Fishing in North Carolina: A Complete Guide
Jul 28, 2021 | 11 minute read
Reading Time: 11 minutes

When we say that North Carolina has one of the top fisheries in the eastern seaboard, we’re not kidding. You may come here to admire the Blue Ridge or climb the Smoky Mountains, but it’s the fishing in North Carolina that will blow your mind.

A view from the water of uptown Charlotte, NC

Both the diversity and the quantity of fish draw anglers of all levels to the Tar Heel State. With easy access to the Atlantic Ocean, a coastal fishery that keeps on giving, and impressive freshwater action, what’s not to like? 

Top Inshore Catches in North Carolina

Saltwater fishing is nothing short of incredible in NC, and they’ve got records to prove it. The coastal waters are teeming with all the inshore A-listers on your bucket list. Let’s see what some of these must-catch species are.

You Need Redfish in Your Life 

Redfish is iconic in North Carolina. Whether it’s quantity or quality you’re after, Red Drum are available year-round in different parts of the state.

A teenage fisherman sitting on a boat with a big Redfish in his hands

Summer and early fall (June–October) is the best time to target Redfish – you can stumble upon schools of over 100 fish. They can be found all over coastal waters – flats, bays, sounds, even in the surf. Bull Reds can weigh more than 50 pounds, and in the winter, there’s excellent Redfishing around offshore reefs and wrecks.

The best way to get your prey’s attention is to use fresh minnows or shrimp. Sight casting is a big deal in North Carolina because Reds feed in very shallow waters, allowing fishermen to spot them from afar. Redfish need time to get the bait into their mouth, so wait a bit before setting the hook. Then, it’s fish on!

North Carolina Flounder for Your Pleasure

Flounder fishing in North Carolina is one of those experiences you need to try. These delicious flatties have a short open season, usually from the beginning of August until the end of September.

A young angler in a cap and sunglasses, standing on a boat, holding a Flounder

There are three types of Flounder in NC waters – Southern, Summer, and Gulf Flounder. The Southern are the most popular catches because they live close to shore. Summer Flounder are found in inlets and around ledges, and they’re more aggressive than their southern cousins. The Gulf variety is not that common, because they mostly live offshore and they’re the smallest of the three.

Going after these fish is most productive when the weather is mild and tides keep bringing food to them. They won’t refuse a nice minnow, especially if you present it around structures, jetties, and sandbars. During the night, Flounder feed in the shallows, which is a great opportunity to go Flounder gigging.

Mackerel Abound in North Carolina

A man standing on a dock with boats in the background, holding a massive King Mackerel

Fishing in North Carolina is productive on every level, and the outstanding Mackerel bite proves it. Both Spanish and King Mackerel are the most commonly caught saltwater species in the state, available all year. The trick with these fellas is knowing where they are because they like moving around with the change of seasons.

The best time to target Kingfish is from April–November. You’ll find massive specimens swarming the surf and inshore waters in the fall. This is the opportunity to land a trophy in the 20–50 lb range. Smaller “snakes” are always around, and they usually weigh up to 10 pounds. Using sardines, menhaden, and squid will get their attention.

A man with three children holding Spanish Mackerel while standing on a boat

Spanish Mackerel are much smaller than Kings, but they’re feisty, delicious, and fun to catch. They show up in May and stick to nearshore waters, but often they’ll come inshore while following their food. You can successfully fish for them from boats and piers, with average catches in the 1–3 lb ballpark. Spanish Mackerel are the perfect prey for beginners and kids, and the excitement is high when they’re on the line.

And More!

The inshore realm of North Carolina is brimming with beautiful fish, and there are many species that deserve a shoutout.

Spotted Seatrout is a “bread and butter” inshore species that everybody loves. They’re awesome fighters that live in schools and can grow to be over five pounds.

A smiling fisherman holding a big Spotted Seatrout while standing in the corner of a boat

Looking for a catch that will require strength to reel in? Cobia are worthy opponents. This powerful species can weigh dozens of pounds and they’re no joke. They hang around inshore from spring to early fall.

Still want more? Add Bluefish, Black Seabass, and Black Drum to your list. Then it’s time to hit the NC waters for a memorable fishing trip.

Top Offshore Catches in North Carolina

While all types of fishing in North Carolina are impressive, it was offshore and deep sea fishing action that made NC the angling epicenter. It’s easy to understand why, when all the greats are out there for the taking. Here’s what you can look forward to.

Sailfish & Marlin – The NC’s Power Couple

Billfish are considered the royalty of the North Carolina fishing scene. Summer is the busiest time for offshore charters because Marlin and Sailfish are in the neighborhood. From June–September, fishing for White and Blue Marlin, along with Sailfish is on fire!

A family of anglers standing in the corner of a boat, holding a White Marlin

The Blue Marlin bite is best in June, though you can find Blues all season long. These beasts weigh hundreds of pounds and fight like gladiators. White Marlin are significantly smaller, usually in the 100–150 lb range, but there’s more of them. The best bite is in late summer when double-digit catches on one boat are an everyday occurrence.

Sailfish are the opening act and they come to the NC waters in May. Unlike Marlin, who stick to the warm Gulf Stream, Sailfish can be found as close as 20 miles offshore. They’re incredibly fast, stupendous fighters – everything you need in a game fish.

A group of fishermen sitting on a boat, holding a Sailfish

You’ll travel up to 40 miles to get into Billfish country, but it will be worth it. If you’re up for a challenge, go for the offshore Grand Slam – landing Blue Marlin, White Marlin, and Sailfish in one day.

We Want Tuna!

Tuna fishing in North Carolina is the stuff fishing dreams are made of. The Outer Banks boast some of the best Tuna angling opportunities on the East Coast. Whether it’s Yellowfin, Bluefin, or Blackfin you’re after, you’re in for premier action.

Two smiling fishermen, sitting on a boat, holding a big Yellowfin Tuna

Monster Bluefins show up from November through April. While the ocean and weather are unpredictable, passionate fishers readily go into it, with thoughts of a 700 lb Bluefin keeping them warm. These football-shaped speedsters offer long mind-blowing battles that test the most skilled of fishermen.

As spring comes knocking, Yellowfins replace Bluefins and remain one of the favorite catches throughout the summer. They’re smaller, usually in the 20–100 lb range, and they’re often hooked while targeting Billfish. Blackfins are even smaller but just as enjoyable to pursue.

Grouper Fishing for a Change of Pace

There are many bottom dwellers in North Carolina worthy of your attention but no species is more sought after than Grouper, especially Gags and Reds. You can also find Black, Goliath, Scamp, and Snowy varieties, but the first two are the most abundant.

A fisherman in a cap and glasses holding a big Red Grouper

Gag Grouper are on the menu more often than any other – they can reach 80 pounds, and they’re tasty. Gags live around reefs and wrecks, usually in depths of up to 250 feet. These guys are ambush predators, so underwater structures are their top hiding spot. Entice them with cigar minnows and pieces of squid for best results.

Red Grouper are much smaller than their cousins, with their weight varying from 10–50 pounds. You can reel them in from relatively shallow waters, but bigger specimens prefer greater depths, just like Gags. Grouper fishing in North Carolina offers solid bites all year, so consult your guide to find out which species are biting at the time of your trip.

And More!

Three anglers holding a Shark on a dock

You didn’t think that was all, did you? The aforementioned species might be the offshore all-stars, but there’s so much more in these deep waters. There’s a slew of pelagics at your disposal, including Mahi Mahi, Wahoo, as well as Amberjack, Barracuda, and Snappers.

Shark fishing is huge in North Carolina, and there are specialized expeditions that allow you to target them exclusively. We’re talking Blacktip, Hammerhead, Mako, Bull, Tiger, and the list goes on. Add to that Swordfishing hunts, and you’ve got plenty of worthy opponents waiting for you in the bluewater.

Freshwater Fishing in North Carolina

In NC, the freshwater fisheries are on par with saltwater ones, and that already speaks volumes. There are over 3,000 miles of freshwater shoreline to explore, which is why people from all over come here to get their fill of fun.

A close-up of a Largemouth Bass held above water

Bass, in its many varieties, is the belle of the freshwater fishing ball. Whether it’s Largemouth, Smallmouth, Spotted, or Striped, the Bass bite is consistently good throughout the Old North State. Basically, any lake or pond you stumble upon, you’re likely to find Bass there.

Trout fishing holds a special place in the hearts of freshwater enthusiasts. Most mountain streams and rivers hold good Trout. Rainbow, Brown, and Brook Trout are all on the menu. Some bodies of water are stocked, while others hold wild fish, so you can pick which ones you’d rather chase. There are even Tiger Trout in these parts, as a fun bonus.

Other species that you can look forward to are Catfish, Crappie, Bluegill, and Sunfish. You only need to decide what you want to fish for first.

Types of Fishing in North Carolina

The ways of fishing in NC are as numerous as the fish itself. Whatever your ambitions are, there’s a guide somewhere that can turn them into reality. Here are some of the most commonly practiced fishing types you can explore.

Surf Fishing in North Carolina

A surf fisherman holding a rod while standing in surf on a North Carolina Beach

Surf fishing is the easiest and most affordable option for solo anglers. It only requires basic equipment and a bit of knowledge about local hotspots. You can hit the beach any time of the year and be rewarded with a solid bite, but fall is considered most productive.

When it comes to what you can catch, the sky’s the limit. Anything from Weakfish, Black Drum, and Redfish to King Mackerel, Flounder, Cobia, Sheepshead, and Bluefish is fair game. Most of these are caught by surfcasting – head to the beach, stand in the surf, cast your line into the water with a bit of shrimp on it and see what bites. The Outer Banks in particular are known for surf fishing opportunities.

Fly Fishing in North Carolina

A fly fisherman wading in a river in North Carolina

When you hear that a region has its own Fly Fishing Trail, you know that you’re in for a lot of fun. NC is one of the rare places where you can find fly fishing opportunities every day of the year. Here, fly fishermen have a whole lot to discover.

The famous Fly Fishing Trail is in Jackson County, with 15 different Trout fishing hotspots. Neuse, Nantahala, Watauga, and Tuckasegee Rivers are just a few of the fly fishing locations that will dazzle you with their abundance.

Saltwater fly fishing is very much a thing in NC, and you’ll see a lot of anglers on the flats, battling Bull Redfish on the fly. There are even brave souls who fly fish for Bluefin Tuna – the ultimate challenge if there ever was one!

Fishing With a Charter

Two grownup anglers and two children sitting on a charter boat with their Redfish catches

While you can do basic surf or pier fishing on your own, the guidance of a local captain is invaluable to land bragworthy catches. This especially goes for offshore fishers in search of their next trophy.

The good news is that there are hundreds of charters and even more trips to choose from. Whether you’re a novice and want to learn the ropes, going out with your kids, or you’re a seasoned fisherman ready to battle a monster catch, North Carolina fishing charters will make it happen. 

You don’t have to worry about bringing your gear or buying the fishing licenses, charter operators take care of all that. You’re able to fish in comfort and focus solely on reeling in your prey.

Top Fishing Spots

An aerial view of Outer Banks, North Carolina

Premier fishing that North Carolina has means uncountable hotspots for you to target the fish of your dreams. Here are a few destinations you shouldn’t miss. Safe to say, you’ll be spoiled for choice.

  • Outer Banks: It’s hardly a surprise that we’re starting with the Outer Banks. This is the spot for deep sea fishing trips, and avid fishermen flock to the region, ready to battle the biggest fish of their lives.
  • Nags Head: Nags Head displays all the fishing fortes of North Carolina. Anything from Redfish and Cobia to Tuna and Marlin is in the cards.
  • Morehead City: Another famous destination that’s a great choice for inshore and offshore aficionados alike. With easy access to the Onslow Bay, Bogue Sound, and the Atlantic Ocean, you can target just about everything.
  • Crystal Coast: With over 80 miles of coastline, you’ll hardly find a better place than Crystal Coast for your offshore escapades. This stretch of land offers top-notch Mahi Mahi, Wahoo, Billfish, and Tuna.
  • Hatteras: In itself, Hatteras is a huge assembly of diverse fishing spots. The inshore bite is superb here, Pamlico Sound is a stone’s throw away, and the Gulf Stream is only 30 miles from shore.
  • Lake Norman: This is one of the top picks for freshwater fishing that sports non-stop Largemouth Bass fishing and White Perch is just as productive. There are even Bass tournaments you can participate in.
  • Nantahala River: There’s hardly a better fly fishing destination than this gorgeous river. You can find both stocked and wild Brown, Brook, and Rainbow Trout on your line, and whitewater rafting is also very popular.

North Carolina Fishing Regulations

A picture with a North Carolina flag and the text "North Carolina Fishing License" on it

One of the first things to think about when planning a fishing adventure in North Carolina is the type of fishing license you’ll need. If you booked a trip with a charter guide, you’re off the hook – the permit is included in the price. Solo fishermen over the age of 16 need to buy an appropriate license, depending on where they’re casting their line.

There are two types of licenses – Inland for freshwater fishing, and Coastal for saltwater endeavors. Some bodies of water have special regulations, so make sure you’re informed before you go out.

North Carolina Fishing Tournaments

A fisherman standing on a boat, holding a rod, battling a hooked fish

When a state has fisheries as spectacular as North Carolina, you better believe that competitive fishing is a big part of the angling community. The most famous of all the tournaments is, of course, the Big Rock Blue Marlin Tournament, with hundreds of contenders and over a million dollars in prizes.

Another big player is the Governor’s Cup Saltwater Fishing Tournament that ties in eight well-known Billfishing tournaments into one series. But that’s just the beginning. There are dozens upon dozens of derbies and events all over North Carolina that saltwater and freshwater anglers can enjoy.

Fishing in North Carolina – Beyond Your Wildest Dreams

An aerial view of the Blue Ridge, North Carolina

There’s no overstating how remarkable fishing is in the Tar Heel State. There’s something about casting your line here that’s addictive. Maybe it’s the everyday possibilities of record catches, the diversity, or the sheer abundance of fish, or maybe it’s all three. One thing is sure – once you feel that rush that fishing in North Carolina has to offer, you’ll never be the same.

What are your thoughts on North Carolina fisheries? Do you plan on going this season? Are there some tips that anglers should know about? Let us know in the comments.

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