The hunt for speckled trout

As April turns to May, speckled trout along the Carolina coasts will start to spread out, preparing for the spawning season. (Photo by Phillip Gentry)

Springtime specks are big, hungry, feeding

In the world of inshore saltwater anglers, especially along the Carolina coasts, several unique sets of anglers chase after fish. These include redfish anglers, flounder anglers, and anglers who don’t care what’s on the end of the line so long as it’s something. Then, we have speckled trout anglers. Speckled trout anglers view their fishing grounds differently. They see what others miss.

To be a consistently successful speckled trout angler, especially in waters where the tide may vary as much as 6 feet from high tide to low tide, you have to understand two things – clear water and ambush points.

The month of May can be a tough month for catching numbers of speckled trout. It’s more of a quality month. The days of thick schools have been replaced by big females responding to spawning urges and smaller males responding to the location of females.

To say one specific strategy, one particular bait, or one particular pattern is a sure score on May speckled trout is a dream, but rarely a reality. In truth, it requires a lot of time searching, covering lots of water, and putting the right bait in the right place.

Finstalker Charter guide Chris Chavis said from the first of April until the middle of May, some of the biggest trout of the year will be looking for the best spawning grounds. And knowing what the fish are looking for is the first step in finding them.

“I can’t stress the clear water enough. That’s what everybody tries to find,” said Chavis. “Trout prefer clean, moving water and a good ambush point. So if you combine the two, your success rate is going to be a lot better than just working any point or shell rake you see.”

Anglers may not be able to locate the numbers of fish that speckled trout are known for during the fall. Chavis said trout will spread out more, in order to take advantage of suitable spawning grounds.

“Now that we’re getting to the spawning time of the year for trout, you’ll start seeing more and more of those big females,” he said. “Most of the area guides now have gotten to the point that if we catch a big female and she’s full of roe, we try to let her go just to have more trout for the coming season.”

Chavis suggests anglers target both big females and the larger number of smaller males that will also be in residence by using a combination of live and artificial baits. Chavis said it’s hard to beat shrimp, either live or imitation. He will cast upstream of ambush points and drift or float the bait downcurrent to the trout.

Electric Chicken is a great color to throw when the water is murky. (Photo by Phillip Gentry)

Bait or lure?

“We’re throwing both artificial and live bait,” said Chavis.  “Both seem to be working just as well as the other. The live bait scenario is throwing popping corks with a 2/0 live bait hook. Use either mud minnows or shrimp. If it’s a shrimp, they’re going to eat it whether it’s big or small. For artificial, it’s hard to beat a Gulp shrimp in natural colors.”

Another factor to consider when searching for speckled trout is water temperature. As waters warm, trout will move from deeper water into the shallows. In April they’re usually in transition from one to the other. Affinity Charters guide John Ward said he starts out in deeper water when and if water temps are lower.

Traditional tactics, such as live baits fished under a popping cork, work well this time of year if placed in the right areas. (Photo by Phillip Gentry)

“We fish the deeper holes with light line, 6-pound test, and use smaller soft plastics that either emit their own scent or with scent sprayed on,” Ward said. “Then it’s a matter of casting across the breaks and bringing the bait back slowly across the drop trying to mimic a baitfish that’s been washed into the hole.

Once the magic number is achieved in terms of water temperature, Ward’s game plan revolves into more typical trout tactics of plastic baits fished under a popping cork.

“If you’re not familiar with likely fishing spots, the best thing to do is ride around the area at low tide and make note of structure such as oyster piles, abandoned pilings, and drainage ditches,” he said.

Ward prefers to fish the entire outgoing tide cycle and finds the bite is better right after the tide begins heading out. That’s typically when feeding begins. With water still in the edges of the grass and covering oyster piles, he may cast a topwater or shallow diving plug early on, and then bring out the popping cork to suspend his baits over structure when the water levels start dropping off.

“What bait there is in the grass at this time of year will pull out with the outgoing tide,” said Ward. “The trout bite will usually turn on as the water starts to move out. And some days it may last the entire outgoing tide.”

Transition areas

According to Ambush Inshore Charters guide Johnny Spitzmiller, it’s important to pay attention to the shoreline as you’re fishing. He states that several feeder creeks are key to where trout will hold. He suggests looking for points, oyster points, grass points, and any location where water is coming in or going out, which he describes as ditches.

“Trout love those quick transitions where the water goes from 12 feet to 4 feet,” he said. “Look for oyster fingers with that kind of water and fish those points. Trout are going to be where there is running water. They’ll be in as shallow as 2 feet of water, if you’ve got a little bit of a breeze blowing onto a point, it’ll blow bait up onto that point. That’s another indicator to look for.”

Clean water moving along an oyster rake or point can be a relative honey hole for speckled trout fishing. (Photo by Phillip Gentry)

Spitzmiller catches plenty of trout on topwater plugs early in the morning. His favorite topwater bait is a Zara Spook.

As the day wears on, he’s always got a popping cork paired with a live shrimp or with an artificial D.O.A. shrimp tied on for the majority of his fishing. If forced to choose between live or plastic, he states artificials are the way to go.

“When you’re casting for trout with a D.O.A. under a popping cork, you’re going to get just as much action as you would a live shrimp. And you don’t have to worry about re-baiting every cast,” he said, “or the shrimp getting thrown off, or dying.”

As far as baits and bait colors, Spitzmiller looks at the water. Looking for the cleanest water possible is important, but that doesn’t always means it’s crystal clear.

“I always try to match the colors with what’s going on with the water color,” he said. “If you’ve got stained water, you want to use brighter baits. If you’ve got clear water, you want to use a clear bait. The Electric Chicken color D.O.A. is good for murkier water. A natural or clear sparkle is best for clear water.”

Speckled trout patterns vary depending on water depth and other factors.

Speckled trout patterns

Many anglers new to saltwater fishing describe the fish as a cross between a crappie and a largemouth bass, tending to school tightly and feed and inhabit the middle to upper water column most of the time. Trout are also skilled ambush feeders and rely on sight to ambush prey.

Generally speaking, trout will move to shallow water early and late in the day during the spring. As sight feeders, trout shy away from bright light during the middle of the day but will roam the shallows in low light conditions such as early, late and overcast days. Topwater and subsurface crankbaits and plugs are good lure choices.

Structure, like grass points, oyster bars, and manmade cover frequently attract speckled trout in the mid depths. Mid depth for speckled trout ranges from 4 to 6 feet. Many speckled trout anglers choose to suspend live or artificial baits under a cork to hold them at or just above the structure to keep them from hanging up, especially in current.

In the event of a spring cold front, cooler weather will push speckled trout to the depths. For inshore anglers, this means water in the 8- to 12- or even 15-foot depths. Targeting dormant speckled trout in these depths require finesse tactics with artificial baits such as grubs, shrimp or other plastics. Again, current will play a role in reaching those depths.

About Phillip Gentry 821 Articles
Phillip Gentry of Waterloo, S.C., is an avid outdoorsman and said if it swims, flies, hops or crawls, he's usually not too far behind.

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