Seth Vernon is a wealth of knowledge for the NC coast and beyond! Awesome, family oriented guy as well.
So - it's interesting to hear other Wilmingtonions struggling. I'm usually pretty consistent at finding fish, but dang, this has been the toughest year I've experienced here.
To the OP - I've moved around a lot, and learning new water on your own can be extremely painful and the learning curve steep. A few years ago, I made the decision to "invest" in a fishing guide - hiring one at the turn of every season. To say that it accelerated my learning curve would be a massive understatement. I learned basic patterns, and from those patterns I was able to expand my knowledge . . .until the season changed and I needed new basic patterns. It will cost you 2K - unless you split it with a buddy - but the payback is incredible.
Here's what I'd recommend, since you are in central NC and therefore have to drive to any waters:
1) Pick an area that you want to focus on and learn that. Trying to learn too many areas will kill you.
2) Interview guides, let them know that you want an education, not a fishing trip. Be honest with them that you intend to return to the areas they take you to fish and learn on your own. Good guides never mind this, because they fish patterns, not areas. I've had a few guides refuse, but it was the exception.
3) Plan your trips around the seasons - either pick the "deep" part of the season (mid way in) if you want to actually catch fish using the seasonal pattern, or pick the beginning of the season to make the most of your own trips, but probably at the expense of catching much with your guide.
I've hired some great guides over the years - here are some I'd recommend for these kinds of trips:
Richard Andrews (TarPam) - FRICKIN' LOVE THAT GUY. You couldn't get a better education from a better guy. He has an awesome site that will make you drool.
Captain Mitch Blake: Also in the Pamlico area - awesome guide and incredibly knowledgeable.
Captain Jon Huff (Circle H charters): This guy taught me the ropes here in the Wilmington area and has a broad knowledge of the entire fishery. He runs the same boat I have and is just flat out fun to fish with.
Captain Seth Vernon (Double Haul): If you want to learn the marsh, he's your guy, but he's a high end/specialized guide. Not in terms of price, but in terms of experience. If you ask him to fish a dock, he will do it, but it isn't his thing. He'll put you on tailing redfish with a flyrod, or teach you the basics of the marsh. He can do more, but it would be like renting a BMW to go to the grocery store.
Capt Jamie . . . (Seagate Charters) - I haven't hired Jaime, but I've run across him on the water enough to respect the hell out of him. Really courteous guide, knows his stuff, and can teach you a wide range of fisheries.