Cold-Water Seatrout In The Deep Holes
When you find spotted seatrout this time of year, you’ve likely found an entire school. Just keep looking, and you’re likely to catch plenty.
Just in case you haven’t noticed, winter is here. Lots of saltwater anglers have already put away their gear until spring, but it doesn’t have to be that way! The fishing may be tough in the winter months for most people, but if you pick the right day, you can still catch an abundance of fish and stay relatively comfortable.
We decided to concentrate on spotted seatrout for you this first month of the year. Their habits change when the water gets cold, but they can still be caught using the right techniques and fishing in some very particular areas.
Seatrout do not generally migrate. Studies have shown that they spend their entire life within 5 to 10 miles of where they hatched. This means that if the water temperature drops, the fish will be affected, and they necessarily change their habits.
A little knowledge of the water can help wintertime trout anglers find the fish. While they don’t migrate, they will move to seek warmer water. In Virginia and North Carolina that can even mean moving offshore. But here in Georgia they predictably move around our inshore areas looking for warmer water. Knowing where that warmer water will be is the key to catching these winter trout.
Georgia is blessed to have arguably the finest coastal estuary system along the Atlantic seaboard. Sounds, rivers, creeks, salt marsh and mud flats all contribute to a healthy fish population. And the seatrout use all of these areas, although they usually prefer water that has a higher salinity. You are more likely to find trout closer to the sound than way back in the marsh miles from the sea.
All along our coast, we can find rivers and creeks that meander back and forth into the marsh. On every bend in the river, there is a deep side and a shallow side. The outside of the bend is washed with tidal currents that over time create deep holes. The inside curve of the bend is usually shallow because the current does not move as fast or with as much force there.
The water temperature changes because the air temperature changes. The surface area of the water chills slowly because it is in contact with the cooler air. It will also warm back up during the day, with the sun providing the heat.
We took these facts with us on a couple of late December trips to locate some spotted seatrout and provide you with some ideas on catching them. All of our techniques will work from St. Marys to Savannah during the colder months.
We first headed out from St. Marys with our NOAA charts in hand. We looked for some creeks and rivers that had sharp bends and that were relatively close to the adjacent sound. Right around the corner from our launch ramp the North River curves around from the east back to the west. The outside bend at that point (N 30° 44.280 — W 81° 31.604) can be as deep as 20 feet on a high tide. The water depth is important. It’s what we look for in cold weather.
The water temperature is slightly warmer in the deeper holes because it takes longer for the chill to permeate all the way down into the water column. Trout will school up and stage in these holes, seeking the warmest water flow.
Next we looked at Beach Creek. It runs inland into the southern tip of Cumberland Island. The outside bends (like the one located at N 30° 43.587 — W 81° 28.301) in Beach Creek are ideal trout locations.
We need to point out here that the areas we are providing you may or may not hold any fish when you get there. The trout will move as they feed, and the entire school tends to move together. So, you may find fish at one location today and find no fish at the same exact location the next day.
The trick is to have several locations to hit, so planning your trip is very important. We suggest consulting a NOAA chart for the area you want to fish. Use the chart to locate the outside bends in the creeks and rivers.
Actually this time of year, the smaller creeks are better, particularly on an outgoing tide. The water on a mud flat or up in the marsh will have warmed up by midday, and the outgoing tide will be bringing comparatively warm water into the creek. The smaller the creek, the warmer the water will be on that tide.
Moving on, we located deep water along the west bank of Cumberland Island (N 30° 45.226 — W 81° 28.463). This area holds trout in the summer, and the deeper water means it can hold them in the winter as well. Fish the areas along the shore to the north and south of the Cumberland Island National Park boat docks.
We then looked at the area around the north end of Cumberland. Just south of Floyd Creek, Shellbine Creek takes off from the Intracoastal Waterway (ICW) at N 30° 54.633 — and W 81° 29.507 headed west into the marsh. The outside bends can hold trout. Look for the several oyster beds around the bends if you are there at low tide. They will attract the trout as they feed. Although the trout will be lethargic and not feed as aggressively in cold water, they still have to eat. Put a bait in front of them, and they will usually eat it.
While you plan and while you fish, pay attention to the small runoffs that allow water to drain from the flats. This warmer water coming off the flats will bring crabs and what few baitfish there are into the larger creek or river. Trout, along with flounder and red drum, will stage in the deeper water where these runoffs occur.
We used several methods to catch trout. Once we had fished all of these likely areas to no avail, we hit upon one small, unnamed creek with a deep, outside bend just beyond the mouth. The trout were there, and when we put a bait in front of them, they ate it.
We were using spinning and bait-casting tackle and had three different rigs that we fished. First we tried hooking a live shrimp on a 1/4- to 3/8-oz. jig head. We cast the jig across the creek to the deep side and slowly worked it back to the boat. Using a “jerk, jerk, jerk, wind” method, we worked the jig up and down three times and then turned the crank handle once. In summertime, we would have worked the bait faster.
Secondly we used a Bass Assassin Saltwater Sea Shad in my favorite electric chicken color on those jig heads. We worked the jig the same way, and while we caught more fish on the shrimp, we did manage a few on the artificial bait.
The third method we used was floating a live shrimp under a long, pencil float rig. We moved the bobber stopper on the line so that the bait would be drifting through the hole about half way down in the water column. After several drifts and several depth adjustments, we found the depth that worked. The trout were almost on the bottom, and when the shrimp reached them, they would eat. The float went down every time in just about the same location.
We did not try any topwater baits or crankbaits for a couple of reasons. First, the fish were too deep and lethargic to react to a noisy topwater lure. Second, a crankbait would be running too fast for a trout to chase it. The keys are slow presentation at the right depth, whether with live bait or artificial.
The bite was slow compared to summer fishing, but it was steady, and we stayed in this one place the rest of the day, catching trout the whole time.
On another December trip, we looked at more possible trout holding water. This time our plan was based around Jekyll Island. We used our NOAA chart to locate a number of likely spots, most of which we have successfully fished in the past year.
The first location is back up in Jointer Creek, off the ICW (N 31° 2.668 — W 81° 27.655). There are several good, deep bends and a number of smaller feeder creeks coming off the marsh, especially around Jointer Island (N 31° 4.962 — W 81° 30.203). Once again, remember, the fish may or may not be there. If they are there, they will eat a bait properly presented to them.
Capt. Judy Helmey, who contributes to our GON saltwater fishing report each month, has for a long time put forth the idea that seatrout will actually burrow into the mud on the bottom of a creek in these deep holes. This is particularly true in really cold water. Biologists tell us that water temperatures below 45 degrees will cause a high mortality rate in seatrout. Capt. Judy believes the trout are seeking to stay warm by staying in that bottom mud. She believes it’s some sort of hibernation thing. Although there is no science behind it that I know of, she and I both have caught cold water trout that fought slow and came in with mud all over their underbellies.
To the south of Jekyll, if you head into Umbrella Creek (N 31° 1.179 — W 81° 27.074), look for the two small creeks that take off into the marsh (N 31° 0.468 — W 81° 28.520). These creeks are outflows from the surrounding marsh, and there are a few deep holes in the bends and turns. Use caution fishing these creeks, because at low tide, you may find them to be non-navigable. Fish these on an incoming tide and for a short time on the outgoing tide, and then look for another spot.
Another good spot at high water is located at the mouth of a feeder creek runoff (N 31° 5.121 — W 81° 26.888). The area is shallow coming up to that mouth, and in the middle of the day on a high tide, that creek mouth will hold some trout. This goes against the deep water method, but trout will hang there because the midday sun will have warmed the water. A 1/4- to 3/4-oz. jig head with shrimp, or a popping float, like the locally produced “Thunder Chicken,” with a live shrimp fished about 2 feet deep will produce not only trout, but an occasional flounder and redfish, as well.
In the warmer months, the key to finding fish is usually tied to the bait population. Menhaden shad, shrimp and mullet are plentiful, and where there is a concentration of bait, there will usually be fish. But, bait in the winter is hard to find and hard to see. Mullet and menhaden have migrated south for the most part. Mud minnows (mummichogs), however, are year-round residents, being quite cold hardy. So they become the primary food for many fish. While we used shrimp on our outings—mainly because the bait shops were out of muds—the mud minnow is an excellent choice for a jig head or under a float. Simply hook the minnow through the lips. They are hardy on a hook, and unlike other live baits, they will survive numerous casts.
So if the visible bait is gone, what’s an angler to do? This is the time of year that the birds become a primary indicator of fish. Look for wading birds, large egrets and herons standing at the water’s edge. Watch them closely, and if they are stabbing at the baitfish, it’s an indication that you should fish this area.
It’s winter, and it can be very cold. But there are days that are much warmer than others. The key to having a successful trout fishing trip in cold water is to pick your day. It can be more comfortable for you and more conducive to catching fish as the sun warms things up.
Plan your trip by consulting a NOAA chart and locating areas such as those we located. Then move from one location to another until you find the fish. And remember to use a slow, deep presentation. Find one trout and you likely will have found the whole school!
And, oh, how did we do? We caught more than 20 trout, one small flounder and one small redfish, all from the same deep hole in the bend of a small creek.
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