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Late November is the time many casual anglers pack up their fishing rods for spring, while a different breed of fishermen starts to get serious. These are the speckled-trout fanatics, a hardy cult who brave cold weather and biting wind to go after its favorite target with a bewildering variety of baits and lures that may or may not work, depending on the mood of this fickle fish.
Specks do not go far during the winter, and some of them go nowhere. One batch wanders out to the ocean side and can be found in the surf, as well as from ocean piers (which doesn’t help much, since it’s hard to get on an ocean pier after they have closed for the winter). They are within the reach of surf fishermen, however, and this resilient group will don waders against the chilly waves and toss lures to them.
Some of the piers are still open for a little while, and anglers have a chance to get in on these ocean-roaming trout.
Dave Cooper, owner of he Ocean Crest Pier, says live shrimp is by far the best bait if you can find enough still out there to use for a day’s fishing.
From the piers, folks toss out float rigs that keep the shrimp near the top of the water, where the roving specks can find them. Cooper cautions, though, trout depth is variable based on water clarity, so an angler must be willing to adapt.
“The float rig will produce just fine if the water is clear,” Cooper says. “Generally, water quality should be used to determine whether it’s better to fish 3 feet down from the surface or from the bottom with a typical weighted rig sans the float. If the top of the water column is sandy, I’d recommend fishing from the bottom 3 feet up.”
Anglers seeking specks from the beach usually fish a little differently from drum or panfish seekers. For one thing, wading fishermen in the surf often throw lures at trout. The most traditional of these is the dependable MirrOlure, with popular models like the TT and 52M now joined by many styles favored by fishing guides. Other plugs like Rebel minnows and Rat-L-Traps, as well as Kastmaster spoons, are popular with surf anglers because they cast a long way, which is a must when trying to reach the specks from the white water.
Although the piers will close by December, trout fishing will just be picking up. More specks stay in inside waters than head to the ocean, and these fish gather in large schools swirling around well-known local spots, picking off whatever bait is left in the water. These specks are slower and more wary than at any other time of the year, and just making a loud drop of the anchor can guarantee you a few hours without a fish.
They are out there, though. If you have live bait, like shrimp or mullet minnows, use them while you can. The schools of bait are huddled up, too, hanging out around structure and hiding in the sea grass. Wise trout anglers wait for the outgoing tide to focus on places where specks are drawn to this bait as it leaves safer habitat.
Inshore trout are common at jetties, bridges, tidal creeks and anywhere baitfish are likely to gather. It is not an easy thing to predict when they will appear, or when they will hit, but they do come back to the same places year after year.
Sometimes lucky anglers find a trout bite takes place at the same time and tide each day for a week or so. Specks are also famous for hitting at dawn and at sundown, although in very cold weather they may wait to begin striking in the morning until the water heats up a little bit.
Eventually, all inshore anglers will turn to lures to try to catch trout. In the past few years a large number of speck fans have gravitated to the Gulp! line of soft baits.
Gulp! baits are trailers (sort of like old plastic grubs) usually fished behind lead head jigs of 3/8 or ¼ ounces. They have a makeup and scent that imitates live bait very well. The most popular styles with speck fishermen are the shrimp bodies and the jerk bait styles, usually 3 or 4 inches in length. Popular colors include green, white, penny, pink and the inevitable electric chicken (don’t ask).
Other shrimp-style lures have also become big sellers when the trout anglers are buying. A lot of these are fished under popping corks just as if they were live shrimp.
Of course there are still a lot of folks who go with old-style jig and grub combinations, such as redheaded curly-tailed jigs, and trout, unaware of the latest market trends, still hit these lures. MirrOlures and other plugs have their place inshore as well.
One thing to remember is the colder the water gets the slower you need to fish your lure. Different retrieves work at different times. Sometimes trout want some jerks and jags in the lures they hit, while sometimes a simple steady retrieve or even a slow crawl will work.
The N.C. state record speck is 12 pounds, 4 ounces and was caught in Wrightsville Beach in 1962. Most specks are much smaller, although heavyweights in the 6- to 8-pound range do roam our waters. Trout fillets are delicious, and you can keep 10 a day above 12 inches.
The best advice for trout fishing is probably to keep varying your approach until you catch one. Then, just keep doing what you’re doing.
JEFFREY WEEKS is a fishing columnist for the Beacon. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.