Prospecting for Springtime Speckled Trout

The No. 1 question on the minds of every speckled trout angler in March is, "Where are they?" Here's where the savvy anglers look to find the fish.

by Mike Marsh

March can be a challenging time for many saltwater anglers. Windy conditions, rapidly changing weather patterns and cool water temperatures leave anglers with few options for catching the very limited number of available inshore species in early spring.

However, dedicated anglers seek out protected areas that are out of the wind and cast for spotted sea trout, which are commonly called speckled trout throughout their range. Once you find him, the colorful speck readily takes natural baits and artificial lures, presents a good fight on light tackle and is highly rated table fare. But perhaps the best thing about speckled trout in March is that they are available all along the middle Atlantic coast.

Speckled trout are mobile fish that seem to swim on a whim. They can congregate in large schools that make them seem easy to catch when an angler gets lucky and finds them. The angler who concludes that he's a real expert after a day like this is apt to find that the trout have disappeared altogether from the area the next day. "You should have been here yesterday" is an old angler's cliche that was no doubt inspired by the maddening maneuvers of speckled trout. To be successful at catching speckled trout, anglers must target areas that attract and hold them. However, speckled trout anglers are a tightlipped fraternity. Even tackle shop owners have been known to give evasive answers when asked where the fish are likely to be feeding on a spring day.

Four things combine to attract and hold spring specks - temperature, salinity, food and structure. When these combine ideally in one area, an angler is likely to catch some fish. However, the strike zone will sometimes be no bigger than a child's wading pool. Finding the sweet spot can take many casts or a long troll, so narrowing down the search area is the best game plan.

When prospecting for speckled trout, anglers should target beach fronts, ocean inlets, jetties, piers, seawalls, oyster beds, sandbars, navigation channels and grassbeds that are all known speckled trout holding areas. Salinity and temperature change with an incoming or outgoing tide. Finding the right combination of salinity and temperature is important because these water conditions dictate where baitfish and shrimp occur, and baitfish and shrimp are what the trout move so much to find. When you are fishing in an estuary, the farther from the ocean, the lower the salinity. In general, the farther from the ocean, the warmer the water temperature will be during March. However, an exception to these rules occurs when sudden freezing conditions inland generate cold run-off from inland streams. In that case, specks will be located closer to the ocean.

Photo by Ron Sinfelt

These changing conditions give anglers a big clue about the appearance and disappearance of speckled trout. Moving until they find food, speckled trout are likely to cover vast areas in a single day as they follow the hourly ebb and rise of the tides. For example, an area inside an inlet may attract fish only on incoming tides when warm, salty ocean water inundates some good structure. The ocean side of the same inlet may hold fish only on falling tide when freshwater flows chase them from tidal marshes.

The best gauge for finding specks in spring is watching the water's color. Wherever the ocean and inland waters are, there is a mixing zone of varying temperatures and salinities. Trout may bite in the clear water typical of the ocean or in the dingy water of the estuary side. However, if an angler pays attention to the appearance of the water where he or other anglers have caught fish, he can search for the same water color as the tide line moves throughout the day or over several days.

To find the right water conditions, an angler should think in terms of large areas. Water conditions do not change much in 100 yards. The angler should think in terms of thousands of feet, even in miles, when moving from location to location, since tide lines can occur far inland during rising tide conditions.

For clear ocean waters, such as those found on barrier islands and piers, anglers should keep an eye on the water temperatures given in seaside weather reports. If the water temperature is in the 50 degree range, speckled trout will be in the area.

Speckled trout are usually caught in waters less than 5 feet deep. Anglers targeting structure in shallow-water areas catch the most fish. Anglers fishing from ocean piers should look for specks in the shallow surf zone, but they should keep in mind that some fish will be attracted to the pilings. Specks can also be caught from the beach. Casting lures and baits to troughs that run parallel to the beach during low tide or to the outlying sandbars is a good way to catch ocean specks. Beach areas with rocks, pilings, rubble, clay outcrops or steep washouts are good places for isolating specks.

When fishing an inlet, anglers find that specks tend to congregate downstream from any structure. The fish suspend behind bars and bridges to ambush the prey as it swims by with the current. Anchoring a boat down-current, casting to the structure and then retrieving the lure or bait with the current flow allows anglers to present their offerings in ways that imitate the natural path of the bait.

Anglers fishing marshes should be on the lookout for sandbars, grassbeds and oyster beds. Fishing above a sandbar or oyster bed on high tide can produce speckled trout. On high tides, specks also cruise the edges of grassbeds, waiting for an unlucky baitfish to leave the grass. Often, specks can be seen actively feeding on shrimp in shallow-water marsh areas. Any time an angler sees the water boiling with bait, he has a good clue that speckled trout have run the shrimp or baitfish to the surface.

For fishing shallow-water areas during high tides, surface lures work very well, although many anglers prefer shallow-running lures that imitate shrimp and baitfish. Live - or dead but very fresh - shrimp fished on float rigs can save a lot of casting and the resulting wet hands in chilly weather.

During low tide stages, specks go deep. Finding deep holes in navigation channels or creeks can help you locate the fish. The advantage of fishing on low-tide stages is that there is less water, which tends to concentrate both the fish and the bait.

Deep-running lures such as jigs are the best bet for testing deep holes for specks, since the fish are likely to be hugging the bottom during low tides. Another great tactic for locating and catching speckled trout is trolling. Many anglers neglect this tried-and-true method for covering lots of water in a short period of time. Locating a grass line or sandbar and trolling alongside slowly with

several shallow-running lures or jigs is a quick way to locate a school of fish. It is also a quick way to sort out which colors are working best on a particular day. Speckled trout are notoriously finicky when it comes to the color of a lure they will strike. By trolling several lures at the same time, an angler can quickly tell which color is working best. Once the fish are found, the boat can be anchored nearby, and the angler can cast the correct color and style of lure and have a blast catching fish.

Manmade structures, such as docks, bridges, bulkheads and jetties, are some of the best areas for catching spring specks. One big advantage of these structures in March is that they can also serve as windbreaks. Anchoring or trolling on the downwind side of a large structure can diminish the effect of wind velocity. Having a big bow in the line as a result of wind friction can be a huge impediment to feeling the strike, and it makes setting the hook much more difficult.

Current eddies caused by the structure and the shrimp and small fish that hold inside them attract specks to these areas. When you are fishing hard structures, it is best to use heavier lines than you would use when fishing open water, because light lines can easily be cut off on obstructions during a fight with a big speck. Still, most anglers do not use any line heavier than 10-pound-test for specks.

If you stay light on your feet, keep moving and use light gear, you'll pack plenty of punch so you can have a knockout day of speck fishing.

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