A typical inshore fishing report in March or April might comment that, “The trout fishing is starting to crank back up” after the winter. Fall reports have touted ample available catches of speckled trout “until the water cools off.”
News flash, folks. Unless an extreme cold snap results in a cold-stun and fish kill, plenty of trout are around to be had through the winter and especially in February — you just need to know where to look for them.
To learn how to find and catch them, you turn to an expert like Jeff Yates of TyJo Knot Charters in Mt Pleasant.
“Once the water temperature drops below 60 degrees, that’s what ushers in what I consider to be the free-lining season, the time I free-line an artificial bait deep and slow,” Yates said. “Prior to that, it’s still live-bait season and all the ways you present live bait, but the way I free-line an artificial bait is different. It’s a subtle presentation that works in part because the trout aren’t moving as fast and because the trash fish that would normally hit the bait first are gone.”
Many anglers automatically think of deep holes in deep channels when winter trout are discussed, but Yates believes in finding deep holes in what would otherwise be considered shallow water. It’s this terrain that makes him overly fond of winter fishing in the Wando River and the smaller connectors and tributaries off the ICW, but the pattern is just as effective nearly anywhere along the coast, providing you find the right kinds of spots.
Yates narrows his efforts to smaller, narrow creeks that will still hold around 10 feet of water at low tide. These places are not hard to find within sight of bigger, more pressured, waterways like the ICW, but the secret to Yates’ success is finding smaller, deep cuts and holes off the beaten path.
“A lot of people fish their summer spots in the winter, and they don’t catch anything because these fish move,” Yates said. “The colder it gets, the deeper they go. You could probably find trout in the Wando hugging the bottom out in the middle of the river, I just don’t fish in 25 feet of water because it’s too hard to get a subtle presentation that deep.
“To catch them, you’ve got to go to those deep, protected holes in the backs of the creeks — I’m talking eight or nine feet of water — and fish down low.”
For Yates, the art of free-lining artificial bait revolves around one particular bait: a D.O.A. shrimp. He was already a fan of the versatile bait long before he met and fished with Mark Nichols, the owner of D.O.A. and the lure’s designer, and what he learned on that convinced him of the bait’s effectiveness.
“He explained to me that he got the idea of the design when he put a live shrimp in a tank and timed it to see how long it took to swim to the bottom,” Yates said. “He then set out to develop a bait in a quarter-ounce weight class to sink at that same rate.”
Nichols actually observed more about the shrimp than just its sink rate. He found that the animal’s direction of travel was different than what most anglers believed.
“I was raised pulling a shrimp net and selling them for bait in Texas,” said Nichols. “I was always fascinated by the way they would just kind of glide down while everybody would say ‘Oh, they only go backwards.’” But I’m saying they really only go backwards when they’re getting eaten, and the other 99 percent of the time, they’re crawling along the bottom or swimming. So I wanted something that would have a real nice, slow, natural drop the way a shrimp swims down in the water column. That’s what really gets the fish’s attention.”
More than just the bait was a validation for Yates that trout would readily feed in cold water, if and only if he could get the bait down to the fish at the correct level and with the correct presentation.
“Part of what makes free-lining work is that there’s a line attached to the bait,” said Yates. “If you just threw a bait in the water without a string on it, it would just, Bam! hit the bottom. But when you have the resistance of that string, and a little bit of moving water, it tends to sink as fast a live shrimp swims down. So, if you’re winding it too fast or you’re bumping it too often, it’s not going to have the free-fall effect.”
As indicated, current plays an integral part in Yates’ free-ling for trout. He prefers to fish around low tide, which tends to concentrate fish in low-lying areas, even during the winter when they’re bunched tight anyway. He will position his boat perpendicular to a deep hole or cut and cast the bait upstream, allowing the current to sweep it back to the fish.
“I like fishing docks, or rather, between docks,” he said. “The back side of a floating dock is usually the mark of the ledge. The front side is where it drops off. That’s where the Coastal Council says you can put your dock. If you’ve got a row of docks down a creek in a curve, it’s giving you the layout where the ledge is. I like to throw in between the docks. Let the bait sink back there, bring it out over that ledge and let it drop off that ledge. That’s where you get your hit.”
“Like most of our inshore fishing, it’s basically a moving-water affair,” he said. “That’s the trick. When the tide goes slack, pretty much all fishing stops for about 30 to 45 minutes. You’ve got to have the running water, so long as it’s not too fast. You can catch them right when the tide turns, if you know the right area to sit in.”
“A trout ain’t gonna eat it if the current ain’t moving,” said Nichols, “and keep in mind, the fish will always be facing into the tide, so let the bait come to him. Cast it upcurrent and just let the tide sweep it for you. If you’ve fished with Jeff, you’ve found that at the end of that sweep, a lot of times, that’s when they eat it. Just when it’s starting to switch, the bait finds that magic happy spot and the trout jump all over it.”
One concern clouds the horizon for winter trout fishing along South Carolina’s coast. Three years ago, frigid temperatures took a huge toll on speckled trout, which have rebounded dramatically. This year’s concern is for the predicted, colder-than-average winter.
“Three to four years ago, we had extremely cold temperatures that dropped water temperatures to the 40- to 41-degree mark for two to three weeks at a time and killed 80 percent of our trout,” Yates said. “Last year, we had a very mild winter, and it seems like that’s all they needed, one good winter, and they were kind of back. In years past, up until those two bad winters, we were having some really good trout fishing because we had several winters in a row that were mild. I guess we’ll just have to see if we’re going to have to endure Mother Nature’s way of cleaning out the river again this winter.”
WHERE TO GO/HOW TO GET THERE — The Intracoastal Waterway crosses Charleston Harbor northeast to Mount Pleasant and parallels the coast to Georgetown. The Wando River’s headwaters are in the Francis Marion National Forest; it converges with the Cooper River at Daniel Island. Both waterways provide access to smaller tributaries that are perfect winter fishing spots for spotted trout in the Charleston/Mount Pleasant area. Several landings, public and private, allow excellent access to the river and ICW:
• Paradise Landing. Northeast of Mount Pleasant, off US 17 at the end of CR 1453;
• Remley’s Point. Mount Pleasant, off County Road 56, just north of US 17 at the foot of the bridge across the Cooper River.
• Isle Of Palms Marina. 50 41st Ave., Isle of Palms, 843-886-0209.
TECHNIQUES/TACKLE — Speckled trout are usually found in deep holes and along channel breaks through January. Fish will be schooled tightly and will feed until the water temperature drops below 50 degrees. Trout will be found holding along sharp drops and the deeper ends of structure such as boat docks and oyster bars and drainage areas. Free-lining soft-plastic artificial shrimp, such as the D.O.A., by positioning your boat perpendicular to the area. Cast the bait upcurrent and allow the tide to drift the bait into the strike zone as it achieves the correct depth just above the bottom. Another possibility is to use a ½-ounce weight to Carolina rig the bait into the area. The better fishing occurs two hours on either side of low tide.
GUIDES/FISHING INFO — Capt. Jeff Yates, TyJo Knot Charters, 843-270-8956, www.inshorefishingcharleston.com; Mark Nichols, D.O.A. Lures, 772-287-5001, www.doalures.com. See also Guides and Charters in Classifieds.
ACCOMMODATIONS — Charleston Area Convention and Visitors Bureau, 800-774-0006, www.charlestoncvb.com.
MAPS — Maps Unique, 910-458-9923, www.mapsunique.com; Grease Chart by Nautical Publications, 800-326-3567, www.greasechart.com; Capt. Seagulls’s Nautical Charts, 888-473-4855, www.captainseagullcharts.com; Sealake Fishing Guides, 800-411-0185, www.thegoodspots.com.