Outer Banks Fishing: The Complete Guide

Jan 17, 2023 | 9 minute read Comments
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Reading Time: 9 minutes

North Carolina’s Outer Banks are a pretty unique place. Sitting miles out into the ocean, surrounded by sounds and sea, life here revolves around the ebb and flow of the tide. These barrier islands produce some of the world’s finest sportfishing boats, with experienced crews to match. No surprise, then, that Outer Banks fishing is spectacular.

What can you catch around the Outer Banks? How should you fish, and where’s the best place to do so? We’ll cover all this and more in a full rundown of the local angling scene. Whether you’re a first-timer or a seasoned seadog, get ready to head out and catch the fish of a lifetime.

What fish are biting in the Outer Banks?

Outer Banks anglers enjoy the best of both worlds. Head one way, and you find shallow waters full of inshore predators. Turn the other for warm ocean currents and big game monsters. In short, you’re surrounded by every game fish’s dream hunting grounds. Here are a few of the species you can target.

Red Drum

A smiling man in a cap and sunglasses holding a Red Drum fish on a charter boat

Redfish dominate the shallows in the Outer Banks. They cruise the beaches and sounds, looking for food or a fight. They’re the dream inshore sportfish – big, tough, and aggressive. Local anglers usually take them on live bait, but they’ll go after most lures and even flies if you present them right.

Did we mention that Redfish are also delicious? Smaller “Puppy Drum” produce sweet, flaky meat that’s great however you cook it. Bigger “Bull Red” still taste good, but these are the breeder fish and we recommend releasing them if you can – they more than deserve it after the fight they put up.

Flounder

An angler holding two Flounder on a sportfishing boat

You can’t mention seafood without tipping your hat to everybody’s favorite Flatfish. Flounder aren’t exactly pretty (their faces are the stuff of nightmares) but don’t let that put you off. All fish looks good once it’s filleted, and you can’t beat the taste of freshly-caught Flounder.

Flounder are food fish, but they can still be a hoot to catch. They’ll follow your lure and demolish any small bait that swims too close. And that’s just the rod and reel action. Bowfishing and gigging (spearing fish hiding in the mud) are both popular here.

Cobia

Two fishermen standing on a fishing boat holding a large Cobia, with open waters and blue skies in the background

Every spring, Cobia make the local wrecks their home and start throwing their weight at anything that gets in their way – anglers included. Cobia are naturally curious fish and locals feed this curiosity by chumming the water. You just rock up, drop your block, and pretty soon you’ll have a fish on your line.

Cobia are the springtime favorite, but what if you’re around in the fall? Simple: head to the same spots to take on King Mackerel instead. “Smoker Kings” weighing 30 pounds or more come crashing through town each autumn. You’ll usually take these guys with large live baits like Menhaden.

Tuna

A happy angler standing on a fishing dock, holding a Bluefin Tuna caught out of Hatteras, NC

There are a lot of stars in the local lineup, but none of them compare to Bluefin Tuna. OBX is a true Bluefin battleground, where local anglers earn their stripes by reeling in fish several times their body weight. Over the years, Outer Banks anglers have developed a signature hands-on approach to fishing for these underwater freight trains.

Bluefin aren’t the only Tuna species around, mind you. Bigeye, Blackfin, and Yellowfin Tuna all show up in these waters. The four species work in shifts to make sure there’s always something big and tasty to target. You thought Wicked Tuna was exciting? Just wait until you see the real thing!

And More!

What could possibly trump 500 lb Bluefin? Honestly, not much, but Blue and White Marlin are more than happy to try. You can also battle Mahi Mahi and Wahoo on offshore trips or search the surf for Striped Bass and Bluefish. Then there’s the bottom bite of Amberjack, Tilefish, Grouper, and Sea Bass. Did we mention Shark fishing? Seriously, it’s endless!

How to Fish in OBX

You have an idea of what to target, but how should you do it? Here’s a summary of the main styles of fishing in the Outer Banks, and the pros and cons of each one.

Surf Fishing

A man holding a fishing rod and surf fishing on the Outer Banks beach

If you’re into surf fishing, chances are the Outer Banks are already on your bucket list. People have landed incredible catches in the surf here, from world record Red Drum to huge Sharks, Stripers, Bluefish, and more. The added bonus is that you can enjoy a beach day with the family without missing out on the area’s angling.

There are a few things to bear in mind when surf fishing in OBX. Many areas are so remote that you need a 4X4 to get to them. The best spots are sometimes closed to protect local wildlife. It’s best to stop in at a local tackle shop when you arrive to get the most up-to-date info on what’s biting and where.

Charter Fishing

A young man holding a Cobia at the back of a sportfishing boat, with two other anglers sitting on either side

If you want to catch fish, go with someone who knows the area. It could be a local buddy, but for most people it’s a guide. OBX charter fishing guides know every ounce of these waters. They have a game plan for every spot and species. Whether you’re after family fun or serious sportfishing, you can’t go wrong.

There are some very practical reasons to fish with a charter. For starters, they’ll provide everything you need for the day. This is also the only way to get offshore if you don’t own a boat. Even if you do, spending a few hours with a local will save you days of trial and error. It’s the best way to really learn about the area.

Pier Fishing

A wooden fishing pier in Outer Banks, with a bench and several rods

Fishing piers are a great place to catch fish, plain and simple. They don’t have that same outdoorsy feel as surf fishing. You won’t get the flexibility or action of a fishing charter. What you will find is plenty of fish and all the gear you need to bring them in is available for rent or sale.

Depending on how far down the pier you go, you can find anything from Redfish and Sheepshead to Kingfish and Cobia. There are half a dozen fishing piers along the Outer Banks. They’re all good, so head to whichever one is closest and grab yourself some dinner!

Head Boat Fishing

A view along the rail of a head boat in the Outer Banks, with lots of fishing rods in holders

Head boats are large vessels that you share with other anglers. Think of them as somewhere between a charter and a pier. They’re a cheap way to get onto the water and reel in some fish for dinner. You can also meet other anglers and make new friends along the way. 

The downside to head boats is that they’re not that beginner-friendly. The crew can only spend so much time with each person, so be prepared to untangle your own lines. Keen anglers might also get frustrated with the lack of action. You’ll either take turns fishing or get a specific spot on the boat, neither of which are great for chasing trophies.

Kayak Fishing

A rack of fishing kayaks at a dock in the Outer Banks

Kayak fishing along the Outer Banks has been steadily growing in popularity over the years, and it’s easy to see why. You don’t need to trailer your boat or pay a guide. You’re not stuck on the shore, fighting for casting space among the crowd. Instead, you just waltz down to the beach, push off, and enjoy a day at sea.

Okay, there’s a little more to it than that. Kayak fishing is seriously hard work, especially if the water’s choppy. Actually spotting the fish can be tough, which only adds to the difficulty of exploring a new fishery. Fighting a fish sitting down isn’t easy, either. In short, you need to be strong and patient to get the most out of it.

Where is the best fishing in the Outer Banks?

A map of the main fishing spots in the Outer Banks, showing the different sounds and places where you can find charters

We won’t cover every honey hole out there. The Outer Banks is a huge area, and the best spots change with the wind (sometimes literally). Instead, here are a few reliable fishing spots to get you started. After that, your best bet is to local anglers or jump on a fishing charter.

  • Cape Point: The tip of Hatteras Island and the elbow of the Banks. This is where the Labrador and Gulf Currents meet, drawing in nutrients and trophy-sized fish. Unsurprisingly, it’s a mecca for surf anglers.
  • Oregon Inlet: Another awesome surf fishing spot and the gateway for offshore charters out of Wanchese and Nags Head. You need to drive to the northern beach but you can park pretty close to the southern one.
  • Outer Banks Fishing Pier: A 600’ pier just south of Nags Head. The pier is open 24/7 and you don’t need a license to fish from it. If it’s too busy, there are several fishing piers in the area, all of which are fine.
  • Pamlico Sound: Spend the day sound fishing in OBX and you could come across Drum, Flounder, Trout, Stripers, and more. It’s a great option if you have a kayak, and is a popular choice on shorter charter trips. 
  • Rock Pile: A patch of rocky structure south of Hatteras in around 180 feet of water. Billfish, Wahoo, Mahi Mahi, and Tuna all show up here, making it a worthwhile stop on the journey offshore. It can get busy, though.
  • Gulf Stream: The be all and end all for deep sea enthusiasts. The Gulf Stream is 30 miles offshore or more, depending on where you start. Make the journey for huge Tuna, monster Marlin, Swordfish, Wahoo, and more.

When to Go Fishing in the Outer Banks

Most fish are seasonal visitors in the OBX, so timing your trip is crucial if you have a specific species in mind. Plan things right, and you can even take part in one of the area’s many fishing tournaments while you’re here.

Outer Banks Fishing Seasons

A view from the beach in Hatteras, NC on a windy winter's day

The best time to surf fish in the Outer Banks is spring and fall. This is when the biggest Red Drum, Bluefish, and Speckled Trout show up. Summer won’t produce as many trophy Reds, but there will be Sharks alongside them. Brave the winter weather, and Striped Bass will keep you warm.

More interested in the Bluefin Tuna season? We can’t blame you! Bluefin can be caught all winter and well into spring in OBX. The bite’s best at the beginning and end of the season. Early season Tuna (November–December) move closer to shore, while late season (February–March) produces those mythical giant Bluefin.

If you’re looking for info on a particular species, check out our OBX fishing calendar for a full run-down of when to fish and read the Division of Marine Fisheries latest proclamations for the up-to-date regulations. Bear in mind that many charter services close over the winter, so it’s worth booking ahead of time if you’re visiting in the off-season.

Fishing Tournaments in OBX

Two anglers holding a large White Marlin caught during a fishing tournament in the Outer Banks

Tournament season kicks off in May with the Hatteras Village Offshore Open. In June, it’s either back to Hatteras for the Blue Marlin Release Tournament or down to Morehead City for the Big Rock Blue Marlin Tournament. Round off the season in August with the Pirate’s Cove Billfish Tournament out of Manteo

Those were just the offshore events. You’ve also got kayak fishing tournaments out of Nags Head in June and September, the Manteo Rotary Inshore Slam in October, and events organized by local surf fishing clubs all year. Whenever you visit, there’s something going on.

The Outer Banks, NC: A True Fishing Paradise

A fishing charter heading out to sea at sunrise

There are very few places that can rival the fishing you’ll discover in the Outer Banks. Head offshore and you can battle 500 lb Bluefin Tuna and Blue Marlin. Stay in the sounds to chase giant Red Drum, tasty Flounder, more. Throw in a strong fishing heritage and some stunning scenery, and you just found the perfect fishery.

Planning an Outer Banks fishing trip? What do you want to catch, and how are you going to do it? Tell us your plans or share your experiences in the comments below. We love to hear from you!

Comments (12)
  • Adam

    Oct 24, 2022

    Great article and information! How is the surf fishing early to mid April? Planning a trip for 2023 and would like to be prepared. Also, how’s the crabbing that time of year and do you have any recommendations on where to take the kids crabbing by chance? I grew up going to the OBX and always loved it. But it’s been a good 20 years and honestly dont know what to expect. Thanks!

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      Vuk

      Oct 25, 2022

      Hi Adam,

      Thanks for getting in touch! Conditions can vary depending on the specific place you’re hoping to fish, but April in general is a great time for going after Redfish and Speckled Trout, so you definitely won’t leave empty-handed. As for crabbing, there’s a fantastic article about it on OuterBanks.com that I’d recommend you check out. It should help you get started.

      Hope this helps, tight lines!

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  • Dan Blair

    Oct 7, 2022

    Would like to clarify about big drum. The author suggested that big drum be released after catch. State regulations only allow keeping drum that 18-27.” Over 27″ and they must be released.

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      Lisa

      Oct 10, 2022

      Hi Dan,

      Lisa here. Thank you for clarifying the regulations!

      Tight lines

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  • Erik

    Jun 27, 2022

    Is there good fishing in the sounds?

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      Rhys

      Jun 28, 2022

      Hi Erik,

      Rhys here from FishingBooker. Thanks for reading and for your good question. Fishing in the sounds is always good, although many captains switch their attention offshore this time of year. If you find a captain with a smaller boat, or offering a Half Day Trip, you’ll be able to target Black Drum, Redfish, Bluefish, Speckled Trout, and more in the sounds throughout the summer. I hope this helps.

      Tight lines,

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  • Pattie Manuel

    Jun 7, 2022

    I am bringing my husband and son fishing down there in July. We would LOVE to catch fluke, but I know they would also love to find a real fighter such as marlin, mahi or tuna. Since I’m in NJ, I am not familiar with charters. Can you suggest a few that may be able to take us to the big fish?

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      Marko

      Jun 7, 2022

      Hi Pattie,

      Thanks for getting in touch! I’ve forwarded your message to our Customer Service team, you can expect them to reach out to you soon.

      Until then, you can check out the OBX charters that target Marlin, Mahi, and Tuna here:

      https://fshb.kr/YxcKR

      I hope you enjoy your stay in OBX!

      Tight lines,

      Marko

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  • Donnie Tibbs

    May 1, 2022

    Can someone give me any reviews on the charter vessel called” The Release”?

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      Marko

      May 2, 2022

      Hi Donnie,

      Thanks for getting in touch. I looked into this but we’re not partnered with “The Release” so I don’t have any reviews I could share with you. Maybe someone who fished with them spots your comment and chips in 🙂

      If you’d like, you can take a look at the OBX charters we work with here:

      https://fishingbooker.com/charters/search/us/outer-banks

      Hope you enjoyed the article!

      Tight lines,

      Marko

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  • Buck

    Feb 8, 2022

    I live on the OBX and I’ll tell you the author could not more spot on. This is a very unique and fragile environment with a beauty that can only be appreciated first hand.
    I fish in the sounds, nearshore and offshore and can vouch for the fact that there are a great variety of species for every level of fisherman. You can charter a family friendly bottom fishing, crabbing and shrimping trip or an off shore adventure on one of the many world renowned sport fishing boats in multiple fleets.
    One thing the author did not mention is that there are several restaurants that will cook your catch, for a small fee, and provide all the sides. People from all over the world come here to fish, hunt and just relax so remember to book boats and accommodations early.
    Good luck

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      Lisa

      Feb 9, 2022

      Hi Buck,

      Thank you for reading and reaching out. We’re glad you enjoyed our article!

      To be honest, I couldn’t agree more, especially with the fact that the OBX is indeed a unique and fragile environment. There are so many things an angler could do there, while also respecting the nature.

      It’s great that you mention the restaurants, too!

      Lisa

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