Inshore Fishing at the Crystal Coast

Anglers love North Carolina’s coastal waters, and for good reason – whether you’re fishing inshore or offshore, you’ll find a wide variety of fish ready to bite. If you want some of the best of inshore action, then head to the Crystal Coast. From Cape Lookout National Seashore down to Emerald Isle, there are always spots to catch a fish if you know where to look.

A number of guides and fishing outfitters know the best locations, and they might even share their favorite fishing holes and secret local spots with you on a trip.

Thanks to large, open, sandy-bottomed sounds that filter water flowing in from rivers and inlets, the Crystal Coast boasts some of the clearest water in North Carolina. You’ll find a number of rod-bending, drag-screaming fish that you can often see – provided you have polarized sunglasses – before you even cast on them.

The variety of fish might draw anglers to the Crystal Coast, but it’s the size of each species that keeps them coming back. Flounder, red drum, black drum, striped bass (called stripers), speckled trout, sheepshead, ladyfish (also known as a skipjack or poor-man’s tarpon) and more frequent these waters, and their size can be both intimidating and challenging.

Prime Season

In the spring, you can chase cobia up to 90 pounds. In the fall, it’s black drum at around 100 pounds. During summer months, guides will put you on flounder the size of welcome mats in many inlets. For the biggest striped bass and speckled trout, the coldest months of the year – January and February – are your best bet. Want to catch them all? Pay a visit in April or May, when the water temperatures are climbing toward 70 degrees and every fish around is active and ready to be caught.

Red drum – or redfish, as you’ll hear the locals call them – don’t follow the seasonal trends of other fish; instead, they’re available year-round in the temperate, shallow waters of the Crystal Coast. Fishing for red drum will take you into the winding marsh creeks, where they like to school to breed and spawn. They’re fun to catch, and when you find a school, you can pull one in on just about every cast. Averaging between 4 and 8 pounds, redfish put up a fun fight, but if you catch one of the so called “bull reds,” the biggest fish in the school, they can tip the scales at a whopping 60 pounds and leave you tired after a long and adrenaline-pumping fight.

Trip Tips

Many anglers will find fishing for red drum very similar to fishing on inland rivers and lakes. They love to chase top water baits and most freshwater bass tackle, so bring your best lures and plenty of sunscreen, because as the weather gets hotter, so do the red fish.

Hiring a guide is the way to go, especially if you want to familiarize yourself with fishing in coastal North Carolina or if you’re new to the sport. Most guides carry blanket North Carolina fishing licenses, they all carry adequate safety gear and they know the tides, weather and fishing holes. But if you want to try it solo, bring your own boat or rent one from a marina. Or even try something new like kayak or paddleboard fishing, two new challenges in their own right.

If you decide to bring a boat, be sure to get the proper fishing licenses from the North Carolina Division of Marine Fisheries (licenses are available online or at most sporting goods stores), a chart of the area and a tide chart. Shallow drafting boats work best in marsh creeks, especially when they’re outfitted with an electric trolling motor.


If you cast your line ocean-side, expect to catch bluefish, Spanish mackerel, flounder, the occasional shark and even grouper. Your best bet is to fish in areas with a “live” bottom where coral, plant life and other features draw baitfish and larger, hungry fish, like inlets and jetties. If you happen to hook a grouper, be ready for a fight – they’re big, strong fish – and a good meal after.

Visit Outdoor NC for additional tips on how to connect with nature and help preserve the natural beauty of our state, plus fishing information for keeping NC's waters pristine and wildlife safe.

Updated June 2, 2022
About the Authors
Jason Frye

Jason Frye

Jason Frye is the author of Moon North Carolina, Moon Blue Ridge Parkway Road Trip and Moon Great Smoky Mountains National Park. He lives and writes in Wilmington.

Pete M. Anderson

Pete M. Anderson

Pete M. Anderson is a Gastonia-based writer whose work also has appeared in Business North Carolina, Carolina Sportsman and Thousand Islands Life. He enjoys exploring North Carolina, especially its diverse fishing holes, local race tracks and world-renowned barbecue joints.

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