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Wilmington isn’t just an idyllic city or sightseeing treat on the Atlantic coast. Simply put, it’s an amazing fishery: from freshwater to backwater, from inshore to offshore, fishing in Wilmington is a year-round pleasure. Nestled in New Hanover County, along coastal southeastern North Carolina, it gives easy access to the deep Atlantic waters and the beautiful Cape Fear River.
In this article, we’ll talk about the stellar angling opportunities Wilmington has to offer. You’ll learn about the top catches and where to find them, as well as what types of fishing to try and when. So, without further ado…
What can I catch while fishing in Wilmington?
The short answer is anything from Redfish and Striped Bass to Amberjack and even Billfish. Since Wilmington is blessed with diversity, anglers can fish both the Cape Fear River and the Atlantic Ocean over the course of just one weekend. That is if the season allows.
That said, it makes perfect sense that the list of potential catches depends on where and when you’re planning to fish. In general, you can expect a nice selection of Bass, including Stripers and even Largemouth, along with Seatrout, Flounder, and Black Drum in the inshore waters. As you move to the nearshore waters and beyond, you can expect bigger fish. Amberjack, King and Spanish Mackerel, Sharks, and Mahi Mahi are all on the cards.
We won’t list all the available fish species you can catch in Wilmington, though. Instead, let’s focus on the top catches the area has to offer.
North Carolina’s mainland is protected by a large number of barrier islands. This, in turn, creates a perfect habitat for various inshore species, including Redfish. In fact, they are the state’s official saltwater fish!
While fishing for Wilmington Redfish is available all year round, spring is the best time to catch them, as they tail their favorite baitfish. Anglers target Reds by throwing topwater plugs while sight casting in the estuaries. In the lower Cape Fear River, locals prefer to use jerk baits and topwaters to attract hungry Redfish.
Cape Fear River and estuaries aside, you can also find Redfish during high-tide periods at oyster rock beds and near marsh grasses. If you’re fishing during low tide, search for Reds around the edges of creek channels and around docks.
Wilmington anglers are also blessed with good Flounder populations. They fish for the “Doormats” around deep holes near structure such as bridges, aiming at larger fish in 15-20 feet of water. In fact, a lot of Wilmington anglers fish for Flounder in deeper water, heading to various wrecks and the so-called “Flounder Hotels” – big cement domes with holes in them.
Flounder bite best anytime from May through November, peaking from July until September. Just like with Redfish, your success might heavily depend on the right tide. Some anglers fish a falling tide, while other Flounder enthusiasts fish a rising tide for better visibility. The majority of Wilmington Flounder fishing is conventional with either live bait or artificial.
By late spring, the first wave of Cobia, a world-class saltwater game fish, comes within sight of the Wilmington area. This is when anglers head to the inlets and nearshore reefs, looking for these fish in up to 45 feet of water. May and June are considered the best months for Cobia fishing in Wilmington, although they usually stay through fall.
Cobia aren’t really scared of boats, but it doesn’t make catching them any easier. Local anglers make sure their presentation and retrieve are as life-like as possible, using heavy-duty rods and strong lines. You can present artificial lures, such as soft plastics, in the path of the cruising fish to maximize your chances.
Note that there’s a creel limit that you need to check in advance. We recommend consulting with your captain on what’s the daily bag and size limit of any fish you intend to keep, including Cobia.
It’s hard to imagine a more iconic nearshore and offshore species in Wilmington than Mahi Mahi. These gorgeous fish are fun to catch whenever they’re available, and luckily, they’re around pretty much throughout the year. However, the high season for Mahi Mahi in Wilmington begins somewhere around June and goes all the way through August.
The best part about fishing for Mahi is that you can find them pretty close to shore since they tend to venture closer to land in cleaner water. In summer, they can be found within sight of the beach, breaking away from the Gulf Stream.
Some local anglers rely on thermal charts, looking for eddies and rips. It’s common to use trolling spreads while hunting for Mahi Mahi, which usually includes ballyhoo and small lures.
King and Spanish Mackerel
Last but not least, King and Spanish Mackerel are among the most popular saltwater catches in Wilmington. These fish are also found pretty close to shore, and anglers often catch them while hunting for Mahi Mahi or Albacore Tuna.
Overall, September and October are the best months to target King Mackerel in Wilmington, but you can have a productive trip anytime from June. Spanish Mackerel bite best from May until August, so you can book a summer trip to target them both.
So, where can you go fishing for Kingfish and Spanish Mackerel? A lot of Wilmington anglers prefer looking for them around artificial reefs and wrecks, although they can be found throughout the nearshore waters.
Where can I go fishing in Wilmington?
While Wilmington might not be close to the continental drop-off, local and visiting anglers have a generous selection of both freshwater and saltwater game fish. In this section, we’ll outline the best spots for you to explore on a Wilmington fishing trip.
Cape Fear River
Cape Fear River is a spectacular angling playground that empties right into the Atlantic Ocean. The Wilmington portion of the river is especially known for its Striped Bass fishing in the winter and early spring, although you can get your hands on various other fish species. These include Catfish, Flounder, Sturgeon, Crappie, and everything in between.
The river’s ecosystem is so diverse due to its brackish water. Tidal saltwater combines with inland-flowing freshwater, creating a perfect mixed salinity. A lot of light tackle anglers enjoy Cape Fear River for its action, though you shouldn’t take it lightly. It’s always a good idea to explore the river with a local guide who knows its tides and winds well.
Masonboro Inlet and Inshore Spots
Masonboro Inlet is a great place for those anglers looking to establish themselves. The waters of the inlet are rich and productive, especially towards Wrightsville and Carolina Beach. Black Drum and Redfish are among the most popular catches that are available all year round, especially in the fall.
The Masonboro Inlet and the oceanfront spots have many channels, small bays, inlets, and cuts that offer good fishing. If Redfish and Black Drum aren’t your main priority, you can check out creeks and salt marshes for Flounder. Alternatively, areas around jetties, backwater, and rock walls are known for good Spotted Seatrout bite.
River, inshore, and inlet spots aside, nearshore fishing in Wilmington is just as good. The waters by the shore are home to various artificial reefs and shipwrecks. There, you can test your angling skills and practice trolling or bottom fishing, depending on what fish are biting best.
These reefs and wrecks hold solid numbers of anything from Albacore Tuna and King Mackerel to big Groupers. Bottom fishing enthusiasts can also target Black Seabass, Snapper, and Triggerfish, along with other species.
The offshore grounds off Wilmington are also rich in reefs and wrecks. To get to these grounds, you’ll need to travel anywhere between 20 to 40 miles out, but the reward is worth it. These waters see schools of large Mahi Mahi, along with Sailfish and Tuna.
From Wilmington, it only takes a short boat ride to reach the Gulf Stream. It runs up and down the coastline, flowing about 20 miles offshore. This means that within an hour’s boat ride you can be fishing rive above a major drop-off, where the Continental Shelf plunges to 600 feet. For instance, you can explore the Outer Shell Reefs that hold a healthy stock of Tilefish and Snowy Grouper.
If you’re in town and are just looking to wet a line, you can check out one of the area’s fishing piers. Johnnie Mercer’s Pier is a good spot for those who don’t want to fish from a boat. It’s a concrete pier, built to be storm- and hurricane-proof.
Summer pier fishing can be especially productive. For example, anglers usually catch impressive numbers of Mackerel, Pompano, Sheepshead, and Flounder while fishing from Johnnie Mercer’s Pier. And if that’s not enough, there are also three island beaches if you’d like to widen your fishing experience.
How can I go fishing in Wilmington?
Wilmington has a fine selection of fishing techniques for you to enjoy. The best fishing method depends on a variety of factors, including the targeted species, the spot you’re fishing in, and seasonality.
Light tackle is a good method while fishing Cape Fear River and the inshore grounds for the likes of Redfish and Black Drum. It’s also productive in estuarine waterways, creeks, sounds, and inlets. If you’re working skinnier water, you can also try sight fishing.
Trolling is the technique of choice for saltwater anglers looking to land anything from Mahi Mahi, Spanish Mackerel, and Seabass, to Tuna and Bluefish. Some anglers go for kite fishing when targeting Sailfish, which is a variant of trolling that includes using kites above the surface of the water.
Bottom fishing is another effective way to get big fish in Wilmington. That technique is reserved for various types of Groupers, Amberjack, and Black Seabass. You’ll get the bait all the way down near offshore wrecks, using heavy tackle for Amberjacks, and electric reels for Tilefish. Electric reels are heavy-duty gear that’s reserved for deep dropping the bait at 100+ feet.
Fishing in Wilmington F.A.Qs
Do I need a license to fish in Wilmington?
- The majority of Wilmington fishing charters provide licenses for every angler on board, especially when you’re fishing on a bigger boat. When fishing by yourself, you’ll need to get a NC fishing license if you’re over the age of 16. Additionally, everybody can fish without a license on the 4th of July.
Are there any fishing tournaments in Wilmington?
- Yes! There are various fishing tournaments in Wilmington, including the Carolina Beach Inshore Challenge held in the city and the Pleasure Island Spring Surf Fishing Challenge in the neighboring Carolina Beach.
Is fly fishing popular in Wilmington?
- You can try fly fishing whenever you want, although this technique isn’t all that popular in Wilmington.
Fishing in Wilmington: Real Old World Charm
Home to wide Cape Fear River waters, hidden creeks, and a beautiful shoreline, Wilmington can easily spoil any angler that visits the city. Fishing in Wilmington is all about options when it comes to casting a line. There’s lots to entice anglers to pay this city a visit as well as everything an angler needs to reel in a great catch or two. So, why not take advantage of Wilmington’s diverse fisheries yourself?
Have you ever been fishing in Wilmington? What’s your favorite species to catch in the Cape
Fear River? What about the best spots along the ocean shoreline? Let us know in the comments below!