The sun rises over Back Sound’s tranquil waters, just off Shackleford Banks and Cape Lookout National Seashore. Wayne Justice, activity
director at the North Carolina Aquarium at Pine Knoll Shores, and his 11-year-old son cast their lines hoping for a bite. A 22-inch flounder quickly responds. But flounder are in danger of being overfished. Justice turns to his son to ex- plain why they can’t bring it home for dinner. His son surprises him by saying, “Dad, I never wanted to keep him.”
This moment encapsulates what’s great about life on the Crystal Coast. Generations of parents and children have fished these waters, learning how to navigate the reeling in of an exciting catch coupled with an awareness of the delicate environmental balance that keeps this area bountiful for anglers.
Ecology and economy—vastly different words with the same roots that represent the anglers, educators and advocacy groups working to preserve the abundance found in the waters while accommodating for the explosive growth in surrounding communities.
This 85-mile stretch of North Carolina coastline once was a collection of sleepy fishing villages. Long known for pristine beaches and small-town life, the southern Outer Banks offer a respite from the busyness of everyday life and the perfect storm of fishing conditions for those looking to test out their rod and reel year-round.
“If you love fishing and you love the water, it’s different here than other communities where you might find a boardwalk and lots of activity,” Justice says.
“The Park Service took over some of the barrier islands and left them undeveloped. Having land left in its natural state gives people who love the outdoors a place to get away from the challenges we face in our everyday lives. Places like Fort Macon State Park, Hammocks Beach State Park and Rachel Carson Estuarine Reserve are jewels that remind us what the North Carolina coast used to look like.”
The convergence of two major oceanic currents right off the Crystal Coast adds to this area’s allure. The warm Gulf Stream collides with the cold Labrador Current, creating an angler’s paradise of northern and southern species of fish. Throughout each season, there are plentiful gamefish.
Justice elaborates: “We see resident species like red drum and speckled trout in our inshore waters. And we have migratory species like marlin, tuna and wahoo. Anglers love the diversity.”
Shipwrecks, natural rock piles and the continental shelf’s edge provide a habitat for pelagic species like the ones sport fishermen chase at the annual Big Rock Tournament in Morehead City. Every June, anglers (including GOAT Michael Jordan) flock to the town in pursuit of trophy species like billfish, yellowfin tuna, and epic blue marlin that can weigh in at 1,000 pounds. They’re all vying for the trophy purse that topped $5.8 million dollars last year.
Inshore fishing has its own allure. Along the bay side of the Crystal Coast barrier islands,
tidal waters bring plentiful bait like shrimp and mud minnows, drawing in black drum, speckled sea trout and southern flounder. The marsh grasses, oyster beds and artificial reefs teem with life. And the redfishing is legendary in these parts. Schools along the Shackleford Banks and Emerald Isle yield anywhere from 3- to 15-pound redfish, while spots along the Neuse River hold up to 40-pound trophy-caliber specimens.
Surf-fishing around high-tide hours can net a wide array of species, including pompano, sharks, Spanish mackerel, jacks and more. The
deeper water at high tide allows more area for those bigger species to access and feed.
“You need good habitat. Our fisheries are well-managed to promote sustainable populations,” Justice adds. “Anglers can feel confident their bucket list of fish will be here.”
Whether you’re looking to create memories fishing with your dad and son amid untouched wilderness, want a guys weekend on the water casting lines, or seek a spot for the whole family to gather and gorge on fresh seafood, North Carolina’s Crystal Coast has you covered.
Beaufort, once called Fish Town, still produces a local newspaper called the Mullet Wrapper. Atlantic Beach features some of the best piers for fishing. Down East is the spot where paddling among the salt marshes, digging clams and light-tackle fishing reign. Each community has its own personality.
“There are places here where you wouldn’t see another boat, even on July Fourth, the busiest weekend of the year. I think we’re all looking for places we can travel to escape. When you escape here, you’re retreating back to nature,” Justice says.