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Long before the summer vacationing families discovered the Outer Banks as a hot tourist destination, fishermen from across the country flocked to coastal North Carolina. With no roads to navigate, and no vacation homes to stay in, anglers would brave the makeshift sandy paths that ran along thebeaches, and would set up makeshift campsites whenever there was protection from the wind and waves. They went through great efforts to visit the Outer Banks for one reason: Exceptional fishing.
Since these first adventurous tourists, little has changed on the fishing front, as the same amazing fishing prospects that drew visitors as far back as the 1920s and 30s remain today.
Whether you're casting off the beach, dropping a line from any of the Outer Banks' many fishing piers, or booking a charter boat for an off-shore or in-shore fishing excursion, you'll see why the absolutely amazing fishing is one of the Outer Banks' worst kept secrets.
A coastal recreational fishing license is required to fish in the Outer Banks. Exceptions include customers on most charter boats, and children under the age of 16. The coastal license allows you to fish in coastal and joint fishing waters, but not inland or fresh waters. To fish in all NC waters, ask for a Unified Fishing License. For more information on fishing licenses, we recommend this page. For full regulations, we recommend visiting a local bait and tackle shop, pier, or visit the Division of Marine Fisheries website.
The easiest way to experience Outer Banks fishing is right off the beach, by simply casting a line right off the shore and seeing what hits. Because of convenience - virtually any stretch of beach will do - this is easily the most popular type of fishing on the Outer Banks, and it's not unusual, particularly in the off-season fall and spring seasons, to see lines of pole holders in between the beach blankets.
Little equipment is needed for beach fishing, but you'll want to be sure you have a surfing rod available for long casting and to hold up in the ocean waves. Surf fishing can be a tricky venture as any passing current might give the line a tug and send you reeling. Look for quick rapid movements as a telltale sign that some sea critter is actually on the line.
As for bait, there's plenty available at your local tackle shops, and the staff should be able to point you in the right direction. Depending on what you're casting for, you can choose from squid, small mullet and other bait fish, shrimp, or even blood worms.
Quick Beach Fishing Tip
If you find yourself stranded on the beach without any bait left, a quick fix is to find a lumpy pile of sand right in the ocean wash and start digging. Small mole crabs, affectionately known as "sand fleas" or "sand diggers" seasonally gather and nest in the low tide line right where the waves are coming ashore, and a larger sand flea (about 2 inches) can work remarkably well as surf fishing bait.
Best Places to Cast
The great thing about beach fishing is that you can walk outside your Outer Banks vacation rental home with a pole and a little tackle, and get to work. However, some anglers like to venture past their beach backyards and explore to find the best spots.
With all that gear and tackle on board, many anglers find the best way to go beach fishing is via a little beach driving trip.
On Hatteras Island beaches, anglers can drive 4WD vehicles on the beach year-round, although some of the more popular fishing beaches are closed seasonally in the summer months.
Also, in order to drive on the beach, you will need a beach driving permit, which is distributed by the National Park Service (NPS) in several locations along Hatteras Island, like near Oregon Inlet, and at the Cape Hatteras Lighthouse Park Service Station. To receive a permit, you'll need to watch a 10 minute video on beach driving and pay a weekly or annual fee.
Once you have your permit, there are a number of beach access ramps, marked with brown NPS signs, all along Hatteras Island from Rodanthe to Hatteras Inlet. Before driving up the ramp, be sure and slack your tires down to around 20psi. (There are plenty of gas stations with free air to fill your tires back up once you're off the beach.) You may also want to bring a shovel and boards along just in case you get stuck.
While the best beach spots to explore can certainly vary based on what's biting and where, there are a few fishing beaches that remain popular with anglers all year long.
Cape Point: Arguably the best fishing spot on the 'banks, Cape Point is the exact location where Hatteras Island jets out into the ocean before making a western turn towards the mainland. Because of its location, it literally runs with the East Coast's two major currents: The Labrador Current and The Gulf Stream. The treacherous Cape Point attracts fishermen from all over the world, and during the most popular fishing times (particularly September and October), Cape Point can be elbow-to-elbow with anglers.
Not that this should deter you - just be sure and be mindful of your fishing neighbors when casting, or if you want more privacy, head south a hundred yards or so to South Beach, also known as "The Hook," where the fishing is comparatively good. Also bear in mind that Cape Point is sometimes closed in the summer months, so check with the NPS first to be sure it is open to fishermen.
Pick an Inlet: Another sure spot is any of the inlets that intermittently break up the barrier islands of the Outer Banks. North of Hatteras Island lies Oregon Inlet, below the Bonner Bridge, and north of Rodanthe you'll find the new "Irene's Inlet," which is a small inlet formed after Hurricane Irene in 2011.
Further south lies Hatteras Inlet, the large watery gap between Hatteras and Ocracoke Islands, and Ocracoke Inlet, which separates Ocracoke from Portsmouth Island. Because of the deep channels these inlets create, fishing is almost always good. Again, these inlets are seasonally closed, so it's best to check with NPS to be sure accessing them by foot or vehicle is permitted.
What to Know Before you Go
In addition to a beach driving permit, (if you choose to go beach fishing with a 4wd vehicle), you'll also need a North Carolina fishing license. Fishing licenses can be purchased online before your vacation from the North Carolina Wildlife Resources Commission's website, or at almost any tackle shop on the Outer Banks while you're here.
For fishermen who want to get a little further off the beach for better access to the local fishing stomping grounds, the Outer Banks has a number of fishing piers that are seasonally open to anglers. No matter what area you're staying in, a fishing pier is within easy walking or driving distance, and can offer exceptional fishing at a relatively low cost.
Best of all, because fishing piers carry their own "license," a fishing license is not required to fish off of an Outer Banks fishing pier.
Avalon Fishing Pier
The Avalon Fishing Pier is one of the older Outer Banks fishing piers, having been built in 1950. Located in central Kill Devil Hills, the pier offers a snack bar, a gift shop, and even a tackle shop on premise, and is seasonally open 24 hours a day for night fishing.
Nags Head Pier
The Nags Head pier was opened in the late 1950s and like its neighbor the Avalon Pier, it offers a tackle shop, gift shop, and snack bar. In addition, the Nags head Pier features a restaurant on-premise, so your fishing colleagues can grab a bite to eat in between casts. The pier is pen seasonally, and during summer months, is open 24 hours a day.
The granddaddy of fishing piers on the Outer Banks, Jennette's Pier originally dates back to 1939 and was one of the first tourist attractions for early anglers. After a complete remodel following years of hurricane damage, the pier is now a partner with the North Carolina Aquarium and features a research center and seasonal exhibits in addition to excellent Outer Banks fishing. Bring the kids along for this one, as there are plenty of educational exhibits and adventures to explore on and off the new wooden pier planks.
South Nags Head Pier, AKA Outer Banks Fishing Pier
Quieter South Nags Head also has a slightly smaller though well established fishing pier, the Outer Banks Fishing Pier. With a tackle shop and small restaurant for a quick breakfast or lunch, the Outer Banks Fishing Pier is also seasonally open 24 hours a day and provides great fishing for those staying in the less populated South Nags Head area.
Hatteras Island Fishing Pier
Known informally as the Rodanthe Pier, the Hatteras Island fishing pier has taken a number of hits by hurricanes over the past couple of decades, but has always rebuilt and come back to welcome anglers for the new season. Located in the center of Rodanthe, the pier offers a small tackle shop, a snack bar / game room with pool tables and other entertainment, and some of the best ocean views that the tri-villages have to offer.
In the center of Hatteras Island you'll find Avon Pier, which features a tackle shop / snack shop / gift shop for any angling supplies you'll need, from beer to hot dogs to sweatshirts. Open seasonally, the Avon Pier is adjacent to a restaurant and the Spa Koru Oceanfront Beach Club, and is also the launching point for Hatteras Island's annual 4th of July Fireworks display.
Currently closed due to years of hurricane damage, the Frisco Pier, located at the southern end of Hatteras Island, is in the early discussion stages of a planned reopening. Currently, no access is permitted, but the battered pier structure is worth a visit for the fantastic photo ops, and good waves for surfers.
What to Know Before you Go
Fishing licenses are not required, and admission is generally cheap, giving anglers an inexpensive alternative to an in-shore charter trip. Averaging at 700ft long, you'll want to go light on the equipment, or at least find a couple coolers with wheels, as it can be a long trek to the end of the pier and back. Not in the mood to fish? Many piers also let sightseers explore the pier at their leisure for a small $1 or $2 fee. The buck is worth it, as the piers offer a view of the Outer Banks like no other vantage point can.
What you'll Catch off the Beach and Piers
Bear in mind that there is no telling just what you'll reel in off the shore or pier, from dog sharks to black drum, baiting mullet to bluefish, and weather conditions and seasonal temperature changes will inevitably change what fish are biting. Your best bet is to check before you go, either at a local tackle shop or at the pier house, to see what's in season, what's biting, and what's been caught.
If you think that you've reeled in a really big sucker, take it to the tackle shop or pier house to be weighed. Exceptionally large fish of certain species may be eligible for a North Carolina Citation, a certificate that is mailed to you a few weeks later, recognizing your big catch.
Channel bass / red drum/ puppy drum
The Outer Banks generally has two seasons of "drum runs:" one in the spring, around April or early May, and one in the fall, usually in September. When the drum hit, it's not unusual to see anglers reeling in fish after fish from the large schools that are skirting past the coastline. Size varies widely, but lucky anglers can reel in a 40-50 lb. drum when the drum run fishing is at its best.
Flounder and croaker can be caught during the spring, summer, and fall months, and are both bottom feeders that can be reeled in from the beach or pier. Though not particularly large, these fish are usually meaty enough to provide a good meal.
Spanish mackerels make a seasonal appearance from late May to early September and keepers can range from 12" or more. An especially tasty fish, Spanish Mackerels are a common fixture on specials menus at restaurants all along the Outer Banks.
Striped bass can also be caught on the Outer Banks, and wintertime anglers have an excellent chance at catching Striped Bass, which are heaviest in numbers in November and December. These larger fish are fun to reel in, and make an excellent seafood dinner.
Bluefish or Blues are smaller silver fish that can range from a few short inches to a foot or more. Common off the beach and piers in most any weather, bluefish are one of the most frequently caught fish off the Outer Banks.
Sea Mullet, also known as King Mullet, are another species that is commonly reeled in off of piers, or off the beach. Like bluefish, these species are generally small at just a few inches or more, but the smaller varieties make excellent bait fish for larger species. The larger mullets at 1-3 pounds or more are pretty tasty, and can be found during the summer months.
Cobia can be caught in the summer months, and at 30 - 60 lbs., can be a challenge to reel in, not just because of their size, but because of the fight these fish have in them. The reward is a nice large and tasty fish, as well as a heck of a good Outer Banks fish story - you'll find most Outer Banks local surf fishing stories begin and end with Cobias.
You'll notice that just about every major "harbor" along the inlets of the Outer Banks has a fleet of charter boats just waiting to launch. Charter Fishing is one of the biggest draws for vacationing anglers, due mainly to the Outer Banks' proximity to the Gulf Stream. In some areas, like Cape Point on Hatteras Island, the Gulf Stream is a just a 15 mile boat ride away, and provides some of the best big-catch fishing north of Florida.
Launching points for charter boats include the marinas in Wanchese on Roanoke Island, the Oregon Inlet Fishing Center adjacent to Oregon Inlet, and Hatteras Inlet, which features a number of landings and marinas for charter businesses to dock.
When reserving a charter trip, you'll want to be sure and book well in advance, particularly during the peak visitation months of June, July and August. Even with a seemingly limitless supply of individually owned charter boat businesses to choose from, reservations book up fast.
Each charter boat can generally accommodate a party of 6 people, and offer half-day or full-day trips to the Gulf Stream. Smaller parties can be combined together, and individual anglers may want to call a week or so in advance to see if they can be "added on" to a pre-existing fishing trip, generally at a lower cost.
The other thing to keep an eye on when planning a charter trip is the weather: wind and wave conditions on the Outer Banks can change within minutes, but if possible, you'll want to book a charter trip during a time when the winds are at most 15-20mph. Anything more, and the charter boat may not even be able to go out fishing. (Make-up charters and refunds due to weather cancellations are common practice, however.)
You'll also need to plan to be up early - most charters leave the docks between 4:00 a.m. and 6:00 a.m. to ensure as much fishing as possible during peak fishing and feeding hours.
What to know before you go Charter Fishing
It is standard practice to always tip the first mate. Like servers or bartenders, first mates are generally paid a minimum amount and earn their living off of tips.
Call beforehand to see what options are available for taking your catch home - many charters will clean and pack your fish for you at the end of the trip, making it easy to grill up the day's catch. Some companies can even ship your fish if you're in the Outer Banks for a quick day or weekend trip.
Bring Dramamine. A Gulf Stream trip can be roller-coaster bumpy, especially during the first navigation through the inlets, and a little Dramamine before your trip goes a long way. Many captains recommend taking one the night before, and one about an hour before departure for the most effective results.
Also be sure and bring plenty of sunscreen. You might not notice it while you're fishing, but the sun off the water is much more powerful than on land, making it all the more easy to sunburn.
Types of Charter Fishing
If you're new to charter fishing, an experienced captain and first mate can steer you towards the optimal types of fishing for the season, the weather, and for your taste, but generally you can target "meat" or "sport" fish, depending on your end goal of returning home with a week's worth of dinners, or a lifetime's worth of stories.
Hatteras Island is known as the Blue Marlin Capital of the World and a number of annual tournaments pay homage to this moniker. A number of record-breaking blue marlins have been reeled in over the past 100 years, and many anglers embark on an Outer Banks charter fishing trip because of the lure of the blue marlins. White marlins, though much more rare, can also be found off the coast, and like their blue counterpart, are caught locally at record-breaking sizes.
While there is never a guarantee that you'll find or reel in a blue or white marlin, the challenge in both finding and landing the overwhelmingly strong, fighting fish draws thousands of anglers to the Outer Banks year after year.
Fishermen who want to make sure they don't return home empty-handed may want to target the dozens of species of tasty large fish that frequent the Gulf Stream.
Mahi Mahi / Dolphin: One of the most beautiful fish in the Gulf Stream, the dolphin is am iridescentturquoise and lime green fish whose color slowly fades after its reeled out of the water. Common when the weather is warm, these fish can range from 10 - 50 lbs., and are usually found feeding along floating lines of sea grass or seaweed.
Tuna: Yellowfin tuna are available off the Outer Banks all year long, but as the waters warm up and the winds wind down in mid to late spring, tuna fishing really heats up, with plenty of chances to land tons of Yellowfin, ranging from 15-75 pounds.
Amberjack: Also known as Wreck Donkeys, or Reef Donkeys, Amberjack can be found scuttling around wrecks or structures lodged in the Gulf Stream, such as the Diamond Shoals Light Tower located 15 miles offshore. For anglers who want a challenge, an Amberjack can put up a good fight, and has been known to break many lines in the process.
King Mackerel can also be caught sporadically throughout the year, but fishing for these good-sized species, (usually between 20-40 lbs.) is at its best in the fall. A very tasty catch, King Mackerel are popular with fall fishermen who want to bring home dinner.
Wahoo is a prize fish for experienced anglers, as its quick speed and razor sharp teeth make this fish a struggle to reel in. Often difficult to find and even harder to catch, (but superbly tasty), the Wahoo usually has top billing as the "meat" fish that most Outer Banks Gulf Stream anglers want to catch.
Inshore Charter Fishing
A number of Inshore Charter Fishing businesses have popped up along the Outer Banks in recent years, attracting fishermen who love the thrill of reeling from a boat but may not want to incur the expenses and time that a full-day offshore charter fishing trip can entail.
Inshore Fishing is a mixed bag, in that fishermen can expect to reel in both inshore and occasional offshore species, such as cobia, bluefish, tuna, speckled trout, mackerel, and more. An experienced captain will guide the boat to good "fishing holes" on both the soundside and oceanside off the beach, and let the anglers cast away.
Another bonus to inshore trips is the variety of excursions fishermen can try. Some inshore fishing trips off of Hatteras Inlet even make day trip excursions to Portsmouth Island, offer dolphin tours, or clamming adventures just a mile or two off the beach. The sheer number of activities, from shelling on a deserted sandbar to trolling for bluefish, make inshore charter fishing a good choice for a family groups with a wide range of interests.
One of the newer crazes to hit the Outer Banks fishing scene is kayak fishing. In fact, several local kayak fishing companies have sprung up in the past few years, offering to take anglers on expeditions to good fishing spots in the sound, the ocean, and even on charter trips to the Gulf Stream to cast from the side of a kayak.
Kayak fishing can be a little tricky, and can require some maneuvering to keep the kayak upright and in line while reeling in a big fish. The good thing about the sport, however, is that it allows anglers the opportunity to catch larger species that are generally only accessible by an inshore charter.
Charter kayak fishing, one of the more dangerous and thrilling types of kayak fishing trips, entails launching from a charter boat that stays close by to help gaffe and land large fish, like dolphin or Amberjack.
Guided fishing tours are recommended for an initial kayak fishing trip, but one you get the hang of it, feel free to take kayak fishing excursions on your own in the sounds, ocean, or basically anywhere you can launch.
Given the Outer Banks' reputation as one of the best fishing destinations on the East Coast, it's no surprise that the Outer Banks is a launching point for a number of world renowned fishing tournaments. Both on and off-shore, competitive anglers have a wide selection of fishing tournaments to enter, many with nice big purses as a bonus souvenir to take home. These tournaments include the following:
Surf Fishing Tournaments:
Whether casting off from the beach, from the back of a charter boat, or off the side of your local pier, fishermen return to the Outer Banks year after year for the outstanding fishing. The sport is responsible for the arrival of the Outer Banks' very first vacationers, and over the years, the popularity of the Outer Banks as a fishing Mecca has only grown. Drive out to the beach with your rods and reels, or head out to the Gulf Stream to tackle a marlin, and discover why fishing on the Outer Banks is considered angling at its best.