Year ‘Round Cape Fear Fishing

Fishermen in the general area of the Lower Cape Fear River and the ocean off Cape Fear, N.C. are fortunate as there is usually some fishing locally or close by every month of the year. Winters here are usually pretty short and rarely stay cold for an extended time. They typically begin after Christmas and Spring is teasing its arrival by end of February. Even during that time, there are often periods of 3 days to a week that are warm sunny days and fish become active and are feeding.

Fishermen here need several rod and reel combos depending on where they plan to fish. Inshore fishermen need a couple of outfits for casting baits and artificials. Spinning gear works best for most, but those who can cast baitcasters proficiently can use them effectively. Most fishermen consider 7 foot rods to be a good combination of ease of maneuverability and casting distance. The basics are a 6-12 pound rod and 2500 to 3000 size reel for lighter lures, baits and trout and an 8-16 pound rod and 3000 to 4000 size reel for larger baits, flounder, and drum.

Ocean fishermen will need several outfits. A 7 foot, 12 or 15 to 30 live bait rod and conventional reel that will hold 400 yards of 20 pound line works well for trolling live baits and dead cigar minnows for kings, dolphin and other fish that attack live baits. A similar outfit with a slightly stiffer rod to jig or fish bait on the nearshore reefs (primarily flounder, gray trout, black sea bass) is next.

For venturing farther offshore and/or trolling larger baits and lures, conventional trolling outfits, with larger reels and 5.5 or 6 foot rods are the way to go. These outfits can handle the stress of trolling planers for Spanish macks and trolling mid depths for dolphin and blackfin tuna. These outfits can often double for lighter ocean bottom fishing and catching big red drum in their fall run. For serious offshore trolling and digging grouper and other large species off the bottom, many fishermen use stand-up gear in the 30-50 pound class. However, some fishermen are switching to newer offshore jigging combos and really like them.

NOTE: It is difficult to feel subtle grouper bites with roller tip rods. Most fishermen will catch bottom feeders better using rods with eyes on the tip.

Several Bits of Assorted General Info

Sutton Lake, just outside of Wilmington, is the cooling reservoir for the Sutton Electric Plant and stays warm all winter. Fishing is typically pretty good there all year. The bass fishing there is cyclic and can be nearly unbelievable every 3-5 years. It also holds catfish (flatheads and channel cats), and panfish (crappie and bream). Crappie fishing has been excellent the past few years and flounder are occasionally caught in Sutton Lake.

The Hot Hole, approximately 1/2 mile off the beach off the Caswell Beach Access area, is where the cooling water for the Duke Energy nuclear power plant comes back into open water. The water here is always a few degrees warmer than the water around it and there is usually some bit of upwelling to help locate it. There is a concrete structure under the water so be careful. At times, this area also becomes a fishing hotspot.

Cape Fear River Watch is based in Wilmington. They monitor the health of the river and have programs the 1st Sat of each month. They also do several special events each year. www.capefearriverwatch.org, www.cfrw.us.

Rainfall greatly influences the fishing action upriver from Snows Cut. Lots of rain makes it mostly fresh and stripers, with some occasional catfish (large blue and flathead cats) will be the main catch. Low rainfall allows saltwater to move upriver and there may be red drum and speckled trout at and above Wilmington.

The North Carolina Marine Fisheries Commission oversees salt water fishing in N.C. This is an appointed board with quarterly meetings in various locations across the state. One meeting each year is in the Wilmington area. There are also advisory committees with recreational and commercial seats open to the public.

The North Carolina Division of Marine Fisheries is the research and monitoring branch of the N.C. Department of Environmental Quality that deals with salt water fishing. This also includes the N.C. Marine Patrol, which is the enforcement arm of the Division of Marie Fisheries. The website is www.deq.nc.gov/about/divisions/marine-fisheries.

The North Carolina Wildlife Resources Commission is an appointed board that oversees fresh water fishing and hunting. Recently they have decided they also oversee hook and line fishing in N.C. waters designated as Joint Waters. These are the people who build and maintain the Wildlife Boat Ramps. They operate 2 learning centers across N.C., the closest being the John E. Pechmann Fishing Education Center in Fayetteville. The other is at the State Fish Hatchery in Marion. The website page for NCWRC education programs is www.ncwildlife.org/learning.

There are federal agencies that monitor and regulate fishing, primarily in federal waters (3-200 miles offshore) the ocean, but also with migratory species in state waters (inland to 3 miles offshore). The top agency is sometimes called NOAA Fisheries and sometimes called the National Marine Fisheries Service. That website is www.nmfs.noaa.gov. The South Atlantic Fisheries Management Council is the primary regional council overseeing our waters. They are located in Charleston, S.C. and their website is www.safmc.net. The Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission also has some jurisdiction over our waters and their website is www.asmfc.org. All of these have advisory boards open to all fishermen and services that will e-mail any meetings, regulations under consideration, season closings and other fisheries news. Sign up at the websites to receive email updates.

Four Fish That Are in the Area All Year

Red drum (puppy drum, redfish, reds), speckled trout (spotted seatrout, sea trout) and black drum (drum, drummer, uglies) are inshore and surf fish that are can usually be found somewhere in the area all year. Both drum will eat live baits, plus pieces of shrimp and cut bait. Red drum will also hit lures, but black drum hit lures only occasionally. Speckled trout like live baits and will also hit hard and soft lures.

King mackerel (kings, kingfish, mackerel) are a southern Atlantic and Gulf Coast fish that might be found from just inside large coastal river mouths to the nearshore edge of the Gulf Stream. There are two migratory groups off N.C. (proven to NOAA Fisheries by NCDMF in 1988). One group migrates close to the coast and winters in Southern Florida and migrates to maybe north of the Chesapeake Bay during the summer. The other group stays in the general area coastwise and moves to nearshore when the water is warm and forage fish are plentiful in late spring through fall, then winters offshore (roughly November to April) as the nearshore water cools and baitfish move offshore.

WINTER (January, February, March)

Inshore there will be red drum, black drum and speckled trout. They will be more active when the water is warmer and lethargic when it is colder. Slow down when the water temp drops below around 60. There will be stripers in the Cape Fear, Northeast Cape Fear and Brunswick Rivers and the creeks that feed into them around Wilmington. Striper season is closed, so this is catch and release fishing only. Stripers will hit live baits, pieces of baits and hard and soft lures.

A key to successful winter fishing is to find warmer water. Sometimes a degree or two makes a big difference. This could be water with little current in a bay or near the back of a creek that doesn’t change with every tide. Dark bottoms that are exposed or barely under the surface warm from any sunlight and transfer this warmth to the water around them. Low tides, especially those in the back of small creeks at 2:00 to 3:00 in the afternoon are usually the warmest water you can find. There is usually a warm spot in marina basins as the warmer water from heater discharge tends to be pushed to one spot by the wind.

There are often a few schools of red drum roaming the surf along the East Beach of Bald Head Island. They may move up the beach at times towards Carolina Beach Inlet and along Masonboro Island, but they are primarily between the point at Cape Fear and Fort Fisher. Red drum like unlighted beaches and this is the closest stretch we have, but it is under explored due to its distance from inlets. If schools are large, you can see fish in the waves just before they break and sometimes there is a noticeable red tint in the water.

Spiny dogfish may be caught from the piers and just beyond. The best action is usually after dark, so it takes warm weather or hardy fishermen to chase them. They are fun to catch and taste good. The N.C. Fishing Pier Society (www.ncfps.com) holds a dogfish tournament each January at Johnnie Mercer's Pier in Wrightsville Beach.

There will be some mainly undersize black sea bass on the closest artificial reefs from the beach and they can be caught by jigging bucktails or metal jigs or by fishing bait. This improves and the fish get larger moving offshore. Somewhere around 100 feet or so, the surface water generally warms to 60-65 and you can find other bottom fish, plus if there is any suspended bait, there might be king mackerel. The area within sight of Frying Pan Tower is popular for both. NOTE: The season for shallow water grouper (black, gag, yellowfin, scamp, yellowmouth, red, coney, graysby, red hind, and rock hind is closed Jan. 1 to April 30, with the red grouper closure extending to May 31.

There will be sporadic catches of wahoo and blackfin tuna along the rips and temperature breaks at the edge of the Gulf Stream, but this is a long trip and requires a big weather window. This isn't consistent fishing, but there are days it can be surprisingly good. The warm side of the first temperature break or color change where the temperature is warmer than 70 is a good place to start.

Some fishermen will be chasing bluefin tuna during the winter, but this is primarily a commercial fishery even though the recreational fishery is open. They don’t come this far south every winter, but sometimes the fishing is really good. Bluefins tend to hold in 54-59 degree water and may be around the Radar Buoy to the Horseshoe west of Frying Pan Shoals or offshore of the Fairway Buoy on the east side. There are also occasionally some caught within just a few miles of the beach between Carolina Beach Inlet and Cape Fear.

SPRING (April, May, June)

Spring is a time of transition. The water usually begins warming by late March and this continues through June, when it reaches early summer temperatures. With an early spring, fish arrive earlier and when spring arrives later, so do the warm water fish.

Starting inshore, more trout begin to bite. When the water warms above 60 degrees, more fish become active and feed and when it passes 70, most begin to move around and feed. Red and black drum, plus speckled trout are the primary catches early, but there may be flounder by May. Unfortunately, the recreational flounder season has been closed during the spring for the past several years and they must be released.

Whiting (sea mullet, Va. mullet) arrive now and they will be in the mouth of the river, up the river by the channel into the Fort Fisher Ferry Landing, in the ocean surf, around the piers and in about 12-17 feet of water in the ocean between the Cape Fear River Inlet and the Fort Caswell Lighthouse. Some blowfish (puffers) usually arrive early too and taste much better than they look.

Usually by late April, the first Spanish mackerel have arrived and they are caught by casting jigs from the piers or by trolling small spoons. Bluefish might arrive a few weeks before the Spanish and will hit the same lures, plus many live and cut baits. Nearshore king mackerel are usually a few weeks behind, but have been caught by pier fishermen in mid-April several times.

This is a time for large kings near the beach with catches of 53-3 (Kathy Davis, 4-27-91, at Long Beach Pier), 53-6 (Bo Crump, early May, at Ocean Crest Pier) and 50-0 (Chuck Hutchmaker, 4-15-02, at Oak Island (Yaupon) Pier) holding the records for the piers. There may also be runs of kings, large bluefish and large red drum along the beach out to the nearshore artificial reefs.

Cobia usually arrive sometime between late April and early June. They will hit live baits, some dead baits and some lure/jig combinations. Cobia may be anywhere from the ends of the piers to 30 miles offshore.

As the Gulf Stream warms and migrates a little closer in (it's still 55 miles or more), fishermen will begin catching more wahoo and blackfin tuna, then add dolphin by late April or early May. Yellowfin tuna are rare off Cape Fear, but are caught here occasionally. ffshore bottom fish will be biting and the shallow water grouper season reopens on May 1 (red grouper on June 1). Offshore bottom fishermen should find a good mixture of black sea bass, porgys, grunts, triggerfish, snapper, African pompano, hog snapper, amberjack and more.

SUMMER (July, August)

July and August are the months when the water is the hottest for the year and it isn’t unusual for fishing to slow in the heat. However, there are a few summer visitors that are around for July and August and help take up the slack.

Tarpon are the largest summer visitor to the Cape Fear area and they have a small, but very dedicated following. There are two tarpon fisheries in the area, with one being just off the beaches around some of the wrecks, artificial reefs, structures like the Hot Hole, plus following bait schools and shrimp boats. Some tarpon also venture into the Cape Fear River and feed in the bays between Bald Head and Battery Islands and between Bald Head Island and the Cape Fear River Ship Channel near the ADM Dock. A few also feed along the rock wall that runs from Bald Head Island to Fort Fisher.

Ocean tarpon sometimes feed all day, while the tarpon that enter the river seem to be more active around higher tides that occur near sunset and sunrise. A few tarpon will be hooked by king mackerel fishermen slow-trolling live baits over nearshore ocean structure

Tripletail have become a very welcome summertime visitor to the Cape Fear area. Some will be found in the ocean, while others move up the Cape Fear River and are found in the bays and creeks off the lower river. Tripletail are great fighters and taste great too. Ladyfish come into the river during this time and eat baits intended for trout and drum. They readily eat live baits and a wide selection of lures. Ladyfish run hard and usually jump a few times, which makes this exciting fishing. They’re fun to catch, but aren’t considered good table fare.

Flounder should be the next fish listed here, but their seasons have been cut to just a limited time in September. They’ll still be caught, but the season is closed and they must be released. Flounder can be found from the back of the creeks to the nearshore artificial reefs and hardbottoms in the ocean. They will hit live baits and many lures fished across the bottom.

Red drum, speckled trout and black drum will also be biting in the hot water. They get lethargic and picky at times, but they have to eat. Live baits work for all, both drum will eat pieces of shrimp and cut bait and trout and red drum will also hit lures.

There has been a revived interest in sheepshead fishing and this is about when they begin to get active. Sheepshead like vertical structure, like docks, bridge abutments and such. They like fiddler crabs and can suck one off the hook of a fisherman not paying close attention.

Spanish mackerel are usually biting well now, especially in the early morning. King mackerel may move offshore a few miles to find cooler water, but they haven’t left. Sometimes, if baitfish are plentiful, kings will move back in and feed along the beach.

Fishermen shouldn’t be surprised to find a few dolphin and an occasional sailfish feeding with the kings in the 10 to 20 mile range. The offshore action often slows in the heat, but there can be roving packs of dolphin, a few tuna and wahoo and even an occasional billfish caught along eddies, rips and color changes at the edge of the Gulf Stream.

Offshore bottom fishing remains good and July is when there will be a short red snapper season if NOAA Fisheries decides the stock can handle it.

Early Fall (September, October)

This is when the water begins to cool, which gets bait moving and fish feel the change and start chasing the bait. Unless the weather interferes, this is the best fishing of the year.

Flounder numbers begin to decrease, but more are larger fish. Flounder season dates, minimum size and limits may change, so check them before keeping one. Red drum and speckled trout both get more active with the cooling water. Trout begin to get aggressive, especially as the water temp nears and drops below 70 degrees. Black drum are biting well and the fall whiting and pompano bite begins in the surf and from the piers.

This is the time when historically there were large spot runs down the beach, but this hasn't happened in several years. There often is a run of large red drum between the ocean beach and the nearshore artificial reefs. They will hit baits and lures.

Spanish mackerel will bite well into October around the inlets and along the beaches. They typically begin to head south as the water cools below 70 degrees, which usually happens sometime between late October and Thanksgiving.

King mackerel will move back to the beach to begin October and bite very well for several weeks to a month or more. The US Open King Mackerel Tournament is held during this time and the leaderboard contains a lot of kings heavier than 30 pounds. When the water begins to cool and baitfish begin moving offshore, the king bite shifts from just off the beach out to the 15 Mile Rock/18 Mile Rock/Shark Hole/Horseshoe areas.

Once the water begins to cool a little, large red drum move to the wrecks, artificial reefs and other structure within a few miles of the beach. They will also shadow schools of pogies in this area. All red drum longer than 27 inches must be released and most of these qualify. Fishermen catching and releasing red drum longer than 40 inches are qualified for an outstanding catch citation. These big drum will hit live baits, pieces of bait and lures.

The fall wahoo bite off southern N.C. is usually world class. Double digit catches and some very large fish are not a surprise. They may be anywhere from mixed with kings in the 50 to 100 foot range out to the drop at the Continental Shelf. There will also be blackfin tuna and a few last dolphin and maybe a few late billfish too.

Offshore bottom fishing is also good as the fish get aggressive in the cooling water. This action begins with gray trout and mostly undersize black sea bass on the nearshore hardbottoms and artificial reefs and continues as you head off shore with larger black sea bass then adding larger black sea bass, porgys, grunts, beeliners, triggerfish and grouper. There are still a few African pompano and hog snapper in places too, but they may respond better to jigs than pieces of bait.

Late Fall (November, December)

Once into November the water is definitely cooling and that is the big factor in fishing. The warm water species have either departed or will be departing soon for more southerly climes. The big three inshore are speckled trout, red drum and black drum. They still prefer the same baits and lures as at other times of the year, but aren’t as aggressive, so I suggest fishing lures slower and allowing baits to sit for a minute or two, then move them a foot or two. Keep the lure or bait in front of the fish and tempt them to bite. Using scented lures or adding scent really helps when fishing lures.

This is when stripers begin to show again in the area around Wilmington. They may be in the Cape Fear, Northeast Cape Fear or Brunswick Rivers and any of the creeks and bays off of them. They will hit live baits, pieces of bait, soft lures and hard lures. As with trout and drum, using scented lures or adding scent helps seal the deal. Striper season is closed in the entire Cape Fear River system, so this is catch and release fishing only.

The nearshore ocean fishing is primarily from the piers and in the surf. Whiting are the primary catch, but there may still be some pompano around. Other occasional catches include red drum, black drum, speckled trout, gray trout, blowfish and a random surprise or two. This is primarily bait fishing, but occasionally a school of red drum or speckled trout will move really close to shore and hit lures.

There will probably be some gray trout and maybe a few large red drum still hanging around the nearshore wrecks and artificial reefs in November, but they’ll be moving on by mid-December. Both will hit live baits, pieces of baits and lures – just use larger ones for the red drum. All red drum longer than 27 inches must be released and most of these will be that long and longer. The limit on gray trout is a single fish.

King mackerel will be moving offshore following their food supply. They may start November in the 15 Mile Rock/18 Mile Rock, Shark Hole/Horseshoe area, but most will be around the rocks, wrecks and other structure in the general area of Frying Pan Tower by mid-December. These will be smaller, aggressive kings that will hit live baits, dead baits, spoons, sea witches with strips and larger swim baits.

December 1 is when the commercial bluefin tuna season typically opens off N.C. The recreational season is open, but they aren’t pursued heavily recreationally here. This season often closes quickly as there isn’t much allocation and if there have been reports of bluefin, a lot of commercial fishermen are chasing them.

Offshore bottom fishing should continue to be good in November and December, but the annual allocations for several species may be filled and the seasons closed. Check the regs to see which species this includes. Patient fishermen may work through enough short black sea bass to find a limit of keepers on some of the closer in rocks and wrecks, but there will be a lot of releases. They’ll get larger heading off shore and be joined by porgys, grunts, beeliners, triggerfish and grouper. There are still a few African pompano in places too. The season for shallow water grouper closes at midnight on December 31.

It's a long ride to the Gulf Stream, but there are days the wind and swell are almost nonexistent and the Gulf Stream calls. The good wahoo fishing usually holds into November, but is slowing by December. There are also usually a few blackfin tuna around and some days misplaced packs of dolphin or a wandering billfish are great surprises.

January 1 begins a new year and Cape Fear fishermen begin this cycle again.

Good Fishing
Capt. Jerry Dilsaver


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