Also known as stripers or rockfish, striped bass inhabit areas up and down the East Coast, but North Carolina is widely considered the southernmost end of their core range.
The North Carolina coast might just be the best place in America to catch stripers during the colder months.
Commonly weighing 5 to 10 pounds but capable of exceeding 50, striped bass are naturally anadromous fish, meaning they spend most of their lives in saltwater but enter freshwater rivers to spawn.
They do so every spring in North Carolina, providing outstanding fishing in waterways like the Roanoke River. Winter and spring are the most popular seasons for striper fishing in North Carolina, but you can catch them year-round.
That’s especially true in the large inland reservoirs, where landlocked striper populations have been stocked by the North Carolina Wildlife Resources Commission, providing numerous excellent alternatives to ocean-run stripers.
Know Before You Go: Striper fishing in coastal waters and in rivers where they spawn is tightly regulated. Specific seasons, limits, and other rules vary widely and often change from year to year, so be sure to check the current rules before you hit the water.
Coastal Striper Fishing
Although anglers might find some stripers in North Carolina’s coastal waters year-round, large adults are migratory. Tracking data suggests that most of the fish that hang out here in summer are smaller.
Young stripers spend a year or two in inshore waters before heading to the ocean, and these 20- to 25-inch “schoolies” can be a lot of fun to catch in any season.
Winter is when the big adult fish arrive, some weighing 30 to 50 pounds.
That makes winter the best time to target coastal stripers, especially if you’re after larger fish. Big stripers spend their summers off the coast of New England, and return to the Outer Banks area in winter to feed, eventually spawning in coastal rivers in spring.
In fall, as temperatures drop and stripers make their way south, the fishing usually turns on first around Corolla, at North Carolina’s northeasternmost corner, and eventually makes its way south along the Outer Banks to Cape Hatteras and eventually Cape Lookout.
Until around New Year’s, the major pattern is fishing with eels around inlets like Hatteras and Oregon inlets. American eels spawn this time of year, and big stripers will be there to intercept them.
Local anglers fish live eels on circle hooks with hefty 2- to 4-ounce trolling sinkers in the turbulent waters around the rocky bars and shoals to take advantage of stripers’ appetite for eels.
Conditions can be tricky and potentially dangerous, and going out with a guide is advisable for newcomers.
As the eel spawn runs its course, schools of menhaden (also known as bunker) arrive along the coastline, and stripers switch gears. Menhaden gather off the Outer Banks’ beaches, and flocks of feeding seabirds usually give away their locations.
Stripers often go into a feeding frenzy around schools of menhaden and will strike any jig, plug or topwater that looks vaguely baitfish-like. Fly anglers also have success with large streamers.
There are many days when stripers can be found within casting distance of the beach, making surf fishing a viable winter option. Beaches from Rodanthe to Avon, along with the Cape Point area near Buxton, all have potential.
Stripers typically congregate around deep beach “holes” where strong tides produce current, and around solid structures like rocks, jetties, piers and pilings. They’re known for covering a lot of water, and there’s no guarantee that they’ll be at any given spot on any given day.
Cold days are often the best. Stripers are very comfortable in water between 45 and 50 degrees. There’s also solid evidence that a strong wind from the northeast brings stripers close to shore and prompts feeding.
In early spring, a new pattern starts to take shape. With waters warming back up, stripers make their way into Abermarle Sound and Pamlico Sound, the early phase of a major spawning run into coastal rivers.
It’s possible to find striped bass in harbors and at the mouths of rivers any time in winter, but these will mostly be those smaller resident schoolies. They’re a lot of fun to catch on soft jerkbaits and paddle-tail swimbaits until their larger relatives join them.
Expect great action for these smaller fish in February and early March, but look out for big pre-spawn females to show up as March progresses. Once water temperatures hover around 60 degrees, striper anglers shift their attention from coastal waters to the rivers themselves.
Best North Carolina Striper Fishing Rivers
Every spring, coastal striped bass migrate up North Carolina’s rivers on an epic spawning run. The run typically kicks off sometime around April 1.
The following rivers all offer prime striper fishing.
The Roanoke River, which empties into Albemarle Sound, is easily the premier striper river in North Carolina. The spring striper run as far upriver as Roanoke Rapids is legendary.
There’s also a common misconception that stripers are only in the river during the spawn. Smaller fish are here all year, and there’s great fishing for roving schools of 20-inch stripers from the mouth of the river up to the US-17 bridge in Williamston from January to early March.
The best place to take advantage of winter stripers in the Roanoke is the Three Sisters area, which encompasses the mouths of the Roanoke, Cashie and Eastmost rivers near Cashoke Landing.
Roanoke River tributary creeks, including Cow’s Creek, Devil’s Gut and Broad Creek, are great too.
Packs of stripers feed on blueback herring, which spawn in March in the swamps that border the lower Roanoke’s meandering channels. Throwing Zoom Flukes and paddle tails around timber is very effective.
But the real action starts right around the 1st of April (sometimes sooner if it’s been a warm winter) as the spawning run gets underway. Local wisdom has it that when the dogwoods are in full bloom, the striper run is in full swing.
More and bigger stripers flood the Roanoke River, pushing their way upriver toward the tailwater below the Roanoke Rapids Dam near Weldon. The river becomes a maze of braided channels in the final miles below the dam.
Expect to catch a lot of stripers weighing 3 to 7 pounds and few weighing 10 or 20. Slightly scaled-up variations of the soft jerkbaits and paddle tails that worked earlier for smaller resident stripers will also work for big spawners.
Diving crankbaits work too, and fly anglers typically throw hefty Clouser Minnows and Deceivers using a 9-foot, 7- or 8-weight rod.
Big stripers often hang out close to the bottom, but there can be a good topwater bite when the river flow is between 5,000 and 6,000 cfs.
The striper run makes its way up the Roanoke River throughout April most years and then makes its way back down during May and early June, supplying ample opportunities to connect with some quality fish.
The river can get pretty crowded when the run is going strong, so get there early and fish it on a weekday if you can.
Numerous bank access sites are available, but fishing from a boat can be more effective up to the point where the rocky rapids make the river impassable.
The Chowan River is a large tributary that enters Albemarle Sound just north of the Roanoke River. Though the striper run in the Chowan is not quite as substantial, it still attracts plenty of attention and produces some impressive fish.
There are also plenty of smaller resident stripers here, just as in the Roanoke. Fishing for them can be excellent from fall through winter, with lots of fish in the 3- to 7-pound range.
Some of the best fishing is right around the mouth of the river, near Edenton. The US-17 bridge crossing is a major hot spot, and there are also some productive stump fields in the area.
A leadhead jig tipped with a white or chartreuse soft plastic trailer usually does the trick.
As in the Roanoke River, stripers typically head up the Cowan River to spawn in April, and return the following month.
Some of the best fishing coincides with the white perch spawn in early May, which provides ample fodder for post-spawn stripers.
Neuse & Trent Rivers
The Neuse River and the Trent River both feed Pamlico Sound and offer some excellent striped bass fishing during the cooler months.
The two rivers meet in New Bern. Their confluence is a striper fishing hot spot.
There’s a solid spring spawning run here and a lot of great action for resident stripers during the year’s cooler months.
Once water temperatures fall into the mid-50s in fall, you can expect to catch good numbers of stripers in both rivers.
Several bridges span the Trent and Neuse rivers where they meet, and the bridges serve as some of the biggest landmarks for striper anglers.
Stripers tend to follow schools of baitfish. These predators may be biting around deep holes and ledges or on shallow flats in just a few feet of water.
The key is to stay mobile and let the fish dictate your approach. They’ll often be around some kind of structure, be it a drop-off, bridge piling, pier or stump field. Oftentimes the best bite is right around dusk and continues after dark.
Cape Fear River
The Cape Fear River once supported one of the largest striped bass spawning runs on the East Coast, but the construction of a series of locks and dams in the early 20th century sent the population crashing. The fishery has only just begun to rebound.
Rock-arch rapids were built on the lowest lock and dam in 2012, allowing stripers to pass upriver. As increasing numbers of striped bass return here to spawn, a much-improved striper fishery is available in the river’s lower reaches.
Lots of healthy stripers are caught in the Wilmington area in winter and early spring, though the fishing here is strictly catch and release.
Docks, bridges and piers along the Wilmington waterfront can be excellent, and the area has many productive feeder creeks.
North Carolina Striper Lakes
The North Carolina Wildlife Resources Commission has been stocking striped bass in several large inland reservoirs since the 1970s.
Many of these lakes still offer unique opportunities to target these anadromous fish in a landlocked setting.
A massive Catawba River impoundment, Lake Norman is the largest artificial lake entirely in North Carolina at 32,510 acres.
Striped bass were stocked here since the 1970s, but stocking was discontinued in 2012 following a series of fish kills.
Fortunately, a new hybrid striped bass program was developed, and Lake Norman has become North Carolina’s premier hybrid striper lake. These hatchery-raised hybrids between a male white bass and a female striped bass are known as Bodie bass in North Carolina.
Hybrids are intermediate in size between their parent species and commonly weigh around 3 to 5 pounds. They also follow similar behavior patterns to striped bass, though their smaller mouths may require smaller baits than pure stripers.
One major difference is that hybrid stripers are more tolerant of temperature changes. The best time to catch them is during the cooler months when they typically congregate in predictable areas.
The top spots are the lake’s two warm water discharges, but the whole Mountain Creek arm and areas of the lake north of the NC 150 Bridge have potential from November through January.
While trolling can be an effective search method, casting and jigging are a lot more fun once you’ve found fish.
Jigging spoons and white hair jigs are great for deep hybrids, and Rat-L-Traps, Rapala jerkbaits and Zara Spooks are all effective when they chase baitfish to the surface.
Summer offers some good opportunities, too.
While most of the lake develops a distinct thermocline, the upper end of Lake Norman below the Lookout Shoals Dam is essentially a tailwater fishery with cool, oxygenated water from top to bottom.
Any time water is discharged from below the dam, trolling and drifting live bait at the upper end of Lake Norman from the dam down to the US-70 bridge can be excellent.
One of several lakes created by damming the Yadkin and Pee Dee rivers, Badin Lake remains one of North Carolina’s best bets for landlocked stripers. Periodic fish kills here have been cause for concern, but none have been catastrophic as in Lake Norman.
Badin Lake spans 5,350 acres, reaching depths up to 190 feet. The deep, cool water keeps stripers happy and supports a wealth of forage in the form of shad and herring. Both make excellent live or cut bait for stripers.
Striped bass weighing 5 to 7 pounds are typical in Badin Lake, though it’s not out of the ordinary to catch fish over 10 pounds. In general, it’s always been more of a numbers lake than a trophy destination.
Late winter into early spring is a great time to target Badin Lake stripers.
Though striped bass haven’t been known to reproduce successfully here, they still mount a false spawning run toward the upper end of the lake, producing excellent fishing below the Tuckertown Dam in March.
Some stripers can also be caught in the tailrace at the upper end of the lake in summer, particularly when cold water is flowing. Expect a mix of stripers, largemouths, and the occasional big catfish to hit.
Fall also offers great striper fishing as the lake cools off in October and November.
Some of the best areas in autumn are between Whitney and the mouth of Garr Creek and around the nearby rail crossing. Try tolling over the 15- to 25-foot flats in this area.
High Rock Lake
Another Yadkin River reservoir that can provide great striper action, High Rock Lake has a reputation for being challenging but rewarding for anyone who pursues striped bass.
Stripers weighing 10 to 15 pounds are available in this 15,180-acre reservoir.
The best opportunities to catch them take place during the cooler half of the year. That’s when stripers are more likely to be in High Rock’s creeks rather than out on the main lake.
Abbotts Creek and Flat Swamp Creek are some of High Rock Lake’s best winter striper areas. Look for bait around points and humps in the creeks at depths ranging from 5 to 20 feet. Stripers are often surprisingly shallow when the water is cool.
Keep an eye out for flocks of birds feeding on the surface of the water. Circling birds usually give away the location of a school of shad, and if there are birds above, there are probably stripers below. Surface commotion is your cue to start throwing topwaters.
Alabama rigs, which include multiple swimbaits and spinning blades, are quite popular for striper fishing on this lake.
High Rock also is an excellent largemouth bass lake. It’s not unusual for bass anglers to catch stripers while targeting shallow pre-spawn largemouths in February and March using spinnerbaits and crankbaits.
By early summer, stripers will be on the move on the main lake.
Summer stripers still will bite if you can find them. Top spots include main lake points and humps at 20-foot depths with deeper water nearby and at the mouths of creeks like Crane, Swearing, Abbotts and Flat Swamp.
Hickory Lake is a long riverine reservoir on the Catawba River. Spanning 4,223 acres, the reservoir is bounded by the Oxford Dam at its lower end and the Rhodhiss Dam at its upper end.
Since the decline of pure stripers on Lake Norman, Hickory Lake has become arguably the best striper lake on the Catawba River chain of reservoirs.
Hickory is a solid numbers lake for stripers, where you can often catch numerous 5- to 7-pound “schoolies,” plus the occasional 15-pounder.
Spring offers a good chance to catch them at the upper end of the lake.
As in many reservoirs, striped bass make a spawning run toward the Rhodhiss Dam, even though they do not successfully spawn here.
Troll from US-321 up to the dam, or fish from the bank in the tailrace.
Summer finds stripers throughout Hickory Lake, primarily over the deep submerged ridges that run under the main lake. Trolling with live shad over this deep main lake structure is the way to go.
Fall is when things start to change again, and October marks the beginning of what might be the best striper season on Hickory Lake. As water temperatures drop into the low 60s, stripers feed aggressively in anticipation of winter.
The same stretch at the upper end of the reservoir that was so productive in spring is also excellent in fall, especially for larger stripers. Live shad, Alabama rigs and bucktails are all good options.
Kerr Lake, a sprawling Roanoke River impoundment that spans 49,420 acres on the Virginia state line, is an outstanding multi-species fishery.
Stripers are among the most popular targets here, along with the trophy blue catfish the lake has become known for.
Winter is the most popular time to fish for both species, and it’s not uncommon for live or cut shad to attract a few of each.
Striped bass typically hold a little higher in the water column, over humps, points and creek mouths, with catfish below.
Also known as Buggs Island Lake and Kerr Reservoir, this massive lake isn’t quite the trophy striper lake it was decades ago.
These days, the lake supports an abundance of striped bass that weigh a few pounds, but rumor has it that bigger fish are starting to become more common.
In winter, the best section of the lake is usually from Goat Island to around Clarksville. Grassy Creek and Butchers Creek are also high-potential areas.
The right depth can be anywhere from the surface to 50 feet, depending on temperatures and movements of shad. Warm winter days often prompt surface feeding, whereas a cold snap can drive them deep.
Stripers head to the upper end of the lake to spawn in the Dan and Staunton rivers every spring, making this a rare reservoir in which stripers reproduce naturally.
In summer, focus on the lower end of Kerr Lake, from the dam to around Buoy 9.