Tactics For Post-Spawn Seatrout
September 28, 2010
The fish have finished their spawning ritual, but are still months away from heading to their wintering grounds. So where are they now and how do we catch them?
When The Weather Channel says it's the peak of hurricane season and the college gridirons come alive, saltwater anglers from Virginia to Texas know it's time to take to the water for some of the year's best spotted seatrout fishing. A feisty opponent on light tackle and delicious when fried or broiled, this species -- also know as speckled trout or simply specks -- holds a well-deserved place at the top of the inshore favorites' list.
The key to finding fall seatrout is locating the schools of bait they are chasing. Photo by Capt. Spud Woodward.
From April through September, seatrout are in spawning mode, gathering for the nocturnal ritual up to four times each month. Fertilized eggs sink in brackish and fresh water, so trout limit their movements to areas close to the ocean. Once spawning season concludes, schools of seatrout move away from those salty waters searching for calories to replenish energy reserves. As water temperatures fall, and the days grow shorter, the urge to feed intensifies. The fish instinctually know winter's coming and the pickings may be slim.
THE MOVEABLE FEAST
In a well-choreographed production repeated each autumn, ravenous seatrout head up into bays and estuaries intersecting schools of shrimp, mullet, and menhaden outbound to the open ocean. Migrating baitfish and crustaceans use the deeper channels and waterways as travel corridors, occasionally spilling onto shallower areas to feed and seek refuge from predators. Structure creates eddies concentrating this moveable feast and providing the perfect place for a seatrout to conserve energy while lying in wait for an easy meal.
On higher stages of the tide, prospect the edges of flooded marshes, especially areas where small waterways intersect the shoreline, submerged oyster shell reefs, or around potholes and channels in grass flats. As the tide falls, trout move to the mouths of tidal creeks, the down-current edges of sandbars, and drop-offs near the oyster reefs. Manmade structure such as rock jetties, channel markers and docks hold fish at all stages of the tide.
A reliable sign that baitfish are in the vicinity is feeding birds, either shorebirds such as gulls and terns or wading birds like egrets and herons. Frenzied shrimp skipping across the water's surface or showers of baitfish driven airborne betray the presence of feeding predators below. Last but not least, pay attention to the location of other anglers. Often, several schools of trout will be in the same zone of an estuary or bay, affording you an opportunity to get in on the action without crowding those other anglers.
Since seatrout are on the move during this transition period, it pays to cover lots of territory. Be sure to check known hotspots, but don't get stuck in a rut and ignore places that look good but aren't on your hit list. In areas with moderate tidal currents, drift fishing is a viable option. In other locales, tidal currents move the boat too fast, so anchoring is the best option.
If you spend your time afloat in shallow water of 7 feet or less, there are quite a few alternatives to the traditional anchor-and-chain combo. Composite material anchor pins with or without fixed brackets are sold under brand names such as Stick It (www.stickitanchorpins.com) or Stay Put Fishing (www.stayputfishing.com) offer a low-cost albeit manual option. If you prefer a hands-free, power-assisted device, then choose the Power Pole (www.power-pole.com), a hydraulic, remotely controlled shallow-water anchoring system. A combo of the two allows you to literally parallel park the boat next to fish-holding structure so anglers on bow, stern and amidships can share in the action.
GET MY DRIFT?
Despite their lively disposition when hooked, seatrout have an energy efficient approach to feeding. They position themselves in the water column relative to structure so they can ambush prey moving in tidal currents. It can be hard to pinpoint these ambush spots from an above-water perspective, but there are often visible clues like the rips formed where two converging currents meet. Seatrout crowd into these ambush spots making it possible to catch dozens of fish from an area half the size of your boat. What's the best way to put natural bait or lures in the strike zone?
In regions where tides rise and fall dramatically and the currents run hard inshore veterans rely on the depth-adjustable slip float matched to a 7- or 8-foot casting rod and level-wind reel to put live baits, especially shrimp, over and around structure. Free-spool the reel, letting the float rig and bait drift in a natural fashion.
Modern superbraid lines, with their combination of low stretch and built-in buoyancy, are the best choice for the main line when slip-float fishing, but switch to an 8- to 12-pound mono or fluorocarbon leader between the hook and weight. Be sure to set the drag with moderate tension or you find yourself losing fish to pulled hooks.
Another option, first popularized in the Gulf of Mexico but now firmly entrenched along the Atlantic Coast, is the rattling float. With a flick of the wrist, this combination of wire, float and beads creates fish-attracting sound and imparts an up-and-down action to whatever is suspended beneath. Paired with a mono or fluorocarbon leader in a length to match the water depth and a 1/4-ounce jig head, the rattling float works especially well with scent-impregnated soft baits like the GULP! ALIVE! swimming mullet and shrimp patterns. Weight-integrated shrimp imitations such as a D.O.A. shrimp or Bett's Halo Shrimp also perform great under a rattling float.
Some anglers forego float rigs choosing instead to use a light spinning outfit to live-line natural baits like shrimp, finger mullet, cocahoe minnows and pinfish. Connect a 1/0 conventional Aberdeen or Kahle style hook to the main line using a 3-foot section of 12-pound fluorocarbon leader. Cast to likely spots where baits can drift in the current over and around fish-holding structure. Add a small split shot about 12 inches above the hook to improve casting.
Color choices for artificials run the gamut from traditional hues like smoke, watermelon and chartreuse to more exotic combinations like electric chicken and lime tiger glow. Red-and-white baits are reliable trout producers probably because of the contrast created by the two colors. Make sure you carry a full range from light to dark, and experiment to find the right selection to match the conditions.