Top 25 North Carolina Game Fish – Tips and Techniques

Top 25 North Carolina Game Fish – Tips and Techniques

This post will list the top 25 North Carolina game fish species. North Carolina offers anglers excellent fishing for both freshwater and saltwater game fish!

Carolina game fish

Top 25 North Carolina game fish species are;

  • Striped Bass

  • largemouth bass

  • Smallmouth bass

  • Red drum

  • Flounder

  • Bluegill

  • Crappie

  • Spotted sea trout

  • Bluefish

  • Brook trout

  • Brown Trout

  • Rainbow trout

  • Musky

  • Spanish mackerel

  • Jack crevalle

  • Channel catfish

  • False albacore

  • Blue catfish

  • Flathead catfish

  • Spotted bass

  • rock bass

  • King mackerel

  • Cobia

  • Dolphin

  • Tuna

Thanks to all of the real female anglers for the pictures in this post. As always, anglers should check both North Carolina fishing regulations before venturing out.

Striped Bass

top 25 carolina game fish

Striped bass top the list of the top 25 North Carolina game fish species. They grow large, hit lures and live baits, put up a great fight, and taste great! Striped bass are also unique in that they thrive in both fresh and salt water. What more could an angler ask for?

Click to read more about striped bass

The primary technique used to catch striped bass is trolling. Anglers can troll lures such as jigs, plugs, or spoons or slow troll with live bait. Large freshwater lakes and the Atlantic Ocean hold striped bass. Surf fishermen target them off of the world famous Outer Banks and other Carolina beaches. They are also caught in the inshore bays.

Largemouth bass

top Carolina game fish

Largemouth bass need no introduction to anglers. They are probably the most popular game fish in North America. Largemouth bass are widely distributed throughout the ponds, rivers, and lakes in North Carolina. They are second on the list of top North Carolina game fish.

Read more about largemouth bass fishing

There are many different techniques that anglers can use to be successful targeting largemouth bass. Most anglers opt for casting artificial lures around vegetation, docks, and other structure. Live bait, especially shiners, work well. While smaller bass are decent to eat, the vast majority of anglers practice catch and release.

Smallmouth bass

spinnerbait fishing tips and techniques

Smallmouth bass are a very popular freshwater game fish. These cousins to the largemouth are really as much like trout as bass. Many anglers agree that they put up a better fight for their size. Smallmouth bass prefer cool, clear water in lakes and rivers. Most of them are found in the western part of North Carolina.

Learn more about smallmouth bass fishing

Like largemouth bass, most anglers chasing smallmouth bass do so using artificial lures. They allow for a lot of water to be covered in a relatively quickly. Best live baits include minnows, crayfish, and nightcrawlers. They are good to eat, but most are released.

Red drum (redfish)

best redfish fishing tackle

Red drum, better known to many anglers as redfish, are a very popular inshore saltwater game fish species. Anglers fishing the inshore bays as well as the barrier island beaches catch plenty of these hard fighting and tasty fish. Smaller specimens are known as puppy drum and are the best eating. Red drum primarily feed on crustaceans, though bait fish are certainly part of their diet as well.

Read more about fishing for redfish

Anglers fishing for red drum in the inshore bays do so using both artificial lures such as the jig and grub combination along with live bait. A live shrimp fished under a popping cork is tough to beat. Anglers fishing for red drum in the surf usually do so using cut bait as it stays on the hook better. Some very large redfish are caught by anglers surf fishing.


flounder fishing

Flounder are an extremely popular inshore saltwater species found in the inshore areas of North Carolina. Many anglers would put them at the top of their list. While they do put up a decent tussle, flounder are prized for their snow white fillets. There may not be a better eating fish anywhere!

Read more about flounder tackle and techniques

Flounder are a member of the flat fish family. Once mature, they swim 90° to what most other fish species do. The eye on the bottom of the fish migrates to the top and the flounder spends the rest of its life swimming on its side looking upward. It is an ideal ambush predator which hides in the sand and devours prey as it gets within range. Most anglers use live or cut bait for flounder, though jigs are ineffective artificial lure.


Sarasota freshwater fishing

Bluegill and panfish do not grow very large, however they are every bit the game fish. Pound for pound, they are one of the toughest little battlers an angler will encounter. Obviously, ultralight tackle is the best choice. Live bait probably accounts for the most fish, though lures will produce, especially for the aggressive bluegill.

Nice article on bluegill fishing

One of the reasons for the popularity of bluegill and other panfish is there accessibility. These species inhabit just about every warm freshwater body of water in the United States, and North Carolina is no exception. Also, due to their prolific nature, anglers can keep a bunch of fish with a clear conscience. Bluegill and panfish are fantastic on the dinner plate.


fishing for crappie

Crappie are the largest member of the panfish family and our next on the list of the top 25 North Carolina game fish species. They are not really notable as far as putting up a terrific fight is concerned, however they more than make up for when rolled and breadcrumbs and deep-fried. Crappie fishing has become more popular throughout the country, with the number of tournaments increasing greatly.

Read about the best crappie fishing tackle and lures

Crappie usually are found in fairly large schools and relate to structure. Larger lakes are usually more productive than smaller ponds and rivers. Many anglers target them in the spring when they move in shallow and are easier to catch as they spawn. Determine anglers will catch them year-round over deeper structure. Trolling is an extremely effective technique. Anglers use both live minnows and jigs to catch them.

Spotted sea trout

Sarasota speckled trout fishing

Spotted sea trout, also known as speckled trout, are another extremely popular saltwater species found in the inshore waters of North Carolina. They can be found over shallow weedy flats, around oyster bars, in tidal creeks, in the inlets, and out on the surf. Spotted sea trout are a beautiful fish that puts up a decent fight and is terrific eating.

Check out the gear that Capt Jim uses on his saltwater fishing charters

Many anglers catch spotted sea trout casting artificial lures, particularly a jig with a soft plastic body. Live shrimp are extremely effective as well. Smaller trout tend to school and once anglers locate them, the action can be fast. Larger trout are loners quite often. It is best when keeping a few fish for dinner to keep the medium-size fish and let the larger breeder females go back into the water.

Anglers can purchase Capt Jim’s E-book, “Inshore Saltwater Fishing” for $5 by clicking on the title link. It is 23,000 words long and covers tackle, tactics, and species.


fishing Siesta Key

Bluefish are well known to anglers all along the entire East Coast of the United States. They range in size from small snapper blues to the larger slammers that grow over 30 pounds. Bluefish are extremely aggressive and a very hard fighting species. They are generally encountered in large schools which adds to the competitive and aggressive nature of the fish.

Read this article on fishing for bluefish

Many anglers associate bluefish with surf fishing, and for good reason. Bluefish are right behind striped bass when it comes to the popularity among surf casters. The Outer Banks is a famed North Carolina surf fishing spot. Bluefish are also found in the inshore bays and inlets, though they do require a high level of salinity. They can be caught on cut or live bait, though there are aggressive nature really matches up with using artificial lures. They are considered sub-par eating by many anglers, though the smaller ones are pretty good when ice immediately and eaten that day.

Brook trout

brook trout fishing

Brook trout are the first of the three major trout species found in North Carolina. However, most brook trout are found in the mountains of Western North Carolina, where they are native to the small, cold mountain streams. Smoky Mountans park has many streams with native brook trout. While diminutive in size, brook trout put up a scrappy little battle on light spinning or fly tackle. They can be a challenging species, but the environment makes up for the effort. They are also terrific when fried up in a skillet.

Brown Trout

best 13 brown trout fishing lures

Brown trout are the largest and most widely distributed of the three North Carolina trout species. They have been successfully stocked in many streams, rivers, and lakes and Western North Carolina. Brown trout tolerate warm water a little better than the other two trout, thus the reason for their range in numbers.

Brown trout can be caught using a variety of techniques. Obviously, fly fishing is productive and popular. Anglers casting artificial lures do well using spinners and spoons. Nightcrawlers and other prepared baits work well for anglers using bait. Trolling is an excellent way to locate brown trout in larger lakes. They are very good to eat, especially wild trout.

Rainbow trout

trout fishing blue ridge


Rainbow trout are the most popular and recognizable of the three trout species found in North Carolina. Once again, they are primarily found in the western mountain portions of the state. They require cold, clean water. Most of the fish caught are stocked, however native trout are available.

Like brown trout, rainbow trout can be caught using a wide variety of techniques. Anglers fishing the many streams and rivers do so fly fishing as well as casting spinners and spoons with spinning tackle. Live and commercially prepared baits are effective as well. Trolling the larger lakes produces some of the biggest rainbow trout caught in North Carolina. They are very good to eat.


river fishing tips and techniques

Muskellunge, better known as musky to most anglers, are one of the largest freshwater predator game fish found anywhere in North America. They are larger versions of northern pike, but they can tolerate slightly warmer water. While certainly not plentiful in North Carolina, they are available in certain lake and river systems. Anglers work hard to catch them, their nickname “the fish of 10,000 casts”is well-deserved. Virtually all musky caught are released.

Spanish mackerel

trolling for mackerel

Spanish mackerel are a beautiful and hard fighting inshore saltwater species found along the entire East Coast of the United States. They certainly belong on the list of top 25 North Carolina game fish species! Mackerel are found off of the beaches and in the inlets as well as in the inshore bays and sounds. They are usually encountered in fairly large schools and are quite aggressive. When iced down immediately and eaten fresh, Spanish mackerel are terrific.

Spanish mackerel are among the fastest fish that swim. There are also quite aggressive. Therefore, fast-moving flashy lures are often the best way to catch them. Spoons and other metal baits cast a long way and put out a lot of flash, which make them productive Spanish mackerel fishing lures. They will also take other lures as well as live and cut baits. Both anglers and boats and those fishing from the surf do well.

Jack crevalle

fishing for jack crevalle

Jack crevalle are the bar room brawlers of saltwater. These are mean, aggressive fish that roam about in large schools and feed voraciously, mostly on bait fish. Once again, due to their aggressive nature, artificial lures are quite productive as well as being great fun to fish. Jacks can be encountered anywhere from the inshore bays to the inlets and surf. While great fun to catch, they are not considered good to eat.

Channel catfish

top 25 Carolina game fish

Channel catfish are the most widely distributed and numerous members of the three major catfish found in North America. They are quite abundant and plentiful and most warm water bodies of water in North Carolina. They put up an excellent battle for anglers using tackle matched to their size. Obviously, fried catfish is a very popular dish throughout the South.

The vast majority of catfish are caught by anglers using live or cut bait. However, channel catfish are not scavengers and prefer a fresh dead or live bait over a stinking rotting piece of meat on the bottom. Quite a few channel catfish are caught by anglers casting artificial lures for bass and other species as well. Slow moving rivers and lakes are top spots to catch them.

False albacore

best Sarasota fishing charter

False albacore are a top saltwater game fish that are found off of the North Carolina beaches. Also known as little tunny and bonita, they are smaller members of the tuna family and exhibit the same qualities. False albacore school up in huge numbers and are often seen feeding ferociously on the surface. They are an extremely fast fish, as all tuna are. While a terrific sport fish caught on fly or spinning tackle, they are not good to eat.

Blue catfish

chesapeake Bay blue catfish

Blue catfish grow much larger than channel catfish, with the record being over 100 pounds. There is some controversy over them as they are not native to North Carolina, but have been stocking some of the larger lakes and river systems. This was done so to provide anglers with a very large fish to catch. However, in some waters they have upset the natural balance as they are apex predators that eat a lot. They feed mostly on bait fish, and a fresh chunk of cut herring or shad is the top bait. They are fantastic eating with snow white fillets.

Flathead catfish

river catfish

Flathead catfish, also known as yellow cats, are a bit of a specialty catfish species. Most anglers who catch them do so on purpose. They prefer slow-moving rivers and are more solitary than the other two catfish species. Most of them are caught by anglers using large live bait such as panfish or suckers. They grow quite large, reaching weights of over 100 pounds, and are good to eat.

Spotted bass

Oklahoma spotted bass

Spotted bass are becoming more plentiful in both North Carolina, almost to a fault. They are prolific and are even taking over some lakes, particularly in the western portions of the states were water is cooler, clear, and deeper. They act more like smallmouth bass than largemouth bass and are usually found in schools in deeper water over structure such as channel edges and submerged points. They are fine eating.

rock bass

fishing for panfish

Anglers may question seeing rock bass on the list of the top 25 North Carolina game fish species. However, pound for pound they are as tough as any of the others. Rock bass are very aggressive and are found in many of the same waters as smallmouth bass, particularly streams and smaller rivers. They are quite aggressive and respond well to artificial lures such as spinners, spoons, and small plugs. Like most panfish, they are fantastic eating.

King mackerel

Florida king mackerel fishing

King mackerel, also known as king fish, are larger cousins to the Spanish mackerel. They are similar inhabits in that they are usually found in fairly large schools and are quite aggressive. However, they are not very often seen feeding on the surface. The vast majority of king mackerel are caught by anglers trolling with either fast-moving lures or slow trolling with live bait. They are found in the open waters of the Atlantic Ocean, but often times relate to either bait schools or underwater structure. They are very good to eat, particularly when smoked.


cobia fishing tackle

Cobia are another fantastic saltwater game fish found off of the coasts of both North Carolina. Smaller cobia will be caught in the inshore bays and inlets. Cobia have an odd behavior of swimming right on the surface, making them a target of anglers sight fishing. They grow quite large, reaching weights of over 100 pounds, and are one of the finest eating fish that swims. Most cobia are caught by anglers fishing offshore around wrecks, however they are caught off of piers and even by anglers surf fishing at times.


top Florida game fish

Dolphin, better known to many as mahi-mahi, are a hard fighting and beautiful offshore saltwater species. Seldom are these game fish found close to shore. Anglers generally troll weed lines and over underwater structure to catch them. Dolphin are one of the fastest fish and anglers often troll up to 10 knots to catch them. They are primarily caught in the warmer months.


Carolina sport fish

Several species of tuna are caught off of the coast line of North Carolina. These include bluefin tuna, yellowfin tuna, skipjack tuna, and blackfin tuna. They all behave in a similar manner. Tuna are most often encountered in schools and can be seen feeding on the surface. Trolling works very well to locate them. Once a productive area is found, anglers can chunk or drift with live baits to catch them. Occasionally tuna move in close to the beach, but most are caught well offshore. Obviously, tuna are fantastic eating.

In conclusion, this article on the top 25 North Carolina game fish species will help anglers identify and more importantly, catch more of these terrific fish!


Jim Klopfer

Capt Jim Klopfer has been a fishing guide in Sarasota, Florida since 1991. He grew up in Maryland, fishing the Chesapeake Bay waters. Capt Jim has been creating an writing articles about fishing for decades, contributing to many regional and national publications. He also lives part time in the North Carolina mountains where he fishes for trout and other species. Capt Jim Klopfer is a wel rounded angler with 50 years fishing experience, and he loves to share what he has learned with other anglers!

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