The Best of North Carolina Summer Saltwater Fishing
May 03, 2018
For some outstanding North Carolina saltwater fishing, try these are some top spots for flounder, trout and redfish (and more).
May is the first month of spring when water temperature and baitfish form a nexus to produce consistent saltwater bites in North Carolina.
During March (in a normal winter) coastal water temperatures range in the high 40s to low 50s, and red drum provide the main inside-waters bite. If the weather cooperates during April's first few days (sometimes the coast enjoys stretches of mild, southeasterly breezes), fishing activity increases for spotted seatrout and redfish. But flounder remain offshore at reefs and wrecks.
However, May can be heavenly — for every species.
As water temperatures climb, baitfish repopulate the shallows and every gamefish moves inside to chase lures and cut bait.
June is similar to May, but heated days during July and August usually mean early-morning or late-evening seatrout and flounder bites. July and August also feature top-notch offshore fishing.
In its seventh year, the New River's artificial reef (halfway between Jacksonville and Sneads Ferry) is an excellent spot for May trout, flounders, plus red and black drum.
"The reef will be super good for a lot of fish," said Jacksonville guide Ricky Kellum (Speckled Specialist Inshore Fishing Charters, 910-330-2745, www.speckledspecialist.com). "With more growth (on sunken concrete), when bait shows up, it gets better every year."
Kellum says that in normal years, New River shoreline and feeder-creek speck fishing is also excellent in May.
This spring, however, follows an unusually cold winter, and how hard specks were hit remains to be seen. Readers should check for changes in regulations as fisheries managers work to give the speck population time to recever. When the stocks do recover — and these fish are prolific breeders — May can be a good time to fish.
"The Halo Shad by Betts Tackle, a 1/8-ounce to 1/4-ounce swimming shad, has been an amateur fisherman's dream," he said.
When trout move to main river ledges, topwater lures such as Skitterwalks and Zara Spooks work in early morning or during cloudy days.
Bottom rigs baited with cut mullet or mud minnows catch flounder while soft-plastic white flukes or paddletail lures threaded with 1/4- to 3/8-ounce lead-head jigs also catch flatties.
May also kick-starts excellent cobia fishing in nearshore waters.
Tar Heel anglers look for cobia (which may reach triple-digit weights) cruising near inlet buoys or at reefs. Ribbon-tail soft-plastic lures on leadhead jigs (resembling eels) are effective when cast to surface fish, along with live or cut bait jigged beneath baitfish schools.
"People do a lot of sight fishing and cast 1- to 3-ounce bucktails with soft-plastic Hogy or Sluggo lures (eel imitators)," said Capt. Joe Shute, an Atlantic Beach guide and lure maker at Cape Lookout Fly Shop (800-868-0941).
Shute watches from a "tower" (platform) to spy surface fish.
"You can spot cobia just under the surface and throw lures in front of them or jig-fish under schools of baitfish," he said.
Nearshore king and Spanish mackerel fishing explodes this month with an abundance of nearshore menhaden schools. Most kings will be "snakes" (12 to 15 pounds), but a few 20- and even 30-pounders may be in the mix.
Slow-trolling live baits or spoons near bait pods is the accepted method for boat anglers pursuing both species.
King anglers slow-troll "pogeys" (menhaden), live cigar minnows and sometimes finger mullets or dead ribbonfish. Others troll gold or silver diamond-shape spoons in No. 1, 2 or 3 sizes, heavy crankbaits or cedar plugs with No. 5 planers.
May is a special month for pier king anglers. Bluefish from 8 to 12 inches long are preferred trolley-rig baits, but pier kings will smack live croakers and pinfish. King mackerel lures may attract cobias or Spanish mackerels. Schooling Spanish prefer small trolled 00-size Clark spoons and generally weigh from 1 1/2 to 2 pounds.
However, at Christmas Rock, a mile off Carolina Beach, huge Spanish hit trolled Maria jigs (now out of production) or their substitute, a Hogy Epoxy jig that resembles a glass minnow. This action occurs each year from late April through May's first two weeks. Anglers often catch Spanish of 5 pounds or larger at the submerged mound.
Pier Spanish anglers cast "Gotcha" plugs (white with red heads are popular) and twitch them by holding a spinning reel's vertical rod butt between the thumb and index finger. Making downward wrist snaps while reeling erratically imparts zig-zag motions to Gotchas that resemble fleeing baitfish. But Gotchas may catch as many bluefish as Spanish.
The sixth month features steady ocean mackerel bites, while at inshore waters anglers try to hook sheepshead. They orient at pier pilings and bulkheads (or anything else with barnacles).
"Sheepshead will be all over the place," said Swansboro guide Rick Patterson (252-342-1513), "mainly at bridge pilings and deep docks from Atlantic Beach to Swansboro to White Oak River to the New River bridges. They show up in early May; by June they're everywhere."
Ocean piers seem to hold bigger fish. Anglers look for them spiraling from the surface to the bottom and back, circling barnacle-encrusted pilings.
Some pier anglers use barnacles as bait, although fiddler crabs are more popular. Bigger fish seem to prefer sea urchins, Patterson said.
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"The key to catching a sheepshead, as one guy said, is you've got to set the hook just before he bites," said Wilmington-area guide Jeff Wolfe (Seahawk Inshore Charters, 910-619-9580).
"I usually fish the last two hours of falling tide and first two hours of rising tide," said Jot Owens of Wrightsville Beach's Jot-It-Down Charters (910-233-4139).
Owens recommended reels with 20- to 50-pound-test braided line tied to 2 to 2 1/2 feet of 40- to 50-pound-test fluorocarbon leader and extra-sharp No. 1 live-bait hooks.
"June sheepshead will weigh 1 to 15 pounds," he said. "You mainly catch bigger fish at larger structures."
Like sheepshead, flounder are ubiquitous during June — and big. Fish push scales into double digits regularly at some regions, mostly where gill netting either isn't possible or is prohibited.
Live-bait tackle set-ups are simple: a 3/4- to 1-ounce egg or cigar sinker (for slight currents) between two beaded 12-pound swivels attached to 2 to 3 feet of 12-pound-test mono or fluorocarbon leader and 15-pound-test mono main line. Hooks should be 1-0 to 2-0 circle or octopus style. There are special slab places, such as the Port Wall at Morehead City where 3 to 4 ounces of lead sinks baitfish 40-feet deep.
Other places to find June flounder include nearly any place with a sand bottom and structures that hold baitfish. Anglers target inlets, sand bars near drop-offs, marsh creeks, island edges, small docks and piers and surf zones.
Favorite spots include where inlet corners join a larger body of water — for example, the Intracoastal Waterway. With an incoming tide, flounder set up on the ICW side of an inlet corner to await baitfish swept inshore. With an outgoing tide, baitfish get pulled around corners on the ocean side.
Large sounds provide another tactic. Guide Joe Ward (Fly Daddy Charters, 252-229-4656) specializes in Pamlico Sound flatfish.
"Flounder nose right up the shoreline and stay there," he said. "If you're casting from deeper water toward a bank, you'll miss 90 percent of the water that holds flounder."
Now he uses his trolling motor to ease parallel to a bank and doesn't cast more than 15 feet and not more than 2 or 2 1/2 feet off the shore. Ward likes a 3/8-ounce white Gulp! Shrimp on a 1/8-ounce jighead or sometimes a Redfish Magic spinnerbait.
"I can work (a lure) parallel to the bank rather than perpendicular," he said. "I can get that lure to every piece of bank. I go slowly and only cast a few feet. If you take your time, flounder won't be skittish. It's like (pitchin' or flippin') to bass.
JULY — Cape Fear Slams
Former Carolina Beach mayor Dennis Barbour, owner of Island Bait&Tackle, specializes in Cape Fear slams — flounder, spotted seatrout and red drum.
However, sometimes flounder are pressured and trout scatter. But red drum? Hizzoner always can find reds, sometimes right under the noses of people who pass over them.
His secrets are two-fold — oyster rocks and mud minnows.
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"Oyster rocks hold reds in summer," he said. "One place has a lot of boat traffic, but nobody except me and (son) Wes know of an oyster colony at the entrance to a boat club. The reds may be there and they may not. They were there a week ago."
They still were there, luckily, too, because we'd used all our finger mullets for specks and trout and only had mud minnows to put on basic single-hook bottom rigs.
"Reds eat mud minnows like we eat popcorn," Barbour said.
With four rods cast no farther than 20 feet from his boat while jet skis and pleasure boats rocked our world, we hooked and landed three reds in the 15- to 20-pound range. Then fishing got better.
Finally a boat stopped to watch an angler with a bent pole fighting something big. Barbour suggested releasing the redfish in the water then said, "We need to leave."
And so we did.
JULY — Dolphin
Offshore dolphin provides most of the July action from one end of the coast to the other.
The Crystal Coast (Beaufort-Morehead City area) has a large offshore fleet catering mostly to locals and other Tar Heel anglers.
"We 'bail' dolphin mainly in July," said Capt. Tony Ross of Atlantic Beach's Wet-N-Wild Sportsfishing (252-723-1110).
Bailing dolphin includes trolling near Sargassum or drift fishing, hooking a dolphin and casting chunks of albacore, bonito or squid into the water while keeping the first fish in the water. Other dolphins follow a hooked mahi and will hit baited hooks cast by anglers.
The action can get so intense it's like bailing water out of a boat, except in reverse. Anglers try to fill a boat by bailing dolphin onto the decks.
Dolphins often move close to the beaches in July and often are at the D, C, and E buoys along with the Southeast Bottoms. The 50 bottoms and 'The Rock,' south of 13 Buoy about 18 miles off Bogue Inlet, will have dolphin along with 45-Minute Rock (6 to 7 miles off the beach).
Many captains troll with ballyhoo while some use lures, one of them a Sea Striker green-and-yellow cedar plug with a plastic tail trolled at high speed.
Dancin' Outlaw captain Thomas Wood (252-241-8346, www.dancin-outlaw.com) said anglers can land a variety of dolphin sizes.
"There'll be a lot of small (shingle) dolphin, bailers (6 to 8 pounds) and the chance to land a really big one (30 to 40 pounds)," he said.
July flounder are at same places they're found in June.
This month resembles July because of heat, humidity and available fish species.
"I start fishing early each morning," said Cape Carteret guide Rick Patterson (Cape Crusader Charters, 252-342-1513). "That's when you're most likely to get into a red drum topwater bite."
He covers marsh bays and creeks with Top Dogs and Zara Spooks then switches to a spinnerbait or a popping cork with a soft-plastic grub in menhaden or shrimp colors.
Spotted seatrout also are early risers and will hit topwater lures, jigs or a popping cork and jig or even free-lined live shrimp at marsh banks and oyster beds.
Ocean summer flounder will push into inlets and mix with river fish. Boat docks on the falling tide, fished with a 1-ounce barrel weight Carolina rig and finger mullet or even shad (menhaden) or a 4-inch Berkley Gulp shrimp, will produce doormats.
Sheepshead at bridge supports, docks and pilings will hit fiddler crabs and sea urchins.
Offshore fishing out of Bogue Inlet sees white marlin, sailfish and dolphin "out by the break in August," said Capt. Robbie Hall (910-330-6999, www.hallemincharters.com).
He trolls umbrella rigs (dredges) and skirted ballyhoo for white marlin and drags "dink" ballyhoo at them if they appear in his bait spread.
"Bottom fishing for snappers, sea bass and grouper will be wide open at the live bottoms 18 to 25 miles offshore," Hall said. "I like a live pinfish on a Carolina rig for grouper and chicken rigs and cut squid for other bottomfish."