The popularity of winter speckled trout fishing in Eastern North Carolina has risen drastically over the past decade and has become one of the most popular inshore fisheries in the Tar Heel State. Back in the day on not so good rods, mono filament and heavy jigs, we didn’t think it was possible to catch specks with surface temps under 50 degrees. But now even with chilly 44-to-48 degree surface temps, specks can be regularly landed.
There are differences in tactics yes, but much-improved fishing tackle has also made much of this fishery possible. Also, many misconceptions on spotted seatrout winter locations, migrations and feeding habits have been replaced with more facts. Recent studies like Dr. Tim Ellis’s tagging program and many long hard days of on-the-water observation have shown that there is an increase in winter trout populations in the Pamlico Sound Estuary with an abundant winter population of fish in the “creeks” off the Neuse and Pamlico Rivers. These areas are often protected from wind and have close boating access, making them more appealing to small boat anglers. Whether you have been chasing these spotter fish for years or for months, here are some of the tips and techniques I use to make a successful winter fishing charter.
What’s in a Degree?
The 50 degree mark remains a standard for specks to actively feed, however I have found in water temps greater than 47.5, that water 5 feet or less can be warm enough to get bites and catch trout. By 49.5 the fish will be biting with frequency. Keep in mind, specks do not all run to deep holes. If there is bait and if water temps occasionally warm to accommodate feeding and never get too cold to become dangerously low, the fish may remain in those shallow bodies of water. Shallow water warms quicker and so do the fish.
In water over 6 feet deep, particularly to depths of 8-to-12 feet, specks seem to remain active with surface temps to about 44 degrees. The bottom obviously remains warmer but there can be varying factors that affect bottom temp, oxygen and salinity levels. Often in deeper water, specks will hold tight to the bottom along the break line and not necessarily in the deepest part of the creek or river.
The sun is your friend. Warming rays of sunshine will increase the mobility and aggressiveness of pecks and I like lots of sun during the winter months. Anglers can watching the slow climb of surface temp on even a cool day as long as there is plenty of sunshine.
Slow Down and Scale Down!
Everything is slowing down as water temps cool and so should you. Baits and bait presentation that work in October rarely do well in December and January. Size matters, as they say, and in cold water fishing it’s the small bait that can get taken more often. When fishing the creeks in water depths 5 foot or less and with water temps 52 or below, I often fish a 1/16-ounce jig head, typically rigging the head with either 3-inch shad tail or curl tail grubs. The fall rate is very slow and you have a much lower number of casts plagued by winter “snot” grass.
As for color: “if you believe that one color works better than the next, it will!” As a general rule of thumb, deeper or more colored the water the brighter the bait; the clearer the water the darker or more natural colors seem to get a few more bites. For those of you who insist on a color, keep this in mind, if you fish a bait or color 80% of the time you should catch 80% of your fish on it!
Back to jig heads! For deeper water situations I opt for 1/8 ounce heads and again prefer both shad and curl tail soft plastics. If there is any wind or current, you may need to increase the weight of the head to maintain line contact. You may also want to rig a larger soft plastic, like DOA’s 4 inch jerk bait on a weed-less style hook like the VMC 3/0 heavy duty swim bait hook that comes pre-rigged with an 1/8 ounce weight. The rigging helps with grass issues, can be fished slowly and is dynamite on big trout.
Suspending hard baits are very popular in Eastern NC and catch plenty of fish. I do have a few alternatives from Rapala that have helped me put more fish in the boat. The X-rap Countdown in #7 is 2 ¾ inches long, weighs 3/8 of an ounce, comes in some beautiful colors and sinks faster than the traditional “suspending” baits, making it ideal for deeper water and fast currents. The Clacking minnow is also a good slow sink bait (slower than the countdown) and is perfect for winter specks. Both baits are rigged with sharp black nickel trebles and the rear hooks can be easily replaced with VMC feathered treble hooks in black nickel or Perma steel. Whatever hard bait you are using, slow it down!
Just for the Record, No Sent Required!
Speckled trout don’t like to waist calories, and in the winter chasing a bait can mean not having enough energy to survive. Just because the bite is not strong doesn’t mean the fish did not eat your bait. The two things, not including you, that can make a difference in sensitivity are your line and your rod.
Starting with the rod, Temple Fork Outfitters/Edge Rods makes some outstanding light weight, super sensitive rods. My two choices for winter speck fishing, or for that matter any of my fishing, are TFO’s Inshore Series ML 6’9” and the new L action 7 ft. rod. Both are outstanding for soft plastics and small baits. The Edge Line 7 ft. Inshore ML and L action rods may be the best tactical salt water rod I’ve ever fished. The blanks are practically in the palm of your hands and the high modulus graphite telegraphs the slightest peck.
Braid! You Better Have It!!
Small diameter supple braids are the way to go and Sufix 832 fits the bill perfectly for all my fishing needs, especially during the winter months. I typically spool my reels with 10-pound test when fishing clients but will often drop to 6-pound if I am fishing on my own. The lighter the better for distance and fall rate, so keep the 20- and 30-pound stuff for later in the season. I do a lot of line watching as well, looking for any movement in the bait that could indicate the lightest of bites. To best do that I prefer my 832 in Lime green. The color contrasts our dark waters well and is easy to keep track of.
This is also a good time to mention the importance of good eye wear as well. Quality polarized lenses in a few shapes to improve visibility can make a huge difference in seeing your line and your surroundings. Check out Costa for the options you need in eyewear. I never tie braid to my baits and always run a stretch of 18-to-24 inches of leader material. Again, with our darker waters mono works just fine but if the conditions change, as they may, to gin clear, then Sufix Invisaline is a great way to go. In most cases 15-pound test leaders are fine and will give you a good cross between durability and sensitivity.
Complete your outfit with a good light weight reel. Penn offers both the Conflict and Battle II reels that have both performed well for me. The 2000 sizing is a perfect match for the Temple Fork rods I mentioned earlier and will hold just the right amount of line.
Boating, Yes Boating!
Boating handling is vital at any time and can be more so during the winter. Slow and methodical boat movements can help you locate fish in borderline water temperatures. Use your trolling motor and your Power Pole for controlled approaches. When fishing shallower creeks, fan cast from the bow of the boat and give yourself ample time to hold in any stretch of shoreline you have had a bit. One strike can mean a thousand fish, so don’t rush off hoping to find the mother-lode somewhere else.
Just because it is cold doesn’t mean the fish enjoy having all 150 horses run over their heads. Slow, stealthy approaches still work best, and don’t run over fish then fish back over that same area. Specks may reach a peak of feeding for very short periods of time during the winter, and if you put them off that feed, well don’t expect great results for you and your fellow anglers. That leads me to throw in the “be courteous to your fellow anglers" statement. If you are in an area that is narrow and holding fish, move as much as you can with your trolling motor or at minimal idle speed…you’ll make a lot more friends and catch a lot more fish that way!
Fish Dinner or Not…
Spotted seatrout are great eating, especially fresh, and anglers will have the opportunity to catch many fish during the winter season. Keep a few things in mind when you’re looking at taking home your limit of fish: Yes some fish may freeze during the winter but not all will. Big fish are most likely females and have the opportunity to spawn in big number come spring, they don’t eat all that well and you can get a NC “citation” for a trout released at 24 inches or greater. That fish won’t be 5 pounds. You do not need the fish to mount it. In fact, the taxidermist will measure your fish and chunk it in the trash. You can get a length and girth, a photo, release the fish and get the same mount. Specks in the 16-to-20 inch range are great eaters but they don’t taste quite the same after a few days in the freezer. Keep what you need and put the rest back for your next trip.
Yes it is winter, and yes it is cold outside, but let’s go fishing! Enjoy every bite and have a blast catching the fish we couldn’t 15 years ago.