Friday, May 25, 2012

The Speckled Trout - a beginner's guide (pt.1)

Recently, I was given the opportunity to share my knowledge and experiences with speckled trout during Appomattox River Company's Meet the Pro Staff monthly meeting.  The speckled trout or speck is regarded by many dedicated anglers as their favorite species of fish to target in the Chesapeake Bay fishery.  While the information I shared at the meeting was in no way copyrighted nor protected, it was not intended to be representative of all regions where anglers target specks.  Rather, it is a collection of ideas and concepts that I shared during the meeting and will freely share in this medium for those that perhaps misunderstood a topic discussion, were unable to attend due to logistics or scheduling conflicts or just geographically had location specific challenges.  Kick back, pull out a pad and a pen and take some notes or share it with others that love to fish.  I hope you find it useful, so let's get it rolling shall we?
Anglers from places as far away as Texas all the way up to through the mid-Atlantic coastal region into the state of Maryland have spent years on the water chasing specks.  The dedicated speck angler is typically one that is guarded and very secretive when it comes to specific locations and lures that they use.  While I will not use this forum as a means to disclose any information like this, I will try and convey some of the basics that every persistent and dedicated speck chaser should have in their knowledge base or mental angler's toolkit.  This discussion will be broken up into separate posts due to the voluminous amount of information that I feel is beneficial to remember in order to gain a better understanding on why the speckled trout is so cherished by anglers.

The information shared in this post and the succeeding one will focus on the following topic areas:
  • Species identification
  • Tackle
  • Lures
  • General location
  • When to fish
  • Keys to success
For this post, we will focus the discussion on the first three topic areas, so I encourage you to send me questions or comments if you need any clarification.  Keep in mind that this discussion is not intended to be the definitive resource, rather it is intended to help the novice salt water angler that is interested in learning the basics about speckled trout fishing and what some of the general tackle, lures and techniques are to have a chance at long term success when chasing this sometimes elusive species.

Species Identification:
The Speckled Trout, also commonly referred to as the Spotted Sea Trout, can be mistaken for another salt water species known as the Grey Trout or Weakfish.  To the casual observer, a quick glance at both species may not reveal many differences, but upon closer inspection, you will see that the two species are in fact distinctly different from one another.

Let's start with the Speckled Trout which has a dusky gray top fading into a silvery finish on its body.  There are numerous dark spots extending into their dorsal and tail fins which are a yellowish green color.  In the state of Virginia, the minimum size to keep or harvest is 14" but the limit varies by season.  From 12/1 through 3/31, an individual angler can harvest up to 5 per day, compared to 4/1 through 11/30 where the angler can harvest up to 10 fish per day.

Here is a comparison between an animated image and one I caught a couple weeks ago.
Now, let's look at the Grey Trout also commonly referred to as a Weakfish.  The grey trout differs from the speckled trout in that it has a greenish grey top that fades into a silvery side.  The body has small spots that form dotted lines and has pelvic and anal fins that are yellowish with the remaining fins very pale with a yellowish tinge to them.  The harvesting regulations here in Virginia are more stringent permitting the angler only one grey trout per day and a minimum size of 12".

Here is a comparison like above of the animated image versus one I recently caught.
While the differences are subtle, they are distinct.  Since most of my outings are late in the evening, the ability to tell the difference between the two species can sometimes be challenging due to low-visibility conditions.  One sure fire way to tell the difference is the feel of the scales between the two fish.  Before you attempt to do this, make sure you have coated your hands with some water to prevent any removal of the trout's protective slime.  When you are ready, on the speckled trout, the scales will feel smooth and not catch as you run your hand over them from the tail to the head, while the grey trout will feel very rough and will catch on your hand.  In the end, the risk of a fine or worse is not worth the risk of having too many weakfish in your possession even if by accident in my opinion.  I recommend releasing the fish when in doubt.  Better to be safe than sorry.  Now let's move on into some of the basic tackle you should have when you head out for your first trout adventure.

One of the keys to any successful outing is to have rod and reel combinations that are well-balanced right down to the selection of the main line and leader material utilized.  I recommend a high quality rod blank no less than an IM6 blank in a MEDIUM LIGHT to MEDIUM power with a FAST to EXTRA FAST action.  I currently use a variety of rods that are exceptional rods for the angling styles I currently employ, but the common characteristic in all of these rods is one thing - a lifetime warranty!!  You will at some point have an issue with your rod and will require replacement or service.  I have a couple of rods that I recently replaced, because they were 1,3 or 5 year warranty rods that had surpassed their warranty applicability and as luck would have it had an issue that warranted replacement.

The design of the rod is also a matter of personal preference.  Some like split handle grips while others prefer traditional cork.  Either will do fine, but sensitivity should be your bigger concern when selecting a rod.  That is where the high modulus of rods like the the IM6 and higher shine.  Some rod manufactures use a different coding for the their rod blanks,so check the sensitivity before you rush out and purchase a new rod.  You can test sensitivity by simply having someone place the rod tip on their voice box and ask them to say something in a normal tone.  If you can feel vibrations resonating through the rod blank in your fingers, then you have a fairly sensitive rod.  If you have to really have the person enunciate or speak very loudly before you feel anything, then the rod is most likely not sensitive enough in the long run.  Check out this awesome guide from Bass Resource of selecting a fishing rod.

One important thing to remember when fishing for specks is that they are akin to a bass in that they will completely inhale or engulf a lure without so much as a nick or indication that they bit it.  When they spit it out, you'll think that it was a strike when in reality it was simply the speck losing interest.  A very frustrating occurrence, but it happens all the time.  If this is happening to you, pay attention to your positioning and line tension.  If there is any sag in your line, this may occur more frequently than you realize.  Pay attention to the wind, line slack, angle of your rod, current direction, current strength and kayak positioning.  All are factors to consider.

When it comes to reels, I use both casting and spinning setups, but your personal preference, comfort level and experience may lead you to one over the other.  When selecting a reel, I recommend sticking with higher quality reels at affordable prices.  That doesn't mean that the high end reels that eclipse the $150 mark can't be used.  It just means that there are several viable alternatives at more attractive price points.  If possible, opt for a reel with corrosion resistance and anti-rust bearings.  I have reels that range in pricing from $25-200 that I paid for them.  Is any one of them better than the other?  Absolutely, but only in the sense of how the reel is utilized but not necessarily in overall performance or reputation.

While we are talking about reels, I cannot convey enough the need to pay attention to drag ratings and drag materials in your reels you use.  I don't use any reel in salt water unless it has a minimum of 12-15lbs. of drag rating. This point cannot be exemplified enough.  In November 2010, I was fishing in Rudee Inlet chasing specks when I noticed an eerie white fish shape swimming in the water.  Not knowing what it was, I made a half-hearted cast towards it not expecting to actually hook up.  What ensued was a 45 minute sleigh ride as I was being dragged around the back of Rudee Inlet by a 40" black drum.  While I was only fishing with a 2500 series reel spooled with 20lb braid and paired to a medium fast rod, the reel had a 15lb. drag rating. When combined with the drag of the kayak, I effectively had a drag of approximately 20-25 lb.  I eventually got the fish unhooked, but if I had opted  for a rod and reel setup of lesser components and drag quality, I may not have even had the chance to fight this fish for those 45 minutes.

When it comes to selecting line, there are several schools of thought.  Some folks are monofilament users, others flourocarbon, and some who use strictly braid as their main line.  For me, I prefer braided main line with a flourocarbon leader.  While specks don't typically require anything more than 12lb. flourocarbon or 8-10lb braid, I always spool my main line in 20-30lb. braid in hi-visibility yellow when possible.  I then attach a full wingspan's length (a length equivalent from one outstretched hand to the other) of 15lb. flourocarbon as a leader.  While 8-10lb. main line is usually fine, there are plenty of other larger species in the Chesapeake Bay fishery that inhabit the same waters as specks do, especially some of the locations the veteran speck angler frequents.  On any given outing, you could find yourself hooked up with a citation flounder over 26", a 30" bluefish, a 40"+ bull red, big 30"+ striper, black drum, sheepshead, cobia, ray or shark.  If that happens, you will be thankful that you had the larger line.

You might wonder why I use such a long length of leader on my setups and here is the reason why. If you are an avid fisherman, you know that fish relate to and are around structure more times than not.  Structure in salt water means a variety of things.  It could be oyster beds, dock pilings, a collapsed sea wall or even a sunken ship or wreck.  That being the case, you are going to have to re-tie at some point due to nicks and cuts in your line.  Another reason is that in the event of a break off, when you re-tie, the length of your leader will decrease depending upon the knot you prefer to use.  If you use the standard 2-3' length of leader material, then one re-tie will leave you with very little leader to work with.  I know I don't speak for every angler out there, but my personal preference is to spend as little time on the water messing around with re-tying leaders as possible, hence the reason I use twice as much as some might prefer.  If you are fishing extremely clear water, then you can also step up your length even further.  I have used lengths up to 9-10' before when I knew I was heading into a clear water fishery area with loads of structure.

Also, the reason I use line material versus a true flourocarbon leader is that true flouro is difficult to tie certain knots with for me.  The line based flourocarbon is lighter than true flouro and is much easier to tie not only lures with but also the leader to main line connection.  On the subject of main line to leader connection, I use the modified Alberto knot, because it passes through smaller line guides easier than other knots.  This knot takes some practice and should be performed while on land when you are prepping for your outing.  You can do it while on the water, but as I stated earlier, I prefer to spend time fishing rather than re-tying leaders.
 While I primarily utilize 15lb. leaders, I do sometimes use 8-10lb. leaders when I know I will be working areas with depressions and grass only with little chance at getting snagged on oyster beds or bridge pilings.  The challenge with using the lower test leader is that you run the risk of getting broken off if you hook into a trophy sized fish.  Like I said before, specks are not the only toothy critters that swim in this area.

Lastly, I often am asked how many setups I carry with me.  I tend to subscribe to the belief of less is more.  I typically carry three rods in total, but I realistically only end up using two of them.  The third setup is usually my emergency rod for when my line is severed, and I do not want to stop my fishing.  Eventually, I'll re-tie my lure on that setup when I reach a lull or am moving from one spot to another.  The setups I take are typically the following: one setup with a jig head for use with a plastic of some form.  The second setup with have a suspending jerk bait of some form on it, while the third setup might be either top water or a popping cork.  More on that in the post below.

When you are setting up your rod and reel combos for your pursuit of speckled trout, I encourage you to limit not only the number of rods you take, but also limit the lure varieties you carry as well relative to the type of structure you are going to fishing in and around on that given day.  I prefer to carry one tackle tray stocked with my choices for the day that will vary upon the specific location but it general, it will have the following: 2-3 small profile suspending jerk baits; 2-3 top water choices; 2-3 varieties of soft plastics; a variety of jig heads to account for varying currents; and extra #2 black salt water grade snaps.  I also carry a small container of Gulp! formula where I place a variety of my soft plastics.

Every angler has their personal preference for the lures they use.  Sometimes, their usage is dictated by past experience, recommendations from fellow anglers, the physical composition of the targeted fishery, or maybe there is an affiliation with a specific vendor as a staff member.  Regardless of the reason, very rarely will you find a seasoned speck angler carry more than the bare minimum.  The reason this occurs is simple.....the seasoned speck angler has stocked their "mental tackle box" and their "mental fishing journal" with past trips with similar physical characteristics, water behavior and weather conditions.  I am not affiliated with any lure manufacturers at this point, but there are a few companies that I clearly support, as evidenced in my previous fishing reports.

Regardless of lure types and sizes that you choose, remember to keep this premise in your head as a general rule of thumb - the darker the sky or murkier the water, the darker the lure needs to be.  Also, less clarity in the water, more chop from wave and wind action or the darker the sky, the less realistic your presentation needs to be.  Compare those concepts to an area where the water is crystal clear and the sky is clear with no real noticeable chop or wave action, your presentation need to be more precise both in lure profile and the technique in which the lure is worked/retrieved. Keep these factors in mind when selecting your lure presentations for a given day.  Do some homework before you leave your house by using various weather sites, tide charts for your given area, current predictions, etc. and you will be well on your way to outfitting your tackle tray and setting up your gear to maximize your time on the water.

As far as lure types, the most common types are: 
  • Suspending/Jerk baits - Mirrolures, Rapalas, Bombers, Storm.
  • Soft Plastic brands - DOA, Gulp!, Powerbait, Kalins, Bass Assassin, Strike King, Marsh Works.
  • Soft Plastic profiles - curly tail grubs, pogies, paddle tails, shad tails, split tails, jerk shads, shrimp.
  • Popping corks - paired with any of the lure types above.
  • Top water - Mirrolure, Rapala, Bomber, Creek Chub, Storm, Zara Spooks.
  • Spoons - not as popular in the Chesapeake Bay fishery but they produce.
  • Live or Cut bait on a fish finder rig or under a popping cork.
I would be remiss if I didn't account for another technique that involves different equipment and presentation and that is fly fishing, and area in which I have limited experience with but have witnessed firsthand the success one can have when using the long rod or buggy whip as some call it to target specks.  I personally have a 4 piece 7wt. rod with two reels I am learning with - one is spooled with a floating line while the other is spooled with an intermediate sinking line.  The flies I have in my fly box are limited but are geared towards stripers and specks.  I have several clousers in white, white/gray, white/blue, white/pink, white/chartreuse and white/red.  All of these will work, but it might be beneficial to carry a secondary traditional rod and reel to help you locate the fish.  Once you locate them, then you can take the fly rod out of your arsenal and start chasing them.

Next week, we'll look into the specifics of locations to target specks, when you should fish and some key points to remember in Part 2 of this discussion.  I hope you found this information useful.  Feel free to send tell your friends.  As I stated earlier, none of this information is protected or copyrighted.  It is simply intended to be a culmination of some common tips and techniques that the beginning speck angler needs to take into account the next time they head out.

Until then, be safe, tight lines and let me know if any of these tips helped you in any way during your next outing.

1 comment:

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