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A pattern of sunny days and chilly but not too-cold nights has inshore anglers chasing the usual winter suspects. Many folks are surprised to learn that winter fishing in Brunswick County actually gives anglers a decent chance to catch fish, but those who put away their rods and reels due to colder weather often miss some of the best action of the year.
As long as it doesn’t get bitterly cold, you still have a great shot at the schools of speckled trout and redfish as well as their lesser known but tasty cousins the black drum. They are holding now around points and hard structures, and everything is dependent on the tide.
Winter is a time when anglers watch the tide closely because fish are schooled tightly and they don’t expend as much energy as they do when the weather is warm. Instead they will hover in large slow-moving schools. They do this for protection from dolphins and birds that want to eat them, and because their winter-feeding pattern dictates that they pursue their own meals at a certain time and place.
Speckled trout stay inshore all year, although a few of them move out just off the beach and can be found in the surf. The inshore trout schools run the tides looking for food but not in any hurry. Winter trout fishing is usual feast or famine: either they are there or they are not. Only the biggest female gator trout roam in small pods and on their own, and hunting for them is almost a different sport from regular cold-water trout fishing.
When live bait is available it can be very effective in the winter. If the trout are there, they cannot resist live shrimp under a cork, as long as the water temperatures stay above about 50 degrees. Mud minnows will work as well and so will any live baitfish you can catch in you cast net.
Many cold-water fishermen don’t bother with bait, however, because lures are easier to use, less messy and more fun. MirrOlure plugs are good for trout, as are other hard twitchbaits and crankbaits, and they target larger fish.
You can’t always find the larger fish, however, so scented soft baits from companies like Gulp, Billy Bay and Fishbites are popular with anglers as well because trout of all sizes love them.
The key is to fish these baits slowly in the winter. Sometimes you won’t have to move a scented soft bait at all. In the right situation, you can just let the tide do the work and bring it to the trout. If not, a few nudges are often all that is needed.
Trout do not tolerate extreme cold well, which makes them prone to fish kills and stuns in the winter. We have seen this the past two years, but the speckled trout population appears to be pretty strong right now. So far this year, the mild weather has been perfect for fishing.
Redfish stay inshore all year and are even heartier than speckled trout. They school up in huge bunches and cruise darker banks on sunny days rooting for fiddler and blue crabs. You can target redfish with a variety of baits: Gulp or other scented lures, spoons, crab-imitation baits or cut mullet.
The big key is to remain quiet. Anchors and trolling motors will spook the large red drum schools and you’ll never get a chance to cast to them. Expert guides and redfish vets use long push poles to position their boats quietly and cast to redfish schools without them hearing a thing. This kind of sight-fishing can be very effective and a lot of fun in the cold, clear winter water.
Black drum never leave inshore waters and can be caught in many sizes during the winter, although they aren’t as prone to hitting lures as their cousins. You can catch them on the scented soft baits, but you aren’t going to fill your cooler with black drum that way.
Although black drum occasionally hit about any natural bait, if you really want to target them, you must find some hard structures and use shellfish baits.
Fresh or frozen shrimp, clam meat, cut blue crabs and fiddler crabs all work for black drum. Fish your baits right against whatever hard structures you are near, be it bridge, pier or dock. The bite of a black drum is deceptively soft, something like the pluck on a guitar string, but you’ll know he’s there after you set the hook.
The relative mildness of the winter so far has made for good fishing weather, and the fish have cooperated. After a couple of years of really tough weather, we have caught a break so far. So grab a rod and head to the water. Nothing tastes better in the winter than an unexpected meal of fresh fried fish fillets.
Jeffrey Weeks, author of “Surf and Saltwater Fishing in the Carolinas,” is a fishing columnist for the Beacon. You may reach him at email@example.com or follow updated fishing reports on his blog at http://saltyweeks.blogspot.com.