The waters around Cape Fear have several species of fish considered more southern that visit each summer. Tarpon are the most-highly sought-after, and they are incidental catches, also. The number of tarpon fishermen grows every year due to both planned and unplanned encounters.
The Cape Fear River is the only large North Carolina river that flows directly into the ocean, and it carries an abundance of baitfish through its lower reaches into the Atlantic just west of the cape. Tarpon are one of several species that gather to gorge on the bait flowing out the river. They used to be considered only a hot-weather visitor, and catches usually peak during August and September but range from May into October. During the summer, tarpon are caught in the ocean, and they venture into the lower Cape Fear River on flood tides.
Many tarpon encounters are incidental rather than planned. The big fish grab live baits slow-trolled for king mackerel from boats and dangled from the ends of piers. The small treble hooks common on those rigs don’t always hold long enough to subdue a tarpon, but if they manage to hold for a few jumps, a new tarpon angler may be born.
Area tarpon fishermen consider the sloughs that cross Frying Pan Shoals the most-consistent location for ocean tarpon. However, they range up and down the beach following bait schools. Jot Owens of Jot It Down Charters in Wrightsville Beach (910-233-4139) caught and released the first North Carolina tarpon in 2021 near Masonboro Inlet on May 24, and it was followed two weeks later by Tim Wallace’s catch and release on June 8 at Oak Island Pier. Tarpon were on the beaches early this year and may begin moving into the river earlier than their typical July full moon.
Incidental tarpon catches are primarily by king mackerel fishermen using live baits on a king mackerel rig with treble hooks. Tarpon fishermen also use live baits, but they generally suspend the baits under a balloon or float using a J-hook or circle hook and occasionally on the bottom on a heavy-duty Carolina rig or Owen Lupton rig. Chunks of mullet and menhaden are the primary baits for the bottom rigs.
Jon Huff of Circle H Charters in Wrightsville Beach (910-617-2619) is recognized as the first guide to score a fly-fishing tarpon release in the lower Cape Fear River in 2015. Huff said visibility is limited ,and you must stay alert to spot them, but there are Cape Fear tarpon willing to take a fly. Huff concentrates on the channels and bars around the marsh and spoil islands.
Tarpon may not be possessed in North Carolina and may not be gaffed or speared as an aid to catching them.
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