October 04, 2010
Two of the state's great saltwater game fish -- speckled trout and red drum -- willingly strike artificial lures that are properly presented. Here's how to entice them.
Speckled trout and red drum are both desirable sportfish and both are often found swimming in the same waters. For this reason, anglers who fish these waters usually say they are fishing for "whatever is biting" on any particular day. Indeed, these two premier game fish have feeding preferences and habitat requirements that overlap. However, there are subtle differences in their habits that anglers need to be aware of in order to catch them consistently.
Red drum are generally slow-moving bottom feeders. Therefore they prefer lures presented crawling along the bottom or twitched upward and then allowed to fall to the bottom.
Speckled trout are free-swimming, attack-and-pursuit predators that feed anywhere bait is located within the water column. When using lures, steady retrieves with the lure above the bottom usually induce specks to strike a lure.
Of course, these are general characteristics; a lure meant for one species can be pounded by the other any time it swims in front of the fish's face. Still, the intelligent angler will cast and retrieve several types of lures in a variety of ways when prospecting an area for these game fish.
Jigs are the time-tested standby lures for specks and reds. Jigs are relatively inexpensive, take up little room in a tackle box and are also manufactured from a wide variety of materials and in the entire spectrum of colors.
The preferred jigs intended for speckled trout consist of a lead head and a soft plastic grub body. There are many styles of tails, including curly styles that ripple, styles that alternate twisting in one direction then the other, and tails flattened at the end to impart the swimming action of a baitfish.
The big advantage of using jig heads and plastic trailers for speckled trout lies in the legendary fickleness of the fish's feeding habits. Colors, sizes and styles of jig heads and trailers can be changed in an instant out on the water to match the mood of the fish. Often specks will home in on a color pattern on a given day that seems wildly outlandish. The next day, they will want to strike something else entirely.
Photo by Ron Sinfelt
Popular color patterns in recent years have been red head with a black smoke trailer that is impregnated with gold metal flakes, and white head with a clear body and chartreuse or pink tail. The darker color is popular in murky waters like the Cape Fear River and the lighter color is popular in clear waters like Pamlico Sound.
In shallow, calm water, effective jig heads can be as light as 1/8-ounce, while in deep water or heavy currents a 1/2-ounce jig head may be necessary to carry the lure down to the fish. In addition to the weight of the jig, the style of jig head can also influences the depth at which the lure swims. Banana-shaped jigs or "shovel heads" actually plane the lure to the bottom in strong current or deep-water conditions. Flattened or "butterbean" jig heads also cut the current well and fall faster than the more conventional "bullet head" styles of jigs.
A disadvantage of soft plastic trailers is that they are not at all durable. If a heavy bite is encountered, and worst of all if the bite consists of bluefish, pinfish, jack crevalle or other aggressive non-target predators, an angler can run out of his preferred colors in a hurry because of snipped tails. In this instance, jigs tied with dressings of natural or artificial hair can save a trip because they are more durable than soft plastic.
Anglers can buy hair jigs over the counter, tied in tandem rigs marked specifically for specks, or the angler can tie his own. The advantage of tandem rigs is the ability to offer two color choices and sizes to the fish in a single cast. Tandem rigs are not advised when red drum are prowling the area because in the even a double hook-up occurs, these brawlers are likely to play "wishbone" and break off one or both of the jigs.
While soft plastic bodies are made in styles that are impregnated with scent, hair jigs that are dipped or sprayed with a fish-attractant are often more effective because they act like mops to soak up so much of the oil that the scent is released over many casts. The best way to tell when a hair jig needs more scent is to dangle it at the water surface. If no sheen is visible around the jig, it is time to douse it with more "perfume."
When fishing a shallow area such as a Pamlico Sound grass bed without potential hang-ups like oyster shells, anglers who cast jigs should allow the lure to sink to the bottom. The angler then imparts a hopping motion to the lure with the rod tip. This style of presentation will interest any red drum in the area because they earn their living by rooting up shrimp and crabs, then sucking them in when the unlucky bait dart about trying to escape. Where hang-ups are present, or where speckled trout are the intended target, the jig should be cast and the retrieve begun just as the lure hits the water at the edge of the grass. By using a steady retrieve, angler imparts the illusion of life to the lure by allowing the trailer he has selected to create movement. The slow, steady retrieve is deadly on speckled trout because they are fairly lazy in their pursuit compared to many more aggressive species. An Old Salt once said, "To catch a trout, pretend he can't swim."
When using jigs along a hard structure such as the rock jetty complex extending between Fort Fisher and Bald Head Island, anglers typically cast to the top edge, then stair-step them down the rock faces to the bottom. In general, specks will strike at the top of the water column and red drum at the bottom as the lure strikes the sand.
Single-hook spoons equipped with weed guards are among the best lures for fishing right inside the grass or above an oyster bed. Most saltwater spoons have durable finishes that maintain their flash for many seasons. Favorites for red drum are plated with real gold or silver, but can also be manufactured of unplanted stainless steel.
Fishing the grass beds near Topsail Inlet with spoons is a great way to incite a tussle with a redfish. Gold-finish spoons with natural pork rind or shark belly trailers work well. Some anglers fish the spoons naked and still others trim them out with soft plastic skirts.
When the tide floods the flats, the redfish move up into the grass. They are easy to spot - and easier to spook if approached too closely. However, wading anglers and anglers poling along on boats can cast spoons into pockets in the grass where they spot fish. Sup
er lines are not out of place in this situation. The line must be capable of withstanding the abrasive grass and cut through grass stems for the angler to successfully boat the fish or even simply to retrieve his favorite spoon.
When drum are holding tight on an oyster rock, spoons are the ticket. Spoons wobble across the bed and the noise they make when striking shell is like ringing a dinner bell. Because spoons used for grass-casting and oyster-dinging are large and heavy, any speck striking a spoon is usually a "gator." Specks will strike a spoon as it reaches an open area in a shell bed or the outer edge of a grass bed during a retrieve.
When casting in the surf or along inlet bars, spoons have no equal. Heavy casting spoons tipped with a treble hook cheat the wind, sink quickly in waves and current and have an erratic wobble that is unique and deadly. A day of casting spoons constitutes quite a workout. Fortunately, anglers do not have to worry about letting the spoon rest on the sandpaper bottom and damaging their finish as would occur with the finish on a plastic lure.
On a sandy bottom, the treble hook has nothing to hang up on and it can be cast right across a bar. At Cape Hatteras and Cape Lookout, a survey of surf-casting lures inside tackle boxes will show an overwhelming confidence in the selection of spoons when compared to other lures. Spoons can be worked in shallow water or deep channels. Casting spoons that weigh as much as 2 ounces are popular for red drum, while smaller sizes are used by speck anglers.
Crankbaits or stick baits are deadly lures for specked trout and red drum. As more anglers have made the transition from freshwater bass to saltwater game fish, manufacturers have created many minnow-imitating lures designed for corrosion and tooth resistance. Some are bass plugs that have been built with stainless steel hardware, while others are designed specifically saltwater fish like speckled trout and red drum.
Floating, topwater baits are used by anglers seeking specks. The best time to use them is when the fish have driven shrimp or baitfish to the top and they are popping like popcorn. Floating propeller-type lures are nearly always successful in this situation. Floating stick baits without propellers also draw strikes when flipped into the boiling baitfish and then dog-walked back to the boat. A propeller lure is most effect when cast into the boils of baitfish and twitched. If the fish are feeding, a strike is instantaneous. The advantages of a topwater lure are that it can be cast and allowed to float above the fish for an extended period of time. In shallow water or above potential obstructions such as oyster shells this gives fish in the area more than enough time to find the lure.
A variation on the topwater lure is fishing a sinking lure below a float. A concave topped "popping cork" is used to suspend a jig or sinking stick bait at the desired depth below the surface. A twitch on the rod tip creates the illusion of a fish feeding when the cork disturbs the surface and draws attention to the lure. This technique is very popular with anglers who fish from the bank near obstructions because it keeps the lure in the strike zone without requiring multiple casts. The technique is the ticket for catching big speckled trout from the riprap abutment on the ocean face in front of the Confederate monument at Fort Fisher and at the Fort Macon jetty.
Getting the lure below the surface also increases the likelihood of a strike from a red drum.
While red drum will strike topwater plugs when they are feeding in shallow water, they prefer lures that are presented at or just above the bottom. Most crankbaits are equipped with at least one pair of treble hooks that will snag anything they touch. Therefore, fishing with lures for red drum invites lure loss if the bottom is covered with the hard structure that red drum prefer.
Suspending lures that do not sink to the bottom or floating lures that dive to shallow depths when retrieved are the best choices when fishing in snag-infested waters for red drum. There are also some other tips for saving lures when fishing in the danger zones. By holding the lure horizontally, an angler can see that one point of each treble hook faces the head end of the lure. By snipping this point with a wire cutter, the angler leaves only the two hook points that lay against the body. This prevents 90 percent of snags because the hook shaft rides over obstructions like a keel. Trimming the hook has no effect on the lure's effectiveness for red drum because they are so aggressive they will strike the lure repeatedly until they are hooked.
Another option is removing all treble hooks except for the back hook. Fewer hook points equal fewer snags.
Because they are fished in areas of high current flow, most saltwater crankbaits have little or no lip projecting from the front of the lure. It is the body design that imparts action to the lure. Therefore, it is important to use a loop knot with this type of lure. Using a knot that pulls down tight or using a wire leader can compromise the action of the lure and cause it to swim erratically, plane to the surface or lose its action altogether.
Fortunately, when fishing for speckled trout and red drum, wire leaders are unnecessary to prevent cut-offs by teeth. Most anglers use no leader, but tie the lure directly to the line. If fishing in rugged conditions or when fishing with lightweight monofilament lines, some anglers use a fluorocarbon leader of 12- to 20-pound-test and attach it to the main line with a small swivel or a blood knot.
While freshwater anglers have fallen in love with spinnerbaits, saltwater anglers have been slow to accept them. But they are viable lures for catching red drum and speckled trout. Selecting the right conditions for using spinnerbaits is the key.
As with freshwater fishing, grass beds and docks are prime structure for fishing spinnerbaits in saltwater. The problem with spinnerbaits is the amount of effort required to retrieve them in strong current.
Selecting willow leaf blades instead of Colorado blades and single blades instead of tandem blades will help overcome some of the effort involved in using large spinnerbaits in strong current. Otherwise, they are used in the same manner as while largemouth bass fishing.
Spinnerbaits are especially effective for catching red drum in murky conditions or in shallow water when there is a lot of wind. The large amount of vibration helps the fish find the lure in these tough feeding conditions. Also, the heavy amount of resistance can take the bow out of the line in a strong wind, making a strike easier to detect and eliminating the slack that could prevent a good hook-set.
For red drum, the larger spinnerbaits of 5/8-ounce and above draw the most attention. For speckled trout, the smaller beetle grub-type spinnerbaits and inline spinners that rotate around a central shaft are the best choices. With a rainbow of color choices available, plastic grub bodies can be replaced until the right color combination is found.
When selecting spinnerbaits for saltwater fishing, it is important to choose lures that are made of corrosion-resistant materials. Shafts, beads, swivels and bearing surfaces should be rinsed with freshwater and lubricated with an oil-based fish-attracting scent after use to keep them rotating freely. Improper maintenance is the most prominent reason saltwater anglers have not accepted spinnerbaits as widely as freshwater anglers. However, for speckled trout and red drum, they are the best lures to use when conditions get tough.
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