It's no secret at the coast that fall is the best time to cash in on big trout in the Carolinas. Even though trout can be caught practically anytime throughout the year, fall and early winter provide optimum conditions for hot speck action.
The estuaries and marshes throughout the S.C. coast have finished performing their nursery duties, producing a new crop of juveniles that will enter the larger sea world in hopes of growing to adulthood. Often overlooked as nursery areas, the estuaries are rich with nutrients, forage and cover to provide the necessary components for rapid fish growth throughout the summer.
Throughout the summer, the warm-water marshes serve as a semi-protected playground for many young fishes and crustaceans, as well as a feeding zone for juvenile and adult game fish. The marshes provide expansive vegetation for refuge for young sea life.
Hungry speckled trout creep around the shallow flats, looking to ensnare an unsuspecting baitfish in their jaws.
However, everything must come to an end (well, for the baitfish anyway). The weather patterns take on a different contour, and cool temperatures blanket the landscape. The shallow flats once patrolled by lurking redfish and trout begin to drive predators and prey toward deeper water.
The small fishes and shrimp prepare to make their descent to deeper water just after feeling the first chill of winter. Once scattered throughout the expansive marshes, juvenile fish and crustaceans move to staging areas in preparation for a deeper migration.
The staging areas are usually locations with cover adjacent to deeper channels and shallow bars. These areas are generally limited within a region, and concentrate baits in these areas, providing prime ambush points for gator trout, flounder and redfish.
Each fall, spotted seatrout drop to the deeper edges of the marsh toward channels at these staging areas. That's where specks stack up in big schools. One advantage of fall fishing for specks is a lot of trout swimming in less water than any other time of the year.
Locating the best ambush points within a region is sometimes tricky. A dropoff adjacent to shallow water might not always be the best location to have a trout bonanza.
But if anglers think about the location problem and use a few tools and their experience, they can find top trout spots. In fact, location is everything for fall trout fishing.
Finding the biggest and the most productive marsh complexes is among the first tasks to complete. The coastal regions of South Carolina near Beaufort, Charleston and Georgetown provide expansive marsh waters that contain high production areas for prey and predators.
Because speckled trout generally prefer clean and clear water, marshes and the open water surrounding them provide ideal places as they flush regularly from a system of channels that lead to the ocean.
Another important characteristic of a productive marsh is the variety of underwater structures. An accumulation of different types of vegetation, woody structure and shell beds provide nutrients and protection.
Trout and baitfish alike move toward deeper areas in the fall as the temperatures drop. Baitfish and shrimp will travel out of the estuaries to winter in more stable-temperature ocean water or will migrate south.
Since fall is the beginning of a gradual season change, baits will orient at different places on their way out of the marsh bays, always headed toward their final destinations. However, they tend to congregate at shallow bars or cover with deeper nearby water.
If it were up to baitfish, they'd never leave the protection of the marshes - they try to stay inshore as long as they can. But Old Man Winter keeps them hard-wired to their life-cycle plan.
Finding the best ambush point in the path of their migration during this transitional period is key to fall speck fishing. Hot ambush points that tend to be the best are at the main outlets of an expansive marsh complex with variable structure and flats at the edges.
Smaller, shallower channels adjacent to the main channel with a mix of shallow bars and cover on the fringe of the marsh along the migration route are good locations for anglers as well.
Trout prefer hard structure such as oyster beds, jetties and docks. Finding water with undulating bottoms and hard structures adjacent to shallow bars is ideal. Specks will lie at the edges of current at the bottom waiting for baitfish to flee from the powerful forces of the current.
Capt. Rich Harris of Reel Deal Charters at Charleston (www.thereeldealcharters.com) swears by submerged live oyster beds.
Speckled trout fishing is a Harris specialty. He's known for spectacular three-digit catches throughout the fall, and accomplishes that feat at deep-water structures such as docks, rocks, riprap, and most of all submerged, live oyster beds.
"The live oyster beds are key hotspots for speckled trout anytime during the year," he said.
Playing the tides will aid certain areas over others depending on the characteristics of the ambush point. Trout are primarily ambush feeders, and will lay adjacent to flowing water, where bait gets trapped within eddies. Baitfishes unwillingly get swept into the current and will strive to exit at every opportunity. The ebb and flow of the tide creates ambush points at different locations depending on how the current is rolling.
Playing different positions of the tide at different spots is the key to finding congregated trout. Harris locates spots good for trout both on the rising and falling tides.
"I really have no preference on the tides, as long as it's moving," he said. "It's so important to use common sense when fishing for trout. I have tons of spots I catch them on the incoming and others for the outgoing.
"When the tide is on the higher end, I fish much closer to the grass, and the opposite holds true for when the tide is lower. When the tide is low I look for deeper-water structure like docks, rocks, riprap and most of all submerged shell beds."
As the fall progresses into winter and the water temps drop below 63 degrees, trout will move into deeper drops with vertical structure, such as boat docks and pilings. These are the easiest early winter locations to reveal winter trout hideouts.
The best docks are generally associated with another type of structure, such as an oyster bed along the fringe, submerged aquatic vegetation, or reclaimed pilings adjacent to the dock. In addition, docks constructed of wooden elements usually have more marine growth on them resulting in more available food resources.
Trout will position themselves in waters where they don't have to travel very far for foraging and cover. The fish really stack up in these areas and provide ideal situations for an early winter holding area. Again, finding these locations will improve catches tremendously. It is important to keep a tab on productive locations fished each year because a good place will generally be good year after year.
Disturbance is often overlooked as a factor for locating a successful trout spot in the fall. Trout are prone to becoming spooked by disturbances on the water. Always approach choice fishing spots quietly and try to keep a reasonable distance away to prevent spooking the fish.
Trout prefer areas with little boat traffic, although boat basins can be hotspots as well. During the cooler months, most boats in the basin are dormant and provide cover, security and food for wintering trout.
When does the fall brawl start anyway? Just as with most fish, water temperature is the name of the game.
According to Harris, the fall bite begins when the water temperature drops below 70 degrees, although the trout bite starts to increase when it reaches 75 degrees in August.
Since trout feed heavily on shrimp and small fish, live bait will entice a quick trout bite before any other lures. Trout feed on live fish regularly, and prefer menhaden and mullet to all other species of small fish.
Small baits can be used, but trout generally prefers 4- to 8-inch fish to smaller-sized baits. Even larger baits will entice a trout bite, but don't expect to lose as many baits as quickly. A gator trout will gulp down a 10- to 12-inch mullet in a flash.
"The bigger the bait, the bigger the fish," says Harris.
As small fish are great baits for fall trout, live shrimp are "primo." Once the scent of a live shrimp floods the water column, the trout divert from what they were doing and seek out the tasty treat. Trout will feed on dead shrimp, but the vivacious live shrimp is too hard for the trout to resist.
Live shrimp is considered the chocolate of the ocean. Everything will readily eat live shrimp including redfish, black drum, sheepshead and flounder.
"If you can get live shrimp ... you will catch five times more trout than the boat next to you," says Harris. "I personally don't care what anyone says, you can't beat that live bait. When that little shrimp's legs are moving and swimming around with a great sense of urgency because it knows it's in trouble, the trout just can't stand the action."
Menhaden, mullet and shrimp can be caught readily with a cast net during the ebb tide at the mouth of small creeks in the bay during the early fall. Live shrimp usually congregate on solar-exposed bars adjacent to grass flats and deeper channels.
In addition, live shrimp will seek refuge along irregular shorelines at regions of slack current.
"You can catch bait in most any creek, but I look for the little feeder creeks that dump into deeper water and are dry at low tide," Harris said.
Anglers also can buy shrimp occasionally at coastal bait shops.
However, as the bays begin to chill, live bait becomes harder to locate, and artificial lures take precedence. Although live bait is by far the most productive for trout in the fall, artificial lures produce just as many strikes at certain instances.
Soft plastics, shrimp-imitation lures and flashy MirrOlures are artificials that work well during the fall.
Jimmy Price, a well-known southeastern N.C. trout expert, said artificial lures, fished correctly, will land more specks than live bait, hands down. He operates his guide service, Wildlife Bait & Tackle, at Southport.
Price said anglers can entice a trout to bite with artificial lures even when the fish aren't in a feeding mood.
He prefers to use curl-tail grubs and his patented bait, the Trout Killer. Favorite colors include smoke, white-with-pink tail and chartreuse colors in the grubs. Price also fishes with shrimp imitators such as Shrimposters and DOA Shrimps in colors such as natural shrimp, new penny, sand shrimp, river shrimp and green pumpkinseed.
Price also equips several of his rods with the original MirrOlure in various colors. MirrOlures perfectly mimic the appearance and movements of mullets and menhaden.
Harris prefers to use live baits, but will use artificial baits when necessary. His favorites include the Berkley Powerbaits and Berkley Gulp bait lines in electric chicken, smoke and white/pink.
He fishes his grubs three ways: slow rolled, drifting with the current bouncing off bottom or underneath a popping cork.
Occasionally, Harris will use topwater jerkbaits to provide his customers with heart-pounding action, but they're not as effective as live baits, he said.
Live baits can be fished at the bottom Carolina-style or within the water column using a float. Because specks usually are found at rough oyster-infested flats, the float method is often the most effective and yields fewer hang-ups.
The basic float rig consists of a 4- to 8-inch cork held at a set depth by a bobber-stopper and egg-sinker combination in front of a swivel. Below the swivel are 14 to 20 inches of monofilament or fluorocarbon leader and a treble hook, usually a 1/0 to a No. 4.
As the water temperature continues to drop during late fall and early winter, trout move to their winter havens.
Harris targets 10- to 20-foot-deep areas to find seatrout during winter. At these deeper areas, he continues to use live baits with a popping cork lowered to a depth more consistent with the bottom's distance from the surface.
He also uses jigs at deep structure to yield hookups.
"Fishing the leeward side of deep structure in the eddy currents usually will get the best bites," he said.
Location still remains the most important aspect of late-fall trout fishing. Finding the right spots will determine a good day of trout fishing as opposed to a missed opportunity.
Harris often can be found at the Cooper and Wando rivers, but he also does well at Shutes Folly.
Yellowhouse Creek is a favorite feeder creek at the Cooper River. He recommended fishing every point and pocket available at Yellowhouse, especially during high tide at the confluence of Cooper and Clouter Creek.
At the Wando, the opening of Ralstons Creek and Besefords Creek where the docks begin is a productive area.
Generally, speckled trout will feed at the same locations from one fall to the next, but since it's a transitional period, warm and cool fronts sometimes push the fish back and forth.
Fall trout will be mobile, moving from one ambush point to the next.
"Try many different approaches for fall trout fishing until a pattern evolves that works best that particular day," Harris said. "Once that bite has quit, start the patterning all over again.
"The run-and-gun approach works well and don't be afraid to try new things."
With the right mix of bait, presentation and location, S.C. speckled trout fishing can offer hot action during the most pleasant month of the fall season.