The Carolinas aren’t dubbed the “sub-tropics” without reason. For most of the summer, temperatures across the two states hover in the 90s and sometimes reach 100 degrees. Lakes, rivers and estuaries fill with pleasure seekers and die-hard anglers. Summer can be a wonderful time to catch redfish and flounder in the tidal creeks and Spanish mackerel just off the beach. But if anglers targeting speckled trout feel deprived, summer can bring in a big payday at the right time and in the right places.
Opportunities to catch specks never leave the mind of Stuart Caulder of Gold Leader Guide Service in Wrightsville Beach, N.C.
“Even though it gets hot here, the trout fishing remains good in our area into the summer,” said Caulder (910-264-2674). “Most of the trout leave the super salty areas but are plentiful in the brackish waters around here.”
Caulder concentrates on the waters in his region that have normal freshwater input, such as the New River at Snead’s Ferry or the lower Cape Fear River between Snow’s Cut and Bald Head Island.
“The brackish water is typically cooler during the summer, and bait is more available, especially the shrimp,” he said.
During the summer, larval shrimp ride the incoming tide into estuaries, and large river systems — like the Cape Fear — have significant flows that pull them well into the brackish waters. Shrimp spend the summer feed in the nutrient-rich estuaries, growing to full size before they migrate back into the ocean in the fall. Also, small mullet and menhaden follow similar migration patterns, providing specks with a full plate. For serious anglers, the lower Cape Fear makes for a perfect place to keep speckled trout on the menu.
South of the border in South Carolina, Jeff Lattig of Living Water Guide Service gets to sling soft plastics in a similar playground loaded with pristine brackish waters. Lattig fishes for summer specks in the waters around Georgetown, S.C., an area that encompasses two major watersheds within an arm’s reach. Georgetown is at the mouth of Winyah Bay, where the Waccamaw, Pee Dee, Black and Sampit rivers converge and dump into the ocean. Just 10 miles south, the North Santee and South Santee rivers converge, forming a massive, energy rich estuary full of specks.
“Our speckled trout will rarely be in the shallow creeks this time of year. I find them close to or in deep water that is much cooler than their other options,” said Lattig (843-997-4655). “I concentrate on the shell banks and barrier islands off the main-river channel, as well as the rock jetties at the opening of Winyah Bay.”
One big difference between summer trout fishing and other seasons is that the heat will restrict the best action to certain hours of the day.
Caulder’s summer trips usually start early and end early, but not before putting plenty of fish in the boat and usually some quality fish.
“I concentrate on the cooler times of the day and in waters that offer more efficient feeding opportunities for trout,” Caulder said. “The best fishing is right at dawn up until around 11 o’clock and then again late in the afternoon. The water is cooler in the mornings; that makes the trout bite better.”
His summer trips begin in the dark, usually at least 30 minutes before the first sign of daylight. “I want to be at my first fishing spot with rod in hand as soon as there is a crack of daylight available,” he said.
Trout are predominantly sight-feeders and are more efficient at collecting their prey when there is a little light available. A little bit of coaxing will usually help get a rise from a trout patrolling the predawn shallows. For Caulder, that will be a topwater plug filled with rattles.
“I throw top water at first light until the sun gets up good, or longer if it’s overcast and cloudy,” he said.
Topwater baits mimic a fleeing baitfish, providing surface noise and a silhouette to help trout to reel in their breakfast. But while topwater action can be exhilarating, its shelf life is not always as long as hope for. As the topwater bite subsides, Caulder shifts to sub-surface lures: artificial shrimp and baitfish. Just about any type has the capability to catch a summer trout, but Caulder will always start free-casting a ½-ounce D.O.A. shrimp to the bank and retrieving it towards deeper water.
“I switch to a D.O.A. shrimp when the sun gets up. The fish retreat away towards the deeper water where it is cooler and there is less light penetration,” he said.
Trout lose their ambush advantage when the sunlight increases the clarity of the water, and the preferred cooler water is at deeper depths. Caulder will slide back to 5 to 6 feet of water towards the channel where he works his D.O.A. shrimp along the bottom using a twitch-and-pause retrieve. He will also use soft plastics and shallow-diving slash baits that produce good, reliable results.
Likewise, Lattig heads for deep water when the topwater bite ends.
“I fish deep this time of year sometimes as deep as eight to 12 feet. The fish will be near the bottom most of the time when the water gets hot on the surface,” said Lattig, who will work the entire water column with a ¼-ounce jighead tipped with a soft plastic — Egret Wedgetails, Vudu Shrimp and Zman baits — to ensure the fish are where they are supposed to be.
“I like to slow-roll jigs and shrimp along the bottom since the fish are generally holding tight to the bottom this time of year,” Lattig said.
Speckled trout are one of the most favored inshore species in the country. Yet, most anglers keep their trout tackle hoarded away until the fall season arrives. And make no mistake; the cooler months of the year are fabulous months to target speckled trout where the bites and clouds of fish never seem to dissipate. But, true speckled trout anglers keep their trout tackle alive and ready because the summer season often brings strong catches just from a slightly different strategy.