Skip to main content

Five Saltwater Best Bets In North Carolina

Five Saltwater Best Bets In North Carolina

For tens of thousands of North Carolina saltwater anglers, flounder, red drum, bluefish, king mackerel and dolphin are the bread, butter and main course of coastal fishing.

By Mike Marsh

Fisheries management plans mandated by the North Carolina legislature and federal regulatory agencies, have, in recent years, resulted in a number of safeguards to protect over-harvest of saltwater species. All significant saltwater fish, especially game fish, now have recreational angling size limits and bag limits, whereas a couple of decades ago there were no limits of any kind. Commercial fishermen have also been hit with quotas and seasons, helping restore, or at least protect, sport fish populations.

Although greater restrictions on limits aren't usually good news, in large part the management plans have been working. Anglers can head to the coast with assurances that the fish they seek will be there and waiting to bite a hook if angling conditions are favorable. Five species that are benefiting from all the attention - and are favorites of recreational anglers - are flounder, red drum, bluefish, king mackerel and dolphin. Here's the scoop on how to get in on the action.

There are several species of flounder that occur in North Carolina's salt water. The most likely catches for anglers are the southern flounder and the summer flounder. There is also a slight chance of catching another species, the gulf flounder. The differences in all of the species are difficult for the average angler to identify unless he has them all together for a side-by-side comparison. Most anglers use spot patterns in an attempt to identify them; some anglers don't care because they all taste the same and are managed by catch zones rather than by species. In other words, regulations on flounder are based on where the angler is fishing rather than on the species of flounder being caught.

Southern flounder achieve impressive sizes, with many in the 5- to 10- pound weight range taken each season. Southern flounder are caught in the surf zone, at inlets and anywhere there is enough salt water to cover their backs.

This 15 1/2-pound flounder is as big as a 4-year-old boy. Flounder this large are uncommon, but not impossible to catch in North Carolina. Photo by Mike Marsh

This characteristic of flounder allows anglers to take them from the bank, private boat docks, commercial piers and small boats. Nor do these anglers need expensive gear: Light tackle is preferred, and anything that will land a largemouth bass in inland lakes will work just fine to catch flounder. The only specialized piece of gear that can come in handy is a large landing net - big flounder are wide fish, so a wide net is handy for lifting the fish from the water.

Southern flounder move in and out with the tide. Along the edges of grassbeds and sandbars, low tides will reveal the depressions or forms their bodies have left when ambushing prey at higher tides. Anglers who want to target big flounder look for the biggest forms (which are called "wallows"). When the tide comes back in, these anglers cast live baits to these spots, because good ambush spots are likely to hold flounder tide after tide.


Other methods include drifting along with the current while dragging the bait along the bottom, and walking along piers, beaches or banks while casting to likely places. The trick is keeping the bait on the bottom and fishing it slowly and methodically.

Flounder fishermen almost universally use the Carolina rig, consisting of an egg or trolling sinker, leader and wide-bend hook. When fishing the shallows, anglers use lightweight sinkers. In deep water, heavier sinkers are used to give the angler a sense of bottom contact because the strike of a flounder can be difficult to detect.

A flounder grabs the bait, then drops to the bottom and all the angler feels is a couple of taps. By waiting for as long as a couple of minutes to set the hook, an angler gives the fish the chance to swallow the bait. Professional guides who fish for trophy fish often wait for the fish to begin swimming off before setting the hook. Many guides sometimes strum the line to make the flounder move if they feel it is being too slow in getting off the bottom.

Some anglers also use artificial lures to catch summer flounder. Hair jigs, soft plastics and weedless spoons all work. Tipping the lure with a scented plastic trailer, live minnow, natural strip bait, or bit of shrimp to make it more attractive is a common practice.

Summer flounder are more likely to be caught in ocean waters and have been afforded a higher degree of protection than southern flounder. The ocean size and bag limits have helped increase the population and lately larger fish show up more regularly, whereas a few years ago the population consisted of mostly small fish.

Anglers use Carolina rigs and dropper loop rigs to catch summer flounder from artificial reefs, wrecks and piers. The preferred baits on these rigs are live mullet and menhaden. Sinkers that weigh as much as 2 to 3 ounces get the rig to summer flounder, which often feed in waters greater than 40 feet in depth.

Gulf flounder represent a fraction of a percent of the catch. They are most likely to be found in ocean waters along with the summer flounder.

While fishery managers list red drum as "recovering," the return of big fish to many areas of the coast has been nothing short of spectacular. It seems everyone is catching "redfish," thanks to severe commercial harvest restrictions and recreational limits aimed at restoring the population.

Record spawns occurred during the late 1990s, and may have resulted from the effects of hurricanes. Many of those fish are now above the maximum "keeper" size of 27 inches. Ongoing research in Pamlico Sound on big spawning fish shows that they are very hardy and have high survival rates when caught and released. Until there is an acceptable number of 50-year-old fish, however, the red drum population will not be considered to be viable.

Juvenile "puppy drum" stay inshore year 'round, while adult "channel bass" tend to remain offshore or along the beaches. An adult red drum is age 4 and 32 inches or longer. A typical big fish that hits the growth wall of 41 inches can weigh 40 pounds.

Inshore anglers typically select lighter tackle for catching puppy drum. Spinning gear, baitcasting gear and fly tackle will all work. Red drum feed at many depth levels and readily strike live baits, natural baits and artificial lures fished at all depths. They strike casting spoons, jigging spoons, hair jigs, soft plastics, swimming minnow imitations and topwater lures.

Many anglers cruise the backwaters searching for signs of fish before attempting to catch them. So profound has been the return of the fish that flats angling seen in more southern states is catching on in North Carolina waters. Anglers pole boats or wade the shallows, watching for "tailing" fish. Red drum follow the tides, moving into the shallows to feed on crabs, shrimp and minnows at the edges of grassbeds. They disturb the water, often with the black spots on their tails showing above the surface. Sometimes they disturb the bottom sediments, creating "muds" that tell the angler fish are there.

Fly-anglers target the fish by casting tiny spoons, jigs or flies in front of the fish. As the fish nears the fly, the angler twitches it up from the bottom and the battle is joined.

Anglers using lures fish in much the same way. However, they cast in front of the fish and keep the lure moving. Topwater lures cast to visible fish create intense strikes and angler excitement.

Surf, pier and jetty anglers use heavier tackle to prevent cutoffs and getting "spooled" when a big fish takes all the line. Typically, they use live baits and natural baits fished on a wide variety of bottom rigs depending upon the bottom makeup and current or wave conditions.

Bluefish are maddening fish for fishery managers to keep tabs on. There is not much recreational angler data because most bluefish caught are released. There is also not much of a commercial fishery outside of North Carolina.

When anglers speak of bluefish disappearing, they are talking about the huge "choppers." Smaller juvenile fish are around every year. It may be that the big ones are there, but they are just farther offshore. It may also be that the big fish have a cyclic population.

In either case, anglers all along the coast found bluefish in the 10- to 18-pound range more common last season, with high numbers of big bluefish making an unusual appearance in Pamlico Sound through the early summer. These big fish show up in April and May, then along the beaches again in October or November.

Smaller "tailor" or "snapper" bluefish begin showing up in the inlets and along the beaches in March and are exciting to catch on light spinning, baitcasting or fly-fishing gear. They will strike anything that looks like food, which can make for some tremendously fast-action fishing. Topwater lures, in particular, draw spectacular strikes when cast to a school of surface-feeding bluefish. Jigs, spoons, swimming minnow imitations, live baits and natural baits all catch their share of bluefish. Metal tube-style jerkbaits also work well when cast to schooling fish from boats or from ocean piers.

Anglers who cast chunks of bait into the surf catch large bluefish, too. Spinning rigs having high line capacities are used when surf-fishing for big blues because the speed and duration of a bluefish run is one of the truly awesome displays in surf-fishing. Their aerial talents can also be impressive if caught on a rig that has a lightweight sinker.

Big bluefish are caught by offshore anglers trolling metal spoons. But more often, blues are an inadvertent catch by king mackerel anglers, who usually are anything but pleased to run into a pack of bluefish. Bluefish kink king mackerel leaders with their powerful jaws and teeth and can go through the bait supply in a hurry. King mackerel anglers usually leave an area haunted by big bluefish, which typically show up in the period from late March through May. By way of their VHF radios, boat captains are not shy about telling other anglers where the bluefish are located.

While smaller bluefish can be caught with heavy leaders of tough mono leader, the big fish must be landed with a wire leader. Their sharp teeth can bite right through the thick monofilament of a landing net. Bluefish meant for release are carefully unhooked in the water. Big bluefish destined for the ice chest are gaffed, while the small fish are hoisted from the water.

King mackerel are highly prized game fish. Their fast runs are legendary, especially when they are hooked on light tackle.

King mackerel are caught from the ends of ocean fishing piers by anglers using float rigs, and almost any live bait will work. Anglers use pinfish, croakers, spots and bluefish to entice king mackerel. The bait is caught by hook and line from the pier. Some anglers use baskets or buckets with holes in them, keeping bait alive by lowering it on a rope to the ocean. Many piers also have livewells at the pier ends where king mackerel fishing takes place for the purpose of keeping bait lively.

The bait is set out by means of a trolley rig. An anchor line with a heavy sinker is cast. Tied to the fighting rod, the fishing rig is slid to the water along the trolley line and a release clip or clothespin secures the rig. A pair of treble hooks is tied to a three-way swivel that is also tied to the main line. At the strike of a king, the trebles imbed and the release clip allows the king mackerel to swim away.

After one to three blistering runs, the king mackerel is landed with the use of a hoop net or weighted gaff lowered from the pier deck to the water with a rope. The tricky part is keeping the fish away from the pier pilings while trying to get the net or gaff positioned.

Boat anglers use light tackle to land kings. Revolving spool reels holding 300 yards of 20-pound mono are typically paired with 7-foot rods having very light action. The drag is set at a tension just enough to overcome the warning clicker, or about 3 pounds. A pair of treble hooks on a wire leader is used to hold a live menhaden, mullet or frozen cigar minnow.

King mackerel inhabit artificial reefs and natural ledges, but can be found anywhere there is a baitfish concentration during the period of May through November. Trolling or drifting live baits in these areas will induce a strike.

At the strike, the fish is allowed to run until it stops, then it is chased down with the boat while the line is kept tight. The extremely light tension keeps the small treble hooks from ripping free or straightening. King mackerel tire after a couple of runs. Since the tricky part is keeping them alongside on such light tackle, many anglers carry long gaffs for landing king mackerel.

Dolphin arrive in the offshore waters of the Gulf Stream beginning in May and stay around all summer. There is no better show than watching a dolphin perform multiple leaps during a fight. No fish in the ocean is more colorful than a mad dolphin that "lights up," displaying neon colors that run from yellow to green, from blue to aquamarine.

Gulf Stream fishing for dolphin requires offshore cruisers, trolling lures and heavy trolling rods in 50- or 80-weight. Dolphin are usually caught in combination with other game fish like wahoo and tuna, so the tackle must be sized for all big-game fish.

Flying fish evolved to fly for one reason - to avoid becoming dol

phin dinners. Dolphin are extremely fast and catch flying fish. Therefore, trolling lures that skitter and leave bubble trails like flying fish attract dolphin.

Dolphin are found along weedlines and beneath flotsam and jetsam, where the offshore fish and seahorses they also like to eat gather. Current rips also concentrate dolphin because the two different colors and temperatures of water act as walls that concentrate their prey.

Dolphin are strong fighters and battle all the way to the boat. Gaffing them can be a dicey affair because they are agile as snakes when brought to the gunwale. Small fish are called "shingles" and can be landed by hoisting them over the side. One great technique for multiple catches of small fish is keeping a hooked fish in the water at the stern of the boat as a decoy. Other dolphin come to the decoy and can be easily caught using spinning gear. When using spinning gear, the lure is retrieved at top speed, dipping and skipping across the water like a flying fish to incite the fish to strike.

Dolphin move closer to shore when the water is hot in July and August after several days of continuous easterly winds. It is not unusual to catch them from five to 25 miles off the "hill" and occasionally they come even closer. Floating mats of seaweed in the water near the beaches is a good indication that dolphin have moved inshore from the Gulf Stream.

Once they move inshore, dolphin are usually caught by trolling live or frozen baits with the same rigs and techniques as are used for catching king mackerel.

Note: All of these guides target several species, depending upon season and abundance.

Flounder - Capt. Wayne Freeman, Southport, Flatfish Charters, (910) 457-5038.

Red Drum - George Beckwith Jr., Downeast Guide Service, Oriental, (252) 249-3101.

Bluefish - Barry Phillips - Fish Stalker Guide Service, Southport, (910) 443-3575

King Mackerel - Bill Douglass - Gottafly Charters, Wrightsville Beach, (910) 350-9890.

Dolphin - Carl Snow - Fish Witch II Charters, Carolina Beach, (910) 458-5855.

Discover even more in our monthly magazine,
and have it delivered to your door!
Subscribe to North Carolina Game & Fish

GET THE NEWSLETTER Join the List and Never Miss a Thing.

Recommended Articles

Recent Videos

Join Thomas Allen and son Tommy on an Iowa turkey hunt that resulted in big toms for both hunters.

Mow in a Flash to Catch More Bass

Join Thomas Allen and son Tommy on an Iowa turkey hunt that resulted in big toms for both hunters.

Grouper Success Starts With the Right Gear

Join Thomas Allen and son Tommy on an Iowa turkey hunt that resulted in big toms for both hunters.

Target Lighted Docks for a Snook-Filled Midsummer Night

Join Thomas Allen and son Tommy on an Iowa turkey hunt that resulted in big toms for both hunters.

As Seasons Change, Cutting It Just Right Creates More Time for Fishing

Join Thomas Allen and son Tommy on an Iowa turkey hunt that resulted in big toms for both hunters.

Bass Crash Course: Side-Imaging Fishing Sonar

Join Thomas Allen and son Tommy on an Iowa turkey hunt that resulted in big toms for both hunters.

Turkey-Hunting Brothers Part 2: Minnesota Spring Gobblers with Friends

Join Thomas Allen and son Tommy on an Iowa turkey hunt that resulted in big toms for both hunters.

Bass Crash Course: Down Imaging and 2D Sonar

Join Thomas Allen and son Tommy on an Iowa turkey hunt that resulted in big toms for both hunters.

Bass Crash Course: Intro to Sonar

Join Thomas Allen and son Tommy on an Iowa turkey hunt that resulted in big toms for both hunters.

Turkey-Hunting Brothers Part 1: Texas Comes to Minnesota

Join Thomas Allen and son Tommy on an Iowa turkey hunt that resulted in big toms for both hunters.

The Rook 2.0 Wins Out

Join Thomas Allen and son Tommy on an Iowa turkey hunt that resulted in big toms for both hunters.

Early Morning Minnesota Slam Dunk

Join Thomas Allen and son Tommy on an Iowa turkey hunt that resulted in big toms for both hunters.

Father & Son Iowa Double Gobbler: Video

Game & Fish Magazine Covers Print and Tablet Versions

GET THE MAGAZINE Subscribe & Save

Digital Now Included!


Give a Gift   |   Subscriber Services


Buy Digital Single Issues

Magazine App Logo

Don't miss an issue.
Buy single digital issue for your phone or tablet.

Buy Single Digital Issue on the Game & Fish App

Other Magazines

See All Other Magazines

Special Interest Magazines

See All Special Interest Magazines

Phone Icon

Get Digital Access.

All Game & Fish subscribers now have digital access to their magazine content. This means you have the option to read your magazine on most popular phones and tablets.

To get started, click the link below to visit and learn how to access your digital magazine.

Get Digital Access

Not a Subscriber?
Subscribe Now

Enjoying What You're Reading?

Get a Full Year
of Guns & Ammo
& Digital Access.

Offer only for new subscribers.

Subscribe Now