When it passes through Little River, the Intercoastal Waterway doesn't completely chill out the New Year's wishes of fishermen.
Unlike almost every other forage species, glass minnows haven't left their normal zip codes. Mullet, menhaden and shrimp may have left for the ocean's depths, and mud minnows are buried in deep holes in the marsh, but pods of glass minnows stay put, seeking warmth by concentrating around the structure that litters the ICW.
And two species of gamefish, speckled trout and striped bass, have figured that out.
Having predators and prey in the same neighborhood means good things for fishermen, and their proximity to Little River means there's no need to buy a lot of gas or freeze on a long, early-morning boat ride. Most of the area's hot spots are adjacent to public boat ramps or within a mile in one direction or the other.
Artificial lures speak a trout's language in the winter - since live bait is practically unavailable. Choosing the right imitation and presentation will put fillets home to the dinner table.
With water temperatures falling through the month, glass minnows congregate in thermal refuges, usually in deeper areas near marinas and bridges and some areas along the ICW. There are plenty of such areas - but unfortunately for the glass minnows, there aren't enough hideaways that the speckled trout and stripers haven't located.
Specks will tolerate colder water better than some other gamefish species that call coastal estuaries home, but they still search out the same, warmer areas that hold the glass minnows.
Patrick Kelly of Captain Smiley Fishing Charters said trout are actually concentrated in the winter.
"The cooler temperatures of late fall to mid-winter concentrate trout within the creek mouths and within the boundaries of the (ICW)," said Kelly (843-361-7445). "As long as the water temperature stays above 50 degrees, winter trout are catchable, but anything below 50 degrees and nothing bites,"
The Little River area is small compared to Georgetown's Winyah Bay in Georgetown or Bulls Bay between Georgetown and Charleston, but finding pods of trout can be difficult during the winter. Fish will travel in tight schools and won't travel too far from their mates to gulp down a unsuspecting minnow or an artificial lure.
Finding fish can be tedious, but patience and hard fishing will unveil their secret hideouts.
So will sea gulls. They prey on glass minnows, and their location will generally give away concentrations of glass minnows - and the schools of trout that will be nearby. Most glass minnows travel in the upper-third of the water column, and trout busting a school of minnows near the surface will give away their presence with a quick swirl of water.
Tides play a big role in fishing becoming feast or famine. Fish associate with edges, and changes in tidal levels shift prime waters inward and outward.
The best fishing is along the ICW from one mile south of the Little River swing bridge north to the swing bridge in Sunset Beach, N.C. Docks, marinas, bridges, and creek mouths along the way create prime opportunities for trout fishing.
The section of the ICW in the Little River area is marked with docks and marinas throughout one of the narrowest stretches of its entire length. The docks and their access to the ICW's deeper channel makes for prime ambush-feeding opportunities.
At low tide in the harbor at Little River, the shallow shelves on either side of the main channel become either partially or fully exposed. Kelly likes to fish the rising tide, shortly after dead low, to target fish cruising the edge of the ledge. As the tide begins to flood the shelf, the sun warms the thin layer of water, quickly enticing glass minnows to move in.
Glass minnows will travel either suspended or near the surface, looking for warmer waters. Speckled trout ambush these minnows, moving back and forth from the shelf to the channel. That creates a prime fishing opportunity.
"I love the lunar lows or the low tides during a new moon," Kelly said. "They are extremely low tides, further concentrating the baitfish and trout in less water. As the tide in Little River is critical, fishing moving water is even more important. Dead tides only result in dead fishing."
Kelly concentrates on docks, marinas and other structure along the ICW and around creek mouths. He'll anchor his flats boats with a Power Pole and fish different spots for 20 to 30 minutes before moving a distance of as little as 20 feet to try another spot - that's how tight the trout school.
"Trout tend to use and associate with the same places year after year and throughout the winter fishery," Kelly said. "I always start fishing at spots where I have caught fish previously and then move outward to find holding fish."
His technique is fairly simple. He casts toward the edge of the ledge and works his lure from the surface to halfway down in the water column. Since the water is only 12 to 15 feet deep at low tide, specks have a limited area in which to move up and down. They might be holding at the surface or five to seven feet deep.
Kelly will cover the ledge with a quick, sharp twitch-and-sink technique not usually associated with coldwater fishing, hitting multiple depths on each cast. He allows it to sink a second or two, quickly twitching it a few times, then allowing it to sink another four or five feet.
"Most people fish either too slow or too deep during the winter for trout," Kelley said. "Trout are eating glass minnows that are holding in the upper-third of the water column - usually not all the way on the bottom. They like a sharp twitch, which gives the lure the look of a real meal.
"The sharp twitch triggers the bite. As you let the lure sink, keep light tension on the line to feel for the strike ... then set the hook when you feel the fish engulf the lure."
Eventually, an unlucky fish inhales the lure, giving away the position of the entire school.
"If I ever catch one, I pay close attention to the location of the bite and sit tight. Since the fish are in such tight schools, several more hookups are inevitable," Kelly said.
His favorite lures are soft-plastic shrimp imitations, either pre-rigged or rigged on quarter-ounce jigheads. Even though trout are feeding mostly on glass minnows, they have an intense love for shrimp and will take a shrimp over any other food available. All lures that imitate shrimp are not created equal. According to Kelly, the action of the bait during the twitch-and-fall is extremely important to trigger a strike for trout.
"While there are many brands on the market, the D.O.A. shrimp and Betts Billy Bay Halo Shrimp have the best action and produce the best results," he said.
Many colors can be effective, but chartreuse is the leading color in the tea-colored waters of Little River. When the fishing is slow, Kelly will spray Gulp! Alive shrimp-flavored spray onto the lure to increase the effectiveness and trigger strikes.
Kelly uses a 6-foot ultralight Browning Midas spinning rod with a Stradic 1000 spinning reel spooled with 10-pound Power Pro braid. His leader is 12 to 16 inches of 20-pound
fluorocarbon. The light tackle enables Kelley and his clients to feel even the lightest strikes as the lure falls between twitches.