By William J. Bohica
Regardless of where you fish for speckled trout on the Gulf Coast, the best locales all have one thing in common – they are near a river, or at the very least near one or more smaller tidal creeks. It makes little difference whether they empty into a bay, a sound, or directly into the Gulf itself. All that matters is that a river estuary system be nearby.
Trout benefit from a mixing of fresh and salt water. An estuary environment is one of the richest habitats on earth, and biological studies have shown that seatrout living in that environment grow faster, and bigger, than trout in a purely saltwater habitat. That’s one reason why savvy Gulf Coast anglers seek trout in the vicinity of river mouths.
This is especially true at this time of year. In the cold winter months, those rivers are likely to hold most of the trout in that area.
“Rivers can be a hotspot for trout, and some of the biggest trout, when winter sets in,” emphasized veteran Gulf Coast guide Capt. Jimmy Keith. “Rivers are their refuge from the coldest weather, because flowing river water isn’t as subject to rapid temperature changes as is the Gulf, so it is much more stable and warmer. And that’s also where the baitfish are going to be, so the trout don’t have much choice. When a hard freeze hits, they’ll be heading into the rivers, and they can really stack up in some small spots. The coldest weather can actually offer some of the best trout fishing of the year in the Gulf.”
Trout begin vacating the offshore grass flats and moving toward the river mouths in the fall. The first good cold snap, which often occurs in late October or early November, pushes many into the rivers, but they may not move very far up them. If a warming trend follows, they ease back onto the river-mouth flats. The next cold snap then pushes them back into the rivers. It’s a yo-yo effect, but it provides a significant concentration of trout in the vicinity of the river through much of the winter season. If a major river isn’t handy, the trout use smaller tide creeks, as long as those creeks have at least a few holes that drop down to 10 feet or more.
Add a hard freeze that lasts for several days and the picture changes quickly. Now those trout move upstream and linger far longer.
The colder the weather the farther upstream the seatrout move, and may even get so far up that they are sharing the waters with largemouth bass!
While frigid weather may deter some anglers, it can set the pulse racing on savvy trout fishermen, because once the trout invade the rivers, they are not hard to find. They have specific requirements as to habitat and concentrate heavily when they find it. In fact, it’s not uncommon to have the majority of the trout in a half-mile stretch of river wadded up along one 200-yard section. Finding that section isn’t hard if you have a quality depthfinder.
“The first thing I look for are the deeper holes in the river,” Keith noted. “If the river depth is a pretty uniform 10 feet and then drops into a 15- or 20-foot hole, that is likely to be where most of the trout in that area of the river would hold.
“The second thing I want to see is a hard bottom. Rock is best, but if that is not available, then shell or marl would do. Soft bottoms like mud or sand seldom hold large numbers of trout in the rivers or tide creeks.
“Once I find those deeper hard-bottom areas, I’m going to look for the ones that have the best concentrations of baitfish. If you have several suitable bottom areas available, the one with the most baitfish is likely where you will find the trout.”
Even a modestly priced depthfinder, with a gray scale feature, can be the key to finding winter trout. Another handy tool is a thermometer. Submerged springs are not uncommon on many Gulf Coast rivers or tidal creeks and often are associated with rocky bottoms and deeper holes. Even a small spring seep can put out a flow that is significantly warmer than the winter-chilled waters of the Gulf or the main river. Find the depth, bottom composition, baitfish and a spring and you can pretty much be assured of finding plenty of cold-weather trout.
If you alter your tactics to match the weather, you can likely put plenty of fish in the boat. The key here is slow, steady and deep.
Coldwater trout that have moved into rivers and tide creeks normally are positioned on, or very close to, the bottom. They feed, but they don’t want to have to work at it. The erratic action imparted to a lure during warmer weather on the grass flats is not very effective at this time. Winter trout want a slow, steady and relatively straight retrieve. They are not going to chase a lure. You pretty much have to bring it right by their nose slowly. Since they are going to be right on the bottom, that also means that you lose a few lures to bottom snags. But if you aren’t losing an occasional bait, you probably aren’t putting it where the trout are.
That rules out a lot of popular trout lures, but leaves two that are made to order for winter anglers – soft-plastic trailers on jigs and sinking hard plugs.
A soft-plastic tail on a leadhead jig is one of the most effective winter trout baits available. By varying the size of the jig head, the depth can be controlled to a remarkable degree. Since neither the tail nor the head is very expensive, they have another distinct advantage – if you lose one bouncing along the bottom, you’re not out much.
The most effective jig heads are the wide-gaped hook models, and most trout experts agree that a red, pink or chartreuse head generates more strikes than other colors. A simple selection in 1/8-, 1/4- and 3/8-ounce sizes should handle most river chores.
The most effective plastic tails are those that “ripple” while they drift. The 4-inch swimming-shad models are excellent choices, as are any 3- to 4-inch curly-tailed grubs. The best retrieve is a quartering cast upstream, then let the jig hit the bottom and retrieve it slowly back to the boat while it bangs along the bottom with the current. Since you are giving the bait virtually no action, that little built-in ripple is a plus.
As for colors, it is hard to argue with a red head jig and a chartreuse body. In extremely clear water, a pearl white body or white with a pink tail can be effective, while darker water is often best addressed with a motor oil/flake coloring
As effective as plastic jigs are, sinking, hard plugs often take larger trout. They are fished the same way – eased slowly across the bottom with the current – although given their price, you will shed a few more tears when the bottom eats one.
These can be fished in a variety of colors, but for coldwater trout, gaudy is good. White with a red head, combinations of chrome and chartreuse, or chrome, blue, fluorescent chartreuse or orange patterns usually out-produce more natural baitfish colors.
Either lure is very effective at probing deeper holes for trout, but they have one other advantage. They are deadly trolling lures when large areas of river have to be covered to locate trout.
If your depthfinder shows proper conditions, but your casts come up empty, trolling either lure can help you find river trout if it is done correctly. That means slowly.
The preferred tactic is to troll with the current, and at the slowest speed that will maintain boat control. Often, this is most easily done by using a bow-mounted trolling motor instead of the main engine. Get the bait out, get it on the bottom, and then ease downcurrent with electric motor power. Keep a marker buoy handy and throw it on the first strike.
Winter river trout don’t roam – they stack. When you find one, you find others.
If the weather has been cold enough when you are fishing in a Gulf Coast river, these tactics will put the fish in the boat!
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