Gator Trout In The Deep December Holes

When big seatrout go deep is weather dependant, but local angler Jimmy Crews says to pay special attention between Dec. 15-25.

Craig James | December 12, 2018

Georgia is truly blessed to have one of the very best trout fisheries on the east coast. From the creeks of Savannah to the marsh down in St. Mary’s, trout are plentiful and plain fun to catch.

From April to mid-December, limits can be had by slinging jigs to creek mouths or soaking shrimp under corks just off the beaches.

But, what about when cold weather sets in? As nighttime temperatures drop into the 20s, and daytime temps seldom get out of the 60s, trout seem to disappear, as do the anglers who target them.

Many anglers would agree that from December to March, time can be well spent in a recliner next to a fireplace loaded down with wood.

Not Jimmy Crews.

As temperatures plummet, Jimmy grabs his thickest jacket and gets ready to target some of the biggest trout of the year.

I hopped in the boat with Jimmy and his longtime friend Wayne Griffin a few days before GON went to press so Jimmy could share his tactics with readers.

“December is a transition month for trout. If the water temperature is still above 55, you can target these fish in shallow water with artificials, but as the water temperature drops, you’re going to have to change things up and fish deeper with shrimp,” said Jimmy.

We launched Jimmy’s 19-foot Carolina Skiff on a cold, foggy morning with hopes of finding fish that had already transitioned to deeper water. 

“The deep-water action isn’t as fast paced as jig fishing shallow, but once the fish have moved into the deep holes, you’re likely to catch a giant gator trout,” said Jimmy.

We made our first stop at a narrow creek, and it took all of two casts to let us know the fish were there. After a solid thump, I quickly set the hook and landed our first fish of the day, a 13 1/2-inch throwback trout that inhaled my jig. Trout must be 14 inches (total length) to be kept, and each angler may keep 15 per day.

Jimmy’s longtime friend and fishing partner Wayne Griffin used a jig to fool this nice trout.

It didn’t take long for Wayne and Jimmy to follow suit, as they caught our first two keeper fish of the day, two cookie-cutter 15-inch fish.

We spent the next 45 minutes bouncing from shellbed to shellbed, picking up fish as we went. After roughly an hour and a half, we had 15 fish in the box, and Jimmy was confident he’d found the pattern the seatrout were in.

“As bad as I want the fish to be deep, they just haven’t quite moved off yet,” said Jimmy. “If I had to mark the transition on a calendar, I would say between Dec. 15-25 is normally the time the greatest majority of fish will move to deeper water.”

For targeting fish that haven’t quite made the change yet, Jimmy sticks to throwing artificials. He likes to use Bruiser Baits Super Swimmer Jr. in the sexy shad or blue moonlight color, threaded onto a 1/4-oz. jig head.

“Unlike October and November, the fish are going to be scattered here and there. With a jig, I can cover a whole bunch of water in a hurry,” said Jimmy.

Jimmy likes to vary his retrieve speed but almost always keeps his lure moving. Much like fishing a bass worm, he prefers to hop the jig along the bottom with one- to two-second pauses.   

He recommends fishing the jig on medium-heavy baitcasting or spinning tackle and says 15-lb. test Berkley Big Game line works great around the numerous visible and submerged shellbeds.

Jimmy prefers to fish the last two hours of the outgoing tide and the first two hours of the incoming tide to position the fish around the shells and creek mouths.

“What I’m looking for is a creek that has plenty of shells in it or nearby and a flat that offers access to deep water. This gives fish the opportunity to move up and down in the water column with fluctuating temperatures,” said Jimmy.

After fishing a stretch of shells with no action for 30 minutes, we made a quick run to another stretch of shell-lined shore and immediately caught several more keeper fish. After dropping a nice trout in the box, Jimmy had this to say.

“You have to run and gun to catch the last remaining shallow fish. They are really spread out, but you can catch a mess if you grind it out and stay on the move.”

Our success continued throughout the morning with Jimmy, Wayne and myself setting the hook on quality trout and some redfish.

“A plus to fishing shallow is the reds are here, too, and right now, they are going to be running 16 to 18 inches on average, and they are suckers for a jig, too,” said Jimmy.

Another tip Jimmy mentioned was if you have multiple anglers in the boat, it really pays for everyone to try a little something different until you establish a pattern.

Jimmy says that sometimes jig color doesn’t matter at all and the fish will eat most anything, and other days if you don’t have the right color tied on, you won’t get bit. This is where trying different colors and retrieves simultaneously will help you home in on what the fish want quickly.

“Another presentation I like with a jig is to fish it approximately 2 feet below a popping cork. On some days, they just can’t turn down that jig suspended in their face,” said Jimmy.

Jimmy managed several fish on this rig during our trip by using a simple twitch-pause-twitch cadence. This presentation works well along grass edges lined with shells that drop off quickly from 3 to 5 feet of water.

We ended our fishing trip with more than 75 total fish caught, and 39 of them were keeper-size trout. But that’s hardly where this story ends.

“Though it didn’t work out for us to fish deep, don’t let that fool you. These fish are transitioning, and once they go deep, it’s a whole different ballgame to get them in the boat,” said Jimmy.

  “My advice to anglers in December would be to start your search shallow, but be prepared to go deep if the bites aren’t there.”

Unlike fishing creek mouths and shell-lined banks, Jimmy searches for deep-water trout well up creeks where they spend the coldest winter months. Finding the right deep hole that harbors trout can be tricky, but Jimmy says it isn’t as hard as it seems.

Around bridges, train trusses and sharp curves in creeks below bluff walls (especially those with fallen trees) are all areas where deep water is usually present. Once you find a likely spot, Jimmy says the first step is to use your electronics to determine where the deepest water is in the area.

“This can be 10 to 20 feet deep on average, depending on the waterway you’re fishing. Basically, a hole that is significantly deeper than the surrounding water,” said Jimmy.

A simple slip cork and shrimp setup works well for deeper fish. The jig will continue to work for those fish that are shallow.

After he determines the depth, Jimmy will set his slip-cork rig to where his shrimp will sit approximately 1 foot off the bottom. For those who don’t have a depthfinder on their boat, simply adjust the cork until it hits bottom and turns sideways, and then pull it up a foot.

Jimmy’s tackle for this kind of fishing is simple and straightforward. He prefers to use a 6 1/2- to 7-foot baitcasting combo spooled with 15-lb. test Berkley Big Game line with a 6- to 7-inch slip cork, a 1/4-oz. weight and a 2/0 or 3/0 hook. The final touch is a medium-sized lively shrimp hooked through the head.

“Back in the day everybody was using 8- and 9-foot cork fishing rods, and those setups still work fine now. I just like the feel of a smaller profile casting rod. It really lets you enjoy fighting the fish.

Once you’ve located a deep hole, make long casts past it and let the tide carry your shrimp through, being sure to freeline your cork as it drifts.

“This is extremely important. You have to let it drift without tension. I see lots of folks with them just hanging out behind the boat in the current, and that doesn’t work. Tension will pull your bait up and out of the deeper strike zone,” said Jimmy.

Keep in mind, though, that you don’t want too much slack in your line, or it will make for very ineffective hook sets and lots of missed fish.

Jimmy likes to give each deep hole 10 to 15 minutes to produce before he heads to the next one.

Jimmy Crews with a fine trout caught a few weeks ago. This fish bit a jig in shallow water. Expect to catch trout this size and larger as water cools and the fish go deep.

According to Jimmy, a deep hole will often yield several quality fish, but don’t expect large numbers of fish using this method.

“This isn’t a catch 50 or 100 a day way of fishing, but it is a very effective way to catch the largest trout of the year,” said Jimmy.

“With that said, if you get in to more trout than you need for a good mess to eat, it’s a really good idea to turn those very best trout back when you can. Those really big gator trout are the future of our fishery, and their survival ensures a new crop of trout in the spring.”

As the outside temperature continues to drop a little more each day this month, hopefully you will get out in the salt and give the trout a try.

Go ahead and grab an extra jacket, and enjoy some of the best trout fishing of the year. 

Whether shallow, deep or somewhere in between, the fish are bound to be biting, and the recliner and fireplace will feel even better after a long, cold day of fishing.  


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