By Ben Norman
March is that magical month that stirs the instincts of the spotted sea trout to spawn. It’s the time when spotted sea trout, commonly called speckled trout or specks, begin moving out of the rivers and creeks and into the bays to feed and prepare for the spring spawn. The telephones of inshore fishing guides start ringing about this time, too, as speck fishermen’s instincts begin to stir, as well.
Capt. Kathy Broughton (251-981-4082) is a speckled trout guide who knows what March does to fish and fishermen. “March is the month that things begin to come alive again along the Gulf coast as far as speckled trout fishing is concerned. More and more anglers are discovering the thrill of fishing for specks, not to mention the good eating after the fishing trip is over. And late March is a good time to go after specks if you have a fish fry in mind, as this is a time when large catches of smaller fish are common,” said Broughton.
Speck fishermen new to an area should pay attention to the length of piers. Long piers with a small boat at the end usually indicate shallow water, but a short pier with a big boat moored to it indicates deep water. If the short pier has a security light, too, so much the better. Baitfish are attracted to pier lights during the night and will still be congregated there at daylight.
The weather is also important in locating fish. If a quickly approaching cold front moves in on what has been a warming trend, specks will often head back to deeper water. Knowledgeable speck fishermen begin moving from the grass areas to deeper harbors and channels when a “northerner” rolls in. Specks may even leave the bays and go back into the coastal rivers, so it can pay to check out deep holes and dropoffs where current is present near the river mouths.
“Studies indicate that the majority of specks are caught within 10 to 15 miles from were they hatched, but some travel as far as 30 to 40 miles if there is freshwater flooding that reduces the salinity of the water,” said Gunn.
Gunn says that, contrary to popular belief, specks eat mostly fish. While they do eat a lot of shrimp, their mainstay is small baitfish, such as croakers, small mullet, menhaden and alewives.
According to Gunn, the speck population of the current season depends on the conditions of two to four years ago. He says fishing may be great this year and off next year, or it may not be so good this year and there may be a banner harvest next season.
Spawning begins with fish that were hatched in the early part of the previous year, but full sexual maturity is reached when the fish are 2 years of age. Spawning activity occurs in the bays around grassbeds where the newly hatched larvae can find food and shelter. Specks spawn throughout the spring and summer, but this activity peaks between May and July. Fish that are 2 to 4 years old are responsible for producing the majority of a year’s hatch.
After hatching, the larvae float up into the estuaries that have a salinity level of between 15 and 20 parts per thousand. This is about half the salinity of the Gulf of Mexico seawater and is considered to be on the high end of brackish. The speck larvae feed almost entirely on zooplankton until they grow large enough to move out into the bays, where their diet consists primarily of a baitfish called a spot, supplemented with juvenile brown shrimp and small croakers.
Female specks grow faster than males. The average 2-year-old female will be 3 inches longer than her male sibling. Large female specks are called “sow” trout and may live to be 9 or 10 years of age.
According to Capt. Broughton, the critical thing for visiting fishermen to be aware of is rapidly changing weather. “A storm can blow in off the Gulf in a matter of minutes. Make sure your boat is adequate for the water you are going to fish. Fishermen do fine on calm days in bass boats, but the larger bay boats are more seaworthy. Bring rain gear and be prepared to dress for summer or winter conditions, as we can have both on the same day during March and even early April,” said Broughton.
Capt. Broughton recommends medium-action tackle with 8- to 12-pound-test line. “I see a lot of fishermen arrive with their bass rigs equipped with 17- or 20-pound line. That’s just too big for specks. I spool all my reels with 10-pound test. That’s strong enough for any speck, but small enough not to scare them off,” said Broughton.
Broughton likes to fish “free line” with no weight or just enough weight to get a live shrimp down when she is fishing in current. I cast upcurrent and let it drift back parallel to the boat. Once the bait starts dragging back behind the boat, it’s time to retrieve and cast upcurrent again.
“I use live shrimp mostly during March and April when I’m fishing 5- to 10-foot-deep water. I hook shrimp just under the base of the horn, but some guides prefer tail
-hooking shrimp. Either way, the objective is to keep the shrimp alive,” said Broughton.
If live shrimp are scarce, Broughton says, anglers can do well using small mullet, bull minnows, croakers, pinfish, alewives or menhaden. When it comes to artificials, Broughton likes the Mirrolure, Yozuri jerkbaits, DOA artificial shrimp and various grubs.
Coleman’s preferences when using artificials include jigs, spoons and artificial shrimp. “I’ve done well using various jigs with a strip of fresh mullet attached to the hook. I’ve also had good results using a silver spoon with a bucktail attached to the spoon’s hook,” said Coleman.
Catching specks is only half the fun. The other half is eating them, says Capt. Kathy Broughton, who graciously shared her favorite method of cooking specks: “Coat the bottom of a hot skillet with butter and lightly flour your speck filets. Throw the filets in the skillet, and keep flipping them and adding butter as needed. Remove the filets when they’re done, and mix in more butter, some sliced almonds and a dash of vermouth. Add the mixture to the skillet, stir it and pour it over the fish.”
Winter is yielding to spring along the Gulf coast. The specks are coming out of the rivers and entering the bays, and fishermen with a taste for speckled trout should be there to greet them.
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