The Atlantic Intracoastal Waterway stretches 3,000 miles from New Jersey to Texas, built primarily as a safe haven for military and commercial transport along the eastern seaboard.
However, the “ditch” provides many more positive benefits other than its intended use, and in the 5-mile section between the small fishing village of Little River to the North Carolina state line, the big benefit this month is speckled trout. Anglers visiting Little River can expect every boat ramp to fill up with both local and out-of-towners who dive into the fantastic action on specks.
The ICW provides an aquatic corridor for migratory fish, and the constant influx of nutrient-rich freshwater makes for a perfect storm of baitfish, crustaceans and massive schools of gamefish, and the Little River segment is just that. Add a strings of docks, marinas and congested underwater obstructions to the mix, and it’s 5 perfect miles for speckled trout to pack on the pounds with much colder temperatures on the horizon.
David Cutler of Lowcountry Fishing Charters knows that November is the height of the speckled trout run in this neck of the woods, and he’s careful not to miss any of it.
“We traditionally catch boatloads of trout in November,” said Cutler, who said it’s not uncommon to catch a limit in just a few minutes when conditions are right. “There is a lot of freshwater influence and tons of bait that brings the trout in by the thousands.”
Speckled trout are typically reliant on current to fill their food bags, and the currents in the Little River area play right into the speckled trout’s playbook.
“In nearby places like Tubbs Inlet and the Shallotte River near Ocean Isle Beach (N.C.), there is always a settling time during tide changes, but in Little River, there is not a stall period. It’s the constant current in the ICW that makes this area so productive this time of year.”
Cutler fishes from the North Carolina line south to the Little River swing bridge in November. While fish can be caught along this entire stretch, certain areas will produce more than others.
In the fall, speckled trout travel in schools chasing bait, and they find the best places to set up and ambush their meals at different stages of the tide. So the best places to catch trout will change throughout the day in these waters. While Cutler will fish his typical places around each phase of the tide, he will often employ a proven technique to locate a school when they are at large: trolling soft-plastic grubs and shrimp against the current.
Trolling allows anglers to cover a large area quickly to figure out where the fish are holding. Some will continue to troll back across the fish as their primary method to put fish in the boat until they reach their limit. Cutler, however, trolls mostly just to find fish.
“Typically, the fish are hanging right along the angle side of the rock bank leading towards the main channel. I like to troll right along this break,” he said.
The channel is normally 15 to 18 feet deep, the shelf is 4 to 6 feet deep. Cutler likes to fish right along the drop, targeting the 6- to 8-foot depth range, where the trout stage to ambush passing baitfish and schools of shrimp moving in the current flow near the bottom.
Cutler chooses the gold standard for trout fishing: a leadhead jig and soft-plastic grub. The speed of the current determines whether he sticks with a ¼-ounce jig or goes heavier to get his lures down to the bottom.
He will use a variety of grub bodies in bright, eye-catching color combinations in the darker, tannic water around Little River.
“I use pink, nuclear chicken, orange and the tried-and-true combination of a red head and chartreuse body. Any bright color works real well,” Cutler said.
Greg Holmes of Fish Skinny Charters will leave the super-shallow redfish flats in November to take advantage of the trout fishing. He looks in substantially deeper areas where the water temperature is more consistent. In fact, he’s all about deep water.
“This time of year, they are hugging tight to the lower third of the water column where the temperatures are more stable,” said Holmes (843-241-0594). “They hang back away from the grass edges of the waterway and hold tight to the edge of the channel in 5 to 8 feet of water.”
Until the water temperatures plunge through the 60s, specks will be in a heavy feeding mode, aggressive and almost striking on instinct because so much bait is around.
“For live bait, it is automatic. There are few fish that will not inhale a lively shrimp at first glance,” said Holmes, who likes to fish a shrimp under a slip float.
Anglers can still catch enough shrimp for bait without too much effort this month, when the ICW and deeper pockets in tidal creeks hold plenty of shrimp, especially on the lower end of the tide.
Artificial lures that mimic baitfish and shrimp are also solid choices. Holmes uses a wide variety of soft plastics and hard baits. Because lures that trout can easily detect will get hit first, Holmes uses lures that grab a speck’s attention.
“I prefer lures that cast a good shadow, mostly,” said Holmes, but the water color will affect the way he chooses his lure colors. “In low light, I use white/glow colors or green/chartreuse, and when the water is dirty or off-colored, I use some flash to grab their attention.”
Both Cutler and Holmes prefer fishing on the higher end of the tide.
“I don’t care if it is rising or falling, but I like the top end; the water is much cleaner and clearer. That helps the fish see the lures moving through the water,” Holmes said.
Another consideration in the ICW is that the banks extending from the channel itself can be quite shallow on low tide. In fact, many areas beyond the channel will dry up on a negative low, leaving only the navigable channel.
For anglers looking for productive water to launch before the Thanksgiving holiday, the ICW in the Little River region is just the place. But don’t be surprised to see a fleet of other boats, because plenty of hungry specks will be around.
HOW TO GET THERE/WHEN TO GO — Little River is at the intersection of the Atlantic Intracoastal Waterway, US 17 and Old SC 9 at Nixon’s Crossroads, Northwest of North Myrtle Beach and Cherry Grove Beach. Public boat ramps are found under the US 17 bridge on both sides of the ICW. Fishing for speckled trout is great from October through December, with November the peak month, when the water temperature is typically between 65 and 60 degrees. The area of the ICW between the US 17 bridge and the North Carolina border is often the best water during the fall. Pay attention to the mouth of creeks and harbor openings. Pay attention to the drop into the ICW channel, plus any other docks or other man-made structures that will hold fish.
TACKLE/TECHNIQUES — Live bait is tough to beat, whether mullet minnows or live shrimp fished under an adjustable float. Artificials, however, are very productive, including topwater plugs and soft-plastic baits that imitate either baitfish or shrimp. They’re best fished on a 1/8- to 1/4-ounce jighead. Trolling a leadhead/grub combo along the channel break can be deadly, but casting is also productive when a concentration of fish is located. In either instance, go more slowly when the water is stained to dingy, and troll against the current for best results. Medium to medium-light spinning outfits in 6 1/2- to 7-foot lengths are used by most fishermen. Spool reels with 14- to 20-pound braid, with an 18- to 24-inch secction of 20-pound fluorocarbon leader.
FISHING INFO/CHARTERS — Greg Holmes, Fish Skinny Charters, 843-241-0594, www.fishskinnycharters.com; David Cutler, Lowcountry Fishing Charters, 843-222-7433, www.lowcountryfishingcharters.com.
ACCOMMODATIONS — Hampton Inn-North Myrtle Beach Harbourgate, 843-249-1997; Sleep Inn-Harbourgate, Little River, 843-249-4848; Myrtle Beach Area Convention and Visitors Bureau, www.mbchamber.com; South Carolina Association of Visitors Bureaus, www.discoversouthcarolina.com.