I love a hard fighting fish but who doesn’t? That’s probably what makes the speckled trout one of top ten species for the recreational fisherman in the U.S. While they take a little more finesse and don’t hit quite as hard as a young tarpon, they put up a solid fight. Of course, they are also a lot smaller than a tarpon.
If this is your target species or you are looking for a new challenge, grab your tackle box and take notes. We are going to put you on the fish with the best rigs to catch your fill no matter if you go by boat or fish from land. Once you get a couple of good hits, you will understand why this is the preferred fish of the Southern U.S. coast.
Among the easier fish to catch and truly prolific in our southern waters, this is a good learning opportunity of those people new to inshore fishing and a rewarding for seasoned anglers. You can fish them any time of the day and any time of the year with a variety of baits and lures so let’s get going and find out everything we can about the Speckled Trout!
For those new to this species, let's get on the same page. The speckled trout is not a trout at all but a member of the drum family. They are predominantly a saltwater species but under some circumstances may move into tidal rivers and can be caught anywhere on the east coast from Canada to Mexico though they are far more common around the Gulf of Mexico and a few areas in the Carolinas.
The speckled trout is a sexually dimorphic species meaning that the females are larger than the males. The average 4-year-old female averages about 25 inches where the male will be closer to 18 inches. Both will weigh around 2 – 3 lbs. on average but can commonly be caught in the 5 lbs. range and rarely as high as 10 lbs.
Unlike most fish species, a female speckled trout may spawn several times in a single season which stretches from very early spring into late fall making this a very prolific species in southern waters. It also means that they will feed voraciously for most of the year which is very good news for fishermen.
The speckled trout’s usual proximity to land makes them a very attractive species for those who fish from shore or in the shallows. Often, they are found in shallow waters and are attracted to bayous, bays, oyster beds, estuaries, and manmade structures but will be anywhere food is prolific enough to keep up with their appetites.
During the warmer months, the most common areas to fish are grass beds, sandbars, and around pilings on docks and bridges. Smaller fish will usually seek out more protected areas with the larger fish preferring the open bays and flats covered with seagrass. Occasionally, you can even find them in coastal marshes.
During the colder months, speckled trout will move to deeper waters at the backs of bays but may go even farther out depending on the temperatures. If rainfall is low, speckled trout will also move into deeper bayous and river channels at the beginning of fall. This has nothing to do with spawning and makes predicting their migration very difficult.
Though you may have trouble in those later months with locating the places holding a lot of fish, you are sure to find some among any of their usual habitats. If not, you can bet on finding them moving back into those grassy bays and flats on any warm, sunny day even in the middle of winter.
Luckily the speckled trout is hardly a picky eater and can be caught on a variety of baits, rigs, and lures with your normal saltwater setup. The vast majority of people catch their trout on dead baits, including the world record at a whopping 17lbs. This doesn’t rule out lures but expect a little more challenge than you would get with baits, but that’s half the fun of lures!
Before we dive headlong into what goes on the end of the line, let's talk leaders. Trout are notorious for being shy of leaders. Use a strong fluorocarbon leader if you can get away with it and you will be a lot more successful.
This may not always be an option. Often speckled trout will run the same areas as fish with a little more bite in their mouths. Do what you have to do but opt for the most invisible leader you can trust in the water you are fishing.
Lures are the most fun to fish in my opinion so it’s a good place to start. It seems like everyone on the water has their secret slayer packed away but finding out what that is may take more beer than you are willing to haul in a boat. Instead of stressing about it, there are a few solid go-to options that are likely to serve you well.
Like all fish, the topwater action is best early or late in the day when the sun is on the horizon. For this, I love fishing Heddon spooks. For a preference, I will take one in solid white 4.5” over just about any other bait out there. I am sure there are a variety of other good topwater lures that will serve you just as well but stick with baitfish patterns and fish them slowly in a ‘walk the dog’ method.
Once you move below the surface, its hard to beat the much-neglected spoon. I am not sure when these began to lose their popularity but they are solid producers, especially over seagrass beds. I like a good 2” spoon in solid silver, maybe with a little texture to it. All it takes is a gentle retrieve to keep it off any bottom structure and you are in a good position for some solid fishing. Don’t be too aggressive with spoons, keep it gentle.
If you are fishing sandy bottoms, twitch and walking baits also work well but tend to be more popular with the smaller speckled trout. This is a great way to fish around structure or at the edges of pilings where you want a lot of control to keep you off snags and barnacles. As for colors and patterns, stick to the common bait fish in your area or go with something in red and white.If would be a shame if we didn’t at least talk about jigs. Most longtime speckled trout fishermen will tell you that in the right spot, a good jig will catch more trout than any other lure. This is a great option for fishing off docks and piers where casting can be troublesome. The go-to seems to be a red jig head with a white body but any colors that emulate a shrimp would probably work just as well.
I will admit to not being a big fan of rigs. They are more complicated to set up and harder to cast, especially on windy days. I prefer a simpler setup that gets me fishing faster and allows me to quickly change my setup if I choose. Still, there is one rig setup that is worth its weight in gold if you use it right.
What we are talking about is a Carolina rig with a plastic shrimp or grub. Drift fishing one of these over a grass bead is a great tactic for enticing up those big fish hiding in the grass. Rig it weedless just for safety’s sake and keep it off the bottom. Sometimes you will have better luck higher off the grass and sometimes you will do better just a foot or so off the grass. Give it a shot and change your depths if you aren’t seeing any action. I typically go lower on sunnier days when fish are a little more reluctant to come out of cover.
I know lures are fun but when it comes to catching, nothing beats real food. No matter how advanced the lure, it will never really move like a living thing, smell like a living thing, or taste like a living thing. If you are out to catch your limit, break out your trusty hooks and we will figure out what to put on them!
As for what to use, it's very hard to beat shrimp for any inshore fishing. Speckled Trout are ravenous for a good shrimp and will take them live or dead though live does seem to do a bit better. A circle hook near the tail and into the water. I would hazard to say that the majority of speckled trout are caught on shrimp no matter the location you are fishing.
Baitfish are always a popular and effective choice and are fished differently depending on size. If you are a fan of freelining, using menhaden or pilchards near structure can yield some great fish. Use the same circle hook just in front of the dorsal fin and let them do their thing. Just keep them off the structure and you should do well.
Larger fish like mullet and croaker should be fished of a popping cork for best result and are a great option for night fishing. Hooked through the lips or nose, they will fight just enough to draw out the big trout. This is a tried and true method for getting that 5+ lb. monsters out of dense cover. Just be cautious that these stronger fish don’t drag your line around to somewhere you don’t want it to be.
No matter what live bait you use, make sure you give the trout time to get a solid hold on it before setting your hook. Speckled trout have notoriously weak mouths and hard hook sets can lose you fish. Once they have the bait, they will often hook themselves but a gentle tug is all you need to make sure you have a solid hold.
When it comes to fishing live baits, strategy is important. There are several ways to fish live baits that will be useful in different situations. Half of being effective will be knowing when and how to use each technique so let’s explore them separately.
Freelining baits is always an option and a great choice on sandy flats where structure is less likely to cause problems. Freelining also works well in deeper waters where other methods are just too hard to deploy. If this is your chosen method, it will treat you well but does work better with dead baits over live baits.
By far the most popular method of fishing baits is off a bobber or popping cork. This will work with either live or dead baits and can be used in areas where freelining would just get you snagged. Vary your depths until you find where the fish are biting and you can haul in your limit in no time!
Like all things in life, fishing is all about time and place. Considering their rather simple migration, finding trout and getting them to hit is comparatively simple to many other species. But all fishing comes down to giving the fish what they want when they want it and none of it does any good if there aren’t any fish there, to begin with.
Like all fish, speckled trout are more hesitant to bite in full sun so fishing that sandy flat at noon is unlikely to be the most productive fishing you could do. Stick to early or late when you can or fish shady or covered areas during midday. Night fishing is a great alternative, especially around piers and bridges.
Though some lures can be very effective, especially jigs, the most popular way to night fish is with live bait that can attract fish by means other than sight. Early mornings and late evenings will be your most productive times but on cooler spring or fall days that are overcast, the daytime fishing can be amazing! Of course, you can fish live bait any time you can fish a lure, just stick to the correct method for that bait.
When it comes to night fishing, lighted piers or docks are the places to be for speckled trout. Use shrimp or live baitfish just at the edge of the light for the best result. If you can manage to get your bait just at the dept where the light stops, you are in the prime zone for the larger trout lurking near the pilings. This works best an hour or so after sunset when fish have had time to make their way to the lighted areas.
If you aren’t into fishing from land, you can always create your own lighted area. Several glowsticks or a commercially available light meant for underwater use can turn any area into an all-out fish hotspot. You just have to give it time to draw in the ones worth catching. Try to leave the lights running for an hour or so to give the area time to become the popular place to be and start casting. Like with the piers, right at the edge of the light is a great place for your bait to be.
Avoid the technique of using those small glowsticks made to go on your line. I have never seen them work effectively and probably do more to startle fish than to attract them to you. Even if they do work, its likely only the smaller fish that will find their way to your bait. Larger fish tend to linger longer and wait for the small fish to move in first.
Unlike most species of fish, especially freshwater fish, there are really only two seasons to the Speckled Trout; either its spawning season or its winter. That greatly simplifies where the fish are at any given time. You can easily catch Speckled trout year round as long as you are in the right spot.
During the spawning season which can stretch from mid-March to mid-November, all of the usual haunts will be available to you. Look for water that is between 3-18 feet deep with the real sweet spot being less than 12 feet with a sandy bottom. Of course, like all fish bays and inflows will be the primary locations but any structure that draws in baitfish is likely to produce.
Seagrass is king during the spawning season with all of the largest fish prowling or just holed up in shelter. Night time over these grassy areas will give you the best shot at a huge fish. Use live bait that is more likely to attract the fish to you and let yourself drift slowly. This is when the bites are most fierce.
Don’t neglect sandy flats, especially those around the backs of bays that are likely to have spawning females present. At dusk and dawn, these are great places to use your spoons or topwater lures. Fish them slow and steady to get a rise.
Any hard structure like bridges and piers are good summer fishing, especially at night. Stick to the tactics above and you should find yourself on more fish than you can handle. Stick to big baits to weed out the many small fish cruising the same waters. Something a minimum of 5” or so works very well. I like to freeline off docks but a popper cork near bridges is a great tactic.
When things turn cold, most of the speckled trout will move to the deeper areas just off their usual habitat but can move a mile or more offshore if the water is shallow enough. Finding these fish is very difficult but if you hit a sweet spot, a freelined shrimp or a jig setup is your best bet to keep hauling them in. Once you have found them, there will likely be plenty in the area. Stick to the same ground and remember it for next year.
Some speckled trout will move to areas of lower salt content but not pure fresh water. Deep estuaries and bayous are a good bet if they are deep enough. These fish are often easier to find and even more densely packed. The same bait tactics work that you would use out in the open water.
If you get a good, sunny day where temperatures rise, check your summer fishing grounds as the trout will likely move out of their deeper hiding holes in search of food. If this break comes right after a long stretch of cooler weather, you are in for some great fishing. Topwater isn’t your best bet but starving fish will hit just about anything you put in the water. If you can find them, you may get sick of catching them.
Location, time, and season have been thoroughly covered. Get your bait right and you should have no problem getting on the speckled trout and who knows what other fish. While easy to catch the speckled trout are sometimes difficult to target. They don’t tend to school like mackerel but will hang in loose groups spread out over a larger area.
A favorite way to have a blast with these fish is to drift a kayak or troll a boat until you find them with live bait then switch over to your lures for the added excitement. The decidedly non-picky feeding makes them an easy target for even the most restless fisherman. It also makes them great for those new to fishing saltwater.
With nearly 6 million caught in a 10 year period between 1993 and 2003 according to NOAA, they are prolific and not the least bit in danger of overfishing. Add to this their more isolated habits and commercial fishing for them is unlikely to ever be profitable enough to cause much harm. These are one fish that is geared perfectly for the recreational angler.
So, get out there on a boat or just stop by the local pier for some speckled trout action. There are plenty of good-sized, good fighting fish to be had for very little work. Get a mess of live mullet or menhaden and you are sure to have some of the best fishing of your life.