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Cold-water fishing has begun in Brunswick County, and that means local anglers targeting the big three low-temperature inshore fish: speckled trout, redfish and black drum. It is important to know how to catch each species and what the regulations are for keeping or releasing them.
The saltwater fish most identified with cold weather in our region is the speckled trout. Although there were fears about the local population after a harsh winter last year, so far this year the trout bite has been very good. Some big specks have been landed and the smaller ones are schooling in the usual places.
Big changes have come to speckled trout regulations in the last few weeks, however. The Marine Fisheries Commission, in response to years of overfishing of specks by both recreational and commercial fishermen, have placed strict limits on both types of trout fishing that should be law by the time you read this. Instead giving them to you (as this is a changing area of law) please visit the DMF website at http://portal.ncdenr.org/web/mf/ and get the latest speckled trout rules.
As a recreational angler, you can keep fewer trout than ever in North Carolina. A reasonable size limit is in place, but the reduced creel is going to hurt trout fishermen who drive down to the coast and spend a lot of money on gas and tackle just to get out on the water for a few fish. Catch-and-release trout fishing is becoming more popular, however.
Speckled trout are most easily caught by live shrimp under a popping cork or float. Live minnows on Carolina rigs will take their share, finger mullet, mud minnows, and pinfish.
I prefer switching over to lures for trout at this time of the year. The scented soft baits such as the Gulp and Fishbites brands are deadly on schooling specks, and hard plugs like MirrOlures catch the larger-sized fish many anglers will be targeting now that the creel is reduced.
You can also use the shrimp-imitating scented bodies marketed by DOA, Betts and other companies. Fish these just like live shrimp, with only a little movement, as the water gets colder. The local Carolina-based company Sea Striker sells many good trout rigs and plastic bodies available at great prices in our Brunswick County tackle shops.
Redfish (red drum) will be schooling in larger and larger pods as the water cools. The redfish bite in Brunswick County, and especially to the south of us in northern South Carolina, has been amazing since midsummer, so this should be a great winter for them.
Redfish love to hit live shrimp and minnows as well as trout do, although they are also caught more often by cut baits, especially really fresh mullet and shrimp. Red drum also hit lures readily, including all the scented soft baits and top water plugs in shallow water.
Redfish are great fighters on light tackle but are often released because the North Carolina limit is one redfish per day in an 18- to 27-inch slot. The local inshore cold- water red drum can run anywhere from 14 to 30 inches. The key to catching them is staying quiet and not spooking the big schools. Some boaters switch from trolling motors to long push poles to target cold-water redfish.
If you are as into seafood recipes and fish cooking as I am, don’t let all the size and creel limits send you into complete despair. There is one obliging North Carolina fish that can be caught from November until spring and are perfect for eating. These are the undervalued black drum that I turn my attention to most as the weather cools.
Small black drum in about 14 to 20 inches are delicious eating, and they have no size limits in North Carolina. Black drum can get huge, up to 100 pounds, but the larger ones that have lost their stripes are not good eating and should always be released alive. Please do not kill a big black drum if you catch it but let it go to help keep the stock healthy.
Eating-size black drum are silver and white fish with big black stripes and sometimes are confused with sheepshead, another structure-dwelling fish that is much harder to catch. You can always tell a black drum by the “barbells” under their chins and that, unlike a sheepshead (which has small sharp teeth), the “teeth” of a black drum are powerful shellfish-chompers in their throats.
You catch black drum on bottom rigs around structures such as bridges, piers, rocks, rip-rap or docks. As the water gets colder and bait-stealing pinfish grow less prevalent, you can use really fresh cut shrimp. They also hit live shrimp, fiddler crabs, cut crab, clam meat and the Fishbites artificial bloodworms. Don’t ask me why black drum like the fake bloodworms during the winter, as their diet is usually shellfish, but trust me they do.
South Carolina has strict size limits on black drum (way too strict, for some reason) so stick to the North Carolina side to catch them. They are common around any old pilings and are also most active at night, especially around lights.
Some folks think Brunswick County fishing ends as the water gets cold around the holidays, but actually it gets much better for these three species. Just remember to keep up with the latest regulation.
On a last note, the sales of my new book “Surf and Saltwater Fishing in the Carolinas” have been wonderful and I have appreciated all the positive responses from Brunswick Beacon readers. The critics’ reviews are also in and universally positive, so if you are looking for an inexpensive Christmas present for a Carolina angler, check my book out at http://www.surfandsalt.com/surfandsaltwaterbook.html.