Joel Arrington (above); www.downeastguideservice.com (below)
Pamlico Sound stretches like a broad shallow ocean over 2,000 square miles of prime submerged North Carolina real estate. At its widest point, the sound measures about 30 miles, an expanse greater than the distance some blue-water anglers travel from shore. Yet because Pamlico's tides are fairly tame and mostly wind-driven, its bottom is sand and its depth dips only to 20 feet, small-boat anglers find it pleasantly navigable as long as weather permits.
Pamlico fits every definition of an estuary. Fed by the Tar-Pamlico and NeuseTrent rivers and joining the sea primarily at Ocracoke and Hatteras inlets, its waters and marshes rear juvenile fish to maturity. "We have such diverse types of fishing here," says Capt. George Beckwith, who operates Down East Guide Service out of Morehead City. "And we've got all types of water for different types of craft, from kayaks and johnboats to centerconsoles."
Peace and Plenty
Anglers hoping to avoid Outer Banks crowds may choose to base out of Oriental or New Bern. From those mainland locations, they can access trout, redfish, flounder, striped bass and tarpon.
Marsh staples - seatrout and red drum - may be found year-round. Trout linger around river mouths throughout the summer and then bunch up in September before traveling upriver to chase baitfish and overwinter.
Giant bull redfish enter the sound in June and July, spawn in August and September, and then move back offshore in winter. This bull-red fishery may well be the most dependable in the fish's range; occasional sight-casting opportunities arise when reds chase crabs at the surface around shoals.
All bulls must be released, of course, and North Carolina requires that anglers fishing with hooks larger than 4/0 from July through September (and 7 p.m. to 7 a.m.) use a specialized circle-hook rig that reduces deep hooking to less than 5 percent (www.ncfisheries.net).
The rig regulation also affects anglers targeting Pamlico's summer trophy tarpon. Poons in the 60- to 160pound range pour through the inlets with the bull drum from June through August.
Schoolie striped bass gather around the bridge complexes, piers and docks upriver at New Bern. Anglers find flounder in the same habitats and salinities as puppy drum (smaller redfish): farther upriver during dry years and downstream around Oriental in wet years.
Anglers with seaworthy boats may also try beach/nearshore fishing for cobia in spring and king mackerel in fall.
Bring 12- to 15-pound-test tackle for smaller quarry and 20- to 30-poundtest for bull reds and tarpon. Cast-net live baits such as menhaden (year-round except winter), shrimp (summer) and finger mullet (May through November), or use dead bait and artificials. Gulp! baits, such as the new penny shrimp on a ¼-ounce jig head, work well for trout, flounder and puppy drum. Among the best artificials for drum and flounder, however, is a freshwater-style white beetle spin, Beckwith says.
Transit and Tourism
Chart plotters and maps generally show most shoals and sandbars that protrude into the sound, and markers highlight most obstructions. Around New Bern, submerged pilings dot the river. Newer plotter software shows these potential hazards - also good fishing areas - but boaters should play it safe and keep to the center of the inland waterways in transit.
Anglers may stay at a variety of hotels, B&Bs and condos in Oriental and New Bern, and dockage and fuel are available at several marinas. Boat ramps dot the area and are well kept, Beckwith says. "With a boat that's easy to trailer, even if it's blowing, you can fish three or four creeks by putting your boat on a trailer and driving 15 minutes."
New Bern also features a full-service tackle shop - Custom Marine (252638-2920; www.nccustommarine.com) - he says.
Check the state website - www.ncfisheries.net - for the latest information on bag and size limits, license regulations and other fisheries updates. Making sure you comply with laws and properly maintain and prepare your vessel and tackle will preserve the "vacation" part of your Pamlico Sound getaway.
Pamlico Sound Links
Fishing and General Information:
Down East Guide Service: 252-671-3474; www.pamlicoguide.com
Town of Oriental: www.visitoriental.com
Pamlico County Chamber of Commerce: 252-745-3008; www.pamlicochamber.com
New Bern/Craven County CVB: 252-637-9400; www.visitnewbern.com