Brutally cold weather plagued North Carolina this past winter, doing a number on speckled trout throughout the state's coastal waters.

Some cold-stun and cold-kill events were recorded in several of their main wintering areas on the western side of Pamlico Sound, but fair numbers of specks survived to take advantage of springtime conditions.

The stained tributaries along the Pamlico and Pungo rivers offer fishermen ample opportunity to make a connection with the hardy, toothy remnant this spring.

The western side of the sound, including the Pungo and Pamlico and their feeder creeks, warm more quickly in spring than the rest of the area. These watersheds get the majority of their water flow from surrounding swamp, pocosin and wetlands converted to cropland. They have deep, organic soils, continually-leaching away a nutrient-rich package downstream into the main tributaries. These waters are very tannic, stained and dark - and darker colors absorb or trap the sun's warmth more efficiently than green or lighter-colored waters. Warming spring waters offer ideal conditions for baitfish and the predators that follow them.

Speckled trout in the early spring will rarely be scattered around and will hold in schools near their wintering grounds, but these areas will be isolated, and fish will hold in specific areas. Richard "Dickie" Andrews of Tar-Pam Guide Service specializes in running-and-gunning, covering lots of water in promising areas hunting for a school of specks.

"Ninety percent of springtime trout fishing is centered around hunting and locating the schools," said Andrews (252-945-9715). "Trout will be held up in specific areas, and we cover a lot of water on some days looking for them."

Location is always key, with depth playing a pivotal role. Early on, Andrews concentrates on deeper creeks and works his way into their shallower reaches as the water warms.

"During early spring, trout will be found in creeks with deeper water, around four to seven feet deep. But if the water is still very cold, creeks with holes deeper than eight feet are more ideal," he said.

Feeder creeks along the Pamlico and Pungo rivers are typically shallow and rarely offer deep-water refuge for trout in winter, but large populations of resident fish winter in the Pamlico and Pungo themselves. Gary Dubiel of Spec Fever Guide Service first looks for specks in areas near the Intracoastal Waterway (ICW).

"The waterway (in) this area contains some of the deepest water throughout the western Pamlico Sound and will harbor resident trout in winter. Tributaries and relatively shallow flats intersecting the waterway offer prime conditions and are good places to begin looking for schools of trout in spring," said Dubiel (252-249-1520).

With trout being cold-blooded, water temperature is critical and will determine where they move and live throughout the year. Spring water temperatures can range from the mid-40s to the upper 50s, depending on seasonal weather patterns. Andrews begins to look for trout in the tributaries as water temperatures approach and pass the 50-degree mark.

"As the water temperature reaches 55 to 57 degrees, the trout fishing really gets good in the tributaries," he said.

Small changes in water temperature will immediately trigger a response from spring trout, even during the course of a day. Dubiel respects every extra degree on the thermometer when planning his trout trips, and time of day plays deeply into his plan. According to Dubiel, spring trout fishing is often better in the afternoons, especially in the stained waters east of the ICW.

"Warm, springtime conditions warm waters throughout the day, sometimes raising the water temperature by four to six degrees," said Dubiel, who looks for certain kinds of areas that he knows will warm earlier, like wind-protected areas that get plenty of direct sunlight. "The leeward banks along the tributaries warm quicker, and fish will be more abundant."

The wind always plays a role in fishing in March, and it plays into where Dubiel looks for trout. Northeast winds predominate in spring, but windy days create fishing opportunities.

"In wind, fish try to avoid high, wind-blown banks, but they will take advantage by positioning themselves on the eddy-side of wind-blown points," he said. "Bait will get carried by the wind current and get disoriented while passing over the shallow points near shore.

The leeward banks also receive direct sunlight, offering water temperatures a few degrees higher in the afternoon, and Dubiel concentrates on those areas when looking for schools of active specks.

Lure choice is less of a variable in the spring than the rest of the year. With the winter over, few choices of food are available for trout, which will feed on a variety of offerings with little hesitation. Small mullet and menhaden are the main spring baitfish, but juvenile spots and croakers will be available on occasion as well.

The main artificial baits will be those that imitate small baitfish, but lure choice should center on those that are effective when presented slowly. Jigheads and soft-plastic combinations are primary lures for spring specks. Dubiel prefers eighth- to quarter-ounce jigheads, but he'll use 1/16th-ounce heads if the water is cooler and the wind calm enough to cast the light lures-of-choice for spring speckled trout angling. He intends to work the lures in the deeper third of the water column.

"The light jigheads allow a slow presentation that should be routine in early spring," he said. "I use the lightest jigheads I can effectively fish and get the slowest bait-fall possible."

Dubiel chooses small curlytail and paddletail grubs, picking colors based on water clarity.

"I use colors that blend with the water and do not stand out," said Dubiel, who goes with natural browns and tans in clear water and brighter whites and chartreuses in dirty water. Trout are sight feeders, and lures must be visible, but not overly-visible and unnatural looking.

Small, suspending hard baits such as a MirrOdine 17MR or the smaller 14MR can be deadly in spring. They suspend in the water column and mimic the size of the baitfish available in the spring. They can also be worked very slowly, with a short twitch-and-pause retrieve. In stained water, top color choices are chartreuse, orange, pink and gold with black backs. The best colors in stained water for MirrOdines have black backs with chartreuse, orange, pink and gold.

Even though shrimp are scarce this time of year, specks love them and won't hesitate to hit shrimp imitations threaded on a jighead or suspended under a popping cork. Andrews likes Berkeley's Gulp! shrimp in "ghost shrimp" pattern on an unpainted or white quarter-ounce jighead. Gulp's powerful scent will also entice trout to bite.

Andrews casts shrimp imitations along the shoreline or on a flat, bringing the shrimp up one to two feet and letting it fall back to the bottom. New penny and white pearl are Andrews' favorite colors.

Springtime conditions means clear water, and taking into account a trout's keen eyesight, light tackle is recommended, with light line a critical component needed to bamboozle unsuspecting trout. A 3-foot section of 10-pound fluorocarbon leader will suffice joined to 8- to 10-pound braid for the main line; Spiderwire's translucent Ultracast Invisibraid is a good choice. The fluoro-braid combo offers an invisible leader and a extremely small-diameter core line with no stretch.

Fortunately for trout fishermen, specks often spend the spring in the same places they spent the fall. Generally, they will first travel to the productive flats where they spent their last days before moving to winter areas and going dormant.