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 the Cape Lookout National Seashore down to Emerald Isle, there’s hardly a spot where you can’t catch a fish, if you know where to look.

Leave knowing where to find the fish to the experts. A number of guides and fishing outfitters know the best place and may even share their favorite fishing holes and those 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. Here 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 may 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. 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 go it on your own, many marinas rent boats or you can bring your own, or you can 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.

Updated April 15, 2021
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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