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North Carolina's Best Saltwater Fishing

There's some great summertime saltwater fishing just waiting for you in Carolina.

North Carolina's Best Saltwater Fishing

Here’s where to go and how to get into some of the North Carolina coast’s hottest saltwater fishing action. (Photo by Ron Sinfelt)

Summertime is here and the bite is heating up across the state. North Carolina offers some of the best saltwater fishing in the world.

Here’s where to go and how to catch them once you arrive.

Bald Head IslandRed Drum, Speckled Trout

Bald Head Island offers secluded fishing near the highest density of human population of along the coast. Once an angler enters the waters of Muddy Slough, Buzzard’s Bay or The Basin, it seems like a trip to the beginning of time.

“I love fishing Bald Head Island’s creeks,” said Capt. Rennie Clark. “I am a tournament redfish angler, so I use different types of lures. But, you never know what you are going to catch when your lure hits the water.” The creeks are near Cape Fear River mouth, which results in a tidal range of about six feet over 12 hours. Therefore, knowing where your boat can go during certain stages of the tide is the most important ingredient for success.

Clark fishes the top six hours of the tide when he is working the creeks, always on the lookout for oyster beds no matter the tide height. “If you head into the marshes when the tide is low and rising, it helps you navigate the channels,” he said. “Remember where the water is shallow and where it is deep so you can work your way back out after it hits its peak and starts falling out.”

His favorite lure is a MirrOlure Top Dog or Rapala Skitter Walk, which are floating walk-the-dog lures with rattle chambers. His favorite soft plastics are Berkley Gulp! enzyme-impregnated lures and Category 5 Manic Minnow. He fishes them on a 1/8-ounce or 1/4-ounce jig head. “The topwater lure is a search bait,” he said. “I can cast it anywhere without worrying about it snagging. A redfish will come out of the grass from a long way off to strike it. Sometimes, several fish will chase it.”

If the redfish strikes and misses, the trick is to keep on working the lure with the same rhythm, which takes nerves of steel. Eventually, the fish will give up the chase or get the point and the battle is on. If another cast to the same area of a missed strike elicits no further response, Clark casts a soft plastic to the same spot, often with spectacular results.

“With two rods rigged and ready, I catch lots of redfish,” he said. “I also catch lots of speckled trout. They strike the same lures fished the same way in the same places.”

Wrightsville BeachSheepshead, Flounder

Capt. Jot Owens cut his teeth catching sheepshead at Wrightsville Beach. While he used to catch them from docks, he now fishes for them from a 22-foot Ranger Bay Boat.

“Most people tie their bow and stern to bridge pilings,” Owens said. “But that leaves you with nowhere to fight fish. You have to get the fish away from the pilings quickly.

But, with a rope tied on each end and the boat between the ropes blocking you from pulling the fish away from the structure, you have to fight it inside that little rectangle. That might work if you’re fighting a small sheepshead, but some of them can top 7 pounds. A big one will wrap the line around a piling and break it.”

Owens drops a fluked anchor upstream a bridge. He uses the outboard to swing the stern close to the concrete pilings and ties it off to a stern cleat. “The way you tie the boat is the most important thing about sheepshead fishing,” Owens said. “A lot of people won’t even try because they don’t want to risk damaging their boats. Carelessness while tying off or the rocking of a boat wake can scuff up a hull if it pounds against a shell-covered piling.”


With such good sheepshead fishing nearby, Owens wonders why anglerswaste fuel and time running around, trying to catch more glamorous fish. He said sheepshead are tasty and fight hard. They don’t require expensive gear or lures. “Even the bait’s free,” he said. “I catch fiddler crabs in sandy openings in marshes at low tide. They pile up when they try to get away. All I do is put a plastic bucket down and sweep them into the bucket by hand.”

Owens hooks a fiddler crab on a No. 2 live bait hook on a Carolina rig. He holds the line so he can feel subtle strikes. “Even with braid, you don’t always feel a sheepshead strike,” he said. “They can snip it off with their sharp teeth, which look like those of a sheep and give the fish their name.”

A common misconception is that the angler has to set the hook just before the fish bites. It is not always true. “Most of the fish you catch are going to strike hard and make off with the bait, just like any other fish,” he said. “What’s more important is what happens after the fish is hooked. Keep them away from the pilings and you will coax them into your landing net.”

Flounder also seek shade beneath bridges. However, they require different baits and tactics.

“For flounder, I use mullet or menhaden for bait,” Owens said. “I use a Carolina rig with a No. 2 wide gap hook and hook the baitfish through the nose. Then I drop it to the bottom of the pilings. Sheepshead usually won’t bother with live minnows.”

Owens casts the flounder rig all around the boat, making certain to hit every bit of structure, seen or unseen. “One piece of broken concrete can hold flounder, day after day,” he said. “Sometimes, you find the best flounder structure when you snag your hook on it the first time.”

OrientalRed Drum, Tarpon

Capt. Jennings Rose fishes for tarpon during the day and red drum as evening falls. “I use the same rods, reels and baits for both fish,” he said. “You double your fun in the same trip.”

However, fishing for tarpon has been compared to watching paint dry. It takes patience. Rose spots a school of tarpon and eases ahead of them before setting out four baits. “I use cut croakers or mullet,” he said. “I put the rods off the four corners of the boat and wait for a strike.”

He cuts the bait into chunks, impaling them on circle hooks. His rods are big spinning rigs. While his baits are soaking, he tosses chunks of fish into the water for chum. “You might catch a tarpon, or you might not,” he said. “But, late in the afternoon, I head for redfish, which are a sure thing.”

Redfish use the channel edges as feeding pathways. Inland anglers will not recognize them because the side slopes are subtle, falling only a couple of feet over a hundred yards’ horizontal distance.

“The only thing I can tell you about where to find them is that you should fish wherever you caught them yesterday, but you might catch them anywhere,” he said. “There are so many red drum, you are certain to catch at least one or two. In a good evening, you will catch more than a dozen weighing 30- to 70-pounds.”

When fishing at night with natural bait and hooks larger than 4/0, anglers must use “old drum rigs,” which have circle hooks with barbs bent down or removed, 6-inch leaders and stationary sinkers.

Ocean PiersSpanish and King Mackerel

North Carolina is blessed with the best ocean fishing piers in the nation. They are located all along the coast. Spanish mackerel are some of the easiest fish to catch from piers. The best times to catch them are dawn and dusk. Spanish mackerel feed on the baitfish that swarm the coast in August. The first northeasterly storms bring the strongest runs of Spanish mackerel and the action remains exceptional into fall.

The best way to catch them is with a medium-weight spinning rod with a Got-Cha or other tube-style lure. Another great rig is a Christmas tree rig, also called a mackerel tree rig. It consists of several lightweight jigs tied along a single leader. It looks like a row of Christmas tree lights or garland, thus the name. To the end of the rig, an angler ties a heavy metal spoon making it easier to cast and possibly snag an extra fish.

Most strikes come when the angler casts the lure to visible fish. Spanish mackerel are notorious for aerial antics and bite aggressively when they are jumping around the pier. The best king mackerel runs also occur when northeasters force schools of menhaden and mullet shoreward as they migrate south. Late May and June are great months for king mackerel fishing, but August can be even better when the water begins to cool.

Anglers use trolley rigs to catch king mackerel. A trolley rig consists of two rods. A long surf rod with either a revolving spool or spinning reel, serves as the “anchor” rod. A shorter pier rod with a revolving spool reel serves as the “fight” rod. A set of new trolley rig rods can cost more than $200. But a visit to a pawnshop or garage sale can cutthat cost by 75 percent.

The anchor rod casts a surf sinker with wires that keep it from dislodging by wave action. A release mechanism, usually consisting of a clothespin or outrigger release clip tied with a short piece of rigging wire or monofilament, is slid down to the water from the fight rod line along the anchor line dangling a baitfish on a rig with two treble hooks, two leaders and a three-way swivel.

These are usually held by surf rod holders, attached to the pier railing with bungee cords, but anglers also use more sophisticated rod holder systems. The trolley rig allows the baitfish to be moved up and down with the tide height. The angler fights a hooked king until it tires. The assistance of another angler is required to lower a hoop net to or rope gaff to the water to lift the king to the pier deck.

The best way to get in on the action is to keep calling different piers to see how the run is progressing. Some piers have cameras so anglers can view the current action.

More Info

Capt. Rennie Clark, Tournament Trail Charters; (910) 465-8943

Capt. Jot Owens, Jot it Down Charters;(910) 233-4139

Capt. Jennings Rose, Down East Guide Service; (252) 671-3474

“Fishing North Carolina” has contact information for the state’s ocean piers. To contact Mike Marsh or order his books (Fishing North Carolina) autographed, inscribed, $26.60 ppd; Inshore Angler-Carolina’s Small Boat Fishing Guide, $26.20; Offshore Angler-Coastal Carolina’s Mackerel Boat Fishing Guide, $22.20 and Carolina Hunting Adventures: Quest for the Limit, $15) send check or MO to 1502 Ebb Dr., Wilmington, NC 28409 or visit for credit card orders.

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