North Carolina’s Cape Fear is unique in several ways, among them, it’s the only place in the Tarheel State where a large river, the Cape Fear, flows directly to the ocean. Second, it features several species that are incidental catches most other places, including tarpon, which arrive each summer and have a devoted local following.
Cape Fear tarpon typically begin arriving around the full moon in July, and their numbers peak around the full moon in August full moon. They stay until the water cools in late September.
Tarpon may be active in the nearshore ocean all day, and an inshore fishery usually develops from late afternoon, through the evening, with a surge in the early morning.
Many tarpon are caught incidental to fishing for king mackerel. They overmatch the small treble hooks used on live-bait rigs, and often, surprised fishermen only get a jump or two before the tarpon spits the hooks. However, some are caught, and not only by boat fishermen, but by pier fishermen, too.
Tarpon found on both sides of Frying Pan Shoals, following schools of baitfish, are often found feeding beside sharks behind shrimp trawlers. They are focused in the sloughs crossing the shoals, where they can be targeted while anchored using chunks of cut bait fished on the bottom on rigs similar to drum rigs. Tarpon will also hit live baits free-lined in the current or suspended under floats.
Tarpon move into the lower Cape Fear River to feed as well. The bays between Bald Head Island and Southport, around Striking and Shellbed islands, are favorite places to find them, and they also occasionally follow baitfish into creeks behind Bald Head Island.
The prime time to find tarpon in the river is on a high tide around dusk or dawn. The lower light conditions apparently make them more comfortable in the shallower water and smaller channels. Tactics are similar to fishing the sloughs across the shoals. Concentrate on the deeper water and fish chunks of bait on the bottom and live baits suspended under floats.