Depending on Mother Nature's whim, the weather can shake you, bake you, or "frosted-flake" you. In fact, it's as unpredictable as the spotted sea trout you're chasing. You may have just heard from your buddies that they're in the shallows and tearing up Rattle Shrimp, but if the temperatures or the winds suddenly change, you may find yourself working drop-offs and deeper structure with live finger mullet.
That's why it's helpful to have a skipper who has lived and breathed Charleston inshore fishing for most of his life. Capt. Peter Brown of Saltwater Charters knows a thing or three about the habits of trout, as well as the other gamefish that ply the coastal waters, and he has turned that knowledge into an enjoyable and rewarding career.
Fortunately, the weather was great on Shem Creek when Brown shoved off at 7:30 a.m. "This time of year," he explained as he putt-putted past the moored shrimp boats into Charleston Harbor, "the trout are fairly thick, and if we can find one that's feeding, we should find plenty more in the same area."
After gathering a few cast-nets full of baitfish, Brown (843-830-0448) headed toward some normally productive structure in the shadows of the USS Yorktown. With anchor down and tide moving out, baits were cast upcurrent and bobbers watched carefully as the drifted slowly back.
Brown's favorite live-bait rig is a Cajun Thunder float with two to three feet of 10-pound leader and a No. 1 circle hook. He prefers circle hooks because they make hook-setting easier by allowing his clients to simply apply pressure and start reeling. More important, it's easier on the fish and makes for more successful releases. After a few casts with the float rigs, we had a couple of good-sized trout and a "doormat" flounder in the boat.
Motoring up the Wando River, Brown talked about the habits of trout in early fall and some key strategies.
"It's not uncommon for me to take out a party and limit out in a couple of hours," he said. "This time of year, as long as the tides aren't too extreme, you can catch them on incoming or outgoing tide. Dead low is the only slow period, really.
"The larger trout prefer a finger mullet or mud minnow worked near the bottom. Smaller trout like live shrimp, but the great thing about this time of year is that artificials work really well."
Brown suggests a Berkley Gulp! minnow grub, Power Bait Rattle Shrimp and DOA Shrimp for best results.
"The way we like to fish the artificials," he said, "is to anchor near the shore, usually where there's a significant drop off - five to 10 feet, for example. We cast upcurrent toward the bank, let it sink, and let the current work the bait.
"The other way we fish is to use leadhead jigs with natural color soft baits. Power Baits or Gulp! baits in root beer, smoke or motor oil are effective - or we use brighter attractor colors with a silvery or gold flash."
Topwater can be deadly too. Early morning or late evening, a Zara Spook or the like can do the trick when tossed to a shallow grassy edge.
Brown usually has several rods rigged up for various situations. "I'll have a couple of rods with float rigs, a couple with artificials, and a few more set up for bottom fishing," he said.
Most fish this time of year range in the 1- to 3- pound category. Occasionally, you may hook into a larger trout when fishing on or near the bottom. "The 7- to 8-pound fish are usually the roe-laden females that are caught in summer," Brown said."By fall, they're back to their normal weights."
Perhaps the first light-tackle inshore guide in the area, Sandy Stuhr, agreed with Brown concerning the top fall trout tricks.
"The artificials are my favorite way to catch trout this time of year," he said. "The fish come up around the marsh creeks on an outgoing tide and feed on the shrimp. That's a good opportunity to cast a artificial shrimp toward shore. Unlike redfish, they don't go up in the grass. They're not interested in the fiddlers and other crabs found inside the marsh. They're going to be right off the marsh, but not in it.
"You like to find structure, but I catch a lot of them in the middle of the creek. I just let my bait go almost slack and let it drop down toward the bottom. Work it real slow, and they'll knock the hell out of it."
Stuhr confirmed that fall is the best time to catch good numbers of trout but says he can find them anytime. "Even in the really cold weather, I can catch them," said Stuhr, 75, who still fishes almost daily. "But this past summer's heat really made it tough, even for those of us who've fished these waters for years."
Like their drum cousins, spotted sea trout grow up in the refuge of the inland estuaries before venturing out into bigger water. Small trout feed primarily on small crustaceans but quickly graduate to shrimp and small fish. Older, larger fish feed almost exclusively on other fish, bypassing live and artificial shrimp.
Spotted seatrout can reach sexual maturity as early as one year, can spawn several times each year and can produce up to a million eggs over their lifetime. They prefer to next in shallow grassy areas where eggs and larvae have some cover from predators.
As far as tackle goes, any light- to medium-action rod-and-reel combination will work since most trout caught are in the 2- to 3- pound range. If you bring your largemouth gear, just remember to rinse rod and reel with fresh water shortly after use.
The most popular rig for spotted sea trout is the popping cork. Under that float should be a live shrimp or baitfish, but artificial shrimp will often work just as well. Like fishing for reds around oyster beds, best results are achieved by popping the cork periodically to simulate live action. By varying the speed, frequency of popping and bait depth, you should eventually find a trout. And as mentioned earlier, a sea trout is rarely alone, so keeping working the area.
You can also free-line the same basic set-up by removing the float and large weight and replacing it with a small weight. This is particularly effective when drifting in areas with strong tidal flow. A conventional bottom rig may also be used when trout seem to be feeding deep.
Locating fish can involve a depthfinder, vigilant eyes or even your nose. If fish aren't on the bank, watch the screen for structure, drop-offs, or balled-up schools of bait. If you're depending on your peepers, scan for diving birds, "nervous" water and exposed structure like pilings. Also pay close attention to small feeder creeks coming out of the marsh. Smelling trout isn't for everybody, but some say they can catch the scent of fresh melon or new-mown grass. It's the aroma of feeding trout regurgitating their meals. If you can smell a bream bed, you might be able to sniff out the trout!
Another method for trout fishing this time of year - and flounder and redfish for that matter - is to try a saltwater impoundment. According to Brown, several brackish lagoons and ponds built during plantation times that are home to some truly over-sized fish. Most of these impoundments are fed tidal salt water through pipes. Along with the water, small fish, shrimp and other prey are flushed in. The resident predator fish, like trout, live a sheltered existence with plenty of food and little danger of being eaten themselves. The only real danger for the fish is the possibility of lethally low oxygen levels in the summer months. Many of these impoundments are on private property, so it may take some research and knocking on doors but could prove worthwhile.
Along with a working knowledge of the waters around Charleston, Brown also reads a great deal to gain a better understanding about the fish he pursues.
"I've read the SCDNR's spotted sea trout report cover-to-cover a few times," he said. "It really gives you good insights into their life cycle, feeding habits and times, and where to look for them from season to season."
Spotted Sea Trout Natural History and Fishing Techniques by Charles Wenner and John Archambault, can be read in its entirety at saltwaterfish-ing.sc.gov/pdf/SpottedSeaTrout. pdf.
While it's important to practice catch-and-release with spotted sea trout, the 10-fish, 14-inch daily restrictions allows more than enough catch-and-eat opportunities to go around. Spotted seatrout make excellent table fare. The meat is flaky and rich in flavor, with a fair amount of oil content. Sea trout filets can be fried, baked, grilled or smoked. Just like any other fish, the time between catching and cooking will likely determine the quality of the meal. Keep the fish cool, clean it as soon as possible, and serve it fresh.