Time and Tide and Speckled Trout

Time and Tide and Speckled Trout

Knowing some hot sites for catching specks along the Magnolia Coast's barrier islands won't help if you're not there at the right time. Revealed here: a few of the secrets to getting that to happen. (July 2006)

The grass flats on the west end of Cat Island contain some areas well suited for wading for specks.
Photo courtesy of Capt. Robert L. Brodie.

In July, south Mississippi anglers commonly apply adjectives like "sultry," "sun-baked," "steamy," "sweltering," "muggy" and "scorching" to conditions during this span of summer -- yet, uninviting as weather described in this way might seem to many, saltwater anglers still venture out into the Magnolia State's marine environs in search of the ever-popular speckled trout.

Although summer's heat and humidity can make fishing for specks a challenge at times, it's evident from the catches brought back to boat ramps day in and day out that many of Mississippi's coastal anglers have learned how to catch trout during extremely warm weather.

To be successful, you've first got to identify some of the diverse sites that these spotted beauties prefer to visit. That done, you next have to select areas within those sites on which to concentrate your efforts, taking into consideration such factors as water depth, wind, moon phase, tides, time of day or night, and bait availability.

As is the case with most coastal saltwater species, speckled trout haunt oyster bars, rock jetties, grassbeds, wrecked boats, tidal flats adjacent to deep water, gullies, and mouths of bayous -- any structure, in other words, that breaks up the contour of the bottom.

When tide, wind, and water temperature are favorable at these sites, trout feed on croakers, pinfish, spots, small mullet, anchovies, menhaden, and shrimp. Of course, many of these prime speck haunts lie close to deep water that serve the trout as sanctuaries when the tide gets extremely low, or water temps become uncomfortable, or larger predators like sharks, porpoises, and jack crevalle move in.

BARRIER ISLANDS

AND BIG TROUT

If it's big specks you're searching for in July, look no farther that Mississippi's chain of barrier islands for rod-bending action. Famed for pristine, sun-bleached shores, Petit Bois, Horn, East Ship, West Ship, and Cat islands are all part of the federally managed Gulf Islands National Seashore. The waters around these offshore gems attract and hold specks --especially those of better-than-average size.

Look for the seatrout in grassbeds, gullies, and around major points --keeping in mind that in July, you have to hit the water at precise times in order to score with these spotted island-prowlers. One of those prime times at which to catch island specks is early in the morning, when the fish come in to feed on a rising tide. Since summer high tides occur in the morning, trout venture close to the beaches during those hours to seek the mullet, pinfish and bull minnows swept in towards shore.

Another opportunity presents itself just after the sun goes down and nearshore shallows cool a bit, making the skinny water more comfortable for plus-sized trout. At this time specks start feeding on the plentiful forage species also drawn in by the cooler water.

HOW TO FISH

This is a great time for tossing noisy topwater baits to active fish. For example: Lures either incorporating rattles or designed to produce a walk-the-dog action are ideal for prowling island trout.

As for colors, fish these baits in black-and-white, red-and-black, chartreuse-and-black, as well as in flashy silver or chrome hues. Smaller top-water lures in the 2 1/2- to 3-inch range usually work better than do larger versions. Although the larger baits draw a lot of attention, and some strikes, I've had fish knock them out of the water repeatedly before a hookup occurred.

If a fish boils on the bait and doesn't hook up, slow down the retrieve. As a matter of fact, many strikes occur as the lure lies motionless on the surface. Also, wait a second or two before setting the hook on a strike. That's hard to do, as it runs counter to natural instinct, but it can often results in more hookups.

During the later morning and through midday, when the sun is high in the sky, it's often wise to toss a slow-sink twitch bait once the surface bite falls off. A slow-sinking bait fluttered slowly across the path of a bottom-hugging trout might change your luck. Silver's a natural hue for such a lure, since most baitfish living over the isles' white sand bottom are of that shade.

For best results fish this type of lure rather slowly, adding just a few short twitches after every three or four turns of the reel's handle. The slow retrieve gives those sluggish bigger specks a chance to eye the bait -- and to fall victim to the siren call of those short twitches, which mimic the action of a wounded baitfish.

As the summer tide falls in the afternoon, strategies have to be adjusted. Baitfish will be getting swept out of bayous or gullies and off shallow flats, so you'll need to concentrate efforts a bit farther off the shoreline. Dropoffs along outer flats, outside gullies paralleling the surf, and grassbeds becoming shallow enough to wade as the tide recedes all become new afternoon specks spots.

Also, baitfish swept out of lagoons and bayous have a tendency to congregate near the entrances. This concentrates the forage so that any speckled trout lurking in the area will move in looking of an easy meal.

Both topwater and slow-sinking twitch baits work well during this segment of the day. For fishing over the barrier island's numerous stretches of grass, however, topwater offerings work best, as you eliminate the nuisance of constantly getting grass on your plug -- a problem often associated with a sinking lure. Of course, it's possible to work sinking baits just above the grass by holding your rod tip high and speeding up your retrieve.

Many anglers opt to use soft-plastic baits to catch barrier island trout. Some prefer to tie a clacking or popping cork to the main line, and then to add a foot or two of 20- to 30-pound-test fluorocarbon leader material tipped with a soft-plastic bait threaded onto a 1/8- to 1/4-ounce leadhead jig. Depending on the depth fished, the leader can be lengthened or shortened to keep the jig just above the grassbeds. Plus, this rig works well when used over lure-snagging oyster reefs.

Soft-plastic baits, valued by saltwater anglers throughout the Golden Gulf Coast, come in a multitude of shapes, colors and lengths. Some swear by these soft plastics, working them at all times of day. Colors such as white, chartreuse, avocado, and pearl are quite serviceable.

To fish a clacking cork properly, make the cast and, once it settles, whip the rod tip to make the cork dance on the surface. Do this three times in a row; then, let the cork sit still for a couple of seconds. Repeat this action all the way back to the boat. When the cork takes a sudden plunge or races off to the side, it's time to set the hook and battle the fish.

Also: If you're fishing flats or gullies with few bottom obstructions, a soft plastic can be fished without a cork by slowly bumping it along the bottom. Admittedly, this may attract more than trout: It's also likely to be snatched by bottom-hugging redfish and flounder, too.

If your choice of lures runs more to hardware, flashy spoons are time-tested options. Try the shiny wobblers in gold and silver hues. Though these spoons are thought of more as redfish baits, 1/2- to 3/4-ounce models also work well on seatrout.

When targeting trout while you're fishing spoons, try reeling at a medium speed and, after every three of four turns of the reel's handle, giving the rod tip a good twitch. This action causes the lure to dart forward abruptly then to flutter lazily down for a moment, thus alternately mimicking the action of first a fleeing and then a wounded baitfish. Such action can be deadly on most game fish that prowl Mississippi's shallows.

WHERE TO FISH

Now that your arsenal of baits is at hand, it's time to pick an area to fish. Each of the islands off the Magnolia State coast offers some likely locations for finding seatrout. Let's survey them, beginning at the east end and moving west.

At Petit Bois Island, the grassbeds on the northern inside approach and just west of the isle's eastern tip have always been big-trout hotspots. Moving west to Horn Island, try the inside grassbeds to either side of the spot at which the treeline begins at the western end of the isle. This site is just east of West Point, where Horn Island's tip faces on the Dog Keys Pass.

The next stop is East Ship Island. A hotspot to fish on its Gulf side is the area of stumps along the beach. Also try the grassbeds, gullies and stumps in the shadow of Northwest Bluff on the isle's north side.

On an early-morning rising tide, any stump will represent an opportunity for encountering lurking specks. If conditions are calm, toss a topwater plug amid the stumps; if the wind's kicking up, work the slow-sinking lures.

Later in the day, as the water recedes from the stumps, concentrate on nearby gullies and dropoffs. To find these, look for dark-colored water: Those are the spots that specks usually have abandoned.

Next in line is West Ship Island, the home of the masonry walls of Civil War-vintage Fort Massachusetts. On the north side of the isle, the pier facing Ship Island Harbor, which affords access to the fort, often also holds a few nice trout -- especially if you get there early in the morning, and on a rising tide. A live shrimp freelined under the deep end of the pier is usually the ticket to success.

Cat Island, the final link in Mississippi's chain of barrier islands hosts a number of prime trout fishing hotspots, too. A great deal of the isle's north side from Little Bend on out to West Point has long stretches of grassbeds that can hold trout, especially on higher tides. Other options: the gullies near main points. Similarly, the deeper trough along the island's surf side beaches can deliver creditable action.

Also, investigate Little Bay, on the south side of the island; try it out in particular on a rising tide, when specks tend to venture well up into the large bayou -- not infrequently, even into the smaller tributary bayous. As the tide recedes, move with it: Head nearer the entrance of the bayou.

TIMING THE BITE

Whenever you're fishing in the brine, paying attention to the rise and fall of the tide is unfailingly important. But once you have that patterned, still other factors merit consideration. It'd be smart, for instance, to take note of moon phases.

During a full moon, fish feed more heavily during night hours. Thus, if you get on the water just at daylight or as the sun sets in the west, your chances of scoring on Mississippi's speckled trout will be duly enhanced.

Note also that game fish often are more active when water's moving -- and full-moon tides bring on just such conditions.

AN "ALMOST-MISSISSIPPI" OPTION

Though not in Magnolia State waters, Isle au Pitre lies just across the Louisiana border and five miles to the west of Cat Island, which puts it 11 or so miles south of Pass Christian.

Isle au Pitre is a veritable speckled trout paradise surrounded by massive marshes. The tactics fit for the waters around the other barrier islands apply here as well, but because of the murkier waters coming out of the marshes, soft-plastic lures fished with or without a clacking cork are the hottest speck-catching rigs.

Get an accurate, detailed chart of the Isle au Pitre region before heading out -- and use it to locate Flatboat Key, Pfiefer Key, Door Point, Brush Island, Martin Island, Fishing Smack Bay and Elephant Point Pass, all of which are noteworthy speckled trout hotspots.

When fishing here, watch for the birds. If masses of hovering gulls are spotted dipping over the surface, the odds are good that a large school of hungry specks will be feeding below and chasing shrimp or baitfish up to the surface, luring in the seabirds.

Expect this action to be fastest when the current is moving at its fastest rate. For optimal results, cut the motor and drift downwind to the feeding frenzy. Better yet: If you have a trolling motor, stay just within casting distance of the surface activity.

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