Chill Out for Trout

Mo’ better specks have become a prime target for N.C. anglers during the winter.

Once upon a time, anglers at the southeastern North Carolina coast put up their skinny water rods when it turned cold, winterized their boats and waited for spring to feed their fishing habit once again.

Some die-hards fished for stripers and sea bass, but few of them went out for trout.

However, now that the word is out about spotted seatrout, the few anglers who had once had terrific fishing all to themselves realize they were living in a fairy tale.

The spotted sea trout is better known as the speckled trout or merely by the more shortened nickname — speck. Four warm winters in a row in North Carolina have pushed speckled trout numbers to an all-time high, according to some angler reports. Saltwater fisheries biologists who have studied the subject agree.

“Speckled trout are at the northern limits of their range in North Carolina,” said Beth Burns, a N.C. Division of Marine Fisheries biologist. “Cold winters, when there’s freezing conditions for a couple of weeks, can cause winterkill of specks. But the fish grow fast and have a protracted spawn during the spring and summer months, so they can recover quickly.”

“Speck anglers are coming out of the woodwork because people who never caught a speck before are catching all they want,” said Capt. Jot Owens of Fortune Hunter Charters at Wrightsville Beach.

“There are several reasons this has occurred. First, there seem to be more speckled trout than ever and lots of them are citation fish, weighing more than 4 pounds.

“Second, improvements in scented soft plastics can make anyone an expert speck fisherman. Get any scented bait in front of (a speck’s) nose and if it’s in a feeding mood, he’ll eat it.

“Third, you once had to catch your own live baits and, in winter, shrimp can be hard to find and the mullet may be nonexistent. Now you can buy live shrimp at Mott’s Seafood in Wrightsville Beach and Tex Grissom at Tex’s Tackle said he will have live shrimp this season. No matter how cold it gets, a speck won’t turn down a live shrimp.”

But Owens begins his speck fishing with artificial lures. He uses bright colors and is especially happy with hot pink, orange and chartreuse, with chartreuse being his top choice. He also prefers other colors, depending on the lure style.

“One of my favorites is the Saltwater Assassin Blurp, shrimp version, which is a scented bait in pearl color,” he said. “But the freshwater version twitch-bait style is also a good bet.

“I like the 4 1/2-inch in alfalfa color, which is sort of a green pearl. The freshwater version in gold pepper shiner is a good color, too.”

Owens also uses topwater Rapalas and suspending MirrOlures. He works the water column from top to bottom and back up again when searching for specks.

“I start fishing back in the creeks and marshes earlier in the winter when water temperatures are between 70 and 65 degrees,” he said. “When the water temperature gets below 65, I get really excited about trout fishing.

“When it’s from 70 to 65, I look in the local creeks, such as Hewlett’s, Howe and Pages creeks. When the temperature gets below 65, I head for the inlets.

“Carolina Beach, Rich and Masonboro Inlet are best. Mason Inlet can be good, but it’s filling in again. They may dredge it soon, so anglers should keep an eye on that situation. Last time they dredged it, the fishing was so hot you had to get there early to find an open spot to fish.”

Back in the marshes, Owens uses topwater lures, mostly Rapala Skitterwalks. These lures are walk-the-dog type lures and require special retrieving techniques.

“When you’re using a walk-the-dog lure for specks, you have to use a different retrieve than you use for red drum,” he said. “With redfish, you keep the lure moving to keep the fish interested. If he hits it and misses the hooks, he’ll keep stalking it and hit it again.

“But a speck hits like a Spanish mackerel; he slashes at it in an impulse strike. You might make another cast to the same spot and get another strike. But he won’t usually follow the lure, so I slow the retrieve down.

“I twitch it from side to side without bringing it back toward the boat much. I keep slowly working the lure all the way to the boat. You have to have patience when using a topwater lure for specks or you can pull the lure away from fish.”

When fishing the grass beds, Owens uses a trolling motor, casting lures along the edges and watching for baitfish, shrimp and signs of feeding trout. While he can take as many as four customers during a typical charter, he prefers only two when fishing for specks — but will take as many as three anglers.

“It’s more intimate when you’re trout fishing,” he said. “I use lots of live baits, and you can really only fish two live baits at time without getting the lines tangled. Everyone is also making lots of casts when using lures, and that can cause problems when the specks are really hitting.”

Owens fishes the falling tide and uses a popping cork rig for fishing live baits. He drifts the channels with a float rig or uses a trolling motor. He also may jig the bottom or toss a lightweight Carolina rig until he finds fish. Then, he anchors and begins fishing a good spot in earnest.

“During a falling tide, the bait is more concentrated,” he said. “The bait is coming out of the creeks, so there’s more for specks to eat. During falling tide, (fish) also concentrate at the inlets and at the Masonboro Inlet jetties. At the inlets, the specks get farther up off the bottom than back in the creeks. They’re more aggressive because they can see your baits easier.”

At the inlets Owens usually locates trout at channel edges in 6 to 10 feet of water depth. Good places to find them include the Masonboro rock jetties and the concrete wall at the interior of the north jetty wall.

At Rich Inlet, Owens finds speckled trout in the tight turns where the holes are deeper. In the creeks, he finds places where there’s a drop-off near the mouths. The drops are more subtle than at the inlets, but any drop can hold specks during falling tide.

Since the fish are small, compared to some of the larger offshore species he fishes for, Owens uses light tackle. He fishes with a Shakespeare medium light 7-foot spinning rod and a Pfleuger Medalist 6035 reel spooled with 150 yards of 15-pound braided line.

For fishing live baits in the creeks, he uses a sliding rattle corkwith 16 inches of 20- to 30-pound fluorocarbon leader and a No. 6 treble hook with a small split shot crimped to the leader about 8 inches from bait. For water at jetties deeper than 8-feet, he uses a Carolina rig with 20 to 24 inches of 30- pound-test fluorocarbon leader and a No. 1 L42 Eagle Claw hook and a one-eighth- to ¼-ounce egg sinker.

“I want just enough weight to keep the bait on the bottom without hanging up when I fish the Carolina rig,” Owens said. “You want the shrimp to swim naturally, up off the bottom so a speck can spot it easily.”

Catching specks requires different techniques than many fishermen are accustomed to using.

Owens said many of his clients also get too excited when a speck nabs a live bait or lure.

“Whatever you do, don’t jerk the rod to set the hook,” he said. “With a live bait, you’re letting it float along. When the cork goes under, you just reel until you feel the fish and keep the rod tip up.

“The fish has already set the hook, so all you have to do is get the slack out of the line. A speck has a soft mouth, and you will tear the hook free if you jerk the rod.

“When using a bottom rig, you’ll feel the fish tap the bait. All you do is bring the rod up while reeling in the slack. You play the fish with a light drag and keep its head under the water.

“If a speck gets his mouth out of the water, he can spit the hook. Get the net under him and lift the fish into the boat. Keeping the line tight is more important than setting the hook. Lots of times, the hook falls out when he’s in the net.”

One key to catching lots of specks is using the correct net. Owens uses a rubber-coated nylon mesh net.

“If you get a MirrOlure’s hooks fouled in a net, it uses up valuable fishing time to get the hooks out of a standard Nylon mesh net,” he said. “I have holes in all my Nylon nets where I’ve had to cut hooks free.

“The solid-rubber nets don’t last long, and they’re too heavy to use for landing specks. So I use a rubber-coated net and only bring it along during the speck season. The coating wears off quickly when the specks are running well”.

The rest of the year, Owens said, the WRC boat ramp at Wrightsville Beach can get mighty crowded, with parking in short supply or non-existent. While the parking situation is better during winter at the ramp, half the boats being launched are heading for the Masonboro Inlet jetties.

“You have to get there before daylight to get a good spot,” Owens said. “You have to be patient, too. If lots of people are there, 20 feet apart, it might be better to head somewhere else.”

Specks are maddening, no matter where they’re caught. But jetty fishing can be especially frustrating.

“You can be there and boats on either side of you are catching fish and you’re not,” he said. “Pay attention and see what lures they’re using. If you’re close enough, ask them to show you one and they may even give you a grub that’s working.

“If they’re using live bait, it’s more likely the spot they’re (fishing that’s) the key. Wait until they leave and move to that spot if you can. Sometimes the fish are only hitting in a particular spot, and there’s nothing you can do except move there or somewhere else.

“Other times, the fish are moving up and down the jetties. You watch as one group of anglers hooks up. Then the fish move on to the next boat. You have to wait for your turn.”

Conversely, Owens said there’s a time to be sneaky about specks. Since they can show an affinity for biting in an area no larger than a washtub, anglers may not want to share that spot.

He said he’s seen fishermen at some of his hot spots the past couple of seasons where he’s never seen anyone in the past. He’s fished near Wrightsville Beach most of his 29 years and guided the local waters for 7 years. But local hot spots are increasingly crowded, with few secrets remaining.

“If you’re catching fish from a small spot, be secretive about landing your fish,” he said. “Land them on the side where other anglers can’t see them and keep the net low. Don’t holler or let the fish drum around on the bottom of the boat. Don’t let (other anglers) see what lures you’re using if (specks) are only hitting a certain (lure or bait).

“If someone is fishing at or near one of your tiny honey holes, it’s better to drive on past and let them have it. Chances are the other anglers won’t catch them all, and you don’t want to let them know how hot the fishing there can get. Let another fishermen watch you catch a dozen trout from a hole, and you may have lost that spot.”

One particularly good day Owens said he caught more than 40 specks during 90 minutes, including four citation fish. He also said last year he caught a 7 ¾-pound speck using a Catch 2000 lure. But during an average day, anglers can expect to catch 10 to 20 specks.

“You might have 10-inchers with a 4-pounder tossed in one day, then everything’s a keeper the next day,” he said.

“Speckled trout move around a lot — they’re here-today-and-gone-tomorrow type fish. You never know what to expect with specks.”

About Mike Marsh 356 Articles
Mike Marsh is a freelance outdoor writer in Wilmington, N.C. His latest book, Fishing North Carolina, and other titles, are available at

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