The Speckled Coast

Anglers fitted out with the proper equipment and applying the right tactics can catch speckled trout all along the Gulf Coast this month. (January 2007)

Capt. Skip James caught this big speck under a Paradise Popper.
Photo by Chester Moore Jr.

Coastal anglers looking to score on speckled trout have plenty of options for 2007. Major hurricanes left a big question mark as to the quality of the fishery in many areas, but the Gulf ecosystem proved resilient, with worthwhile trout action reported in every region. And in the late-winter/early-spring period, some of the best fishing in the state is in remote marshes along the coast.

"For the last few years we have been catching trout up to 10 pounds along the canals in the canals that wind through the marshes on the coast," said guide Capt. Skip James. "The big fish congregate in unusually large numbers in small areas like some of the canals cut through the marsh by trappers years ago. You have to search these fish out.

"What you want to look for is mullet. You don't necessarily have to find a lot of mullet, but when you find some mullet bodied up, there is a good chance you will find trout."

Another thing to look out for is a concentration of alligator garfish. Lots of big gar haunt the marshes, and for some unknown reason the trout hang out with them in the winter and early spring. Anglers have actually been known to sight-cast to trout swimming with gar.

"What we're targeting those fish with is slow-sinking lures like the Chatter Tube and MirrOlure Catch 5," explained James. "The fish want a slow approach this time of year -- and that is something I cannot emphasize enough: You need to fish slow, slow, slow and not expect the trout just to slam your lure. Sometimes all you will feel on your line is a little pressure, and it ends up being a 7-pounder."

"We catch some big trout in the early spring on topwater lures," noted charter captain Buddy Oakes.

Once again, concentrations of mullet are the sign to watch for, although last year, shrimp abounded in the system. "It was strange," Oakes said. "There was a whole lot of shrimp out there, and that was what the trout were keying in a lot of the time. We heard that from anglers all along the coast."

Another crucial area to fish at this time of year is the Intracoastal Canal, which runs the length of the coast. Trout like the sanctuary of deep water, which features stable temperatures in the cold months, and anglers who learn which areas hold fish and which are the ones that they move to can score when others are catching nothing.

Certain things visible to the naked eye will give you a hint as to where the fish might be. First off, if you actually see "nervous water," or detect mullet near the surface, you've obviously found a likely starting place. Second, any area near a cut, or that flows even minimally into a marsh or lake, is definitely worth probing, as the exchange of water from shallow to deep makes for a prime spot in which predators can catch their prey.

Now, back to that term "nervous water," which simply describes water in which predators are feeding and pushing baitfish to the surface. My first choice for fishing nervous water in the channel at this time of year is a Rat-L-Trap, the chrome model with a black back being particularly apt for clearer water and a straight-up chartreuse version useful when conditions are murky, as is often the case in spring.

Make pattern casts parallel to shorelines, as bait schools typically stretch out along them. The Rat-L-Trap is a smart choice, as you can cast it in the wind and get some distance out of it.

If the baitfish are acting nervous over a dropoff or a shallow flat, switch to a topwater lure. Many worthwhile types are out there, but my favorite is the Skitter Walk. Top Dog Jrs., She-Dogs and Super Spooks are other possible picks.

Start fishing topwaters parallel to the shore, but then gradually move back so you can fish the plug from the shallows out past the dropoff. These spots will typically hold some fish, especially if some flow is entering the channel. Trout favor feeding right along the edge of the deep drop, where they ambush baitfish. This sort of spot is perfect for fishing topwaters or slow-sinking plugs like a Corky Devil. If you do use a slow sinker, make sure that you let it work the shallows before it falls over the edge of the dropoff.

Dropoffs needn't fall into impressive chasms. Some of the most productive ones amount to no more than 3 feet of water falling off into 6. That might not seem like much to us -- but to a fish it's a significant change.

Points are another crucial type of feature to target. The point of an island adjacent to a marsh flowing into the channel would represent an ideal combination of elements. Pay attention to the point itself, but more important, check out the "secondary point," which will only be visible on your graph. The main point might extend out to 10 feet of water, whereas the point below it might be sitting out on a shelf in 16 feet of water.

Baitfish will gather around these points, as will specks, which use them as transition zones when moving between shallow and deep water. Fluctuating water temperatures at this time of year spur quite a bit of deep-to-shallow movement.

Finally we come to the jetty systems along the coast, which represent a winter option too much overlooked. Admittedly, large numbers of trout don't haunt these until later in the spring, but some big fish are there to be caught by anglers willing to give the jetties a try.

Trolling at a slow pace is one of the best methods for getting the big, elusive specks to bite. Novice jetty anglers tend to think that trout are present at every rock along the jetty wall. Not true: Trout will bond to specific pieces of structure, and if you can see them, you can troll directly to them. Many times these fish are tightly bunched.

Look at a jetty, and it'll be obvious that a lot of structure is present around the top. The base of the structure, however, usually has more structure, and more trout, the rocks at the bottom typically extending out three times farther, such that a jetty 10 feet wide at the top is 30 feet wide at the bottom. Trout will often hover around one small piece of rock; at one jetty I frequent, they gather around a boat wreck within easy casting distance of the rocks.

I've had some success with using crankbaits for trolling. Hellbenders, deepwater plugs designed for walleyes and striped bass up north, have worked on a few nice specks deep along the channel during winter. I simp

ly looked for big balls of baitfish on the graph, trolled right over those spots and caught some specks.

Using deep-diving crankbaits like the Hellbender and shallower plugs like the Fat Free Shad or Bomber 9A might provide a means whereby anglers can get to trout in the channel when bay systems are flooded. I often hear the complaint: "The trout are out deep, since it's flooded." Well -- why not go after them? Salt water is heavier than fresh, so even when it might seem that all hope is lost, crankbaits can allow you to get down to the trout in this deeper water.

At this time of year, trout fishing can be tricky, but anglers willing to give some highly focused (and somewhat unusual) tactics a go will find catching a true trophy trout a very attainable goal.

Get Your Fish On.

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