Mud and Mullet Point the Way to Speckled Trout in Winter
The New Year is always full of promise. Resolution lists are made, gym memberships are bought, and, in general, a new leaf is turned in hopes of making the coming year different and better than the last. However, when it comes to searching for speckled trout during the year's early months, some things remain the same year after year. The cause of this consistency is the mucky mix of silt and decayed matter along various areas of the bay floor. With temperatures approaching their seasonal lows during January and February, it is a good bet the vast majority of trout in every Texas bay system will be holding - and feeding - over the muddy bottom areas.
Muddy bottoms attract trout during the winter for a variety of reasons. The primary draw of muddy bottoms for trout during winter is warmth. Muddy bottoms tend to retain heat longer than sand bottoms, so the water temperature over mud will be both warmer and more stable. Of course, trout are the only creatures seeking warmth during winter. Baitfish also seek pockets of warm water and will be more concentrated over muddy bottom areas. Thus, the combination of food and comfortable temperatures is irresistible to speckled trout.
The tendency to hold over mud bottom doesn't just apply to jumbo specks. Trout of all sizes will seek the insulated water just above a muddy bottom during the cool winter months. In general, big trout are a bit more reluctant to leave the muddy bottom areas than their smaller counterparts. They will move into shallower water when temperatures warm, but will almost always be in areas with mud beneath. Smaller fish, on the other hand, will sometimes stray to grass or sand during a warm spell. But even these fish never move far from their muddy security blanket.
HOW TO APPROACH
How to approach fish over muddy bottoms is debatable. There are two primary schools of thought - wading and drifting. Each of these methods has its pros and cons. Both can be productive under the right circumstances.
Wading through knee deep mud isn't for everyone. In fact, it can be hard work pulling wading boots up through the muck only to sink to the shins again. But, many dedicated big trout hunters swear by it. Be warned, wading in muddy bottom areas requires one to have decent endurance and leg strength. There are a few precautions waders should take. Leggings help avoid stingray jabs - especially since it is impossible to 'shuffle' over muddy bottoms - and can also prevent fishermen from sinking as deep as they would otherwise if they were just wearing standard wading boots. To maximize their surface area and reduce sink rate, some anglers have resorted to 'snowshoes' or other oversized apparatus which can help them walk more easily on top of the muddy bottom.
Anglers should also be cautious and need to wade with a partner over muddy bottoms, as one is more likely to trip and fall if feet are stuck in mud than if wading over hard sand. Since most anglers these days wear loose fitting breathable waders, a fall can have the devastating effect of filling the waders with cold water. To prevent, or at least slow, water entering waders during a fall, it is best to cinch a belt at chest level.
All that said, most experienced waders choose their locations carefully so as not to have to cover a great deal of water by foot. In fact, once they are in a potentially productive spot, many big trout chasers choose not to move at all. When on the move, it is essential to move extremely slowly to minimize splashing, which inevitably occurs when walking through deep mud.
Drifting can be much more silent, especially for fishermen who aren't patient enough to move at a snail's pace or remain stationary. Waders argue there are two disadvantages to drifting based on conditions - in calm water the displacement of a boat can telegraph fisherman's presence to fish, whereas in choppy water hull slap can spook fish in shallows. Over deeper mud flats, neither of these is much of an issue. But, in water less than 3 feet deep, both can cause a problem.
The best way to combat the issue of a displacement wake in calm water is to be rigged with a spinning rod that can launch light lures well beyond the affected area. Once anglers enter an area will fairly consistent action, they can stake out or anchor. At that point, if covering water is still necessary, they can do so with a 'controlled drift.' This entails anchoring or staking at the start of a productive area. After exhausting the immediate area with repeated casts, let out another 20 feet of anchor line and fan cast all around the boat once again. By repeating this process over and over, anglers can effectively work an area from a stationary boat before moving ahead. Essentially, this is almost the same as wading - only from a boat.
Combating hull slap is an entirely different task - and one that's frustrated fishermen for years. If you anticipate hull slap as being an issue, bring along a length of carpet. When drifting, drape this carpet over the upwind gunwale of your boat. The carpet will soften the impact of the oncoming waves, minimizing the noise. And again, once the boat drifts into a productive area, there is nothing wrong with slipping the anchor over the side. While a boat on anchor will still result in hull slap, having the boat bow into the chop is usually quieter than having the waves hit the boat broadside as when drifting.
Then There Are Kayaks
Kayaks are almost an ideal platform for fishing over muddy bottom areas. They allow fishermen to quietly move over water's surface without having to worry about sinking to their knees in mud and muck, but are small enough to minimize hull slap and water displacement caused by bigger boats. Obviously, range is an issue for kayaks, although some anglers have taken to piggy-backing them on bigger boats. And, most popular sit-on-top models are self-bailing, meaning in essence water comes both in and out of the boat. Getting wet during summer is refreshing. Getting wet on a near-freezing day in January, not so much. To avoid getting wet while fishing from a kayak during winter, anglers should either plug the scupper holes or wear waders.
WHAT THEY'RE EATING
Perhaps there is not other time of year when the answer to the question of what trout are feeding on is easier to answer. In a word - mullet. During winter most smaller prey items are gone - or grown up. There are some other baitfish and prey items still lingering, but mullet is hands down the primary food source this time of year.
With this in mind, anglers should throw baits that are good imitations of mullet. Topwater plugs like the DOA PT-7, MirrOlure She Dog and Bomber Badonk-a-Donk are excellent choices. If there are a lot of mullet are 'finning' on the surface and making lots of noise, prop baits such as the Smithwick Devil's Horse work well. Slow sinking plugs are also very productive during winter. Traditional favorites include Corkies and MirrOlure Catch 2000s and Catch 5s. And, as is the case at other times of year, soft-plastics will produce plenty of fish. Among the best mullet imitating plastics for winter fishing are the DOA 4-inch CAL Shad Tail, YUM Money Minnow and the Egret Wedgetail Mullet.
Keep in mind the water over muddy bottom areas will become off-color a little quicker than the rest of the bay on days when the wind kicks up. While the water over mud flats may be clean during extended periods of calm wind, visibility will usually be diminished once the wind blows. Anglers should select lure colors accordingly - i.e.: dark lures for dark water, natural colors for clean water.
In general, winter fishing follows two basic tenements - go big and go slow. Anglers should use bigger baits and a slower retrieve.
WHERE TO FISH
Not every inch of mud has a fish on it. Mud flats near deeper water or with channels bisecting them will generally hold more fish, as will mud bottom that has shell or grass mixed with it. Another key - bait must be present, even if it is just one or two mullet. Before making the first cast, you need to see bait. This is particularly important for wade fishermen - don't bother getting out of boat if no bait is present.
ADJUST DEPTH DURING THE DAY
The winter fishing pattern almost exactly opposite of summer. During winter, fish usually start the day in deep to mid-depth flats, and then they move shallower as days warms. On cloudy or overcast days fish will stay a little deeper. Right after front, look for fish to be in the deeper channels or holes. After a few days of warmth, expect the fish to be patrolling shallower water - especially during the midday hours. Again, the presence of bait will help indicate where trout are likely to be found.
In short, to be successful with winter trout, anglers just need to remember the 2 Ms - mud and mullet. Find an area that has both mud bottom and mullet during January and February and odds are you'll find plenty of trout as well.