Dawn arrives early this month, with over 15 hours of daylight available for anglers to chase their favorite quarry across the breathtaking estuary associated with Winyah Bay.

But the first and last 90 minutes of each day will matter the most for kindred spirits on opposite ends of the food chain. Fishermen who target speckled trout and their treasured prey share similar hunting strategies, scanning the upper horizon for unsuspecting quarry.

While speckled trout shift to the front page over the fall and winter months in South Carolina, the summer topwater bite can be one of the best of the year.

Finger mullet, peanut menhaden and small shrimp have plenty to worry about under the amber-colored skies of the early morning. Snaggletoothed trout patrol the shallow, oyster-laden points and current rips for their breakfast and a late-afternoon snack just as the sun rises and sets.

During summer months, specks primarily feed under the stars and moon, but they will take advantage of the low light at dawn and dusk, leaving the safe zone of their deep-water retreats to feed. They can locate prey through vibrations via their lateral lines, but they also rely on sight to locate their next meals.

Those low-light conditions play to the fisherman's strength, with topwater lures sloshing across the surface absolutely irresistible to a patrolling sow trout.

Gene Dickson of Delta Guide Service keeps tabs on specks all summer long in the bays and marshes around Georgetown, but he especially relishes these first few precious minutes of the daylight.

"When you can distinguish the colors of grasses into greens, whites, yellows and reds, it is usually when the big trout are tearing up the surface," Dickson said.

Early morning hours are a prime feeding period for summer specks. They patrol the shallows, crashing on small baitfish and shrimp swept up by the current. Dickson rarely skims across the bay at dawn without a walk-the-dog-type surface lure tied on and ready for deployment.

"The big ones will show up on surface lures during this time of year," he said.

Unfortunately, the surface bite will usually have a short shelf life during the early part of the day.

Nevertheless, weather conditions will dictate the extent of the early topwater action. Foggy, overcast or otherwise cloudy days prevent sunlight from reaching the water, often prolonging the topwater bite up into the day, but eventually trout will migrate from their shallow ambush points and drop back into deeper water.

"Trout are not real strong swimmers, and (they) are easy prey for marine mammals in shallow water," Dickson said.

Specks will slide into the shallows to ambush baitfish and shrimp, and Georgetown's estuaries are equipped with ideal habitat.

Winyah Bay is anchored by many shallow oyster flats, shell/marsh islands, jetty rocks and feeder creeks, with significant deep-water refuge nearby to give trout protection from predation.

Steve Roff of Barrier Island Guide Service targets summer specks along these oyster bars, points of islands and small feeder creeks in the bay.

"I like to fish shallow-water oyster bars adjacent to water with at least 5 feet of depth at low tide," Roff said. "On the mud flats, look for the points of islands and small creeks that feed into the flat."

Even though trout can frenetically chase their prey when needed, they like to expend as little energy as possible; they like to set up along bottlenecks, points and other seams where baitfish get swept up in fast-moving currents.

"Trout are opportunistic, taking advantage of current rips and structure that creates easy opportunities for feeding," Roff said.

Winyah Bay's prime trout areas will have swift current for most of the day, with the exception being the top and bottom of the tide cycles. Speckled trout like ebbing or flooding currents.

Dickson plays those currents and likes to target ambush spots on the shell islands adjacent to the Winyah Bay shipping channel.

"On the rise fish inside of the banks, and fish the outside during outgoing water for most of the shell banks," he said. "Fish the moving water."

Depending on water depth and whether they can intercept baitfish or shrimp passing by in the current, trout will position themselves on various sides of structure. Winyah Bay and North Inlet have waters at variable depths close to oyster bars, mud flats and grassy knolls.

The generous tidal range provides numerous places for trout to set up and ambush passing food.

While Roff will catch fish on the downcurrent side of the structure, he prefers to aim his topwater offerings just upcurrent of the obstruction. He often allows baitfish passing through an area to show him where to fish.

"Whether (the tide is) rising or falling, the bait will move accordingly," he said. "Get in the flow of bait and fish across the current with topwater plugs."

While Roff has preferred spots throughout the bay, many of these areas will change from day to day depending on the conditions.

"Get in the mind-set of fishing conditions rather than fishing particular spots," he said. "Try to consider the wind direction, wind intensity, current flow, and boat position and always look for active bait."

While Roff and Dickson catch trout in a variety of areas, but the shell banks in the mouth of Muddy Bay are prime waters for encountering speckled trout on surface lures.

Additionally, the marsh island edges and the feeder creeks adjacent to and in Muddy Bay are fruitful. Across the marsh, North Inlet's oyster-lined main-creek edges and shoals near the inlet will hold significant schools of trout.

Specks will set up shop during the summer in just about any area with an abundance of forage and adequate ambush spots.

Georgetown's jetties hold trophy trout during the summer, and Roff and Dickson routinely catch true gator trout around the rocks on topwater baits during low-light conditions.

But during the summer, prime spots along the jetties are very specific and localized.

"Many of our larger trout on topwater have come from the waters adjacent to the jetty rocks close to the beach in 3- to 3-foot depths," Roff said.

Deciding which topwater plug to use can be confusing because of the myriad shapes, lengths, colors and rattle tones available. While many of these lures will catch trout, surface walkers or walk-the-dog type lures are considered the best for trout.

"Bigger baits will just about only catch big fish, but smaller baits will catch a variety of big and small fish," Dickson said.

Fish lack the ability to distinguish colors as humans do, but they have some way to recognize shades and hues. Dickson experiments with different colors patterns and various rattle pitches until he finds the one that works best.

"Try to use some dark and then some light color patterns to determine which ones work best each day on the water," he said.

While lure choice has its merits, the action and retrieve are the most-important tactic to master to produce the most strikes and hook-ups.

Dickson prefers to keep his topwaters on the move to mimic an injured baitfish attempting to evade a trout lurking below, but sometimes a stop-and-go action after a strike will trigger a return hit.

"If you get a strike, let it play dead for five seconds, and then twitch: The fish will reflex smash it," he said.

Another plus for topwaters is the abundance and variety of forage, including finger mullet, menhaden, glass minnows and shrimp, piling into Winyah Bay. And all of these bait species are vulnerable to a trophy sow trout looking for a good meal before spawning.

"Always keep a topwater plug rigged and ready in summer, for larger trout will be aggressive and willing to strike surface walkers with a vengeance," Roff said.

 

DESTINATION INFORMATION

WHEN TO GO/WHERE TO GO/HOW TO GET THERE: The topwater bite on speckled trout begins in late April and runs through the fall. The influx of baitfish and shrimp makes the May-June time frame especially productive. Georgetown is most-easily accessed north and south from US 17 and US 701; from inland, US 521 and SC 51 are good approaches. Three main public boat ramps serve the area: the South Island Ferry ramp southeast of Georgetown on South Island Road, the East Bay Park landing at the ballpark in downtown Georgetown, and the Carroll Campbell Landing on the Sampit River at US 17.

FIND 'EM/CATCH 'EM: Trout will feed in areas near deep water with consistent current flow, and near abrupt depth changes around marsh islands, oyster rocks and jetties. Fish will set up on both sides of structure and current rips ambushing bait. Work the current seams with topwaters. Along the jetties, fish the first third of the rocks off the shoreline where the water is three to six feet deep. Surface walkers such three to five inches long are preferred, including Zara Spook Jr., Top Dog Jr., Skitterwalk and Badonkadonks. Use a variety of dark and light colors. Typically, darker colors work better on overcast days, and lighter colors are preferred on bright and clear days. Speed should be alternated on each cast with the occasional pause. Often, strikes will occur at the pauses. Baitcasting and spinning gear perform equally well, but rods should be at least seven feet long, with a medium-heavy action, because long casts are required. Braided line in the 10- to 14-pound class is preferred.

GUIDES/CHARTERS: Gene Dickson, Delta Guide Service, (843) 546-3645 or www.deltaguideservice.com; Steve Roff, Barrier Island Guide Service, (843) 446-7337 or www.barrierislandguide.com. See also GUIDES & CHARTERS in Classifieds.

ACCOMMODATIONS: Georgetown Area Visitors Center, www.visitgeorgetown.com; Myrtle Beach Area Convention and Visitors Bureau, www.mbchamber.com; South Carolina Association of Visitors Bureaus, www.discoversouthcarolina.com.

MAPS: Navionics, 800-848-5896 or www.navionics.com, Waterproof Charts (Nearshore #98), (800) 423-9026 or www.waterproofcharts.com; SeaLake Fishing Guides, (800) 411-0185, www.sealakeusa.com.