Which catches the biggest or the most redfish and speckled trout?
The answer may surprise you.
Those fish aren't gonna hit that plastic," my fishing buddy said emphatically more than a decade ago.
All morning we'd caught spotted seatrout, some weighing 6 pounds. We almost had our limit of these gorilla-sized specks when we ran out of live finger mullet, mostly 4- to 6-inches long, only slightly longer than the middle finger of a man's hand.
We'd enjoyed exciting fishing, catching numbers of trout with these mullet using 12-pound-test line after pinching a piece of shot lead on the line 18 to 20 inches up from the hook.
As the shot lead started pulling the bait down, one of two things would happen: (1) the bait would explode immediately back to the surface with a trout nipping at the minnow's tail or (2) the line would jump and twitch as the finger mullet dove as hard as it could toward the bottom.
Next we'd feel a hard thump on the line and line steadily moving off before we set the hook and battled a trout to the surface.
My fishing partner and I caught trout or lost bait every time we dropped one of those live finger mullets near the rig. But we had no more bait left 10 trout short of our limits.
I can't think of anything worse happening to an angler than needing a few more minutes or a couple more baits to make life so much better. But you can't make it happen.
However, just before I left home, I'd put five Mann's Sting Ray grubs in the brown paper sack containing my peanut butter-and-jelly sandwiches. When we no longer had live bait, I tied on one of those grubs and said, "I'm gonna catch me some trout on these green grubs with the red tails."
That's when Captain Jeff Poe of Big Lake Guide Service in Lake Charles, La., said, "These trout don't eat plastic."
But apparently, the big trout swimming around the rig didn't hear Poe because my bait hardly had vanished from sight before I had a solid hit and caught a 5-pounder.
After unhooking that fish and throwing it in the ice chest, another fishing buddy, Skinny Hallmark, said "John, you got another one of those grubs?"
"Sure, I do," I said and handed a green grub to Hallmark. The pair of us soon had two more trout headed toward the boat.
"Those trout must be starving to death," said Poe, shaking his head in disbelief. "I can't believe they're eating that plastic."
However, Hallmark and I kept bringing trout after trout into the boat. When three trout short of the limit, Poe said: "John, the lid on the cooler will barely shut. If you catch any more of those trout, you'll have to put them in your pocket to take them home."
This trip many years ago took place when anglers first had the idea of grub fishing for speckled trout. All my life I'd caught speckled trout with live shrimp, finger mullet and/or pinfish. But when desperate with no other bait available, I had to fish the grubs or quit fishing.
Today I can make a good case for either side of the speck or redfish bait debate. I love to catch trout and redfish with live bait and artificial lures. But angles are just beginning to learn the effectiveness of artificial lures for all saltwater fish, especially speckled trout and redfish.
Here's some of what I've learned from longtime, avid speck and red anglers in the great bait debate taking place right now in which many South Carolinians also have participated.
Magic of Fake Shrimp
"John, why don't you come down here and go fishing?" said Mark Nichols, president of DOA (Deadly On Anything) Lure Company in Palm City, Fla. "We'll catch about any fish that swims in salt water. We can catch specks that weigh over 10 pounds and snook and tarpon all year long."
Of course, I took the bait presented for this trip like a hungry fish hits a half-dead shrimp.
The night before our trip when Nichols asked me what I wanted to catch, with a smile I said, "I'd like to catch a trout that weighs 5 pounds or better, a snook over 10 pounds and a tarpon."
"Well, John, what do you want to do after lunch?" Nichols nonchalantly said.
About then I realized I'd never had an inshore angler brag that much about his prowess. The next morning, we motored out to the middle of a river where a sand bar broke the current, then we waded into the water.
"Cast that DOA shrimp upcurrent, and don't do anything except take up the slack," Nichols said. "The bait works most effectively when it just falls with a running tide."
Although I'd never fished a fake shrimp like this, I knew how to take instructions. After a third cast, an underwater freight train seemed to take hold of my bait as my drag screamed like a long-tailed cat with its tail caught under a rocking chair.
After one of the best fights I could remember, a 6-pound, 2-ounce trout appeared at the end of my line.
After photographs and a live release of the trout we began fishing again. After my fifth cast, a 5-pound, 6-ounce speck smashed the lure.
"Go to the boat, and get your camera," Nichols shouted from about 20 yards away. "I think I've got the fish you want to photograph."
As I walked toward Nichols, I saw the biggest speckled trout I'd ever seen in my life. It weighed 9 pounds, 3 ounces.
"I didn't know speckled trout grew that big," I said.
I never would've believed we could catch a trout that huge with anything other than live bait, but the trout had the DOA shrimp stuck firmly in its jaw. After some picture taking, we released the trout and went in pursuit of tarpon and snook.
At 11:30 a.m., as we sat on the dock eating shrimp Po-Boys (a Cajun-style submarine sandwich), we mentally counted our catch and release. In addition to the trout, we caught and released a 60-pound tarpon and two snook weighing 10 pounds, 5 ounces and 11 pounds, 2 ounces, respectively.
That's when it became clear artificial bait could produce speckled trout and a wide variety of other saltwater fish as efficiently as live bait.
During recent years inshore fishermen have learned they can cover more water and locate more fish quicker by casting artificial lures, especially soft plastics.
However, crankbaits had to present the ultimate test in the great bait debate.
During a trip with Anthony Randazzo of Paradise Plus Guide Service in Venice, La., and Jim Stephens, chairman of the board of EBSCO (PRADCO Lures' mothership), I learned another lesson.
We planned to catch specks and reds using the Spook Jr. and Excalibur crankbaits.
Many people have caught trout with stick baits and walking baits, but few have taken redfish with crankbaits. However, when Randazzo took us to a spot where he felt we could give those hard lures a test, I watched redfish weighing up to 20 pounds blow up on the Spook Jr. as we walked that lure across the surface.
Reds and specks also hit the Excalibur crankbaits.
I'd always had a narrow mindset about baits for speckled trout and redfish because of fishing for these species with my dad and brother since an early age. I never believed anything could catch specks and red as effectively as live shrimp and live mullet.
After this experience, my opinion started to change. However, I still enjoyed catching specks and reds with live bait and actually believed live bait paid off with the most fish.
However, because of what I learned about the effectiveness of soft-plastic baits and crankbaits on specks and reds, I now have to question the opinion that live bait always pays off bigger red and speck dividends.
Later I fished with Kirk Stansel at Hackberry Rod and Gun in Hackberry, La.
"Which is better for specks and reds, live bait or artificial?" I asked him.
"The answer to that question lies in the fishermen," he said. "If I'm guiding novice fishermen who aren't experienced casters and don't know how to fish artificial lures, they'll miss more specks and reds than they catch while fishing with artificial baits.
"So putting a shrimp or some other live bait on the hook and using a bobber is the easiest way for them to see the strike and catch fish. If I can locate a good school of fish, all I have to do is keep them close to the school, bait their hooks and take off the fish they catch.
"If fishing's tough, and we have to cover a lot of water to find where the specks and reds are feeding, I prefer to fish artificial lures.
"I may use the Bass Assassin or another soft-plastic grub and eel to locate the fish and then let my party fish for them with live bait."
"If the trout are finicky and don't want to bite for whatever reason, you'll usually catch more fish with live bait than you will with artificial baits," Poe said. "But today I've got to know for certain I can't make those fish bite an artificial lure before I'll start fishing live bait."
Poe also said he catches big trout and little trout using live bait and artificial bait.
"I generally catch bigger trout on artificial lures than I do on live bait," he said. "I think the answer to the question of which bait is better, artificial or live, for catching specks and reds, depends on two factors - the skill of the fisherman and the mood of the fish.
"If an angler is proficient with artificial lures, he'll find more reds and specks and usually catch more fish than the live bait fisherman does. But if the angler's not a good artificial bait fisherman, or, if the trout don't want to eat, the live-bait fisherman will produce more trout than the artificial-bait fisherman will.
"Deciding which bait is best for you is much like choosing underwear. The correct answer is 'whatever feels the most comfortable to you."