The fishing on the Outer Banks has always been the stuff of legend. As early as 1584, the legend began when Arthur Barlowe, writing about his journey to Roanoke Island, reported one of the natives that greeted him fell to fishing and “…assoone as hee was two bow shoot into the water, hee fell to fishing, and in lesse then halfe an houre, he had laden his boate as deepe as it could swimme…” (As soon as he was two bow shots into the water he fell to fishing and in less than half an hour, he had laden his boat as deep as it could swim.).
Hyperbole? Probably. Barlowe was writing a promotional real estate pamphlet for Sir Walter Raleigh and he wasn’t about to let fact get in the way of a good fish story, but there was certainly an element of truth to what he was writing.
Is the fishing still the stuff of legend? Who knows? What we can say is a new North Carolina record of bluefin tuna was just set when retired US Army General Scott Chambers from Townsend, Delaware pulled into Pirates Cove with an 877 pound fish on board the “A-Salt Weapon,” captained by Dennis Endee.
There isn’t space to talk about every fish that swims in Outer Banks waters, so what we’ve done is select 10 species that show up fairly often in local fish markets or, depending on the season might be caught.
We’re not making any recommendations on bait or how to catch them. Locals and visitors who fish regularly know what they like to use and for the inexperienced, the best bet is to get some advice at one of the piers or from one of our local fishing stores.
Be sure to check on NC Marine Fisheries regulations.
Piers, Surf and Inshore
There are three types of flounder in local waters—summer flounder, Gulf and southern. A bottom dwelling fish, they burrow into the sand with only their eyes visible waiting for prey.
This is one of the mildest tasing fish there is. The flesh is flaky and has a very slightly sweet flavor. A classic fish to fry, although it can also be broiled. It will not work too well on the grill.
Hard to imagine a fish as large as cobia swims close enough to shore that a well-timed cast from the surf will land one. Typically 30 to 40 pounds, it is more common to catch them from a pier.
Cobia on the grill is a classic. Mild, but certainly more favorable than flounder, it is one of the few white fish that will stand up to grilling. Marinades and herbs enhance the flavor.
A classic fish for surfcasting, but it also frequents the sounds and estuaries of the Outer Banks. Typically two to three pound, they’re a great game fish, putting up considerable fight for their size.
A nice mild fish, great for frying, baking or broiling. It can be grilled, although other methods are easier.
A voracious predator of the surf and sound, big blues can be 20 pounds or more. The smallest are under one pound and are called snappers. Tailor blues are generally 1-3 pounds. All the same fish, just different times in their life cycle. The teeth are very sharp and their jaws strong, be careful after hooking one.
This is a very strongly flavored fish. Proper storage is essential to preserving the taste. Because of its high oil content, if not iced immediately it will rapidly deteriorate. Often prepared as a smoked fish.
Rockfish (also called Striped Bass)
Rockfish is a migratory fish that returns to Outer Banks waters from late fall into early spring. Most rockfish landed by anglers are between 5-10 pounds although much larger fish are frequently caught. If it’s over 30 pounds, release it—it’s almost certainly a female.
A wonderfully flavored whitefish, it’s almost impossible to ruin it. Bake, broil it, fry it, grill it… and enjoy.
Although the world record for yellowfin tuna is around 400 pounds that size doesn’t happen very often. Most yellowfin are closer to 30-40 pounds. They like warmer waters, so they typically are found in the Gulf Stream. The Outer Banks recreational fishing fleet leads the nation in yellowfin landings.
A remarkably versatile fish, treat it like a fine steak. Unlike most fish, a yellowfin steak does not have to be well done to be enjoyed. In fact, it’s best medium rare to medium. The classic tuna of sashimi.
Fast, powerful and sleek, wahoo have been clocked swimming at speeds approaching 50 mile per hour. Except when mating, it rarely swims with other wahoo, so commercial catch is usually by catch, meaning they were fishing for something else and snagged a wahoo.
Mild yet fully flavored with a firm texture, wahoo is a wonderful grilling fish, although almost any preparation will delight diners.
Also called dorado and dolphin fish (no, it is not the mammal), mahi mahi is a beautiful fish featuring iridescent blueish green and gold scales. Juveniles are schooling fish; larger adults swim alone.
Wonderful grilled, baked or sautéed. For something different, cut a steak up into bite-sized pieces, bread it and fry it for mahi bites..
King mackerel—not to be confused with Spanish mackerel—is a fast moving predator that likes warmer waters, ie. the Gulf Stream. During the summer they will often come closer to shore following their prey as the waters warm.
A bit more strongly flavored than most other apex predator fish, it’s a great fish of broiling or baking…or smoking.
A powerful fish that is often found around reefs and wrecks, amberjack is a prized gamefish. Rarely brought in by commercial fishermen, it’s not seen in local fish markets very often.
A fairly mild flavored fish with firm flesh, it works well sautéed, broiled or on the grill.