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Saltwater Best Bets: 5 Favorite Carolina Fish

Saltwater Best Bets: 5 Favorite Carolina Fish

As the seawater warms up, many of the world's top game fish move into the coastal waters of North Carolina. Here's the lowdown on some of the most popular fish and how to find them.

Photo by Mike Marsh.

May is decision time. There are so many saltwater fish biting it's tough to make a choice about what to go after. Most of the favorite inshore fish of North Carolina's anglers have desirable characteristics that distinguish them from other target species. There are perennial favorites, including the red drum, the official state saltwater fish. The bag limit is one fish and the fish are also subject to a slot limit.

For someone who wants to take fish home, obviously red drum are not the best choice simply because of the bag limit. Flounder, however, can fill the meal ticket because the bag limit is liberal and their flesh is so white and flaky.

For those who like casting lures, spotted seatrout fill the bill. However, for sheer abundance and exuberance, nothing beats schooling Spanish mackerel. When Spanish mackerel armadas attack the inlets, catching limits of fish in a very short time is relatively easy to accomplish.

Gray trout are blessed with times of abundance followed by times of scarcity. Recently, they have been biting well in the state's inshore and nearshore waters rounding out our selection for North Carolina's top five saltwater fish.

Red drum go by many names, including puppy drum, redfish, channel bass, spottail bass and others. Anglers speaking of puppy drum refer to juvenile fish of up to 12 pounds. Adult fish are called channel bass for their habit of sticking to the deeper channels of estuaries and inlets.

During winter, puppy drum form huge schools in backwaters. Anglers can sometimes catch them on warm-up days. But the hibernating schools can very exasperating when they won't bite.


However, in spring, puppies begin moving with the tides, invading grassbeds on high tide, cruising the edges at middle tide, and then moving into deep holes at low tide. Knowing this pattern is key to success with juvenile redfish.

Their feeding activity is evident whenever they are chasing baitfish or shrimp in the grass. However, they can also be docile, feeding head down as they look for crabs. Sometimes an angler will spot the tail or the dorsal fin of a puppy moving through an opening in the grass. Sometimes the only sign of a redfish may also be nudge of a grass stem.

Anglers try to see the fish before it spots them. Casting a topwater lure beside the fish and working it back toward the boat usually gets attention. Walk-the-dog lures are tops for topwater action. Although floating soft plastics, propeller lures and buzzbaits will also work well.

Sometimes there are large schools of redfish, especially in the spring, before they break up for summer. The sight of several redfish chasing a surface lure is enough to make any angler lose his nerve. But the key to hooking a fish with a topwater lure is waiting to feel the fish strike the lure before setting the hook

Spoons, spinnerbaits and jigs also work well for taking redfish in the grass. A fly rod with a spoon fly, rattle shrimp or copper flash pattern also works well.

When the fish move to the grass edges, they can still be caught with the same lures. However, popping cork rigs with jigs or live baits work exceptionally well. Live baits have the advantage of attracting a strike when the angler can't see the fish. The boat is anchored along a point or small creek or ditch as the water falls from the grass and the baits placed strategically to intercept redfish leaving the grass as the tide falls.

At the bottom of the tide, jigs and live baits fished on the bottom rigs produce redfish. The fish can become concentrated until a tidal pool is teeming with them. When redfish are trapped, anything the angler tosses will draw a strike. Anglers who know these hotspots let the tide fall until their boats are trapped with the fish, waiting until the tide rises to make their way back out of the marsh.

Adult red drum are caught in Pamlico Sound in summer when they spawn. Anglers use chum to attract big redfish, which top 30 pounds and can reach two or three times that weight. Fishing big chunks of croaker, spot or menhaden on the bottom attracts the channel bass. Big spinning and baitcasting rigs work well for these huge brutes and good anglers can under the right circumstances catch and release a dozen or more in a single evening.

Big red drum also congregate at the nearshore ledges and the in the fall. Cape Hatteras is legendary for its red drum run in October. In November, the fish can be caught on the ledges and artificial reefs near Southport.

Flounder can live anywhere there's enough water to cover their backs. In general, the smaller fish move into the shallower water. To catch a big trophy flounder that weighs 5 pounds, or even 10 pounds or more, usually requires that the angler fishes deep water with structure nearby.

Large catches of flounder are common in the inshore waters of the sounds and coastal rivers as well as the inlets. Fishermen cast jigs tipped with cut bait strips, scented artificial teasers or live mullet minnows along the edges of grassbeds, oyster beds or beneath boat docks to catch plenty of flounder.

When fishing the inshore natural structure, a trolling motor comes in handy. Cruising along a grassbed interspersed with oyster beds, sandbars, tidal creeks and small indentations is much like bass fishing. The angler casts to any likely looking spot, hoping for a strike. Flounder are extremely territorial. They will move to a certain spot, creating a form. When the tide falls, they leave, only to return to the same spot as the tide comes back up. Any shallow-water angler catching a big flounder from a specific spot should remember it, because another flounder will take up position at the same place within a day or two.

Another productive method for catching flounder is called "drifting." This method requires current flow or wind. The boat is allowed to drift with the bait dragging on a Carolina rig across the bottom. Sinker sizes and styles vary, from the small Carolina rigs used by bass fishermen to rigs with trolling sinkers that can weigh 3 ounces. The amount of weight necessary to reach bottom is determined, of course, by water depth, boat velocity and current flow conditions.

The sinker taps the bottom, with a live minnow trailing on the leader. When the rhythmic tapping of the sinker striking shells and sand is interrupted by a flounder bite, it's some

times very subtle. The rod tip goes down, then up and stops bouncing. The fish is following along while it swallows the bait. Some anglers trip the bail on their reels or put it into free spool for a few seconds before setting the hook. The rule of thumb is you can't wait too long to set the hook into a flounder.

The biggest flounder are usually caught from structure areas with deep water present beneath them or at least nearby. Snow's Cut and the Cape Fear River are prime examples of this type of cover. So are the bridges at Oregon Inlet, Morehead City, Emerald Isle and all other Intracoastal Waterway bridges.

Most trophy flounder fishermen use super braids when tossing big live menhaden into heavy cover. A big flounder can put up a valiant struggle. Old hands at the game anchor as near the cover as possible. They contend that if you hook a flounder from a boat tied beneath a boat dock or pier, the fish will run away from the structure where they can follow it and have a better chance of landing it. If they are anchored away from the structure, they say the fish will head into the thickest part of it, tangle the line and ultimately break off.

The ocean piers have excellent flounder fishing. The angler pulls a live bait or a frozen, salted minnow along the bottom using a Carolina rig. The pier piling and deck create structure flounder find irresistible. Once the angler feels the fish strike, he waits at least 30 seconds and sets the hook. The fish is brought up to the pier deck with a hoop net lowered and retrieved with a rope.

Flounder are caught from the nearshore ledges and reefs in large numbers. Some of these fish will top 5 pounds and occasionally one may top 10 pounds, but such summer flounder are rare these days. The angler drops a live minnow to the bottom on a Carolina rig or a dropper rig with the sinker tied below the hook to help keep it from snagging on the bottom structure.

The speckled trout bite the past few seasons has been nothing less than spectacular. Specks are fast-growing fish, with females reaching citation weights of more than 4 pounds in two or three seasons. The males grow slower, but can still achieve exceptional weights.

Warm winters are key to speck abundance. A prolonged cold snap can create winterkill, but that hasn't happened in four seasons. Big specks abound everywhere there's salt water.

In the backwaters, float rigs with popping corks are very popular among speckled trout specialists. A soft-plastic trailer is hooked on a jig beneath the float. The line is jerked as the slack comes out of it and beads on either side of the float bang against it, making a popping sound that arouses interest from nearby specks. The commotion attracts the fish to the jig below the float.

Topwater lures work well for catching specks, with walk-the-dog lures and stick baits top choices. Specks often strike several times and miss the hook, then lose interest. They appear to be bouncing the lure off their teeth when they miss.

Some anglers solve this problem by using floating soft-plastic lures or tiny jigheads that will make them sink very slowly. Once a speckled trout gets a soft-plastic lure in its mouth, it usually will not let go until it's hooked. Another trick is adding a stinger hook on a hard-plastic topwater lure. The factory treble is removed and a wire leader is used to add a treble from the rear loop of the hook harness, extending the hook back a couple of inches.

Soft-plastic lures fished on jigheads are old standbys for specks. Since specks change the colors they prefer on a whim, it's easier to carry dozens of different colors of soft-plastic tails and jigheads when compared with having boxes of hard-plastic lures along. There has probably been more of a revolution in soft-plastic speck trailers than any other type of saltwater lure. Every day, it seems, some manufacturer is coming up with a new color, lure style or new scent-impregnated bait that is tailor-made for the speck anglers.

Nevertheless, when all else fails, live shrimp or small baitfish are the ticket. A mud minnow fished on a float rig or a bottom rig where there's hard structure is likely to invite a bite from a speck.

New River has been a hotspot for several seasons. But the Fort Macon and Cape Lookout rock jetties, the Wrightsville Beach Jetties, the piers lining Pamlico Sound, Bald Head Island, Lockwood's Folly River, and many other speck hotspots are located throughout the state's inshore waters. At Topsail Beach, anglers catch some mighty nice specks from the surf. The Yaupon and Ocean Crest piers, as well as the Southport City Pier, are also excellent places to catch specks.

Spanish swarm the inlets in summer and, when they're in a feeding frenzy, will strike anything pulled or reeled fast. Tube lures rigged in multiples will land plenty of fish fast when trolled through schooling fish. Spoons are old standbys and they can be trolled behind planers or trolling sinkers to take them deep or on the surface using a surface commotion-maker called a "bird."

Birds and planers are used when the fish are finicky, which tends to occur around midday. Spanish mackerel bite best at dawn and dusk and this fact is not lost on pier-anglers.

Pier-fishermen cast metal jerkbaits from the piers. They use light metal leaders to protect their lures against loss from the sharp teeth of Spanish mackerel.

Anglers spot jumping fish and cast to them. But sometimes birds diving on the baitfish Spanish mackerel drive to the top is the first thing that alerts anglers the fish are there.

The biggest Spanish mackerel are caught by anglers who use live baits. Menhaden and mullet are caught with cast nets and kept alive in livewells or bait buckets. Trophy mackerel school at the inlet bars or on nearshore hard bottoms and reefs.

The baitfish is hooked through the nose with a small treble hook and tossed over the side. If there's a Spanish mackerel anywhere around, the helpless baitfish will disappear in a boil and the reel drag will start screaming. Anchoring over a reef and putting a live bait on the bottom for flounder and another one on top to attract a Spanish mackerel is a popular way of fishing.

Gray trout might be caught anywhere there are speckled trout. However, they occur in their greatest numbers on nearshore ledges and artificial reefs, while specks live in the inlets, beaches and estuaries.

The most popular way of finding gray trout is to cruise above the bottom structure while watching the depthfinder screen. Sometimes gray trout schools are seen on the screen. However, just as often, they're not seen. The angler is tipped off by the presence of baitfish schools.

The baitfish schools and the bottom are prospected with a jigging spoon, jig, or strip of cut bait on a bottom rig. If there are gray trout down there, the response is usually instantaneous. The only problem with gray trout fishing is that there are so

many other fish in the same types of structure in fall and winter when gray trout are most numerous.

Anglers will hook and catch toadfish, grunts, pinfish, sharks, seabass and bluefish. They just have to sort through the riffraff to catch a limit of gray trout.

Most North Carolina gray trout are juvenile fish weighing up to 4 pounds. But the fish are capable of weighing several times that in the Northeast where the adult fish migrate after spawning. Adult gray trout spawn a few miles offshore of Cape Hatteras in the winter, then move northward, leaving Tar Heel anglers to catch the smaller fish.

But the young fish make up for size with numbers that boggle the brain. Some anglers fish a two-hook dropper rig and catch gray trout two at a time.

Artificial reefs and natural ledges offshore of Morehead City, Topsail Island and Wrightsville Beach are great places to catch gray trout. Bogue Inlet also has excellent gray trout fishing in the deeper holes.

Capt. Carl Snow, Capt. Shane Snow, Fish Witch II Charters, Carolina Beach: gray trout, flounder, offshore trolling, (910) 458-5855.

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

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

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

Capt. Jeff Cronk, Fish'n 4-Life Charters, Swansboro: light-tackle fishing for all species, (336) 558-5697.

Capt. Charles Brown, Old Core Sound Guide Service, Cedar Island: light-tackle fishing for all species, including giant red drum, (252) 728-2422.

Capt. Rick Patterson, Cape Crusader Charters: light-tackle fishing for red drum, speckled trout and other species, (252) 342-1513.

Also, see the NCDMF Web site at for gray trout and other saltwater game fish regulations, which are subject to change as plans are amended.

Editor's Note: Mike Marsh is author of Inshore Angler, Coastal Carolina's Small Boat Fishing Guide and Offshore Angler, Carolina's Mackerel Boat Fishing Guide. To order either book, mail a $23 check or MO to Mike Marsh, 1502 Ebb Drive, Wilmington, NC 28409.

Red Drum

Juvenile red drum can form some huge schools in the sounds, rivers and bays of the North Carolina coast. Inlets, jetties and oyster reefs also attract juvenile fish; in the summer, adults spawn in Pamlico Sound.

The best fishing for juvenile fish occurs in the spring and fall at the mouths of creeks during falling tides, along the sloughs of the beachfront and on the mud flats lining the ICW. Find the bait and you'll find the redfish.

Anglers sight-fish for juvenile redfish with weedless spoons, flies, soft-plastic jerkbaits, spinnerbaits, topwater lures, jigs and grubs. Adult fish are taken with cut baits and large live baits like mullet and menhaden.

Red drum bag limits are one fish per day between 18 and 27 inches. Red drum were once overharvested, but stocks are recovering well. A big redfish adult can exceed 50 pounds.


Southern flounder are fish of the inshore waters, from the inlets in. Summer flounder live in the nearshore and offshore waters, from the inlets out. The two species do mix, especially at inlets, reefs and ledges.

Southern flounder may stay in the deeper waters of channels, sounds and rivers all year, but they begin biting in April and the bite peaks in June. In September, the biggest fish of the year arrive.

Southern flounder can be taken with artificial lures, especially jigs and scented strip baits fished on the bottom. But the biggest fish are taken with live mud minnows, mullet or menhaden fished on Carolina rigs.

Flounder bag limits change every year, so anglers must check the regulations. Both species have had ups and downs due to overfishing. Most flounder that are caught are taken commercially.

Spotted Seatrout

Spotted seatrout can be caught at rock jetties, oyster beds, piers, boat docks and all inlets and along the beaches. Find a spot with lots of shrimp or baitfish along hard structure and the fish will be there.

Specks can be caught during every month of the year, but the best runs occur during the fall and winter. Some impressive catches of specks are made in December and January each year.

Anglers catch specks with nearly any type of lure that will catch a largemouth bass: jigs, soft-plastic scented artificial baits, topwater lures and minnow imitations. They are picky about size and color, though.

The bag limit is 10 fish measuring 12 inches or longer. Specks are great- eating fish that aggressively attack lures cast on light tackle. Speck fishing can also be hot, with anglers hooking several in minutes.

Spanish Mackerel

Spanish mackerel are primarily ocean fish. They form large schools at artificial reefs, natural ledges, inlets and tide lines within 10 miles of the beaches. Inlets are top places to catch them.

Spanish mackerel show up in late April and bite very well until June. During hot summer months, they become scarce, and then they become numerous again from September through early November.

Live baits fi

shed on treble- hook rigs at artificial reefs catch the largest Spanish mackerel. To catch large numbers of fish, trolling with spoons is the best tactic. The fish will strike anything shiny that is moving fast.

The bag limit is 15 Spanish mackerel having a minimum length of 12 inches. To distinguish Spanish from king mackerel, look for the black spot in the leading edge of the dorsal fin -- that marks a Spanish.

Grey Trout

Gray trout are caught primarily from nearshore ledges and artificial reefs. However, they also move into the inlets and sounds, where anglers catch them right along with speckled trout.

The colder months are best, with the period from October through February the best fishing. Calm seas make the best fishing for gray trout because trout are usually caught from an anchored boat.

Jigging with heavy metal spoons along the near-shore ledges is a top tactic for catching gray trout. But these fish will also strike cut mullet and other fish, squid or shrimp fished on a bottom rig.

Once overfished as a bycatch in commercial fisheries, trout recovered but now appear to be on the decline again. The fish are moving as far south as South Carolina, which is outside their historic range.

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