermen catch them by casting tube-bodied jerkbaits of plastic or metal early in the morning or late in the afternoon when light penetration brings the baitfish and the Spanish mackerel that feed on them near the surface close to shore.

In the 1990s, recreational landings ranged from 285,867 in 1995 to 821,334 in 1990 with an average of 510,265 fish. In the 2000s, recreational landings ranged from 307,293 in 2006 to 626,842 in 2000 w

ith an average of 386,150 fish.

Dolphin, or mahi, are caught more often than any other offshore fish. One of the most beautiful fish in the sea when leaping from the water, a dolphin is also one of the most prolific and fastest growing fish.

Although they can top 70 pounds, dolphin are more prey than predator. They feed ravenously, attaining a weight of 30 pounds or more in a single season.

While there has been some concern over dolphin populations as they become increasingly exploited commercially, their numbers are holding their own, with recreational landings increasing over the long haul.

Dolphin move relatively close to shore in July and August, where they are often caught along weedlines, at artificial reefs and at natural ledges by king mackerel fishermen. But most dolphin anglers target the fish with trolling spreads set from large offshore boats to attract a mixed bag of dolphin, wahoo, tuna and billfish.

In the 1990s, recreational landings ranged from 191,819 in 1992 to 561,892 in 1999 with an average of 408,364. In the 2000s, recreational landings ranged from 328,490 in 2003 to 679,066 in 2006 with an average of 476,606 fish.

Capt. Rick Patterson, Cape Crusader Guide Service, Swansboro, inshore and nearshore, (252) 342-1513.
Capt. Jeff Cronk, Fish'n 4-Life Guide Service, Swansboro, inshore and nearshore, (336) 558-5697.
Gary Dubiel, Speck Fever Guide Service, Oriental, inshore, (252) 249-1520.
Capt. Charles Brown, Old Core Sound Guide Service, Cedar Island, inshore, nearshore, offshore, (252) 728-2422.
Capt Dave Dietzler, Morehead City, inshore, nearshore, offshore, (252) 240-2850.
Capt. Shane Snow, Fish Witch Charters, Carolina Beach, inshore, nearshore, offshore, (910) 458-5855.

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