That means the day may warm a little for anglers and fish, plus trips can start and end during daylight, a kind of gentleman's fishing.
However, there was nothing gentlemanly about the way Capt. Tommy Rickman was trying to wrestle a speck away from some nearby dock pilings where it probably had broken off other anglers in the past. The veteran Southport angler's gloves were off, figuratively and literally, as he attempted to guide the fish to one side then the other as it zig-zagged toward some oyster-encrusted pilings and freedom.
Rickman was walking a tight rope, using all the drag the hook could stand without ripping open the soft mouth of the struggling trout. Finally, the combination of 49-degree water and Rickman's pressure wore out the speck as the guide led it to a landing net.
The Southport Angler Outfitters owner/guide (www.fishsouthport.com, 866-395-FISH) has developed a knack for catching winter speckled trout at the lower Cape Fear and Elizabeth rivers along with creeks near Southport.
He expected to catch some nice specks and did, even though he didn't weigh any fish for a citation - and several approached citation weight (5 pounds or live release of a speck 24 inches in length or longer). He kept a few small-but-legal fish for dinner, including a couple that were hooked deeply. But he released the rest.
"Even though today is cloudy, we've had a little stretch of sunny weather and the fish have been responding," Rickman said. "It isn't like an October or November bite, but if you have the patience, you can usually dig out a couple of fish for dinner. Some days it gets really good and rather than wonder what is going on, you have to calm yourself down and just enjoy it."
Even though we waited until late morning to leave Rickman's slip at Southport Marina, the water temperature hovered just below 50 degrees, nearly the same as the air temp. Rickman knew cold and frustration could combine to make an unpleasant trip if the specks didn't cooperate. He also knew anglers could worsen their luck by fishing too fast. That tip was probably the most important in making the day a success.
We had a few mud minnows and decided to use them first. Rickman rigged these baits beneath a Betts Adjustable Aggravator Rattle Float to suspend them about 6 to 12 inches above the bottom.
"Let the bait sit 30 seconds to a minute, then pop the cork and wait another 30 seconds to a minute, if you don't get a bite," he said.
Our first stop at a creek off the Elizabeth River behind the Oak Island Lighthouse proved fruitful. Specks were plentiful, yet they were colder than us after our ride from Southport. The fish weren't interested in chasing baits. Fortunately, something about popping the corks and bouncing baits right in front of these fish finally drew their interest.
Once the trout started eating, they bit sporadically. Several times they mouthed baits and bounced corks, then would leave, only to return several minutes later to eat the baits and submerge our bobbers.
As low tide approached, we moved out of the creek and into the Elizabeth River and switched to a mixture of plastic grubs, artificial shrimp and MirrOlure 17 MR shallow twitchbaits.
"Whatever you do, don't move your bait too fast," Rickman said. "These fish might be a little more aggressive than those back in the creek but not much. We've got some current here and won't be able to hold the bait in front of them as long, so be sure to move it as slow as you can. Just bounce or twitch it and let it settle before moving it but a few inches forward."
As he twitched his MirrOlure and relaxed, a quick tick of Rickman's line indicated a strike. Rearing back on the rod, the angler drove the hook home and his rod pulsed. The trout made a short run, then allowed itself to be led to the boat. Only one prong of the trailing hook had grabbed the fish's lip, but it had held.
"I saw you flinch when that fish hit," Rickman said. "Obviously you saw the line move and I might have seen it more than I felt it. These fish are cold and are biting light. You need to be ready to set the hook as soon as you feel one."
A few minutes later there was a light tap on the line and my tensed muscles reacted without thinking. The trout struggled a little, took a few feet of line and soon appeared beside the boat.
Several times after lunch we experienced strong strikes, but only one of them was a trout, a nice speck Rickman estimated would weigh more than 4 pounds. Marauding puppy drum created the hard strikes, and one multi-spotted, over-slot bruiser red cruised past the boat without showing interest in any of our lures.
A healthy black drum that grabbed a Betts Billy Bay Halo Shrimp gave the best fight of the day. The shrimp had been doused with Fishbites attractant and the blackie wanted it. He also wanted to stay away from the boat and made a pair of nice runs while struggling toward the net. Apparently black drum handle cold water better than trout and reds. Cold water black drum taste pretty good, so he was invited home for dinner.
"This cloud cover has them slowed down a little from the past couple of days," Rickman said. "They weren't biting strong, but it was better than this when the sun was out. I guess they're a lot like us and need a little sunshine to get going when it's cold."
The tide had started to flow toward the land when we made our last stop at the end of a small creek. The water flow made a little trail off an oyster rock into a small hole.
"Flip your bait up into that little current edge and let it tumble down into the hole," Rickman said. "The water at the back of these creeks always seems to be a little warmer and it's 2 degrees higher than when we began. If there are any fish here, they should be willing to bite."
By listening to Rickman and not paying attention to my line, the first bite was history. Several casts later, that familiar "tic" bounced up the braided line and the speck impaled itself. The trout ran to the grass similar to a redfish but then came around the oyster rock toward the boat. When it saw the boat, the spotted beauty ran again, but the hook held and the fish soon joined several of its brothers and sisters in the release well.
That fish was the last strike of the day, but it had been a nice outing. Rickman and I kept a good mess of specks, a pair of black drum and released as many more specks and several puppy drum.
Rickman had a little secret to teach - while winter fishing, it's usually beneficial to chill out for specks. No, don't dive overboard and catch a cold, just slow down your retrieve so your bait or lure stays in front of specks long enough to tempt them to bite.
Once an angler finds the correct pace - maybe more correctly the right lack of pace - if he's at the right spot, the fish just might bite.