North Carolina & South Carolina Coast
| Fish Wire | ReelTalk
A brief guide to saltwater fly fishing along the North Carolina & South Carolina Coastline, including the Outer Banks.
By Capt. Gordon Churchill, Reel-Time Carolinas Editor
|Copyright 1998, Reel-Time
From the steep beaches and huge surf of the Outer Banks to the salt marshes and grass flats of the South Carolina Lowcountry, the Carolinas has more to offer the average fly fisherman than he may ever get the chance to check out for himself. We have everything from monstrous bluefin tuna and reel sizzling false albacore to speckled trout and striped bass. You can fish in a boat in the protected waters off of Cape Lookout or try for big game in the Gulf Stream. With a fishing season that realistically goes for 10 months out of the year there are a lot of fish to be caught here. Sit back and let me tell you something about it.
From Corolla in the north to Portsmouth in the south, the Outer Banks area has long been known as the premier surf fishing destination on the East coast if not the country or even the world. While the fishing for the giant red drum that originally made the area famous has fallen off in recent years, there is a plethora of species to take up the slack. And with new regulations put in place in 1998 to protect the spawning stock of red drum, the numbers of these great game fish should rise in the upcoming years. Hopefully we will see a comeback similar to that of the striped bass. Speaking of which there are plenty of those around here as well. You will also find sea trout of both the gray and speckled variety. A species of fish so popular that there are some who fish for nothing else through the year. Offshore fishing is nothing short of spectacular. Tuna are a regular catch of the boats stationed at the marinas. Bluefin have been tearing up tackle in the winter months for the past few years and yellowfins and bigeye are a known commodity that have been around forever. In the warmer months dolphin and wahoo will be crashing baits in the stream as well as billfish of all descriptions.
The beaches north of Oregon Inlet are well known as good surf fishing areas. You will need to get a vehicle on the beach. That usually means getting a beach permit from the local municipality. Drive down the beach looking for beach formations that will attract fish. Be forewarned that fly fishing in the surf here is a tricky proposition. The waves can get very big and if you are not experienced it is probably advisable to fish in the sounds or from a boat. Also look for bluefish rampaging in the surf. This usually occurs in November, and Thanksgiving weekend will find an armada of beach buggies cruising the surfline scanning for busting bait. Striped bass will also be found along here. They will often be seen crashing right alongside the blues. These are big Chesapeake Bay and open ocean fish. They are strong and determined not to be pulled onto the sand. You can also look for trout and puppy drum in sloughs and cuts along the beach. These areas will normally produce on an outgoing tide as bait is pushed out to the fish. The backside waters will also give great fishing. There are miles and miles of grassy flats. Speckled trout and striped bass up to 8 pounds are back there in great numbers. While this water is best fished from a boat there are a couple of spots that are worth a check from foot. The Bodie Island Lighthouse is the most prominent and has an access road and you can drive down to the sound from there and fish the deep water along the shore.
Oregon Inlet is the center of some great fishing. In the inlet itself fish from thousands of miles away may find themselves feasting on the myriad of bait. School striped bass have been caught there all season the past couple of years. Best fishing is the last couple of hours of the outgoing tide and often at night. Drive out the access road on the north side of the inlet (Do not attempt without a large four-wheel drive vehicle. The sand is soft and deep. Reduce air pressure in tires to 20 psi maximum) and fish the beach under and around the Bonner Bridge. A sinking line is best here. Silversides imitations work well in the summer months and will also get you a flounder or trout. As the colder weather comes in the fall and into December, larger flies to imitate spots ( a small bottom fish well known to bottom fishermen as good on the table and also great for bait ) do the job. At this time of year there can be some truly large stripers around. There is a bar in front of the rock wall on the south end of the inlet. You need to park your car and walk out to it. The end of the outgoing tide is also the best time to fish here. Waders are needed as is a stripping basket. For calmer waters and daytime action the waters on the soundside of the inlet are good. You can drive your vehicle quite a ways on the north end of the inlet or park at the parking area on the south end and wade fish. There is a point to the east of the bridge on the south side. It has deep water very close by. This is a very good spot to try for trout and puppy drum, as well as croakers and other panfish in the warmer months. Let me say this about croakers, they are a hard hitting and scrappy fish. They travel in schools and on a light rod will give you all you can handle. Add to that the bonus of a great meal and they are a great way to fill some fishing time in the summer. There are also plenty of flounder around. They will take a slim silversides (or glass minnow) fly with gusto. Don¹t be too surprised when you get one on.
Also at Oregon Inlet is the Oregon Inlet Fishing Center. This is the jumping-off point to some of the best big game fishing in the world! There are a couple of boats that specialize in fly fishing for the big boys and will have the appropriate tackle on-board. Just call and ask them. In the winter the big bluefins have been keeping captains busy and anglers exhausted the last four years. This has been a real economic windfall for this area that used to be like a ghost town in winter. You run out to the fishing grounds bundled up in sweaters and maybe having to chip ice off the deck of the boat. At the gulf stream the temperature rises dramatically and most days will find you fishing in short sleeved shirts. The big tuna boil dramatically to chunked baits and large Deceivers cast into the fray on 15 wt rods will give you the chance to get dragged around the boat deck for an hour or so. The biggest problem in this fishery is finding fish that are small enough to throw a fly at. In spring the yellowfins attack. They are usually found by trolling or chunking and a fly can be thrown at them. Use a minimum of a 12 weight on these fish. Billfish come around in the summer. Many white marlin are caught by trollers. As of this writing few white marlin have been caught by flyrodders around the world and fewer that that in North Carolina. If you have experience with these fish on fly and are looking for a spot where they are in abundance then you need to come here.
When you go south of Oregon Inlet you are getting into the really famous surf fishing waters. Hatteras Village is like a little fishing metropolis in the middle of a lot of sleepy towns. The surf fishing capital of the world is how they bill themselves here. It is hard to argue. Go to the local tackle shops and see the huge red drum depicted in photos or mounted on the wall. That is what most people come here for and Cape Point is where to go for them. Or so everybody in the world seems to think. It can resemble Times Square on occasion. The locals like to go there in the wee hours of the night when all the tourists are sleeping in their motel rooms. Us fly anglers need to think about that. Don't think too much about going to Cape Point with your fly rod. On most occasions there will be no place to fish. At times you can get in but there will still be a ton of current and bait lines on either side of you to get tangled up in. Not a pretty picture. At Hatteras Lighthouse there are a number of rock groins in the water to keep it from falling in the ocean. These provide nice structure. Bluefish and striped bass will be around these rocks at times. The real dependable residents are the speckled trout. As the water cools in the fall they will be around those jetties in the deep water around beach points. Most people fishing here will be using grub tailed jigs. Fly anglers should try a sinking line and a clouser with chartreuse over white. Again a stripping basket is standard equipment along with waders. As you drive south on the beach towards Frisco you will go past "the Point" the beach will smooth out and the sand become firmer. Cruise along here and look for signs of breaking fish. Bluefish and false albacore will chase bait along this beach. You can wade out quite a ways. A long cast is often necessary and sometimes will not be long enough.
Hatteras Inlet is often a good place to check out. You can get there along the access road at the end of HWY. 12. Inlets are good places to fly fish because you can swing your fly with the current and there often aren¹t as many bait lines in the water due to that same current. This is a good place to catch spanish mackerel, flounder, gray trout, speckled trout as well as the occasional false albacore coming in on the incoming tide. Get your fly down to the bottom and see what eats it.
Coming Soon: Plymouth & Ocracoke
At the center of most fly angler's thoughts when this area comes up is the phenomenal false albacore fishing off of the Cape in the months of October, November and early December. This is an incredible fishery with bigger fat albert's than are seen anywhere along the entire Atlantic Coast. Fish of over 25 pounds have been caught here! They blow up on glass minnows and provide thrilling action. I have had my customers into what I call blanket schools many times. This is when the school is so thick and the fish breaking on top so heavy that the surface of the water is "blanketed" with splashes and jumping fish, either minnows or albies. In this situation use a 10 weight rod and 15 lb test and get the fish to the boat as fast as you can because you will want to get another.
While the false albacore action is fantastic don't forget all the other benefits this area has to offer. Because of the unique shape of Cape Lookout, the big ocean swells don't buffet this area too regularly. This makes the entire stretch of coastline from Barden's Inlet to Bogue Inlet a small boater's paradise. There aren't too many days per year that you can't go out the inlet in a boat under 20 feet long. Contrast that with Oregon Inlet when there are many days when the inlet is declared dangerous and I wouldn't recommend going out in an open boat. Barden's Inlet is probably the safest inlet on the whole east coast. It is wide and protected from strong winds on 3 sides. This allows small boaters access to many square miles of prime territory. This also allows for the safest access to the winter bluefin tuna fishng. In the winter of 1997 -98 bluefins were caught in water as shallow as 20 feet deep and were seen crashing bait along Cape Lookout Shoals. Some of that water is less than 5 feet deep. Nobody attempted to get one on a fly that year, but that was due to the huge size of the fish. Most were over 500 pounds but smaller ones were often spotted. Few fish were caught on chunked baits. This is due to the shallowness of the water. The fish wouldn't come to the boat to have a chunk bait tossed to them on 130 class outfits. A fly could easily be cast to them however.
The Cape Lookout Rock Jetty is one of the best spots that you will find anywhere to catch just about any kind of fish you can think of. In the months of October and November it is especially known for speckled and gray trout. These fish can be caught using lead core lines and clousers with some chartreuse tied in. Let the line sink down alongside the jetty. The current will sweep it along like in an inlet or river. A take will feel solid. When playing the larger specimens it is important not to horse them too much as the hook will pull free. The biggest trout of the year are landed along this structure every fall. Spanish mackerel, small crevalle jacks, flounder and ladyfish in the summer are others that will grab a well presented fly here.
Spanish mackerel are the mainstay along the coast from here south. They can usually be depended upon to provide some action when all else fails. They normally show up sometime in May and will hang around until the following fall when the water temperature drops out of the 70's. You can usually find schools of spanish inside the hook of the cape or along the shoals. If not there then AR 315 is a good place to look. This is the Atlantic Beach Reef. There is a variety of structure and provides good fishing despite its proximity to Beaufort (B0-Fert) Inlet.
The king mackerel is really king here. More people spend more time pursuing these fish than any other. It is really a big game fish for the average man. While trolling for them may not sound like too much fun for most fly anglers, they are catchable on fly. Capt. Joe Shute of the Cape Lookout Fly Shop has the techniques perfected. He likes to troll until he finds a structure that they are relating to. He will then start a chum slick of ground menhaden and frozen glass minnows. A large Deceiver is then cast back on a sinking line and worked back to the boat. The strikes are hard and vicious. That first run will knock you off your feet!
For inside action there are a variety of spots to check. The North River, the Haystacks and Core Creek are good places to catch speckled trout and puppy drum (redfish, red drum). This fishing is kept pretty quiet by the people who know best. If you go with a local guide and catch a few it is best to keep your mouth closed about where you got them. Get in there with a shallow draft boat and approach the water like a freshwater bass fisherman. Experiment with different densities of flylines. Floating will work along shallow grassy shorelines. Fast sinking in the channels leading out of creeks and marshes.
If you do not have access to a boat, do not despair. Surf fishing for the flyfisherman is very good and safe here. The most obvious and easily accessible is Fort Macon State Park. There is a good sized rock jetty here. It is home to many trout, puppy drum, spanish, bluefish and false albacore (in season). I recommend a sinking line and a glass minnow or mullet imitation like a Deceiver. From Beaufort you can catch a water taxi to Shackleford Point. On the outgoing tide there is a strong rip line that forms right along the beach. Bluefish, spanish, puppy drum and albacore will make regular appearances here. I actually think this is the best spot around to fish for false albacore from shore. Wade out to the outer bar at low tide and get back fast when it starts to come back in! To get to the beach at Cape Lookout go to Harker's Island and get ferried over from one of the many marinas on Harker's Island Road. Ask them to take you to the hook for false albacore, spanish and bluefish. Or you can go to the main ferry dock and catch a ride with one of the 4WD services that operate here and go to the point for a chance at a big surf drum. There are some big ones caught here and it is much easier to flyfish here than at that "other" cape point further north.
The main emphasis of most people's fishing efforts in this area is primarily directed at back water fishing around the Intracoastal Waterway and the creeks that feed into it. Number one quarry is the speckled trout. Top location is the Masonboro Inlet Jetty. On the outgoing tide it is possible to really get into the specks here. Early spring and fall are the main times. A clouser on a lead core line will go a long way towards getting your fly down in 15 feet or more of water in this strong tidal flow. Big specks are caught in this area. The state record of more that 15 pounds was caught right in this vicinity. I have personally witnessed trout of more than 6 pounds being brought to net. There are puppy drum in the creeks and marshes on the backside of most of the barrier islands. That fishing is usually better the further one gets from Wrightsville Beach, a major beachgoing tourist town. Figure Eight Island, just a little ways north, has a twisting maze of creeks that play host to puppy drum just about all year long. A small Jon boat or kayak is the perfect craft for exploring these waters. The water sometimes is no more than ankle deep. The specks and drum will be in the deeper holes in between the shallower areas. When the wind is down this is one of the few areas where you can truly sight fish for drum and specks. The water is quite clear due to the absence of major waterways bringing in silt. Be quiet and observant in a shallow draft boat and some fun can be had.
At the mouth of the Cape Fear River is Bald Head Island. It is an exclusive community with million dollar homes, a championship caliber golf course and many creeks and speckled trout. There is also an expanse of flats between the island and the mainland where tarpon are known to cruise. Nobody has gotten one on fly that I know of yet. Fishing in these creeks is a constant around here. While water temperatures may be too high or too low there will more than likely be fish to catch in the Bald Head creeks.
South of the river is Southport and Ocean Isle Beach. There are also tons of creeks in this area which hold fish. Again specks and puppy drum rule the day. I am pledged not to reveal any specific locations. Start at the inlets on the outgoing tide and check out charts of the areas you wish to fish and you may find your own personal honey hole.
Other North Carolina Locations
The first thing you notice is the color of the water. At first glance it looks muddy and brown. Then when you put your fly in the water you notice that you can see it for quite a ways down. The water is stained from hundreds of miles of inflowing streams, who knows how many riverside farms and anything else that man can throw at it. But it also contains that primordial ooze. As you drift down the river try to imagine yourself in a raft or canoe and picture what it must have been like for the first European explorers to ever visit this river. You know what? You will be seeing it just as they did. The Roanoke River has the look and feel of something that has not been affected by the hand of man. Even when there is a town along it's banks, as soon as you are around the next bend it is as if you have been transported back in time. And the fishing you ask? Probably the best you will ever have experienced in your life in terms of sheer numbers of fish from day to day. The stories you hear of people catching hundreds of striped bass in a day on the Roanoke are not exaggerations. They are true. I have never gone fishless in a day of fishing on this river. How many bodies of water or fishing spots can anybody honestly say that about? Not too many I'd wager.
To catch a Roanoke River striped bass you have to do two things; first you must get your fly to the bottom in swift currents and second the fly must move without moving. To get down you have several options. There are full sinking lines and they work. There are sink tips and they don't. There are also deep sinking shooting heads and these work the best. With shooting heads you maximize your casting because they only take one or two false casts and the running line allows distance of monumental proportions because of decreased resistance to the water. The second requirement (moving the fly without moving it) is slightly more difficult, but once the technique is mastered will work anywhere that striped bass are found (as evidenced by my trip to Nantucket where I skunked a whole beach of islanders). You merely strip the line hard in 4-8" inch movements and don't try to do it too fast. A strip per 3 seconds is adequate and will get you strikes. Most of the time the fish can be caught by merely drifting down the center of the river and casting in a cross current direction and retrieving the fly broadside to the current. A better way is to tie up to some bankside bushes or trees and cast into eddies that develop downstream of a snag or obstruction and retrieve upstream. Sometimes it is difficult to find a spot that allows for unobstructed backcasts however and it helps to know the river somewhat to find these spots.
The fishing gets started sometime in April, but really gets hot in May and on into the first week of June when they will be caught on surface techniques. At this time you will be treated to a sight that is beyond description. Just imagine hundreds or thousands or striped bass huddled together into a ball the size of a VW Beetle and broaching the surface of the water all at once. It is difficult to picture until you have seen it. These are schooling stripers and they are participating in what the locals in Roanoke Rapids call "rockfish fights". The male stripers all gather around a female and try to be the one that is closest to her when she releases her eggs. Can you say "Survival of the Fittest"? When this occurs they can be caught on poppers, waked streamers in the riffle hitch manner and streamers fished near the surface. It is one of the most exciting things I have ever experienced in fishing.
If you can get a fly down in swift current and move it without moving it then you will catch stripers on the Roanoke. One word of caution, navigating the river can be treacherous. Huge boulders predominate and it is extremely easy to find them without seeing them. High water is a time when common sense should be used as the water level can rise 15 - 25 feet in a matter of hours due to the upstream power generating dam. For your first trip I would recommend going with someone who knows the river and then bring your own boat the next time. And believe this, if you go once, you will want to go again.
Fishing here usually starts in the towns of Oriental, Hobucken or New Bern. The Pamlico sound is the largest enclosed estuary system on the East Coast. It is roughly the same size as the Chesapeake Bay. All that water and most of it is from 2 - 6 feet deep. Grass flats abound and on them you will find speckled trout, flounder and red drum (from the puppy stage all the way up to the huge bulls of over 50 pounds). Tarpon, spanish and bluefish are often found in the warmer months around the deeper waters in the outflow of the Neuse River. Stripers are caught in the Neuse in the creeks and around the bridges in New Bern. Some popular areas in the sound include Point of March, Swan Islands, Point of Grass, Broad Creek and any spot where you can find a grassy shoreline with the wind blowing against it. A floating or intermediate line and a clouser on a long leader will do the trick. The primary forage is the glass minnow or silversides. Any fly that imitates that slender profile will get bit at one time or another.
Coming Soon: South Carolina Lowcountry
The North Carolina Wildlife Resources Commission keeps a number of free boat ramps on most waterways across the state. I will try to list all the ones on or near saltwater flyfishing spots starting in the north and working down the coast.
Manteo- At the east end of the Roanoke Sound Swing Bridge across the street from Pirates cove Marina
Oriental- At the base of the Oriental Bridge.
Morehead City- On US 70 west of Morehead waterfront area.
Wrightsville Beach- At base of Wrightsville Beach Drawbridge.
Carolina Beach- On Snows Cut under Carolina Beach Bridge.
If there are any NCWRC Wildlife Boat Ramps that I have missed please let me know.
Cape Lookout Fly Shop, Atlantic Beach, NC- Capt Joe Shute is one of the most experienced charter captains in the area as well. He knows what is going on and will tell you so. (800) 868-0941
The Intracoastal Angler, Wilmington, NC- Tyler Stone is the owner and manager of this well stocked fly shop. 888-DBL- HAUL
Digh's Country Sports, Wrightsville Beach, NC- This full Orvis retailer is run by Bobby Digh. (910) 256-2060
Charleston Angler, Charleston, SC- Rick is friendly and knowledgeable and wants you to enjoy your time in beautiful and historic Charleston. (803) 571-3899
Low Country Outfitters, Hilton Head, SC- Travers and Lynn Davies have this area pegged and will put you on some fish. (843) 837-6100
With the tremendous numbers of tourist attractions along the coastline I could not possible list all the motels and hotels and inns. Therefore to start with I will list ones in which I have spent a night or know the owners. I will also not waste your time with all the chain motels and inns. These area easily found by dialing the 800 number listed in your local phone book.
Pamlico Sound, Bayboro, NC- The Bayboro House. Nice country inn style place. Owned and operated by Gus and Janet Mcdonald. 888-BAYBORO
Cape Lookout, Harker's Island, NC- Calico Jack's Motel and Marina. Donnie and Rose Hatcher are two very friendly people who will help you to the fullest. Keep your boat there for your stay or take the ferry out to Cape Lookout. (252) 728-3575
Crystal Coast, Beaufort, NC- Cousins B&B. The owner puts out a tremendous spread at breakfast every morning. Just the thing to hold you over on a long fishing day. 252-504-3478
Capt. Gordon Churchill. Fishing the world famous Roanoke River Rockfish run from mid-April through mid- June. Coastal mixed bag fishing at Cape Lookout from May through September. False albacore blitz at Cape Lookout from October into December. 919-552-6759
Capt. Joe Shute. Fishing for everything that might take a fly or otherwise. Year round out of Atlantic Beach, NC. 800-868-0941
Copyright ©1998 Reel-Time