Battle a bruiser bluefin tuna on stand-up tackle. Flick a fly to a tailing redfish. Troll, jig, live-line, cast—choose your preference. North Carolina’s Crystal Coast serves it all up on a picturesque platter.
This region spans 85 miles of coastline from Bogue Inlet to the Cape Lookout National Seashore, which forms the southern portion of the famed Outer Banks. Salt marsh dominates the sounds and bays that separate the mainland from barrier islands.
The seasonal bounty begins in winter, when giant bluefin tuna to 800 pounds swarm menhaden schools in 40 to 50 feet of water within sight of the sand. Anglers target them using live baits or troll with fresh horse ballyhoo. Farther offshore, wahoo to 90 pounds migrate. Captains look for temperature breaks where bait stacks up like Pez candies.
“We actually get a good run of wahoo all year long,” says Capt. Mark Henderson, whose family operates the Liquid Fire tournament fishing team, Liquid Fire Sportfishing guide service and Troll the Edge TV show. “Some are 80 to 90 pounds this time of year (winter). Some are closer in with the king mackerel, eating live baits. Between November and January, there’s no telling what will be out there.”
Spring offshore means 25- to 70-pound yellowfin tuna trolled up with ballyhoo, Henderson says. Anglers start at the 60-fathom line and work out farther. Savvy captains carry bottomfishing gear in case the offshore bite lags.
Bigger mahi feed at weed lines starting in April, and billfish—including sailfish and blue and white marlin—mix into the June lineup. Not coincidentally, the region’s multimillion-dollar Big Rock Blue Marlin Tournament lands in mid-June; this year’s 65th-annual event spans June 9-18.
King mackerel, false albacore, Spanish mackerel, and cobia add even greater variety to the spring abundance, with some species lingering through summer. However, September and October mark the prime months for kingfish numbers in 45 to 85 feet of water.
The inshore marshes and sounds swarm with redfish, spotted seatrout and black drum. Anglers target redfish year-round, casting artificial baits to tailers on the right tides. During the latter part of the year, slot fish can be caught along the beaches. The best speckled trout bite happens from December through February. The fish feast on well-presented live shrimp or mud minnows.
While fishing might be your primary goal, take a day off to experience the Crystal Coast’s spectacular terrestrial beauty. Take a ferry from Harkers Island, Beaufort or Morehead City to explore the Shackleford Banks; search for the wild horses that still graze the barrier island. This herd descends from Spanish stock brought to North America in the 1400s. Visit the 163-foot Cape Lookout Lighthouse dubbed “Diamond Lady” for its black-and-white pattern.
On the mainland, take in the North Carolina Maritime Museum in Beaufort, where you’ll find artifacts from Queen Anne’s Revenge, the ship captained by the infamous pirate Blackbeard. The region also features the Civil War era Fort Macon and the North Carolina Aquarium.
At the end of the day, enjoy some seafood at Morehead’s Redfish Grill or maybe Beaufort’s Clawson’s restaurant. To sample some craft beer, visit one of the region’s five craft breweries, or if your taste runs to harder spirits, try the Bogue Sound Distillery.
Whenever you choose to visit the Crystal Coast, you’ll find fish abundance, timeless beauty, and a still-enthralling pocket of real coastal wilderness.