Another mild winter and April's warming weather should trigger a feeding frenzy by specks that seem to be getting larger each season.

Charles Duke said he never catches many fish, so he often grows bored with a rod in hand.

Just the opposite holds true for Haywood, Duke's fishing-crazed 11-year-old son.

"What can I say? He's got the touch," Duke said.

Which may go a long way toward explaining why Haywood does most of the catching. That tendency held true to form last summer when the father and son from Greenville went inshore fishing with Captain Peter Brown of Charleston.

By day's end, Haywood had reeled in seven fish to his father's three, including a 24-inch spotted seatrout that ranked among the biggest of the year caught by Brown's clients. The speckled beauty weighed an estimated 4 to 4 1/2 pounds.

"Yeah, I got excited," Haywood said. "When I pulled it up, I saw that it was really big. Our guide said it was one of the biggest of the season."

And that season is about to begin once again in earnest at South Carolina's coast, where the warming waters of April and May traditionally bring these popular game fish from the ocean waters to inshore tidal areas. This year holds even more promise, as seatrout populations continue to rebound from a cold winter of 2000 that greatly reduced the local trout numbers.

"They really seem to be coming back strong," said Brown, who owns Saltwater Charters in Charleston. "We caught more big trout last year than we had since 2000, and I expect that trend to continue."

Young Haywood - who caught his hefty seatrout using a finger mullet fished in the current up the Wando River near Charleston - did his part last year, returning his plump, egg-laden female to the water after his boat mates snapped a few quick photographs.

But seatrout catches such as Duke's are the exception rather than the rule. The average-sized seatrout, or "speck," is approximately 12 to 14 inches in length, which some anglers consider borderline keeper size despite a 13-inch minimum-size limit. In 1998 the South Carolina Department of Natural Resources sought to further protect the species by increasing the minimum length from 12 to 13 inches and decreasing the daily creel from 15 to 10 fish.

Richard Stuhr, a Charleston native and longtime fishing guide who specializes in light-tackle and fly fishing for a variety of inshore species, would like to see the minimum size limit increased to at least 14 inches.

"I wish they'd push the limit up to 14 inches rather than 13," Stuhr said. "But it's better than it used to be - it used to be 12 inches, and a 12-inch trout isn't worth taking home."

Whatever the size, April and May serve as an unofficial annual kickoff for seatrout season. It's during these months that the trout move in in good numbers, typically congregating around the mouths of the Wando, Cooper and Ashley rivers - as well as locations in the Charleston Harbor - and then continuing to move greater distances up river and inshore as spring gives way to summer.

Farther north, Winyah Bay near Georgetown - particularly the area across the bay opposite the "Ballpark" public landing - is a productive seatrout location, as are the north and south ends of Pawleys Island farther up the coast.

Along the Grand Strand, the Murrells Inlet area has been known to yield nice trout - including the 30-year-old state record, an 11-pound, 13-ounce fish caught in 1976.

Creek mouths near the northern terminus of the Intracoastal Waterway are favored locations for many anglers, as are the jetties at Little River near the South Carolina-North Carolina border.

Don Millus of Conway, a longtime authority on coastal fishing, is a fan of MirrOLures, but his personal favorite lure - particularly early in the year - is the Reel Shrimp.

"Any color is good as long as it's green with speckles," Millus said. "I like them because you can catch flounder on them, too."

Millus regards the month of May as "one of the best times of the year" for catching seatrout, and Stuhr agrees.

"In the spring they'll start coming up into the shallows to feed - and after the cold weather it seems that they're a bit hungrier than usual," Stuhr said. "They'll eat a lot of shrimp, but early in the spring they're mostly after mud minnows and mullet and little anchovies."

Early in the season, Stuhr relies heavily on jigs such as the D.O.A. - a quarter-ounce jighead tipped with a rubber shad tail. He always begins his day of casting with a root beer- colored bait with gold flecks. If that's not working, Stuhr is quick to go to another favorite standby called the "electric chicken" - a pink-and-chartreuse combination with a knack for drawing bites.

Stuhr and his clients go "light," preferring the action that lighter lines and lighter jigs impart, particularly when used with a 7-foot light-to-medium-light-action rod.

Also an avid fly fisherman, Stuhr has a healthy supply of favorite flies when casting for trout, but his most frequent recommendations include the time-tested Clouser minnow and a Seaducer.

"I like a sinking fly like a Clouser, and I like to fish it right up against the grass," Stuhr said. "I look for places where the water's dumping out of the marsh. In other words, I look for where the bait could be coming out of the grass."

Topwater plugs are another effective option, and can bring a new level of excitement to trout fishing for many clients, Stuhr said.

"A lot of people are fishing topwater for trout now," Stuhr said. "We caught a couple of big ones last year on (topwater) plugs - trout in the 4-pound range."

Traditional favorites such as the Zara Spook, Top Dog and Top Pup are among the more popular topwater offerings.

"And both trout and redfish like those," Stuhr said. "So there are times when you don't really know what you might catch."

Although Stuhr is convinced that sunrise is the best time to catch trout with topwater lures, he's not afraid to include them in his arsenal at any time of the day.

"It used to be that the only time you thought about catching them on topwater was real early and real late - which are still the best times, I believe - but you can catch them during the day, too," he said. "I've fished them in rips, and also along shorelines, but generally rips are better. Anywhere you know that the trout are, the topwater plugs have a chance of working well."

"Rips" - areas where two currents come together - are natural fish attractors, so Stuhr is always on the lookout for such locations.

"They're favorite places for feeding fish to be," Stuhr said. "The churning water gets the bait roiled up and disoriented, and the trout are often hanging out there, particularly if the rip is around points and other ambush areas, such as docks."

Oyster bars, rocks and pilings also are strategic trout-attracting structures. Add a nearby rip, and plenty of action could be in the offing.

"I'll start out on a high falling tide," Stuhr said. "I go to those points and creeks that are dumping out and places where I know there is structure."

Stuhr is fond of anchoring up and working the high side of a point first, then working his way around the point, always being sure to cast right up against the grass, then methodically making his way out if his lures draw little attention.

"Sometimes fish on the higher end of the tide will be right in the grass, then as the tide falls out, they'll move out more," Stuhr said. "But I always like to start at the edge. Sometimes they will be laying off the bank, other times they will be right in there."

Trout are generally considered to be a schooling fish, but bigger individuals are usually picked up as singles. And when you pick up one, other trout typically aren't too far away.

"When you find a place where they are, there's usually a few in there," Stuhr said.

The months of May and June are when the spawning season begins in earnest, greatly increasing the chances of landing a hefty spawner.

"That's when the water really starts to warm up, and the trout will continue to move in from offshore and migrate into coastal waters," Stuhr said.

The Wando, Cooper and Ashley rivers are primary hot spots in the Charleston area. Plenty of trout are caught in the shallows not far from the river mouths, typically in water two to four feet deep, and most all trout are caught in water ranging from 3 to 12 feet in depth, Stuhr said.

Some anglers who don't have the patience for working the edges opt for trolling, which can be an effective fish-catching method, too, particularly if using lipped MirrOLures.

"A lot of people troll for them if they just want to get one for the pan," Stuhr said. "But one funny thing I've noticed is that you can be catching them trolling, then stop and cast in the same spots and not catch them at all. Then you can go back to trolling and start catching them again. That's just the way it is sometimes."

As the waters continue to warm in early summer, Stuhr's bait preferences change, and he begins to make a gradual progression from artificial lures to live baits, including live menhaden, pinfish, mullet and shrimp.

"I like to fish the live baits under floats, depending on where I'm fishing," Stuhr said.

Wherever he happens to be fishing, Stuhr loves pursuing the "specks" whenever possible.

"I really enjoy fishing for them," Stuhr said. "They're not as hard as a fighter as a redfish, but it's a lot of fun to get those strikes from trout. It can really be some fun angling."

Particularly when a new season with renewed promise is just around the corner.

"We've been catching some bigger fish in the past few years, and they say that the spawning year last year was pretty good," Stuhr said. "So I'm looking for another good season."