By Carl Warmouth
The guide eased the skiff quietly toward the dock as I stood, fly in hand, ready to cast. The halogen lights on the dock lit up elongated circles in the black water and surrounding night air.
“This dock doesn’t hold a lot of fish,” he said, “but the ones that are here are big. You’ll probably only get one or two shots at them before they spook. If you don’t hook up now, we’ll come back later.”
My eyes worked hard to focus on the fading area between the brightest water and the dark, looking for a target to cast to. The guide’s prediction was right on, as it had been for the previous 10 or so docks we had fished that night. Three nice fish, about 24 inches long, lay like logs in the water, just waiting for something to eat. The tide was falling hard, sucking water out of the bay like a giant, draining bathtub. I made a cast upstream of the dock, just beyond the range of the lights, and allowed the shrimp-imitating fly to drift well into the light. I gave the fly one strip and the line went tight. A nice fish, about No. 50 for that night, charged under the dock, then back out. The trout next headed up the current, then down, then made a blazing run into the deeper water of the bay. A few minutes later I was releasing the best fish of the night alongside the boat.
Few people would dispute that speckled trout, or specks as they are often called, are among the most sought-after of all Gulf Coast game fish. However, the number of anglers that pursue them with fly-casting gear, although growing, is small when compared to other angling methods. I suspect the reason for this is that some people are intimidated by the whole concept of saltwater fly- fishing, and others are just skeptical that it can be as productive as the methods they are familiar with.
This is a shame, because speckled trout make for fantastic fly-fishing. Their tendency to frequent shallow water, wide range of habitat, abundant numbers and willingness to hit a fly make them perfect candidates for anyone with an interest in fly-fishing – novice and expert alike.
The first consideration, whether you are a freshwater flyfisher looking to expand your territory, a saltwater fisherman just taking up the fly rod, or new to it all, is what kind of equipment to select.
Ask most fly tackle dealers and manufacturers what rods they sell the most of and they are likely to tell you 9-foot 5- or 8-weight rods. That is because these two line weights are the workhorses of fly-fishing. With these two rods you are able to tackle all but the most brutish big-game fish. Both 5- and 8-weight rods are well suited for fishing for specks, but in different situations. Pit a speckled trout in the relatively calm conditions of a bay against a 5-weight rod and you will have as much fun as permitted by law. Add the windier conditions of grass flats or surf-fishing, and the heavier 8-weight rod is a much more practical tool for the job. Faced with the task of choosing just one rod to do all things, a good choice might be a “salt-six.” Several manufacturers are making these stiffer-than-usual 6-weight rods with fighting butts and other hardware suited for saltwater environs.
In terms of reels, an anodized single-action reel with a disc drag and enough capacity to carry at least 150 yards of backing is fine. Reels do not have to be especially sophisticated but do need to have corrosion-resistant components.
For bay and flats fishing, a standard weight-forward floating line works well. In the surf I prefer an intermediate (slow-sinking) or sink tip line to get the fly down below the chop and to prevent the line from being dragged around in the surf.
With regard to flies, there is a wide variety designed to imitate the things that specks eat. The most productive ones are subsurface patterns. Crabs, shrimp, finger mullet and pinfish are common forage for speckled trout, and these can be imitated easily with fly patterns. If once again given the task of choosing just one, it would be the old standby Clouser Minnow in chartreuse-and-white, red-and-white, or my favorites, pink-and-tan or pink-and-chartreuse. The Clouser is easy to tie and readily available in most fly shops. This pattern does a great job of generally suggesting a myriad of marine food items.
While weighted flies that sink quickly account for more fish than surface patterns, there is no denying the thrill of seeing an explosive strike on a surface pattern like a Blado’s Crease Minnow or a popper. Top-water patterns are especially effective when trout are ambushing schools of shrimp or baitfish on the surface, but they can be used with good results when no surface activity is present.
Although specialized equipment like sinking lines allow flyfishers to catch speckled trout year-round, the peak opportunities begin in late April or May, when trout begin to move into shallow water to spawn, and run all the way into early summer. The months of September, October and November also provide opportunities for shallow-water fishing. During these times ideal fly-fishing water depths of 2 to 12 feet typically have temperatures in the upper 70s. Look for trout in grass flats, shallow bays and lagoons, around lighted docks at night, and along the beach.
Surf fly-fishing is an excellent way for wade fishermen to “get their feet wet” with speckled trout. When fishing the beach, the key word to remember is “change.” Anywhere along the beach where there are sandbars, cuts into lagoons or bays, or dropoffs into deeper water are ideal holding and ambush areas.
In these situations choose a fly that represents the predominant forage and begin by casting near, but not right into, the prime area. Move into the prime area only after thoroughly fishing the surrounding water. Flies should be heavily weighted to allow them to sink quickly. After making the cast, let the fly sink for several seconds before beginning the retrieve, then start with long quick strips to simulate the movement of a disoriented baitfish or shrimp.
On any given day, the fish may have a preference for how fast they want the fly to be moving and how deep they want it to be. Experiment by allowing the fly to sink longer and varying the speed of the retrieve until you begin getting strikes.
Poppers should be stripped hard so that they make a commotion on the water, but they should be stopped every few strips. Many of the strikes on the surface occur when the fly is lying totally motionless.
The same presentation applies to grass flats. Look for the lighter-colored areas of the bottom, which indicate a bare sand bottom, or darker water along the edge of the flat, which indicates a dropoff. Again, work the outlying areas first, before casting into the prime areas.
If you are willing to forego a night of sleep, docks rigged with fish-attracting lights can represent the most consistent and underutilized resource for flyfishers. Forage attracted to the light is abundant, and trout are there looking for an easy meal. Avoid making your first cast right into the lighted area, as you may spook fish holding there.
Tides play an important role when fishing for specks, regardless of the type of water you fish. While certain tidal patterns may produce better or worse results in different locations, my philosophy has always been to fish when the opportunity presents itself. Having said that, a general rule of thumb is to fish any moving tide – either outgoing or incoming. Slack tides provide little reason for baitfish to move, while a rising or falling tide forces them into areas where they are most vulnerable to attack.
Whether you fish from a boat or rely on foot travel to get you to your fishing holes, speckled trout are an ideal Gulf Coast quarry with a fly rod. Armed with a basic assortment of flies, a rod that can be used in many situations and a little time to explore, you can enjoy some exciting and productive saltwater action.
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