Of Inlets and Outlets

Fishing a spot for the first time? Try these fish magnets.

September 21, 2007

|| |—| || |To fish inlet jetties effectively, work lures and baits all the way into the rocks. | How many times have you found yourself fishing someplace for the first time with virtually no clue as to where to begin? Well, you’re not alone and there is a shortcut to targeting a hot spot.

Big estuaries like Pamlico Sound in North Carolina might have numerous outflows within the system that merge before flowing into the ocean. These outflows form a system – an estuary – that is the breeding ground and nursery for many foods that gamefish eat. The inlets or ¿outflows¿¿ and the waters inside attract gamefish because they are tremendous food sources, and their almost constantly moving water makes feeding easier for gamefish. In spring, there are no better fish magnets. When the water cools and during cold fronts, because the water temperature in and around their mouths is warmer, outlets can’t be beat. Each body of water holds different bait types. In late winter to early spring, big baitfish like herring, alewives, and hickory and American shad gather in the upper sections of estuaries to spawn, then return to the sea. The young of some of these baits leave the same year, but other baits hold over, leaving the following spring. They join other small baits like spearing, sand eels, anchovies, crabs, worms and shrimp to offer a potpourri of food for many types of predators. While fishing inlets, I have caught a great variety of gamefish from Maine to the Gulf of Mexico, the Bahamas and numerous locations around the world.

Ironically, the most dependable part of your fishing day can also be the most confusing. There is a delay – a lag time – before a tide’s ebb begins to discharge out the opening. Some inlets might take several hours after high tide before starting to ebb. Usually the start of the ebb tide, when the food begins to spill out into open water, is the best time – it’s like ringing a dinner bell. The beginning of the flood tide is also a very productive time.


Different species of gamefish feed in certain ways. Some, like stripers and snook, will take up feeding positions while others, like false albacore, will keep moving. I fish smaller inlets, with openings ranging from several yards to 100 yards wide, by covering the water right at the outlet by casting a swimming plug to different locations in the flow. Let the lure swing across the moving water at different angles to the current. Also, try working the lure downcurrent. In a strong flow, this will let the lure swim deeper and cover more water. If the current is strong enough to work the plug, try letting the lure just swim across it without reeling. In locations that require a long cast to reach the opposite side, be patient and keep working the water. In smaller locations, a dozen casts might be enough to cover the water, but remember that some fish will keep moving not just holding in a feeding position.

When fishing live bait, cast out and let the bait drift, free-spooling downcurrent. In southern locations, fishing live shrimp with a float works well, but also try a buoyant popper. Affix a two-foot leader to the plug’s tail eye, and tie on a single hook to the leader with a shrimp.

If the inlet has a long section of moving water, work the whole section, not just the mouth. While casting, try either walking very slowly downcurrent or hop-scotching to cover the entire run. Unless the fish are feeding aggressively, they might not move too far to take your offering. This is true when there is an abundant bait supply or if the bait is not mobile, so the fish might hold in one location, stubbornly feeding like fresh water trout.


Most large inlets, like Barnegat Inlet, New Jersey, have jetties at their mouths. Work big locations with structure by fishing both the middle of the current and right along the rocks. There are times when you will catch more fish just along the rock’s edge than in the middle of the moving water. An effective technique is to let the lure or bait hold right along the edge before lifting it for another cast. Anglers who remove their offering too quickly miss fish.

In striper country, big bass move into locations when the adult big baits return to open water. It is a good time to take that first nice fish of the season. Try to locate places with runs of spawning big baits. A well-known location in New England is the blueback herring run on the west side of the Cape Cod Canal in Massachusetts. This small outflow is an example of how an opening 20-feet wide can provide excellent fishing conditions for a mile of water along the canal. Anglers flock there to fish the spring run. When stripers are feeding on herring, live bait is very popular and perhaps the most effective way to fool a trophy bass.

Anglers who prefer fishing artificials can use big swimming plugs while flyfishermen can fish big herring patterns in locations that harbor big baits. I like to tinker with surface-swimming plugs to make them splash and swim.


In the spring, anglers fishing St. Lucie Inlet near Stuart, Florida, find snook, redfish, spotted seatrout, snapper and the occasional tarpon feeding around the inlet. Several important baitfish, including threadfin herring and mullet are effective when fished live or dead. Swimming plugs and soft-plastic baits matching these foods also work very well. I like three- to six-inch swimming plugs with lifelike finishes that run several feet below the surface. Look for pompano on the edges just inside the inlet. Best baits for these gamefish are sand fleas but shrimp or cut squid, as well as small, rubber-tailed jigs are effective. Southern inlets offer great angling variety, but inlet fishing techniques translate well wherever water moves through an opening with the tide.


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