After 29 years as the head football coach at Hilton Head High School, Utley decided it was time to work on some new plays. Five years ago, he stepped off the football field and out of the classroom and began pursuing his other passion, fishing the inshore waters around his home.
Now a full-time guide, redfish tournament angler, and pro staffer for Century Boats, Utley has has a different gameplan these days. One of his favorite tactics for January is trolling for speckled trout in the creeks and bays behind Hilton Head Island. The coach has some tips for anglers wanting to get in on the hot January action of trolling for Hilton Head Specks.
Know your opponent
Small trout feed primarily on small crustaceans such as crabs and shrimp. Medium-size trout feed on shrimp and small fish. Large trout feed almost exclusively on other fish. It's well known that large baits are a key to catching "gator" trout.
Predators of the speckled trout include a number of larger finfish as well as dolphins, which will often push schools of trout deeper into creeks during feeding sprees.
Specks live near grass banks, oyster bars and sandbars looking to ambush prey. As water temperatures fall during autumn, they move upstream from the major tributaries that feed into large bays or sounds. As water temperatures warm in the spring, they move out into the larger expanses and can be more difficult to locate due to the increased availability of baitfish.
Speckled trout reach sexual maturity at one to two years, but they can live to be nine or 10 years old. Most large trout caught are females. Fishermen recognized long ago that very large trout were usually female and appropriately called them "sow" trout. A female speckled trout may spawn several times during the season. Younger females may release 100,000 eggs, and older, larger females may release a million.
Recent studies indicate that trout spawn between dusk and dawn and usually within coastal bays, estuaries and creeks. They prefer shallow grassy areas where eggs and larvae have some cover from predators.
A good schedule
"Clear water is critical to trolling for trout because they are sight feeders," Utley said. "The waters around Hilton Head clear up when water temps reach the upper 60s. This means trolling season can begin as early as late October or November and lasts until the bite tails off when water temperatures dip below 50 degrees. Typically, the best trolling is from mid December until the first of February."
Trout may be shallow when the bite first begins in late fall. It's not unusual to find them feeding in three feet of water as long as baitfish are still plentiful in the creeks and bays. As the season progresses and waters cool, trout will start moving deeper, toward the center of good-sized creeks and rivers, and they may feed shallow over deeper water. As water temperatures continue to plummet and baitfish become scarce, trout will hug the deeper edge of a channel drop and really showcase their "ambush tactics," expending less energy to chase baits but readily taking an easy meal that comes within reach.
To locate willing speckled trout, the best places to start are shallow flats situated near some kind of drop, points, feeder creeks or channels. Key in on fish-holding structure; grass beds and oyster bars are especially good places to find fish. Eddies on the downcurrent side of this structure are great places to get a bite during a trolling run.
Utley's favored trolling runs are along the edges of drop-offs on main creek channels and river ledges. He prefers creeks and rivers with numerous intersecting feeder creeks that allow trout to stack up in intersections and holes to ambush passing prey. He said that his favorite trolling tide is the last 1½ hours of incoming tide, through high tide and the first two hours of the outgoing tide. Peak time is when the tide turns and begins moving out of the marsh grass.
Some of Utley's favorite fields for trolling include the Chechessee River off Port Royal Sound, the main Colleton River near the Waddell Mariculture Center, the Broad River inland from the Rt. 170 bridge, and the entire stretches of Mac Kays and Skull creeks.
Backfield in motion
Utley likes to troll with his outboard motor, moving his boat and baits at between 1-1/2 and three miles per hour. Baits are trolled around 50 feet behind the boat. Up to four rods can be deployed by spreading one rod out to each side of the boat's transom and two straight back at the rear corners. Distance out and boat speeds are the primary indicators of trolling depth.
"Ideally, you want the baits to swim along just above the bottom," Utley said. "Too far out or too slow, and the baits will hang in oyster banks or various bottom structures; too fast or too close and you're out of the strike zone."
Earlier in the season, trout will readily chase baits that cruise through their feeding areas, but they may be more reluctant as things cools down. A slower trolling speed may produces more bites as water temps move toward the 50s.
Typically, moving water is favorable for standard speckled trout fishing. Because trolling with or against a mid-cycle tide tends to push the baits too fast or create excessive drag, fishing the tail end of a tide cycle is preferred.
"Troll against the tide first, as trout are usually facing into the current when feeding," Utley said. "If you aren't getting bit with the tide, turn and go against it - sometimes they just want something different."
When a strike occurs, circle around and troll the same stretch again - in the same direction. Typically, one strike will warrant up to three passes through an area as you try to locate a pod or school of feeding trout. If you keep getting strikes and can pin down a location, it's a good idea to stop, anchor above the areas and repeatedly cast to the fish.
"Trolling for trout is a great search technique," Utley said. "Anchoring down and casting to a hot area will often result in more fish due to the bait being in the feeding area more frequently."
Watching a depth recorder is not critical while trolling, as long as the fisherman is aware of the depth of the water in his trolling run. Anglers wishing to pinpoint trout to return and cast for feeding fish would do well to pay close attention to what depth or structure elicits strikes. Most often this will be on some drop-off of at least a foot or two.
Use proper equipment
Utley's preference for trolling baits is simple. "Anything that looks like a mullet or an electric chicken."
Mullet lures would include 3- and 4-inch curlytail grubs in green with silver flake, silver metal flake or a clear sparkle. As for electric chicken, the pink-and-green wonder has always been a consistent producer.
Grubs are rigged on a 1/8- or ¼-ounce jighead. Weight is an additional factor that determines the depth of presentation when trolling for specks. Line choice also has a bearing on trolling. Utley prefers a medium-weight line; his favorite is 12-pound test. He said that line that is too heavy won't allow the jig to produce its best action, but any lighter line will cut off on the numerous oyster shells and bars that litter the bottom of the creeks and rivers.
Utley likes tying on his jigs with a Bowline loop, a great trolling knot that allows full freedom of movement for the jig. A medium-action baitcasting or spinning rod with a lot of give is important for trolling. Speckled trout have very tender mouths. The force of trolling can pull the hook free from a soft-mouthed fish, so a rod that provides some "give" will save fish.
Another important tip is, trout are ambush feeders and often strike a natural bait using their front canine teeth to injure the bait - and then come around to finish the job. When trolling, this will present itself as a quick bend in the rod that straightens out. Setting the hook at that point will only pull the jig out of the strike zone. Wait until the rod is bent over, and let the fish hook itself. It is important to take the rod out of its holder and keep constant pressure on the fish. Setting the hook again or horsing the fish will often pull the hook loose.
State of the fishery
In 2007, legislation was signed by Gov. Mark Sanford enacting a minimum size increase for several finfish that inhabit state waters. This legislation, which was heavily supported by conservation groups across South Carolina, increased the minimum-size limit for speckled trout (spotted seatrout) from 13 inches to 14 inches.
"The state of the spotted seatrout fishery is as good as it has been since 1999," said Dr. Charles Werner, an S.C. Department of Natural Resources biologist, referring to the last winter die-off of specks because of extremely cold weather. "This new legislation will only add to the strength of this fishery. A 14- inch female survives to make it through a second spawning season. The second year is typically the most prolific, due to a longer spawning season and higher egg clutch numbers."
Having two seasons to spawn helps to spread the risk in the event a winter kill occurs. Specks are not considered to be migratory fish. Tagging studies performed under the authority of the SCDNR have led researchers to conclude that trout spend their entire lives in one river system, with very little commuting occurring between states - and even between large rivers in the same basin.