Wintering populations of speckled trout snuggle in the remote hideaways of the Pamlico, staying warm and gobbling up any available forage. Anglers willing to brave January's winter weather can locate these tasty opponents with little effort.
Fed by two major river systems - the Neuse and Pamlico - the Pamlico Sound is the largest lagoon on the east coast, covering thousands of flooded acres. In fact, it was once mistaken for the Pacific Ocean by Giovanni de Verrazzano, a 16th-century Italian explorer.
The majority of the sound's waters are shallow and unsuitable for speckled trout during harsh winter conditions. Specks must locate warmer water to survive, and they will either leave the estuaries for the ocean or head in the opposite direction, looking for deeper holes in the feeder creeks and waterways of the estuaries.
While they spread out over the entire sound in the spring and summer, the wintering population can be found in less than 5 percent of the total area, making it easy for winter-hardy fishermen.
Dave Stewart of Knee Deep Custom Charters out of Minnesott Beach is one of those veteran, diehard anglers who target specks in all 12 months, and he knows right where to look for a limit of speckled trout in winter.
"We catch them year-around here," said Stewart (252-249-1786). "They get in the backs of the creeks and settle in the deep places when cooler weather arrives."
Speckled trout are vulnerable to cold-weather extremes and must evacuate shallows when the air temperature drops into the low 40s and below. Water in deeper holes and channels is less impacted by sudden drops in air temperature from blustery winter weather, so Stewart looks for creeks with water depths between 8 and 25 feet deep.
Depth is the key ingredient for catching winter trout for several reasons. Richard Andrews of Tar-Pam Guide Service said trout are right at home in these deep environments.
"Thermoclines develop in winter, making the deeper layers much warmer than the upper horizon of the water column," said Andrews (252-945-9715) "Not only do trout like these places, but warmer water attracts baitfish, providing trout with an ample (food) source to survive the winter."
Typically, speckled trout prefer areas of high salinity, and although feeder creeks lack the salinity of waters closer to the ocean, specks will choose lower salinity in favor of warmth and food.
"They are able to overcome their freshwater intolerance to find warmer water and bait," Andrews said, noting that some areas provide water that's warm and high in salinity.
"In some cases, such as in the upper Pamlico River, the water near the bottom is also higher in salinity due to the salt wedge, where less dense, freshwater stratifies over top of saltier waters."
Due to the proximity to his home base in Washington, Andrews fishes mostly the Pamlico and Pungo rivers. He concentrates in the creeks and upper ends of these rivers near Washington and Belhaven.
He also recommends checking out Blount, Bath, Durham, South, Pungo, and Pantego creeks off the Pamlico River, as well as the Upper Bay River, Goose and Campbell creeks near Hobucken between the Pamlico and Neuse rivers.
"Ninety percent of the time, the fish will be in the very far back end of the deeper creeks where you might consider throwing out a Beetle Spin for bream or perch," he said. "But a shallower flat adjacent to the deeper channel is key. The trout will come up out of the deeper channel and feed on baitfish in the shallows during the day when the water warms."
Stewart concentrates his winter fishing on the Neuse side of the sound in the South River, Eastman Creek and Turnagain Bay. He patrols the backs of the creeks, looking for deep water and undulating terrain.
"Find holes and deep points," he said. "Look for topography with rolls and variations in depth. Move around and find the holes with fish in them."
While the fishing can be hot, with constant action, winter strikes will be subtle.
"Not a fantastic strike, but set the hook on any tap you feel," Stewart said. "Fish are in schools, and many more can be caught where the first fish comes up."
Stewart relies both on soft plastics and hard baits for winter specks.
"Use D.O.A. shrimp, D.O.A. CAL shad tails and jerkshad along the bottom using 1/8- to ¼-ounce jigheads or MirrOlure's 18MR, 52M or 4M also worked super-slow along the bottom," he said. "Use something that will get on down and then twitch on bottom."
Even the water in the deep areas is cold, and the action and retrieve must be slowed down significantly to produce strikes. Fish will be lethargic and will not react quite as fast as they will in the spring or fall.
Andrews also goes with soft plastics and hard baits, specifically paddletails and curlytail grubs that get the job done without the fishermen having to provide much more than the bait's built-in action.
"MirrOlures are excellent winter baits," he said. "In the deep water, the 52M and the TT of the same series sink good and get down to where the fish are," he said.
Colors will vary by water color, but the tannic waters on the western side of the sound will remain clear most of the winter. Andrews fishes blacks/orange, red, orange belly, chartreuse, pink, gold, and even dark green.
"I fish the same colors I fish any other time of year, but I will fish white when nothing else seems to work," said Andrews, who urges fishermen to also fish live bait during the winter, if possible.
"Live bait is a very good option," he said. "Live shiners sold at local bait shops for largemouth bass can be very effective for enticing a trout to bite under winter conditions."
HOW TO GET THERE/WHEN TO GO - Boat ramps that provide easy access to the Neuse and Pamlico rivers and western side of the Pamlico Sound are numerous. The N.C. Wildlife Resources Commission's website (www.ncwildlife.org/Boating_Waterways/Boating_Maps_Locations.htm) is the best resource for finding public launching facilities. Notable public ramps on the Neuse are Green Creek in Oriental, Dawson Creek and Hancock Creek. On the Pamlico River, South Creek and Smith Creek ramps in Aurora and Bath Creek in the town of Bath are good spots. The winter pattern sets in with the water temperature falls into the low 50s, driving fish into deeper holes. Typically, late December through March will be the time frame.
TACKLE/TECHNIQUES - Lures must be fished slowly along the bottom to draw strikes from winter trout. A slow retrieve is the key. During extended periods of warm weather, specks will move upon shallow flats to feed, but they'll never be far from deep water. Soft plastics fished on light jigheads are primary baits, especially paddletail and curlytail grubs in natural colors. Sinking or suspending hard baits are another good choice. Live minnows fished on a split-shot or drop-shot rig will often produce good action. Light spinning tackle is recommended, with 8- to 100-pound braided line on the reel and a 2- to 3-foot leader of 10- to 12-pound fluorocarbon. Use longer rods for longer casts.
GUIDES/FISHING INFO - Dave Stewart, Knee Deep Custom Charters, Minnesot Beach, 252-249-1786 or www.pamlicotackle.com; Richard Andrews, Tar-Pam Guide Service, 252-945-9715 or www.tarpamguide.com. See also Guides & Charters in Classifieds.
MAPS - Capt. Segull's Nautical Charts, 888-473-4855, www.captainsegullcharts.com; The Salty Southeast Cruising Guide (www.cruisersnet.net/cruisersnet-marine-map/?ll=35.5593,-76.4663&z=14); N.C.'s Coastal Boating Guide (www.ncwildlife.org/Boating_Waterways/documents/NCCoastaBoatingGuideMap.pdf)