It doesn't much matter which explanation you pick, because the warm weather keeps the trout biting on into December. Whether fishing topwater or dropping a live bait under the water's surface, chances are you'll see plenty of spotted sea trout action if you fish diligently, keep moving and try several spots.
The cooler water temperature and the submission of any tropical weather patterns both serve to help clear up water that had previously been murky. Hard rains, northeast breezes and flood tides all conspire to muddy our already cloudy waters, and while you can catch fish in murky conditions, trout are much more likely to answer your rod-twitch with a solid yank in clear waters where they can see the action and color of the lure.
Capt. Ben Floyd's area of expertise covers the vast expanse of tidal marshes and inlets known as Bull's Bay. A native of McClellanville, Floyd's charters depart from the Isle of Palms Marina.
Bull's Bay is the heart of the Cape Romain National Wildlife Refuge in northern Charleston County. The patchy salt marsh, myriad creeks and oyster-shell outcroppings make it an ideal habitat for specks. These characteristics can be found up and down the coastline, and when all three of them exist in combination, stop and start casting.
Probably the best time to catch speckled trout is the first three hours of the falling tide, with the second best being the last three hours of the incoming tide.
When picking out likely fishing spots, Floyd said to remember that, "Trout hang on top of shell rakes and also on the backside, or downcurrent side. Baitfish get disoriented when they are carried by the current across the oyster bar, and the trout are waiting in the calm waters ready to strike."
Being sneaky is always part of the game, and Floyd uses a Cajun Anchor, a pole that spears into the mud for maximum stealth. He cautioned, "Don't make too much noise while moving about in the boat."
Tidal creeks and inlets are almost completely devoid of live bait in the winter, which makes fishing a mud minnow or a shrimp under a Cajun-Thunder float a real threat to snag a hungry trout. "You can buy shrimp and minnows from the tackle shops year round," said Floyd, who fishes live baits on circle hooks only because they give him a great hook-up ratio and leave a healthy fish ready for release.
When fishing live bait on a circle hook under a float, Floyd said, "Let the float go all the way under and count to three, and then simply reel in at a steady pace." No setting of the hook or jerking the rod is necessary, and that really helps when you factor in the fragile nature of the speckled trout's mouth.
But, Floyd also said, "December trout fishing is all about the artificials."
One of the first baits he rigs up is the saltwater DOA grub in red/gold flake with a shad tail for maximum flutter. A close second is the saltwater Bass Assassin with a split tail in electric chicken color. After making an accurate cast, you can entice the trout to bite with a slow and steady retrieve.
Floyd's fishing outfits consist of 2500FH and 4000FH Shimano Stratic reels, with the former being the best size for trout. His Shimano rods are medium action, 7-foot, 4-inch with line weights of 6- to 15-pound test. He spools his reels with 10-pound test Power Pro braid and a 15-pound monofilament leader. The braided line is more abrasion resistant, and since it doesn't stretch as much as monofilament, it gives the angler more feel.
Floyd said that figuring out what color trout want is important. A basic rule he follows is: "Gray (and) darker lures are better for muddy water, and bright colors are best for clear water."
Other productive Bass Assassin colors are: glass minnow, gold pepper shiner and new penny. The rat-tail design does not have much built-in action, but the silhouette depicting a minnow in a weakened state is the key that may draw a strike from a December trout.
New colors are interesting, but old-timers still swear by the old "smoke" grub rigged on a ¼-ounce red jighead, or they may recall when white and yellow were pretty much the only colors offered and trolling for trout was the most popular method of fishing.
Sight-casting to structure is the game these days, and the D.O.A. artificial shrimp designed by Capt. Mark Nichols is one of the most- popular rigs because of its ease of use. It comes rigged and is carefully-weighted to imitate the natural movement of a shrimp as the lure sinks.
Another lure worth trying is the Gulp Alive Shrimp, which come packaged in their own bucket of Gulp juice.
If fly-fishing opportunities arise, Floyd breaks out his Lamson Litespeed reel and his St. Croix rod and usually starts with a black-and-green wiggler pattern. Other top patterns are the Lefty's Deceiver fished hook-down in a blue-and-white color, and a Clouser minnow fished hook-up in a yellow-and-silver pattern.
Trout are usually found in deeper waters in December, but if you can go fishing on the third day of a warming trend, you may get to enjoy some memorable topwater fishing. A big topwater lure can be productive because even small trout aren't afraid to take a swat at it. Floyd likes the MirrOLure Top Dog Jr. (S84MR) or She Dog (83MR) in colors like silver-and-yellow, solid chartreuse or off-white.
Floyd said, "If you do miss a strike while reeling the lure in, just let it rest right there on the surface, and the trout almost always come back to smash it, because they think they wounded it. Trout like that!"
Josh Whorton at the Charleston Angler likes the new MirrOLure Series III (S52MR), which is a shallow-sinking twitch-bait in the shape of a finger mullet that targets trout high in the water column. He also recommends the Rapala Skitterwalk with a black body and chartreuse head that is good for topwater fishing.
Charleston Harbor has many areas for anglers to chase trout along the banks of the Ashley and Cooper Rivers. An abandoned coal trestle in the Cooper River across from Drum Island is a perfect example of prime trout fishing habitat. Castle Pinckney and other islands in the harbor also offer good fishing where there is good current moving across structure in the water.
John Archambault, a marine biologist with the S.C. Department of Natural Resources (SCDNR) "wrote the book" on spotted sea trout - he co-authored SCDNR's free handbook on the natural history and fishing techniques for spotted sea trout. He is an avid fisherman as has years of trammel-net experience through his SCDNR surveys.
Concerning locations and techniques, he said that the rocks off of Fort Johnson - headquarters for DNR's Marine Resource Division - and the rocks and pier at nearby Fort Sumter offer some decent trout structure. Try fishing a live bait, he said, "because trout like things that are moving." They prefer live shrimp, but the drawback is that many other saltwater species, like the pinfish, also love shrimp, causing you to use up your bait supply on non-gamefish.
In his experience, Archambeaut said, "The trout caught live-lining finger mullet tend to be a bit larger." He added that fishing for trout near the surface, or on top of oyster beds, is easier than looking for them in deeper water. Knowing when to switch to deeper waters and how to catch trout during cold conditions requires knowledge that is not common in nature.
The Stono River Inlet between Folly Beach and Kiawah Island was one place he mentioned where experienced anglers may find fish while others may find frustration.
Archambault also said that new regulations aim to give specks more time to grow. The minimum size for keeper trout is 14 inches, and the daily creel limit is 10 fish.
"Big fish take time," he said. "If we want more and/or bigger trout, then there's only one answer: reduce mortality on these fish."
Factoring in several mild winters, trout have had less winter-mortality, and some bigger fish are out there swimming around.
A 1-year-old trout is roughly 12 inches long; at two, the same fish is 15 inches long. A 4-year-old trout can measure 20 inches.