Monday, June 4, 2012

The Speckled Trout - a beginner's guide (pt.2)

Let's continue our discussion and learning process from last week's first part of understanding Speckled Trout tactics for the beginning speck angler.  Last week, we focused on the topic areas of:
  • Species Identification - differences and similarities between the Speckled Trout and the Weakfish
  • Tackle - rod, reel and line choices
  • Lures - various options and beginning retrieval options
This week we will round out our discussion on specks by focusing in on some of the finer points regarding:
  • General locations
  • When to fish for specks?
  • Keys to learning and sustained success over time
General Locations: (Where to fish)

When anglers target fish, unless the species in question is the big water cruising species like various billfish species or tuna, most fish orient to some form of structure or sub-surface variation.  When you think of structure or variation, you need to think of these terms in relation to the body of water you are fishing.  For instance, structure in a flat could be as simple as a depth transition of one foot creating a small dip or hole.  Another option could be a lone oyster bed on an otherwise empty tidal flat.  Let's focus on six types of structure or variations prevalent in the Chesapeake Bay inshore regions.  Keep in mind that any of these six forms of structure or variation in and of themselves is a good target area, but the more combinations you can find in the same general area will significantly increase the chances of you locating quality fish.  Also understand that predatory species are looking for ambush points.  You can certainly catch fish in the open that might be simply cruising from ambush point to ambush point.  The savvy speck angler will position themselves relative to the ambush point and the most likely path of the prey.

Moving Water
Lets start with moving water - this one is synonymous with inshore saltwater ecosystems all over the world.  More over, we are talking about tides and currents relative to the area you are fishing in.  Speckled trout are like any other predatory species, they leverage the current movement to serve up a tasty meal whenever possible, but like largemouth bass and other freshwater species, they don't like swift currents so while not entirely impossible, it is highly unlikely to find the larger specks sitting in heavy current flows.  A subtle increase in current and tidal activity triggers the dinner bell and signifies the start of the migration of edible goodies onto the food service highway.  That is why the first of incoming and last hour of outgoing are so popular.  As the current begins to increase in intensity, the larger specks move to deeper water or areas of less velocity.

When you are fishing in a tidal area, you can pick out the swifter currents and tides fairly easily.  At the beginning and ending periods of tidal and current movement are the prime times to target specks.  The maximum current is not the best location for two primary reasons - one, the amount of effort required to attack a tasty morsel and recover is exponentially greater than lying in wait in an area where the current is less severe.  Second, as a kayak angler, many including myself prefer not to anchor or stake out if possible in heavy current, so maintaining position in heavy current can be quite a chore and results in more time spent on positioning and less time fishing.  Find an area beyond the lesser flow areas and then stake out or anchor up.  Don't make the mistake of anchoring in the eddy created by the current flows - this is a primary ambush point for many species including specks.

Depressions & Holes
The next area of focus is that of holes or depressions in the bottom areas of a given location.  Most often you will find these forms of structure or variations near creek mouths or areas where the water flow empties into a larger area.  The natural movement of the water creates a depression albeit sometimes unnoticed by the casual paddler.  These areas are much easier to identify at low tides but can be picked out at high tide as well.  Think of a river and how it meanders downstream and creates pools where the water does not flow as fast and appears to circle.  These areas in a tidal flat behave much in the same manner.  Watch the creek mouths and water inflows on a falling or ebb tide to see where the current breaks are and where the current slacks off into a pool.

If you are having trouble seeing it, simply tie on a bobber or other floating lure and cast it up into the moving water.  Sit back, watch the track your lure or bobber takes and take mental notes on two things - the water directional movement and where the current is swift versus slack.  Recon the same area at high, low and slack tides and during the various lunar phases to confirm your understanding of the geographic makeup of the area in question.  You may find that a particular area is influenced more by the tides on a full moon versus the new moon.  Once you understand how the water flow behaves relative to the sub-surface variations, you will have a better understanding of where specks may potentially stage themselves.

It is also important to remember that tidal movement can also create holes and depressions in the middle of a flat.  This happens sometimes when you have multiple feeder creeks into an area.  The first confluence will result in a deep hole, but often times, the secondary holes and depressions are overlooked.  These form downstream of the primary flow and are often times formed from the combination of the creek inflow and tidal patterns.  Don't make the mistake of focusing only on areas of primary water inflows.  There are other areas where depressions and holes exist.  Remember, larger specks may not prefer fast moving water, but fast moving water over a deeper depression can slow the current enough to serve up your weightless soft plastic as a meal and allow it to fall into the depression and entice that speck into biting.

Grass beds

Let's move on to grass beds.  Most smallmouth bass anglers are familiar with this form of structure and know that it is a primary ambush location and can hold some very healthy and sometimes citation class fish.  The concepts on how to approach grass beds in salt water is not that dissimilar.  What you need to understand is how the grass bed relates to the availability of prey and tidal and current movement.  When targeting grass beds, look for areas in the grass be where the grass is less dense or creates a natural current break on the backside of a current flow.  This does two things - one, it creates a natural eddy action of the water and two, it creates a spot for the speck to sit and wait for the next meal that is coming around the corner.

Another feature of some grass beds is akin to sight casting to largemouth bass during the spawn.  Anglers often look for holes in the middle of the grass, because they know the large females are sitting in the shadows just waiting for something to fall into their view before they devour it.  Take the same approach with your speck presentations.  You can use a variety of lures here, but I prefer a moving presentation that emits some form of subtle movement that appeals to a fish's lateral line senses.  As I swim the lure to the spot, I allow it to slow down and fall into that natural hole in the grass.  If the lure doesn't get hit, I give it a couple of subtle twitches and allow it to sit a bit longer.

You may have to target this area 5,6,7 maybe 10 casts before enticing the "hidden" lunker into taking a swipe at your lure.  You can also use a heavier jig head on your soft plastic or a suspending slash or jerkbait to help it remain in the strike zone once you let it fall.  If you still haven't enticed a hit, a tactic that is sometimes used is while the other lure is sitting, take a secondary rod and cast a second presentation nearby.  Perhaps a popping cork with a small grub or shrimp impersonation under it and allow it to move into the strike zone.  Two meals are sometimes better than one.  Just remember, this is considered a power technique and not one to use every time you head out.  This is more geared towards offering something different than what the fish have seen all day long.  It can be used from time to time to help locate fish, but is best left reserved for times when nothing else works.  Sometimes just offering something a little different is all it takes to turn the bite on.

Oyster beds
Oyster beds are the very definition of agony and ecstasy at the same time.  On one hand, they are an ecosystem in and of themselves relative to the natural bounty of organisms and lifeforms that inhabit them.  However, they can frustrate even the most devout of faith into muttering a few unmentionables from time to time.  There is no greater heartfelt loss to an angler than to hook into a quality fish only to have it come unbuttoned or break free by running to the safe havens of the oyster beds and severing the one thing that separates you from that glorious hero shot hoisting a citation and muttering to one's self as the fish swims away free.

Oyster beds are a mecca of food to the salty scavengers that lurk about.  Crabs love to scour the beds for tasty morsels to eat, and other small bait fish follow in close order to scrounge up the scraps and any other forms of small tasty morsels for themselves.  When these bait fish move it, the specks are close by for certain.  You can sometimes spot the type of bait fish by simply watching the oyster beds as the tide begins to ebb.  As the bait fish are swimming out into the deeper waters with the ebbing tide, they are attacked by any number of predatory species like bluefish, flounder, redfish and specks.  You will sometimes see them breaking the surface attempting to flee the predators below.  This activity is an exceptional indicator for what bait profile and color to use.  Often times, the presentation does not have to be the exact color or size, only close during periods of peak feeding activity.  However, when the bite slows and the feeding window is not as active or the water clarity is great, the lure profile and action needs to be more precise.  Pay close attention - while you may not have any luck with the specks, you may find yourself in the middle of a small puppy drum school and can occupy yourself in the mean time.

A word of caution both from an environmental standpoint and kayak safety.  Be careful when targeting specks around oyster beds.  Oysters are not only protected from harvesting in a variety of areas in the Chesapeake Bay region, they are also very sharp and can cause a significant amount of pain and discomfort to the novice angler without proper foot ware.  Oyster beds can also cause some serious damage to your kayak as well, so if at all possible, do not anchor, stake out or step onto an oyster bed at all costs.

Sandbars & Adjacent Flats
Remember the discussion above regarding depressions and holes?  The same concepts apply here only we are talking about extended areas of flats adjacent to sandbars.  What this means is where you have a depth change from a sandbar to an adjacent flat, but the depth of the flat is consistent.  This is an exceptional ambush point when you are talking about a muddy flat that has some darker mud in it.  When the sun is up and warms the darker mud, heat is released as the day progresses and draws in the smaller bait fish into the ambush zone.  Here is where your casting accuracy comes into play.

Spend some time first and analyze the current flow and wind direction relative to the edges of the darker mud and the adjacent flat.  Don't paddle right onto the mud flat.  Sit back at a distance and observe the area first.  Don't be afraid to use the bobber or floating lure technique to help you identify current flow.  Once you have it dialed in, then you can make your cast past the primary target zone and work your lure back into the darker mud area.  You may find that a simple direct retrieve doesn't always work.  The seasoned speck angler is all too aware of how many different retrieval techniques they have used over the course of their angling career.  Also, don't be afraid to tie on a slightly heavier jig head and work a presentation on the bottom stirring up activity and enticing the fish to come up and check it out.

When it comes to sandbars, they come in a variety of shapes and sizes and change almost daily due to current movements.  Just like the effects of wave action from hurricanes has on the Outer Banks landscape, so do the currents on sandbars. The greater the intensity of the current movement, the more changes it will have on the physical size and orientation of a sandbar.  What is important to understand is how the sandbar relates to the channels that run parallel to them.  If one side of the sandbar is more shallow than the other, then you need to understand if the water is static or moving.  If it is static, then the likelihood of frequent speckled trout catches will be significantly greater than if a similar sandbar has a slight current flow over it and it is comprised of some darker mud.  Just like the other ambush points mentioned earlier - keep in mind combinations of factors when hunting for potential speck locations.

Man-made Structures
The last ambush point is relatively simple to understand in concept but can be even more difficult to master relative to the other types mentioned above.  You see, most man-made structures are similar in design and  function, so how do you pick out the ones that have a greater chance to hold the larger fish.  Just like before - look for combination factors.  But let's not get bogged down on that just yet.  Let's identify some of the types of man-made structures you can find in the Chesapeake Bay fishery.  The most prevalent ones are docks and piers, but other examples include: floating docks, bridge pilings, boat moorings, channel markers, crab pots, rock walls, crumbled walk ways and foot bridges, random trash like old sunken boats, Christmas trees, tires, etc. all are examples of what you might find.  Granted, you would hope that some of these items mentioned would be removed just from an environmental perspective but anything is possible.

The key points to remember when it comes to man-made structures is that they provide two functions - current breaks and places for bait fish to hide.  Both of these characteristics are key variables when searching out potential speck hideouts.  As indicated before, a peak low and slack tide is your best friend when it comes to identifying potential ambush points.  It is also a key point to understand relative to determining why a certain dock or rock wall holds larger fish relative to another structure of similar size and orientation.   I personally have experienced both joy and pain in the same breath by using this approach.

While fishing the 2011 TKAA Tournament, I was fishing an area that had two large moorings providing current breaks on an outgoing tide.  I cast my jighead/soft plastic out past the current break into the moving water and slowly twitched the lure back to me using a twitch twitch pause retrieve.  I had paused the lure at the edge of the current break by the mooring pole when it was slammed by a nice speck.  I was able to get the speck to the side of the kayak long enough to see it was easily 26" and the largest one to date for me.  I reached over to grasp the line and hoist the sure fire citation into my lap and it came unbuttoned.  Sometimes those are the breaks.  I had done everything correctly - proper drag, proper angle of the rod in the event of a last second jump and even not using the rod to lever the fish towards me.  The fish just thrashed the right way to throw the hook.

You may find that one dock holds and produces larger fish, because it has an extra landing at the end creating a slightly accentuated current break and additional eddy relative to the other docks in the area.  This same dock now has created an area that affords a larger ambush holding point since it extends further out into the main channel, meaning there should be a deeper cut or water depth towards the outer edges.  Another example is a rock wall that faces the south may hold the larger fish during the warmer months at dusk simply because it is exposed to the sun for a greater period of time relative to the same size rock wall that is oriented in a northern fashion only a few hundred yards away.  However, the northern rock wall may also hold larger fish on the backside of the eddy formed from an incoming tide versus the southeastern facing wall on the same incoming tide.  I can't rehash the concept enough of piecing together more than one of the structure variables as it relates to the potential for a predatory species like speckled trout to position themselves for the easiest meal.

When to Fish?
Now that we have spent time focusing and understanding ambush points and target areas, it only makes sense to talk about optimal times to fish.  Some anglers prefer the flood over the ebb tide or vice versa, and some anglers swear by lunar tables.  I am in firm belief in currents versus tides.  Don't get me wrong, the tides are very influential relative to where the ambush points are located.  It is the current that is going to dictate when and where the bait fish are going to orient themselves relative to structure and tidal activity.

For me, I along with many avid speck anglers in the Chesapeake Bay fishery prefer certain types of activity relative to when we fish.  Many like myself prefer the first hour or two of an outgoing or ebb tide that maxes out at .2-.3, or only the first hour of an ebb tide that is predicted to run at .5 or greater.  Remember, the larger speckled trout prefer slight changes in current flows not swift moving currents.  A swift moving current can also indicate that the tidal influence on the structure is more concentrated.  Take a oyster bed for example like mentioned earlier.  Do you think you have a greater chance of targeting and landing a larger speckled trout during a two hour period of a .3 outgoing current on the ebb tide versus only one hour on the same type of tide but it is flowing at a rate of .5 or greater.  Your opportunity to land a better speck is the former rather than the latter.

Another time of day that avid speck anglers target as well as other species chasers is that of early morning and late afternoon.  For me personally, I find that both are about the same, since I love working top water presentations during these time periods.  I have found that either current flow is perfectly fine for top water during these time periods.  Once the sun has set or has not begun to lighten the horizon yet, it is important to know the water clarity and the moon phase to better identify the proper lure color and presentation technique to use.  A full moon and a current prediction of .2-.3 means a dark top water plug is tied on, along with a popping cork and an appropriately colored soft plastic as my backup rod. If there is a new moon or overcast skies, a lighter colored plug may be the choice.

Keys to Success:
Long term success for the dedicated speck angler is all relative.  Success might be defined in terms of quality of the fish caught versus the quantity.   It also might be defined in terms of identifying a successful pattern for a given area over the course of time.  Remember, everything in life is cyclical in some manner.  Ask any redfish angler in the area, and they will tell the tale of days when pups were numerous throughout the region and now are considered scarce.  What has been failed to be mentioned by many of these same individuals is that they did not adjust or recognize the indicators on where the fish moved to.  There are a handful of hardcore speck anglers in the area that consistently land citation specks throughout the year when others are asking where they should fish.  These are the same individuals that typically landing very few if any over 19".  The keys to long term success are often subtle but speak volumes to the overall ability of an angler to read the water and find the fish.  Herein are a few summary notes to hopefully help you in your quest should you make the commitment to learn the behaviors of speckled trout.
  1. Scouting - you have to put in the miles on the water to find the right spots that hold fish.
  2. Patience - be patient in your approach - that means both mentally and when in the kayak.
  3. Time - it takes time to develop a pattern that you know and trust for a spot.
  4. Stealth - noise is an absolute killer when targeting citation specks.  Wading is an option!!
  5. Precision - an ill advised or poorly executed cast can turn off an otherwise hungry speck.
  6. Retrieves - you must vary your retrieve speed and lure motions to effectively find the pattern.
  7. Drag - a high quality and properly set drag will increase your chances of landing the big one.
  8. Finicky - specks are finicky species.  The pattern may change day-to-day even in identical conditions.
  9. Fishing Log - keep a detailed log of as many variables for each trip - over time the pattern develops.
If you take nothing else away from this two-part discussion on the speckled trout, I encourage you to copy and paste the nine summary items above and laminate them on a card.  While these items are not the only things to remember, they do identify some of the critical concepts to know and understand before you head out on the water to chase after specks.  They should become part of your mental preparation when you head out on the water.

Every day is a new day on the water and an opportunity to learn something new.  I can't tell you how many times I have been on the water and worked a pattern almost identical to the one that produced before only to learn that a new variable had been introduced I had failed to account for in the past.  Each time you head out on the water, turn on your senses not only to the conditions that present themselves, but also to the actions of you the angler while on the water.  Pay closer attention to what you do and how you do it to help you learn what to do and what not to do when approaching your target area.

Good luck.  Tight lines and be safe out there.  Every day is an opportunity to improve your Speckled Trout knowledge.  Take full advantage of it!


  1. Wow! It is going to take a minute to disseminate all this information, but this is an amazing write up. I am going to have to study this closely because I am going after trout and reds at the end of the month.

  2. Thanks Evan - I hope you find some of it useful. Some of the information is fairly straight forward but very few put all the pieces together each trip out. Guys like Tim Morris and Forrest Short are the trout wise men in this area and have almost perfected it - but it took them 20+ years of learning them seleves and they learn a little more each time out.