Speck Madness rivals March Madness for North Carolina coastal trout fishermen

Spotted seatrout, or “specks” as the locals call them, are particularly favorable to green grubs on jig heads.

A sure-fire cure for ACC basketball fever is the knowledge that spotted seatrout have awakened from their winter sleep.

While most of North Carolina is bundled up in front of television sets watching the ACC and NCAA basketball tournaments, a few dozen anglers privy to a neat secret are huddled in their boats, knowing March Madness must mean the speckled trout are biting.From Cape Fear west to the South Carolina line, in-the-know anglers have a deep appreciation for the warming weather that normally arrives this month because it shakes the ice off the scales of specks and gets them stirring in creeks, rivers and other backwater areas that empty into the Intracoastal Waterway.

After about six weeks of inactivity, a lot of trout fall victim to lures swimming ever so slowly in front of them, kicking off the spring fishing season.

“There’s a population of trout here year-round,” said Stan Gurganis, an inshore guide whose boat, Stori Teller, is based at the Ocean Isle Beach Fishing Center. “They’ll bite until the water gets in the low 50s, then they slow down — usually from the end of January through February — and they start hitting again in March.”

Most of the action is in the two major coastal rivers that drain Brunswick County, the Shallotte and Lockwood Folly. But in creeks that feed those rivers or dump their offerings into the waterway, or in man-made canals lined with houses at the barrier islands, specks are also the big late-winter, early-spring offering for fishermen who will push themselves away from the TV and push their boats back into the water after six weeks of inactivity.

“I think there are a certain amount of resident fish — flounder, a few drum and a high number of trout,” said Hunter McCray, an ardent inshore fisherman who owns the Rod & Reel Shop in Supply and has pursued cool-weather specks for years. “When we get our bigger numbers of trout here in October, they’ll stay all the way until Easter. They move in in the fall and stay. And I’ve caught some real nice fish during the winter.”

A third winter trout expert is Adam Rogerson, a teacher from the Southport area who thinks March fishing for specks can be really good, in part because fish are ganged up in pods and schools, and their movements and locations are fairly predictable.

“When you get into the trout, they’re usually there thick,” Rogerson said. “You catch ’em in the canals (Holden Beach and Ocean Isle Beach), you catch ’em in the deep holes in the rivers, the deep side of the river channel where it (bends). They’ll get in those deep places and stay.”

If the fishery is good because fish are there and willing to hit lures, it’s extra good because this bite’s relatively unknown. Local fishermen have the waterways pretty much to themselves, and McCray said that’s one reason the fishing is good.

“Some of the best fishing is here when nobody’s here to do it,” he said. “There’s very little boat traffic to spook the fish.”

Gurganis concentrates at the Shallotte River and tributary creeks close to its mouth. McCray and Rogerson make most of their dents in the fish population at the Lockwood Folly River and nearby canals.

Tactics are relatively similar: find deep water, find spots where shallow flats drop off into deep water, find spots with good bottom structure, and fish slowly.

“The Shallotte and Lockwood Folly rivers are very different rivers,” McCray said. “The Shallotte is a lot wider and shallower, and the Lockwood Folly is relatively narrow and deeper, but they both hold fish. The Shallotte has fewer dropoffs, but the ones that are there are good ones. The Lockwood Folly has more holes and dropoffs, but the fish are more scattered.”

Gurganis has two basic strategies. Some local tackle shops and marinas have access to live shrimp in the winter, and he likes to drift them under corks at beds of oyster rocks or boat docks and piers.

In the Shallotte River proper, he likes to slow-troll with a leadhead jig and curly-tail grub, bouncing his lures across the bottom and hitting deep holes around bends in the river channel. Once he finds a concentration of trout, he’ll stop, anchor and cast to that area.

“I like to drift shrimp under a Cajun Thunder popping cork with about a 2-foot leader, a split shot to keep it down and a No. 8 treble hook,” Gurganis said. “I like to fish them over the oyster rocks and around docks and piers, any kind of structure like that.

“You float that shrimp in front of a trout, and he opens his mouth and inhales the shrimp, and that little hook goes right in and gets him.

“The other thing I do is slow troll — you can either use an electric trolling motor or bump your outboard in and out of gear. You’re just crawling the bait around, letting it bounce over the structure on the bottom.

“When you troll in the river, you’re hitting the deep spots and the mud flats between them, and your bait will dig into the mud, and the rod will pull the bait out, or if it gets hung on an oyster rock, the rod will load up and pop that bait out, and they’ll hit it.

“They stay schooled up most of the time, so there’ll be times you’ll have four lines out, and all four of them will go down at once. When that happens, I’ll anchor up and fish that area. But I make sure I throw my anchor in the marsh grass so I don’t spook the fish. Then I can start casting to that spot.

“And usually, the fish will be schooled up by size. You can catch a dozen 15-inch fish, then pull in a 5-pounder, but usually, all of the fish in a spot will be about the same size.”

Gurganis said deep water is common in the Shallotte River, mostly around channel bends.

“Every bend or corner, there’s a hole that’s 15-feet deep, with mud flats in between them,” he said.

Rogerson said the canals are often the first spots where fishing heats up in March, in part because the dark, mud bottoms of the canals will hold heat a bit better and be a couple of degrees warmer than areas with sandy bottoms.

At the canals, Rogerson looks for ledges where the water may drop sharply from 4- to 6- or 8-feet deep.

Gurganis agreed and said often the best spots are at the mouth of a canal or at the extreme back. Those are places he really likes to fish a live shrimp under a cork.

Rogerson rarely trolls, opting to check spots that have produced during the past and uses spinning tackle to cast a bucktail or MirrOLure.

“I like to anchor along the inside of a bend (in the channel), cast across and let the current move the bait down through the deep hole on the outside of the bend,” said Rogerson, who estimates most of the deep, outside-bend holes in the Lockwood Folly River are approximately 10-feet deep.

“You throw upcurrent a little bit and let the current wash it down through the hole.

“A TT11 is the only MirrOLure you need; I’ll fish it, and I’ll fish a bucktail with some kind of a trailer. There are so many oyster rocks in the river, you can plan on losing a lot of baits, but when you get into the fish, they’re usually in there thick.”

The TT11 has a red head, a white body and small spots. It’s a sinking lure, so it can be fished on the bottom.

“When I’m not using a MirrOLure, I’ll use a Hank Brown bucktail, 5/8 ounce,” Rogerson said. “His bucktail is the king. There are a whole lot of imitators, but his is the best. It’s got a good hook and even when all the hair gets torn off, you’ve still got a good jig.

“Normally, I’ll fish it with some kind of plastic trailer, but since Fish Bites have taken off, I’ve started to use a 2- or 3-inch section of Fish Bite (shrimp flavor) as a trailer.”

McCray is also partial to a TT11, but instead of a bucktail, he’ll normally fish a quarter-ounce leadhead jig with either a curlytail grub trailer or a Bass Assassin. His favorite colors are “electric chicken” and “woodpecker.”

Getting bites is a matter of fishing the lure slowly enough that trout don’t have to chase — which they won’t do, considering the water temperature.

“How slow you fish it depends on the water temperature,” he said. “The colder it gets and the later in the winter it gets, the softer the bite is. Toward the end of (February), it feels like they yawn and it happens to fall into their mouth.

“When I’m fishing a MirrOLure, I let it sink and just give it a little twitch, then another little twitch, then I set the hook if he’s there. You can troll plastics or a MirrOLure, but you’ve got to move it very slowly.

“When you get the feel of an area, you can forego trolling and just set up on spots. If the wind and current are just right, you can drift, but I’d rather anchor up and cast to a spot. And when you find ’em in one spot, you can pretty much bet that they’ll be there again when you can find the same circumstances as far as wind and current and temperature and water clarity are concerned. You can go back time after time and catch fish.”

McCray prefers one tidal stage, Gurganis the opposite. Neither is wrong; it’s a personal-preference matter.

“I prefer to fish an hour before low tide to two hours after, but I know guys who prefer the same window on the other side,” he said.

“I think the fish will scatter out at high tide. There are the same numbers of fish around at both tides, but at low tide, they seem to be more concentrated in those deep holes. I like to look for little edges where tributary creeks drain into the river, places like that where you’ve got a dropoff, where the water will pour out of the marsh.”

Gurganis likes to fish the last two hours before high tide and the first two hours after high tide.

“They seem to bite better on moving water on either side of that tide,” he said. “And they’ll come up out of the deep water a little more on high tide.”

As far as fishing canals is concerned, McCray believes specks tend to hold in the deeper water in the center of man-made waterways.

“When you get warm days, the canals will warm up faster with the sun’s out — faster than anywhere else,” he said. “Sometimes only a degree or two will make a big difference, but the best water for specks is 59 to 64 degrees.”

McCray is also very careful, like Gurganis, about anchoring and spooking fish. When he drops anchor in a canal, he likes to wait 15 to 20 minutes before making a cast to let things settle down.

“If they were in an area and spooked, if it gets quiet, they’ll come back in there,” he said. “

McCray agreed with Gurganis and Rogerson that winter specks tend to stick with other specks of their own kind, size-wise.

“I’ve caught some nice-sized fish in the winter — the biggest was about a 7 1/2-pounder,” McCray said. “But you’re going to catch a lot of 2- and 3-pound fish. And if you start out at a spot and catch a 12-inch fish, you’ll probably catch a lot of 12-inch fish. If you catch a 20-inch fish right away, you’ll catch a lot of 20-inch fish.”

The really hot early spring speck bite normally lasts about a month.

McCray said during April specks “will disappear for a little while, then show up in the ocean around the piers.

“When the first little shrimp move in, the trout are in the ocean, waiting for ’em.”

About Dan Kibler 887 Articles
Dan Kibler is the former managing editor of Carolina Sportsman Magazine. If every fish were a redfish and every big-game animal a wild turkey, he wouldn’t ever complain. His writing and photography skills have earned him numerous awards throughout his career.

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