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December is here and that means speckled trout season in Brunswick County.
Each year anglers begin their annual pursuit of the beautiful and aggressive specks as they roam inshore and in the surf in large schools, hitting a variety of baits and lures and running the tides at both predictable and totally unpredictable times.
Unfortunately, the biggest news in trout fishing this year is the new North Carolina size and creel limits. Recreational anglers can now keep only four speckled trout with a 14-inch size limit.
The politics of this fisheries move have been debated endlessly, but regardless of whether you agree with the new limits or not, they are here and must be dealt with by speck addicts. As someone who loves to cook trout, a four-fish limit is hard to take, but that’s the law of the land now and will likely be for while.
The new limits will no doubt lead to fishermen targeting larger specks. You will want to get into some good-sized fish if you can so if you are just practicing catch and release you don’t have to deal with a lot of small spike trout. If you are planning on finding four keepers for dinner you will need to get into nice-sized trout as well.
Cold-water trout fishing along the southern North Carolina and upper South Carolina coast takes place in two areas: inshore and in the surf.
Most of the specks will be inside in the rivers, waterways, creeks and inlets. They will be around bridges, docks, marsh grass and wherever feeder creeks empty food into larger waters.
The other population of speckled trout goes outside into the surf and roams the beachfront. These can be a frustratingly hard group to find, but if you get into some wintertime speck surf fishing action, it is terrific fun.
All speckled trout feed heavily on shrimp and small fish. Studies show shrimp make up the largest percentage of the diet of most speckled trout, but that the larger trout (all females) prefer live fish like mullet, pogies, pinfish and small croaker and spot. These large specks tend to be loners and will even gobble up little trout. However, simply upsizing your lures for just the schooling trout will also have the effect of targeting bigger fish.
Specks will stay active as long as the water temperature is higher than 56 degrees, but they can sometimes be caught in water as low as 48 degrees. Both surf and inshore trout favor deep holes, especially around places near shallow water, where bait gathers.
Specks are intolerant of extreme cold and harsh winters can cause trout stuns or kills in the Carolinas like the ones that occurred in recent years. Fortunately, the results from the fall indicate the speck populations of Brunswick County and northern South Carolina are in good shape.
Trout can be caught in many ways. While shrimp are still in local waters, live shrimp fished under a float is the top method. You can also fish live bait like mud minnows, finger mullet or pinfish on the bottom for them. The sliding depth of float rigs allows you to experiment and find out where they are feeding.
Trout run the tides, so even at areas such as bridges and jetties they will only be active when the current really gets moving. Like red drum and flounder, they are drawn to hard structures, where the food will be, and key on wayward or wounded shrimp and minnows struggling in the current.
Specks have only a few prominent front teeth and wire spooks them, so use fluorocarbon or heavy mono line as leader material and shun wire. Fishing line of 8 to 12 pounds is sufficient, and rods should be from 6 feet, 6 inches to 9-0 in length. Use as little weight as the current will allow, from a few split shot to a few ounces, though heavy current can make you go up in weight.
Eventually sometime around mid- or late December, most baitfish like pinfish will leave inshore waters and the surf. Live bait like slow moving mullet school and mud minnows can still be found, but it is harder work. By this time trout anglers have turned to artificial lures, which are more fun and efficient anyway.
Many tackle companies now offer scented soft baits and most of them work just fine. Shrimp-bodies are popular, but larger fluke or shad soft baits that resemble bigger baitfish will target larger trout.
There was a debate among anglers over whether scented baits and sprays really worked, but that argument has been settled. Although once these extra scents were ineffective, science has really caught up to sportfishing. Scented lures and spray ons or injected scents are now a mainstay of winter speckled trout fishing.
Among the most fun ways of catching trout are hard lures such as the famous MirrOlure plugs. Many saltwater topwater and crankbait lures are now marketed for speckled trout and they work, resembling mullet, glass minnows, pinfish and other big speck baits.
Plugs are appreciated by surf fishermen as they have the casting weight to throw in the surf, whereas soft baits are often not effective, especially if there is any wind (and some of the windiest days are great trout days).
The most important rule as we head into December and winter fishing: the colder the water, the slower you retrieve. The difference starts out subtle but can make a huge difference. In the dead of winter sometimes you don’t need to retrieve your lure at all, a process called deadsticking. But in most cases, a slow retrieve with occasional hops and pauses is the key to cold-water trout fishing.
Trout stay inshore all year, along with the red and black drum. As the water gets colder, the fishing gets more difficult and some days may convince you that all the speckled trout have abandoned the inshore waters and the surf for the winter. That isn’t the case, however, and for many local anglers winter is the best fishing of the year. You just have to get out and find them, stay calm and not get into a hurry. Once you find a good trout spot, odds are they will be back the next day, when the tide is right, and that can be true year after year.
Then again, some days they won’t appear at all. But that’s trout fishing, and as always, it’s full of frustration and fun.
As we move toward Christmas don’t forget my new fishing book “Surf and Saltwater Fishing in the Carolinas.” It makes a great stocking stuffer for an angler at an inexpensive price. You can purchase it by going to www.surfandsalt.com.