Hardly a breath of wind stirred in the marsh north of Charleston. If it were four months earlier, the bugs would have driven us crazy at this same spot. But this December day, two friends and I basked under high blue skies in mild temperatures, with rod-bending spotted seatrout action.
A non-described bend in the shoreline was holding the trout. To the right, a feeder creek drained a section of marsh. This current being deflected our direction by a larger creek carrying a much larger volume of water.
The interaction of currents had scoured a trough along the marsh grass edge. Our position was on the outside of this ditch. Below and behind us extended a broad flat toward open water.
The combination of the flat, a ditch and deeper creek channel was everything a seatrout wants in winter. The dark mud flat heats up during low tide and warms water during the flooding tide. The deeper channel and connecting ditch is a two-way street to food, warmth and escape areas.
Anglers should position themselves at the right intersection to become the crossing guard for some fine fishing action.
With live bait essentially non-existent, we relied upon artificial baits. It didn't matter what you cast, MirrOlures, curly-tailed grubs - everything worked. One of my friends insisted on trying to catch a seatrout with a floating plastic worm rigged wacky style and intended for a largemouth bass. He succeeded.
Spotted seatrout, or specks, are also known as "winter trout" because the best fishing for them occurs during the cooler months. Surveys conducted by the South Carolina Department of Natural Resources revealed nearly half of the recreational catch of spotted seatrout occurred during November and December.
December can be a fickle month for weather since fall and winter are still jockeying for position. But no matter the conditions, you can catch numbers of smaller seatrout or honking-sized fish - or both.
Someone who fishes for seatrout all year but has a passion for pursuing big trout during the winter is Capt. Jeff Yates of Tyjo Knot Charters at Mt. Pleasant. Yates has perfected his skills during three decades of chasing after the Wando River's legendary spotted seatrout population.
"I started fishing the Wando River with my dad and brother when I was a little kid," Capt. Yates, a life-long resident of Mount Pleasant. "My dad provided the foundation of what I know that allowed me to take off on my own as a guide. I still talk fishing with him everyday.
"The trout seem to move farther up the creeks and rivers with the cooler weather. During the summer, the fish in the Wando are mostly in the lower portions. By fall, they seem to be mid-river, between the Hwy. 41 and Hwy. 526 bridges.
"Once winter arrives, I am searching for them above Detyen's Shipyard at Hwy. 41."
Although it has been Yates' experience the seatrout are upriver, they're not necessarily found where anglers might think.
"The fish are not shallow," he said. "They prefer to be in deep holes along the curves in the rivers and creeks. The outside curve is usually the best because that is where the deeper water is located."
However, the location of curves that hold fish could be any place - and many places. Sometimes Capt. Yates might be fishing a curve in the main river, but other times he's at a curve in a creek, sometimes a really small creek.
"I've caught trout in creeks only slightly wider than my boat," he said, recalling memorable fishing trips. "Some of the creeks were so narrow you could only cast forwards or backwards.
"You wouldn't think the fish are there, but they are. I believe they're going up there to get away from the dolphins."
He recommended anglers study creeks where they fish, looking for potentially productive bends. Curves that have been successful for Yates measure 6- to 15-feet deep. But he doesn't limit himself to fishing only tidal creeks.
"There are times when I fish bends in the main river, and the portion of the curve where the fish hang is right in the middle of the river," Yates said. "Most people would probably go right by such a spot if they didn't know what to look for.
"One spot that I like has a large mud flat coming off of the inside bend in the main river. But then the bottom drops off to deeper water. I can usually find fish somewhere along the bend and on that gradient."
Yates said finding the right spot is only half the equation. Like doing battle with a crafty target, anglers need the proper approach. In the case of seatrout, that means being quiet.
"Dad taught us to get everything ready before we made the first cast," he said. "He told us to stop 50 to 100 yards away from where we thought the trout might be located. We'd pull the rods out and get any lures handy, and then begin casting to the spot.
"For God's sake, don't bump the boat," Yates said, recalling the fatherly scorn he'd receive if he did.
Yates probably would avoid a few paternal reprimands today, thanks to technological advances. A reliable and long-lasting trolling motor has replaced a boat paddle and anchor.
"I don't anchor," he said. "Once you start casting from an anchored spot, you are only hitting small points were the fish might be located."
He can position his lure in more likely spots by using the trolling motor.
"By moving with the trolling motor and casting ahead," he said, "your lure stays in the zone where the fish might be for a longer period of time."
Winter offerings for seatrout will primarily be of the artificial variety. Cold water temperatures produce slim chances of finding live bait in creeks. Some local tackle shops have begun carrying live bait throughout the winter, mostly live shrimp or mud minnows, which is an option at a premium price.
Yates actually prefers artificial baits this time of year for big winter trout. He's also a firm student of the big-bait-equals-big-fish philosophy.
"My favorite bait is a 52M MirrOlure," he said. "I like it over other artificial baits because it doesn't have much action and sinks much slower, which is important this time of year.
"Almost all of the strikes are going to happen while the bait is falling. Because the bait is falling slower, a trout has more time to think about hitting it. A trout might move 10 feet in the warmer months to hit a bait, but in the winter they might only move 10 inches."
Yates doesn't limit his arsenal to hard-plastic baits. DOA shrimp and traditional grubs are other baits that he uses.
"I stumbled upon using the DOA shrimp when my cell phone kept ringing," he said. "I put down the rod to answer the phone and let the shrimp free line. When it drifted with the current, the trout would hit it with their throats open.
"A lot of anglers want to fish these baits under a cork. That's more of a summer presentation. I free line them on very light tackle or fish them like a big MirrOlure. Rig them on 8- to 10-pound-test line with a tiny swivel and a 12-inch leader of 20-pound flurocarbon line. They're good on either side of the low tide."
With grubs, Yates uses an unpainted 1/4-ounce lead-head fitted with a curly- or paddle-tail body. If the current is stronger, he could bump the weight up to 3/8- or 1/2-ounce.
Regardless of what type of artificial bait he is using, he has two rules pertaining to them. One concerns color selection and the other relates to presentation.
"I use bright colors on bright days and dark colors on dark days," Yates said. "The only exception is a green-and-silver combination seems to work well on either type of day.
"My philosophy on this is pretty basic. Think about what a baitfish will be reflecting under certain lighting conditions. If you squirt a water hose into the air on a sunny day, you normally see a rainbow of colors in the water. That's what a baitfish is reflecting too.
"So, I fish hot pinks, orange and chartreuse when it's bright. Dark-day color combinations would be blue, black or green with silver sides."
Since seatrout don't always want to play by the same rules, Yates remains flexible.
"I'll have four rods rigged with four different colored hard baits," he said. "I'll fish all four colors at some point to see what's working. For grubs, I keep a cup with as many as 10 different colored bodies in it. That way I can easily change the body without having to retie the lure."
When it comes to presentation, Yates uses the same approach. He casts at a 45-degree angle from the boat and lets the current sweep the lure back toward him, keeping a taut line the whole time. Once the lure is even with him, he gives the rod a sharp snap, jerking the lure upward in the water column, and then lets the lure settle. He repeats this presentation until the drift is complete.
Anglers get to be successful by spending a large amount of time on the water. Since most fishermen that don't fish for living, Yates suggested fishing whenever you have the chance.
"The best time to go is when your time permits," he said. "As long as the water temperature remains above 50 degrees, I'm usually fishing.
"I seem to do the best on the Wando during an outgoing tide. I like to get out there about an hour before the tide turns. A perfect tide in my opinion is one when it begins to fall between 10 a.m. and noon. By the time you get out there, the sun is up and things are a bit warmer.
"I've been out there some days catching fish when there's been ice on the boat. I like to catch fish but that's cold fishing."
Catching fish, especially the gator trout that Yates desires, always helps keep an angler's mind off the cold weather.
A simple change in S.C. regulations could produce more of the trophy trout that so many anglers desire. Raising the size limit from 13 to 14 inches would do the trick.
Spotted seatrout begin spawning at age 1 and have what is known as a protracted spawning season, meaning they spawn several times between late April and September in South Carolina. By spawning several times, the fish increase their odds that at least some of their young will encounter suitable conditions for survival. This is the normal strategy for short-lived species.
This is in contrast to a seatrout's cousin, the redfish, which is long-lived, sometimes as old as half a century. Redfish spawn only once a year but live a tremendously long time, relative to seatrout. The strategy of a long-lived species is if one year's spawn fails you can make it up the following season or the season after that.
Tiny trout move into tidal creeks where they develop all summer. By September, early-spawned trout will be 7-inches long while ones spawned later only measure 1 inch. By the following spring, early-spawned trout will be 11 inches and able to spawn for the first time. One hundred percent of the 1-year-old trout are able to spawn by August. For example, a trout born in 2005 will have spawned at least once by August 2006.
As seatrout get older they produce more eggs. A 3-year-old trout will produce 18 million eggs annually, six times the amount of a 1-year old. What this means is if a seatrout population is allowed to have older and larger females, it will produce several times more fish for anglers as well as be more robust to the whims of nature, such as winter kills.
The regulations for seatrout were changed in the late 1990s. The bag limit was reduced from 20 fish per person to 10 and the minimum size was increased from 12 to 13 inches.
"The objective of the regulation change was to allow more seatrout to spawn at least one time before they were harvested," said Dr. Charlie Wenner, a SCDNR marine biologist. "The long-term average size of harvested seatrout is slightly more than 13 inches."
Dr. Wenner said a slight increase of only 1 inch in the minimum length would allow for a second spawning year and, ultimately, for more trophy seatrout.
"Young dead trout don't grow to be trophy trout," he said. "Anglers should asked themselves if they're happy with a 13-inch fish that yields only a fish stick or one that really stretches their line? A bump of 1 inch will produce more and larger trout.
"If you protect a fish with a 14-inch minimum size, it'll have a better chance of spawning as a 2-year old. The reproductive potential of one 2-year-old seatrout is worth a truckload of 1-year-old fish."
A serious seatrout to anglers is a fish that weighs about 5 pounds. It takes six years on average to produce a trout that size in South Carolina. Currently, only about 1 percent of the recreational harvest of seatrout consists of trophy fish, a figure that would increase if the minimum size were raised.
South Carolina sits at the northern edge of the seatrout's range. Thus, our population is subject to winter mortality. Anglers only have to go back a few years to remember such an event.
"From late 2000 into early 2001, the water temperature remained below 45 degrees," Dr. Wenner said. "Seatrout can't handle that too well.
"Both the recreational catch estimates and our fishery-independent sampling confirmed a 75 percent decline in the trout population. The trout fishing in 2001 was awful because we lost so many fish. It had improved in 2002 because the fish spawned after the freeze were becoming large enough to catch.
"An increase in the minimum size would buffer against these types of events. If you have a large population going into such an occurrence. it would better withstand it. After all, if you lose 75 percent of a lot of fish, it's better than losing 75 percent of a small population."
Recent mild winters have allowed S.C.'s seatrout population to fare well. However, we're one freeze away from going into the tubes, a situation that could be lessened with a simple change.