North Carolina Fishing Seasons: The Complete Guide

Oct 20, 2022 | 13 minute read
Reading Time: 13 minutes

From the Great Smoky Mountains to the Outer Banks, the “Tar Heel State” is about as diverse as it gets. It’s a hotbed of angling activity year-round, with something to cater to all tastes and skill levels. And, as far as we’re concerned, a must-visit for anyone wanting to try a diverse range of fishing techniques. But what about the specific fishing seasons in North Carolina?

An aerial view of a beach and fishing pier on a summer's day in North Carolina

Before deciding where and when to cast your line, you want to know what’s biting when. No matter what kind of fishing you’re looking to try, we have you covered below. We’ll give you a rundown of all fishing seasons in North Carolina, going month-by-month in this in-depth guide. By the time you’re done reading, we’re sure you’ll either be reaching for your rod or booking your next visit. So let’s get started!

What to Expect from North Carolina Fishing Seasons

Diverse is the best term to describe fishing in North Carolina, and that goes for its fishing seasons, too. Whenever you visit, there’ll be something biting from the rivers to the lakes, and out to the Atlantic Ocean. But the specific fish that pass by – or at least hit their peak – will vary month-by-month. And it all depends on whether you want to try saltwater or freshwater fishing.

Saltwater Fishing

In the saltwater world, there’s always something biting. As you can see below, some inshore favorites are available year-round. That means that a trip to the OBX’s inshore sounds is always in the cards. It also goes for the bays on the state’s southern coast too. 

Species Jan Feb Mar Apr May Jun Jul Aug Sep Oct Nov Dec
Amberjack Good Good Good Good Good Good Good Good Good Good Good Good
Black Drum Great Great Great Great Great Great Great Great Great Great Great Great
Bluefish Great Great Great Great Great Great Great Great Great Great Great Great
Cobia Weak Weak Weak Good Good Great Great Great Good Fair Weak Weak
Flounder Weak Weak Weak Fair Good Good Good Great Great Great Good Weak
Kingfish Fair Fair Fair Good Good Great Great Great Good Fair Fair Fair
Mahi Mahi Fair Fair Fair Fair Good Great Great Great Great Good Fair Fair
Marlin Weak Weak Weak Fair Good Great Great Great Great Good Fair Weak
Redfish Great Great Great Great Great Great Great Great Great Great Great Great
Sailfish Weak Weak Weak Weak Fair Good Great Great Great Good Fair Weak
Speckled Trout Great Great Great Great Great Great Great Great Great Great Great Great
Tarpon Weak Weak Weak Weak Good Great Great Great Great Great Good Weak
Tuna Great Great Great Great Great Great Great Great Great Great Great Great
Wahoo Weak Weak Weak Fair Good Great Great Great Great Great Good Fair

But if you’re looking for an offshore adventure, you’d better choose what you want to target carefully. Tuna are biting year-round, with Bluefin Tuna even available in winter – although the weather conditions may not be great. Billfish, meanwhile, peak in summer, and go on through the start of fall, along with Mahi Mahi, Wahoo, and more. 

Freshwater Fishing

As for freshwater fishing, there are also clear seasons where fishing peaks and troughs. For example, Trout fishing in mountain streams takes off in spring, with a fall run also offering anglers a second chance later on in the year. This will particularly entice fly anglers, with Brook, Brown, and Rainbow Trout all available.

Species Jan Feb Mar Apr May Jun Jul Aug Sep Oct Nov Dec
Catfish Weak Weak Weak Fair Good Good Good Great Great Great Good Good
Crappie Good Good Good Good Good Good Good Good Good Good Good Good
Hybrid Bass Fair Fair Good Great Great Great Good Fair Fair Great Good Good
Largemouth Bass Good Good Good Great Great Great Good Good Great Great Great Good
Perch Fair Fair Good Great Great Great Great Good Good Good Good Fair
Trout Weak Weak Fair Good Great Great Great Fair Good Great Great Fair

Then you have your year-round favorites, like Largemouth Bass and Panfish. While these creatures are available whenever you visit, you may need to keep an eye on the moon and time of day to get that perfect bite. With Catfish brightening up your summer, Perch offering different seasons, and Spotted and Hybrid Striped Bass also showing up, North Carolina’s freshwater fishing season is always changing!

When is North Carolina’s best fishing season? 

The harbor and lighthouse in the fishing town of Wanchese, North Carolina, with the sun is rising out of the sea in the distance

As we mentioned above, we’ll give you a run through North Carolina’s fishing seasons month by month. With every kind of fishing you could imagine possible, it’s tricky to pick the best season. It all boils down to you and your preferences! 

To see what’s biting this month, why not check what North Carolina fishing guides are saying right now? If you’re looking for a particular time of year, though, read on and find out what’s biting when you want to visit. 

January

If you’re looking to start the year in style, then North Carolina has a treat for you. It may be cold, but there’s one creature willing to brave it all to give you the chance for the catch of a lifetime. Bluefin Tuna love the winters in the Atlantic Ocean, as their cold blood means they can survive it comfortably and even dive deep with your line. Not only that, but they grow to incredible sizes and offer plenty of delicious meat. Just beware, an offshore trip this time of year may be weather-dependent.

A happy angler holding a Bluefin Tuna caught out of Hatteras, NC

That’s not to say that saltwater fishing isn’t possible on a choppy day. Far from it. The sounds and bays of North Carolina are full of creatures just waiting to take your bait. Black Drum, Redfish, and Trout are options for anglers of all levels, while Snappers are also biting nearshore. 

Freshwater fishing more your thing? No worries. Despite the cold, there’ll be plenty of action to keep you warm, with Panfish and Largemouth Bass the most likely to take your bait. They’ll feed throughout the day, usually coming up a couple of hours after sunrise and staying until mid-afternoon. Give Lake Tilley or High Rock Lake a try, depending on where you are. 

February

Don’t worry about the winter blues in North Carolina – there’s always fishing to cheer you up. It’s more of the same come February, with Bluefin Tuna starring in the deep waters offshore. While it won’t be easy – neither to plan your trip nor land these beasts – the rewards are well worth it. You’ll have a hearty meal guaranteed if you take a Tuna home. 

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

Fishing in the sounds and bays is going strong, with the usual suspects like Redfish rearing their heads to the water tops. This is a great way to test your skills and get beginners into sportfishing, with the Outer Banks and oceanside cities like Morehead and Jacksonville offering plenty of opportunities whenever you visit. 

Inland, there’s also plenty to target, with White Perch making an appearance in the rivers. Bluegill and Crappie are also popular in urban and suburban lakes, meaning that anyone can land a tasty dish to take home. Whether you’re near Raleigh, Wilmington, or all the way up near the Virginia border, there’s a body of water with your name on it. 

March

As winter fades away, spring threatens to break through and there are signs of new life everywhere you look. That’s actually why you won’t be able to target certain species in certain areas, as the authorities want to let some baby fish flourish. We’re talking about the hatchery-supported Trout fisheries, where you’ll be banned from fishing throughout March.

A group of children holding a Largemouth Bass each during North Carolina's Bass fishing season

That doesn’t mean that freshwater fishing in North Carolina is off the table completely, however. Spotted, Striped, and Hybrid Striped Bass, along with Perch are thriving in streams and lakes, particularly in remote areas. Lakes Gaston and Norman, and Badin Lake promise the best action, but there’s plenty more across the state.

It’s heating up in saltwater, too, although it’s still not peak fishing season in North Carolina. We suggest you practice your skills inshore before big game season hits, with Black Drum, Redfish, and Trout all worthy opponents. If your heart is set on an offshore adventure, Yellowfin Tuna are on the menu, rubbing shoulders with their Bluefin cousins for a short period only. Again, just make sure that the weather is good before heading out.

April

Spring has truly spring in North Carolina come April, and anglers from all corners of the state (and beyond) come out. Fly fishing season kicks off for freshwater anglers, while saltwater fishing heats up the further out you go. Whether looking for some RnR during spring break, or hoping to take the kids away, NC is the place to be. 

A fly angler casting a line in the shallow waters in the Great Smoky Mountains

We mentioned fly fishing, and it’s the mountain streams in the north and west that deserve your attention. The Great Smoky Mountains, in particular, are brimming with hungry Trout – three kinds in fact! The action peaks towards the end of the month as the waters warm up. It’s also non-stop action in the rivers and reservoirs, with multiple Bass species joining Panfish to provide a fishing frenzy. 

There’s no letting up on inshore fishing, either, as the usual suspects are likely to be on the end of your line. Further out, Kingfish, Cobia, and Amberjack start to show up in big numbers, while big game fishing promises plenty as the weather gets calmer. Yellowfin Tuna swim by in the Gulf Stream, so it’s all about meat wherever you go.

May

North Carolina’s peak fishing season gets underway in May. Freshwater fishing is better and better, with the Atlantic Ocean also promising numerous bites and tough battles. Make the most of Memorial Day weekend at the Cherokee Trout Tournament, or hit up any of the numerous festivals that take place around the water.

A closeup of a Trout being held by an angler fishing in the Great Smoky Mountains

Speaking of Trout, Brook, Brown, and Rainbow varieties really hit their stride across the state. If we’d have to pick one location to visit, we’d suggest the Catawba River and its “special” waters. Don’t worry if you can’t make it, though, any local lake or river will do, since Crappie, Bluegill, as well as Spotted and Hybrid Striped Bass are also in the cards.

Offshore, it’s not quite peak season for the pelagics, but you can find some early arrivals. If you can’t wait for that deep sea adventure, you could hook into Mahi Mahi and Billfish, along with Tuna. But we suggest hitting the surf or a North Carolina fishing pier, where Cobia and Kingfish come close enough to reel in. It’s also an excellent time to hit the bays and sounds to practice your skills before the real monsters arrive. 

June

It’s the time everyone has been waiting for. Big game fishing season in North Carolina is here, as the warm weather brings with it hungry pelagic creatures. The benefit of fishing in June is that you get all the pluses of fishing in summer without the crowds! You can discover the wilderness of the Outer Banks, where fishing is a way of life. Explore bustling towns like Wilmington. And you can still even escape from it all and hit the mountain streams. June really does have it all. 

An angler holds a colorful Mahi Mahi on a North Carolina fishing charter

Firstly, let’s focus on offshore fishing, with Mahi Mahi and Wahoo arriving in great numbers. Between dry land and the Gulf Stream everything is possible, but it gets better the further out you go. Bigeye and Yellowfin Tuna promise tasty fish fillets after a tough workout, but the real prize comes when you encounter Billfish. Blue and White Marlin, along with their cousins, Sailfish, will give any angler a run for their money. 

That doesn’t mean that there’s no inshore fishing to be had, however. On the contrary. Tarpon make their way to North Carolina in June, giving you the chance for a battle comparable to that of a Billfish in the shallows! Meanwhile, Trout, Bass, Perch, and Panfish are still in their peak season, so there’s an endless list of places to visit!

July

Things calm down a little inland as it gets hotter, but that just means getting your time of day right. Get out on the water early in the morning or around sunset, and you could get your fill of Trout and Bass. Stay throughout the day, and Catfish are a new possibility, as they hungrily lurch along the river and lake beds. 

An elder and younger angler hold a large Tarpon at the side of a boat in North Carolina

When it comes to saltwater fishing, anglers from all over the country flock to the coastline – and for good reason. Not only is school out, but it’s also peak fishing season in North Carolina. Tarpon are in full swing in the shallows, while Redfish, Bluefish, and Speckled Trout mean that the whole family can enjoy the water. 

Want to head further out? Fishing has never been better. Sailfish and Blue and White Marlin are a real sight for sore eyes in the Gulf Stream. But you’d better get ready for sore arms, too, if you plan on doing battle with these brutes. There’s also plenty to fill the cooler, too, with Mahi Mahi, Wahoo, and Bigeye Tuna offshore. What better way to end the day than with some fresh fish on the BBQ as you look back out on the sea?

August

Looking for a summer getaway? North Carolina’s 3,000-plus miles of coastline might just have something to tempt you. From relaxing on the pristine beaches of Bald Head Island to spotting wild horses in the Outer Banks, there’s almost nothing NC doesn’t offer! With incredible fishing wherever you look, what more could you want?

Three anglers hold a large Marlin caught while fishing in North Carolina during deep sea fishing season

As ever, the Pamlico and Albemarle Sounds are teeming with inshore fish. Head out to the Gulf Stream, and Yellowfin and Bigeye Tuna, Mahi Mahi, and Wahoo are still possible. And, if you’re looking for the ultimate test of attrition, Billfish are biting strongly in the deep. As a result, be sure to bring plenty of liquids for those hot summer days. 

It’s still a little warm for freshwater fish to come out and play, although Catfish are still going strong. Meanwhile, Perch are also available in abundance, and they may be tempted to the water tops first thing in the morning. Pitch up near a local lake and spend a whole day with the family – with one eye on the fishery, of course.

September

The kids are back in school and the focus turns to the holiday season rather than summer vacation. But we’re here to tell you why that shouldn’t be the case! The fish aren’t going anywhere and it’s still warm enough to enjoy the outdoors. Meanwhile, there’s the added bonus of the lack of crowds, giving you the perfect opportunity to get away from it all. 

Two fishermen standing on a fishing boat, holding a Wahoo on a cloudy day

Saltwater fishing is still at its strongest. You can make the most of calm waters offshore, as you go after Billfish, Mahi Mahi, Wahoo, and more. Inshore, Redfish are at their biggest, making for a truly memorable battle against what they call “Bull” specimens. With Tarpon still prowling the shallows, there’s never been a better time to visit.

As it cools down towards the end of the month, Largemouth Bass hit their stride once more, while Brown, Brook, and Rainbow Trout are also active in rural streams. Catfish make the most of the last of the warm weather, and there’s always a Panfish or two ready to take your bait. All in all, there’s something for everyone!

October

While the highs of summer are certainly gone, North Carolinians get back to the day-to-day. And where there’s water, there’s fishing. Come and see just how fishing is a part of everyday life, from the Great Smokies to the Outer Banks, via Lake Sutton, and more. 

Two anglers on a boat hold a large Bull Redfish caught in North Carolina in the fall

There are still some lingering Billfish if you can find a day when the weather is good enough to take you offshore. If not, then the shallows are still as productive as ever. Tarpon remain fierce throughout the month, while Redfish, Speckled Trout, and Flounder promise action and tasty treats.

It’s peak fly fishing season once again, as Trout make their annual fall run. Hit the Great Smokies or the Cherokee Reservation for the best action, but explore any lake where these beauties are stocked and you won’t be disappointed. Looking to tackle Bass? Hybrid, Spotted, and Largemouth varieties are all biting in good numbers, so you’re sure to have the chance to test your skills. 

November

Veterans Day is the last real holiday where fishing can take center stage, so why not pay a visit to North Carolina and land something delicious for the family for Thanksgiving? Okay, so it’s not traditional, but with the range of creatures on offer, you bet nobody will be complaining if you serve them up some fish. 

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

While Bluefin Tuna return to the deep waters, the choppy waters make for a difficult excursion. Therefore, we suggest sticking to the bays and sounds, where there’s little risk of getting lost at sea. All the favorites are still biting, with Redfish, Bluefish, Black Drum, and Speckled Trout all likely to take your bait. 

It’s more about the game than table fare in freshwater, as Trout remain active in the rivers and streams. Sure, you can take a couple home with you, but we suggest catching and releasing these fish to fight another day. After all, you’ll want to come back again in spring when they come back, hungrier than ever before!

December

It’s getting cold and some charter operators shut up shop for the holiday period. But that doesn’t mean you have to pack away your angling gear. We all know the weather can be fickle, so find a calm day and get out on the water. As is always the case in North Carolina, the fishing possibilities are endless.

A female anglers stood on a boat holding a Catfish caught in North Carolina

Freshwater fishing tails off to some extent, as the cold waters put some fish in hibernation. Not all creatures are scared of the cold, though. If you get your timing right, however, you could hook into Catfish, Crappie, Bluegill, and a range of Bass. Not bad for the so-called “off-season”, eh?

Saltwater fishing is more reliable, however. While you’ll only find the hardiest captain to take you on a Bluefin mission, the inshore waters are still as good as ever. Reds, Blues, and Trout are staples of the North Carolina fishing scene, so stock up the freezer with this enviable range of species and see out the year in style!

North Carolina Fishing Seasons: The Party Never Stops

Three rods lined up against the side of a fishing pier in North Carolina on a cloudy day

So there you have it. You now know exactly when to come to the Tar Heel State for your angling adventure. As we’ve already said, whenever you visit, the fishing is sure to be on fire. It all depends on what you want to catch. Pair up with a local charter guide or head out on your own. No matter what you do, serious thrills and even better rewards are all but guaranteed.

What’s your favorite fishing season in North Carolina? Any tips or tricks to share with our readers? Hit up the comments below and get in touch!

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