White Trout on the Rigs

Winter weather conditions often send white trout scurrying off the beaches and out of the estuaries to congregate offshore. Here's how to catch a few of these fish this month.

By Mike Thompson

Coastal sportsmen have a wide variety of activities to choose from during the winter months. However, if fishing is your game, weather will probably be a big factor.

Along the northern Gulf coast, winds and rough seas can dictate the winter fishing action. Other concerns include salinity and water temperature. You have to have things just right to enjoy a successful trip.

Seasoned coastal anglers know how important paying attention to the weather is - both for safety and for getting to the fish. Keeping track of the weather is key, because it's not always as simple as hopping in the boat for a leisurely trip out to bay or beach.

Anglers who track the weather can use developing patterns to their advantage. For example, strong southerly winds develop when cold fronts approach; as the front arrives, the winds change abruptly to the north. Then, as those winds die out, the Gulf of Mexico calms down enough for safe boating. It's during these post-front windows of opportunity that even smaller boats can reach the oil and gas rigs off the coast without undue peril. It's also the prime time for targeting the reliable (and tasty) white trout.

Found all along the Gulf Coast, white trout (sometimes called "sand trout") roam between the interior bays and estuaries and offshore water more than 200 feet deep. Comfortable on both muddy or sandy bottoms, white trout school - especially in the winter - in large numbers around the structure provided by such things as oil or gas platforms.

Note for saltwater anglers: It's at the oil and gas rigs in the Gulf of Mexico that white trout will gang up when the onset of a spate of cold winter weather runs them offshore. Photo by Mike Thompson

White trout are sometimes confused with their cousin, the speckled trout (a/k/a/ "spotted seatrout"). Both have one or two large teeth in the upper jaw. Sometimes referred to as "canine" or "dog" teeth, they're used to capture prey. There are, however, several differences in the markings of white and speckled trout.

White trout have a long silver body with a slight yellow tint amplified on the dorsal and pectoral fins. The head of a mature white trout also has a light purplish hue.

Spotted seatrout are silver with a dark-colored back that can have the appearance of velvet in clear water. The specks also have small dark spots on the upper back and sides, extending back to the tail. Though the spotting is light on some fish, you can readily locate the spots on the fish's dorsal fin.

White trout, like specks, are members of the drum family. Males emit a grunting sound when spawning or excited. This grunting often can be heard while hooks are being removed from the fish.

Unlike speckled trout, which move northward to inland waters in winter, white trout take the opposite tack, heading southward into the Gulf of Mexico. When water temperatures dip below 60 degrees, whites seek more comfortable conditions in deeper waters. As water temperatures drop below that magical 60-degree threshold, the whites congregate around the oil and gas rigs found just offshore, and are likely to hold there throughout the winter months.

Fortunately, a lot of rigs are within an easy boat ride for even small boats on fair-weather days. Rigs sitting in water from 20 up to 70 feet are great places to find these fish. Most oil companies place large amounts of shell around the base of the rigs to help stabilize the bottom. This also attracts hordes of baitfish to the area, which in turn attract the whites.

BAITS
When you're targeting white trout, it's important to remember where the fish spends most of its time. Whites are bottom-feeding scavengers that roam the floor of the sea looking for an easy meal. That makes choosing a bait easier, since finding live bait can sometimes be a problem in colder months.

Shrimp, which also travel the bottom, are one of the white's favorite meals. The fish will readily hit either fresh or frozen shrimp.

Frozen squid is another good bait for winter whites. Cut the squid up in pieces and thread it onto the hook, being careful to pierce the bait more than once. This will keep the aggressive whites from stealing your bait so easily.

Another frozen bait that'll take white trout is a cigar minnow cut up into 1-inch-wide pieces. It's best to use these baits while they're still slightly frozen - again, to keep the trout from cleaning the hook easily.

Most seasoned white-trout anglers will tell you that the No. 1 bait for the species is a fresh strip cut from another white trout. After catching your first one, slice a filet off one side and cut it into 1-inch strips. Be sure to run your hook through the tough skin, as this keeps the bait on the hook and often allows you to catch several fish on a single bait.

White trout will also hit several types of artificial lures. While not always as effective as natural baits, these artificials can be almost their equal when there's stiff competition for food.

Plastic grubs are the best producers among these artificial offerings. Some of the best colors are chartreuse, white, pink and clear/glitter. The grubs are versatile, as they can be rigged in tandem. The leadhead jig's size can also be changed according to the speed of the current in order to get the bait down to the depth where the fish are active.

Hard-plastic sinking plugs such as MirrOlures, Bomber Mullets and Rat-L-Traps all take hungry whites as well. Spoons jigged vertically can attract some bites too if the current is not overly swift.

TACKLE
Though white trout are not large fish by Gulf standards, you can't go too light on tackle, as you may well encounter other, larger species, too. With this in mind, it's best to use medium-heavy tackle. That might sound like overkill - but when a bull redfish or brute of a black drum takes the bait, you'll be glad instead of sad.

A medium-to-heavy rod about 7 feet long is fine for almost anything you might hook around the rigs in winter. Your reel, whether casting or spinning, should be medium to heavy as well. Fifteen- to 20-pound-test monofilament should handle almost any species you happen to hook.

SETTING UP AROUND THE RIGS
Each and every rig in the Gulf has particular c

haracteristics that create particular fish-holding hotspots. When you search for white trout, you can use your depthfinder to find these spots by locating the concentrations of fish. These schools usually appear on the screen as fuzzy masses near the bottom.

The oil and gas industry has tried to engender goodwill among anglers over the years by allowing boats to tie onto the platforms, thus saving fishermen equipped with rig hooks the hard work of setting and retrieving anchors. Still, be sure to have plenty of anchor rope available, since conditions may demand anchoring and, as noted, some platforms stand in water up to 70 feet deep. To anchor a boat properly, you should have 6 feet of rope out for every foot of water depth. Also make sure to take current direction into account when anchoring near the rigs.

CARE OF THE CATCH
Those out fishing during the colder months of the year may find it easy to forget about proper care of the catch. Getting into a fast bite of white trout can tempt you to toss fish on the floor of the boat or in a bucket so that you can get your line out quickly to catch another.

But unless the air temperature is below 40 degrees, safe storage of the catch is still important. That is particularly true on winter days, actually, since the fish are coming out of water that is typically warmer than the air temperature. So to maintain your catch's freshness, ice it down as soon as is possible. White trout have soft flesh that can turn pulpy fast if they're not treated properly. It's also important to drain any water that has accumulated in the cooler from melting ice, as excess water too will cause the flesh to turn mushy.



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