The rivers around Wilmington, N.C., are all tidal and have a significant tide change. The boundary between Coastal and Inland Waters in the Cape Fear is the downriver side of the Cape Fear Memorial Bridge. All of the Northeast Cape Fear and Brunswick rivers are classified as Inland Waters and require freshwater fishing licenses. Coastal waters downstream require a saltwater license.

The salinity and the fish in the rivers don’t respect this boundary. Any of the rivers may have a high-enough salinity level to hold saltwater species or after heavy or extended rainfall, the salinity may drop enough they are better suited for freshwater species. 

For flounder, speckled trout and red drum, Inland regulations mirror the Coastal regulations. There is a moratorium on possessing stripers in the Cape Fear River and all of its tributaries. 

The water’s salinity varies throughout the year, with rain the key factor. With a lot of rain, the rivers become mostly freshwater with lower salinity levels. In times of drought, saltwater pushes farther upstream, making for an interesting mixture of species that can include bass, catfish, stripers, drum, flounder, trout and more.