The Cape Fear River is formed in Haywood, North Carolina, through the confluence of the Deep and Haw rivers. From here, it flows just over 191 miles to the Atlantic Ocean near Cape Fear, which is where the river gets its name. First noted by European explorers in the early 1500’s, this river played a critical role in the development of North Carolina, providing pioneers and early settlers with a vital transportation and shipping route deeper into the state’s backcountry.
Between 1915 and 1935, the US Army Corps of Engineers constructed a series of dams and locks, allowing larger vessels to navigate the river in sections that otherwise would have been too shallow. Today, these dams serve more to protect water intakes for cities and industrial facilities along the river, and have also become popular recreation areas. Nearly all locks feature a boat ramp and picnic area, and a fishing pier has been constructed at Lock and Dam #1. Speaking of fishing, there are a variety of species that can be targeted in the river as it makes its way to the Atlantic.
The types of fish that anglers are after in the Cape Fear River depends largely on where exactly they are fishing. The river contains nearly no salinity in its upper reaches, consisting mainly of freshwater. Largemouth bass swim these waters in abundance, along with other popular freshwater fish such as shad, bream, and catfish. As you proceed down the river, salinity levels rise, and the water can be classified as brackish. The variety of species makes for some interesting fishing, as largemouth bass, red drum, and sheepshead may all be stacked up on the same cover. Striped bass are also targeted in this section of the river. Finally, at the mouth of the river near Cape Fear, the water is heavily salinated. Spotting a freshwater fish becomes very rare, and seatrout, red drum, sheepshead, and flounder will be the main targets.
Spring is the peak season for largemouth bass up the river, and anglers will typically try to capitalize. Largemouth bass in the river commonly range between 1.5 to 3 pounds, however larger catches are not a rarity. Bass will typically hang out where a tributary meets the river. Look for vegetation and structure, such as a dock, wall, reeds, or submerged stumps. A number of artificial lures can yield success, with the best bait being dependent on the fishing conditions and time of year. Work with a local Cape Fear River fishing guide to know what has been working most effectively.
Similar to largemouth bass, catfish are more plentiful in the Northeast, “fresher” sections of the Cape Fear River. The catfish fishery in the northern river is regarded as one of the best in North Carolina, attracting catfish enthusiasts from around the state. Look for sharp river bends, as catfish holes in these areas are typically home to some big fish. Anglers will want to use fresh cut bait, as catfish are very attracted to scent. Typical baits are cut shad or bluegill, although cut eels are widely becoming one of the most popular catfish baits on the river. The three main types of catfish in these waters are channels, blues, and flatheads. The blue catfish can grow the largest, with specimens over 100 pounds being caught in the river over the years.
Anglers looking to fish closer to the Atlantic will have a higher chance at hooking up with red drum and spotted seatrout. Red drum are very strong, and put up an incredible fight on light tackle. Live and artificial baits work well on drum, with cut bait also producing strikes in certain conditions. Spotted seatrout, although not as large or strong as red drum, are a very aggressive fish, known for their jarring strikes on artificials. A variety of lures work well, with sinking twitchbaits at the top of many anglers’ lists. These fish are known for their abundance, with many anglers catching a dozen or more trout at a single spot in season.
With such a variety of water conditions, habitat, structure, and target species, anglers visiting the Cape Fear River from out of state may not know where to begin. What you can catch will be dictated by your position on the river. Further north, you will primarily encounter only freshwater species. Moving down the river, red drum, trout, and sheepshead enter the mix. At the mouth of the river, your sites should be set on inshore saltwater species.
Although there are numerous docks and piers open to anglers, contacting a local guide is the best way to make the most out of your day on the Cape Fear River. Search Cape Fear River fishing guides on FishAnywhere.com, and reserve your trip in advance with a 10% deposit!