For savvy anglers, fishing for spotted seatrout is a hot proposition, even in the colder months.
Many coastal pluggers think that low mercury readings do not bode well for spotted seatrout fishing. But fish, like humans, seek warm places in chilly weather. While humans may seek the fireside to keep warm, the violet-backed “specks” gather in the nearest channel or deep-water structure to escape the cold. That makes finding them simple. Find a hole or sudden elevation change, and you most likely will find fish — lots of them.
By Bink Grimes
Spas for Specks
In winter, deeper water is much warmer on the bottom, especially when the floor is mud. The mud holds the heat it absorbed during the sunny part of the day. Bay bottoms or river channel floors may be from 10 to 50 feet deep and do not exchange tides and currents as readily as the surface. Therefore, the basement provides a constant temperature. Trout like constants, so they hang out there until the surface readings rise.
Like humans, fish tend to move more slowly in colder conditions. Fishing tactics should be based on slowing the presentation of the bait. Cooler water makes for slower metabolic rates in fish, so they do not burn as many calories. Trouble is, that means they don’t have to feed as often. Winter specks are not going to chase a bait that comes darting by unless they are starving. Try going to a heavier jighead to get the soft plastic or natural bait to the bottom quickly. Be aware that a light, sensitive rod is essential. Trout sometimes “gum” the bait in the winter and all you feel is a tightness in the line or a mild thump as the fish’s jaw closes on the food. This calls for concentration. If you feel something that hinders your retrieve, set the hook.
Nighttime Is the Bright Time
Night fishing under lights adds another dimension to winter angling for speckled trout. Stiff fronts pushing frigid air from the north also push water out of shallow bay flats and backwater marshes. This in turn pushes baitfish out of skinny water and into the deeper rivers where trout can dine on a buffet of finfish and crustaceans. Hence, the best time to fish at night in the winter is a day after a front has blown through. When the sun goes down and the lights come on, the fish come out.
Fishing at night for speckled trout is simple. Find a deep river or bayou flowing into an adjacent bay system. These aquatic highways provide a thoroughfare for tide-running trout. Power up 800 to 1,000 watts of illumination with a generator and wait for the shrimp and baitfish to show up under the lights. The predatory game fish you are targeting will follow.
Any generator will do; however, ones rated for 2,500 watts or more run longer without your having to stop fishing to refuel. Popular lights are 200-watt spotlights rigged in a row of four, or one 1,000-watt beam. Cost for bulbs averages $25 apiece, and the box that houses the lights can be built for another $100. Use a strong steel pole to stand the lights on so that it will not sway or buckle in stiff winds.
Fishing at night can be productive year-round, provided the rivers and bayous you choose to fish do not have copious inflows of fresh water. Rainfall far to the north flows downstream to the coast and affects fishing by dirtying and freshening up the water. Trout need salt in their diet and will seek a hypersaline environment if fresh water floods an area.
Artificial afficionados choose from a variety of swimming and jerk baits. Glow plastics like Bass Assassins, Norton Sand Eels, Trout Killers, Gamblers and Hogies work well on a 1⁄4-ounce jighead. Slow-sinking mullet imitations like chartreuse Corkies, Catch 2000s and MirrOlures 52M often take bigger fish. Current and water clarity determine success. Trout rely on sight and sound when feeding. The water needs to be clear enough for the fish to see your artificial offering.
Live-baiters’ best option is live shrimp under a popping cork. Watch the cork. When it gets dunked, set the hook. If the fish will not take a shrimp two feet below the bobber, try “free-shrimping.” This is done by fishing the shrimp on the bottom with as little weight added as possible — just enough to get the bait down. The shrimp swims freely until something decides to inhale it. A speckled trout has a hard time turning down a live shrimp.
Spring and summertime fishing see more “school” trout, those that barely eclipse the legal 15-inch mark. During this time, fishing can be fast and furious; yet often you must release five undersized trout for every “keeper” you hook. Some nights are different, but for the most part count on smaller fish in the warmer months. This is due to the abundance of small shad and shrimp that inhabit the rivers during warm-water months.
Trolling for Trout
Rivers adjacent to bays are strong speckled trout players during the daytime hours. Yet they are overlooked often because anglers are not patient enough to keep drifting and bouncing their shad or shrimp imitations along the bottom.
Thirty years of fishing the Matagorda bays and tributaries has convinced guide Melvin Talasek of Matagorda that trolling the river during daylight hours has the potential to put “wall-hangers” above an angler’s mantel. He has a few to prove it.
How do you catch them? First, you must find the fish with electronics; then use a trolling motor against the current. If you do not have an electric trolling motor, drift with the current and let the bait skim across he river floor until you feel the line twitch or tighten. “These fish are not aggressive,” Talasek says. “The bite is soft and requires a sensitive rod and concentration.”
A 1⁄4-ounce jighead will keep the bait on the bottom. Fire tiger, salt/pepper, pumpkinseed/chartreuse, glow/chartreuse and chartreuse work great, according to Talasek. “Anything that flutters or wiggles its tail will usually work.”
River fishing can be like taking a page out of the bass angler’s playbook. As the sun comes out and heats up the water, the fish will move close to the bank and hang on the drop-offs. Most riverbanks have edges that drop from three to eight feet, and trout will work up and down these elevation changes in search of baitfish. Troll or drift in the deep and launch topwaters buzzbaits or crankbaits toward the shallows or any structure such as broken limbs, stumps or grass — and prepare for an attack.
“The river allows us to fish even when the wind is howling on the bays,” says Sabine Lake pro Captain Chuck Uzzle. “The fish will gang up in the holes. You can anchor and stay in the same place and remain busy.”
Uzzle’s passion is catching trout on artificials. However, during the cold-weather months, a live shad Carolina-rigged in nine to 11 feet of water is the ticket. Be aware that a cast net and a working livewell are needed to catch bait and keep it frisky.
Playing the Shell Game
So long as teeth-chattering winds are not white-capping the open bay, drifting deep oyster-shell reefs is profitable. Winter tides already are the lowest of the year. Combine that with 15- to 25-mile-per-hour north winds, and tide readings drop as low as three to four feet below normal. Obviously, with water temperatures in the 40s and lower-than-low tides, wading shorelines for trout is out of the question. Some shorelines that are waist- to belly-deep during normal tides and southerly winds are reduced to mud flats or ankle-deep water in the winter. Where do the fish go? They head to the deepest part of the bay and find structure. The middle is normally the deepest, and the structure is most often shell. Deep shell in most bays from Sabine Lake to Corpus Christi occurs in water six to 10 feet deep.
“In the winter, most of the shrimp have left the bay, and the only baitfish present are in the middle of the bay. Most shorelines do not have water on them with the low winter tides, so mullet must retreat to the deep water and try to hide around whatever structure they can find. In most instances, it is shell,” Talasek says. Find the shell, and you’ll find trout.
Presentation of the bait should be slow, slow and slower. You should feel the tick of the leadhead as it hops and hits each piece of shell. Specks will not viciously attack the offering like they do in the warm-water months. The opening or closing of their mouths is all you might feel. Be prepared to set the hook on the slightest twitch, twinge or tightening of your line. You’ll lose some tackle to hangups, and running trout will sometimes cut your line on shell, but you have to fish where the fish are.
Wintertime fishers seek warmth, and so do the fish. When you locate a place that trout find cozy, the action will heat up. So will your body temperature. I have never known anyone to complain about the cold while they are catching specks.