Magazine Post: Target a Tuna, Billfish and Bull Red Trifecta on Carolina’s Charismatic Crystal Coast 

Target a Tuna, Billfish and Bull Red Trifecta on Carolina’s Charismatic Crystal Coast 

These Southern Outer Banks offer fast fishing, wild natural scenes, and rich history.  Before it evolved into its current colorful bayside character, Beaufort—on North Carolina’s Crystal Coast—went by the name “Fishtowne.” During the 1600s, Native Americans harvested its bountiful waters.

The nickname still fits. In fact, the entire Southern Outer Banks, from Cape Carteret to Cape Lookout, can boast of its marine riches. From marlin and tuna to world-record red drum and seatrout, this region overflows with vibrant fisheries.

Some of that comes from sheer natural bounty, but dedicated conservation forces focus on fisheries as well as restoration of coastal environments. In fact, the North Carolina Coastal Federation is headquartered in nearby Newport and focuses on restoring water quality, creating oyster habitat, establishing wetlands, and more.

The region’s sweeping seascape encompasses a national seashore, turtle-nesting sites, wild-horse herds and 85 miles of sandy beaches. Just across the sound, the Croatan National Forest draws kayakers to its 160,000 acres of piney woods, estuaries and swamps.

Anglers can travel here just about any month and find a bucket-list species to target. From November through January, giant bluefin tuna school in relatively shallow 60-foot waters chasing mammoth menhaden. Captains troll horse ballyhoo until they find big schools of bait, and then deploy a livey. “The majority of the bluefin are now over 100 inches (500-plus-pounders),” says Capt. Joe Shute, a longtime charter guide and maker of Capt. Joe’s Lures.

Fall through early winter also signals a significant wahoo bite, Shute says. A large ballyhoo and heavy-headed lure trolled from a No. 32 planer often does the trick.

During May and early June, blue and white marlin migrate through. The Big Rock Blue Marlin Tournament—among the largest and oldest sport-fishing tournaments in the country—celebrates that spring bounty each June in Morehead City.

In summer 2023, another billfish star rose. Shute says that through June and July, he saw one of the best sailfish bites he can remember. Anglers released 12 to 20 fish a day, pulling small ballyhoo.

From the end of July through mid-October, enormous bull reds flood the Pamlico Sound, and then transition to the ocean. False albacore arrive off the sounds in September, with October and November the peak months for fly-casting to these speedy torpedoes.

Visitors who can take the aprés-fishing time to explore this region might have to make a priority list. History buffs can tour Fort Macon State Park, which houses a pre-Civil War fort, or visit the North Carolina Maritime Museum in Beaufort. 

The region’s colorful past also includes piracy. The renowned swashbuckler Blackbeard sailed and pillaged here in the early 1700s. His vessel, Queen Anne’s Revenge, ran aground 3 miles off Beaufort.

To see a replica of the debris field from Blackbeard’s ship, visit the North Carolina Aquarium at Pine Knoll Shores. The aquarium also engages in local conservation efforts: caring for sick or stranded sea turtles, supporting sand tiger shark research, and collaborating on living-shoreline protection.

Be sure to save time for a stroll on the Shackleford Banks, part of the Cape Lookout National Seashore, where you can see wild horses that have thrived here for centuries, fully adapting to the sometimes-harsh environment.  At the end of the day, take in a sunset at the Bogue Inlet Fishing Pier, or near the dunes at Fort Macon. 

If you’re ready to explore, the Crystal Coast will meet you more than halfway.


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