Cool Weather Trolling for Gator Seatrout

This husband-and-wife team prove you don't need a fancy rig to get after speckled trout. Just hit the river and troll!

With the temperature on the field in Athens hovering in the mid 90s for a 5:30 GA vs SC nail-biter, it’s hard to imagine water cooling down, but it always does. By Georgia/Florida weekend the boat ramp parking lots up and down the coast will be as packed as the Gator Bowl RV City parking lot.

The fishermen down here have gators on their mind as well, gator trout that is. Big speckled sea trout, coastal Georgia’s most popular game fish, will be following the shrimp into the tributaries that feed the rivers that feed the sounds. These narrow waters concentrate the fish in areas easily reached by the smallest of boats and long ago gave rise to the technique locals call “pullin’ plugs” or trolling jigs.

Your jonboat will work fine, there is no live bait required. In fact this is the easiest way to fish for trout. As we all have learned however, fishing and catching are not synonymous. If you really want to earn a nice mess of trout then pay attention to the voice of experience, in this case, 88 combined years of experience, to tip the odds in your favor.
Born a natural fisherman in 1933, P.A. Lewis of Hortense bought his first boat in 1940 at age seven for one dollar.

“It wasn’t much of a boat really. An old, worn out, homemade cypress scow. I went out in the woods and collected old turpentine cups, melted the tar out of them and poured it in the holes and cracks so she would float. Then I launched it in the railroad ditches around Brantley County and started honing my skills on the local warmouth population.”
 
Over the years P.A. continued to polish his talent in fresh and salt water but felt incomplete. He solved that problem in 1961 when he discovered what was missing… a near perfect fishing partner named Janice, so he married her.
 
“She won’t milk a cow, ain’t no good with a chain saw, and definitely can’t back a boat trailer, but other than that she’s more-or-less perfect,” P.A. said. “In fact she taught me everything I know about trout fishing!”

Janice also grew up in Brantley County fishing the railroad ditches, creeks, Okefenokee Swamp sloughs and the Big Satilla River. By the time they began sharing a boat, speckled sea trout had become their preferred target.

“Back then there weren’t any soft plastic lures, but we used something called a “Rig-a-Jig” that was nothing more than a couple of buck-tail jigs rigged in tandem. The double jigs added necessary weight to sink the much larger-diameter line we had to use back then.”

Since that time they have trolled yearly and covered most of the creeks and rivers from Sapelo Island down to the south end of Cumberland Island. As fishing equipment has evolved, so have their techniques.
“The most common two mistakes folks make is trolling too fast and using the wrong tackle. Boat speed should be no more than a fast walk, and the colder it is, the slower you have to troll. Boat size isn’t critical, but it has to be able to go slow,” P.A. said.

Over the years P.A. and Janice have experimented with different types of boats, and will readily change when they find one that fits their needs better. Once while on a river, P.A. actually traded boats during a fishing trip without ever stepping foot on dry land. They simply moved their gear over and traded right there on the spot.

“The other fisherman liked my boat better and I liked his, so we just swapped right there!”

Currently they are using a 14-foot Stumpnocker 2 boat built by Griffis & Sons in Starke, Fla. The Stumpnocker was developed by crappie fishermen but is equally appealing to trout anglers. It has a shallow draft and moves along well with an economical 15 horse 4 stroke, yet will troll nice and slow. One custom addition they added was a two-inch PVC hand rail which doubles as a dip net rack, and rod holder mount.

Janice trolls two rods from the front, a long line and a short line. P.A. trolls one more “just a good cast back” as he drives the boat. All of the rigs are set up the same.

“If you are using the same rig you bottom fish with spooled with 15- or 20-lb. test, you are not going to be fishing where the fish are,” P.A. explained.

“Large-diameter line planes in the water providing lift that keeps the lure from sinking. You can compensate this somewhat by using more weight on the head, but it compromises the action of the bait and will not be as productive. You want your lure just off the bottom in most cases,” he said.

P.A. uses seven-foot, medium-action spinning rods with Penn 4400ss & 4300ss spinning reels spooled with 8-lb. test mono. This set up trolls light weight 1/4-oz. jig heads with three- to four-inch soft plastics in the strike zone with ease. The sturdy Penn Reels are built to withstand the corrosive saltwater environment and the drag system in these reels will tolerate and subdue the other fish species that frequents the Lewis cooler, red bass.

More than an incidental catch, reds are the other target species any time you pull plugs in saltwater. Not preparing your drag properly ahead of time will leave your cooler empty and your regrets full.

Reds can sometimes be picked up when the tide and water conditions are not ideal for trout. P. A. recommends trolling right up against the marsh grass on full or new moon flood tides. These are the highest of the tidal cycles and the strong currents tend to muddy the water, which is not good at all for trout. Ideal trout conditions are cold weather, (the Lewises get serious about trolling the first morning they step outside and feel the need to put on a jacket, and they know it’s too cold to fish when the eye on their rod tips clog up with ice and the line will no longer slip through) and clear water, (which on the Georgia coast, is at least 18 inches of visibility), and clean water (little floating debris).
Mr. Lewis recommends checking your lines every two or three minutes on a normal day, and more often if there is a lot of marsh rake or especially pine straw. Pine straw is the worst because it will catch on your line and slip straight down to your lure, and fish don’t bite pine needles.

If you are unfamiliar with the area P.A. recommends picking one stretch of water and sticking with it until you learn it, rather than hopping around here and there. When you pick up a fish, cut the motor and drift back over the spot casting at about a 30- or 45-degree angle to the bank. Don’t get in a hurry; you want your bait close to the bottom on the retrieve.

If you don’t pick another fish up on the drift then troll back through. Sometimes the fish absolutely will not bite a lure unless it is trolled, other times they don’t care. Don’t be overly afraid of spooking the trout. P.A.’s theory on why they often prefer a trolled lure is prop wash. He feels the prop wash may uncover or stir up natural bait and stimulate the fish to attack.

When learning a piece of water, make mental notes of any type of structure, especially shell beds, pilings and feeder creeks. At low tide you can spot plenty of fish-holding structure to hit at high tide. If you start at high tide and catch some fish, make sure to mark the spot and go back at low water to investigate what may have been attracting them. The Lewises have over 40 years worth of fishing details in a dairy, but they didn’t let me publish it, so their advice is to take your own notes each trip and include as many details as you can jot down… date, time, air temp, water temp, tide cycle, moon phase, current weather pattern, boat type, horse power of motor, and don’t forget lure description.
Jig heads come in all colors, but the ones you see the most on the coast are red, orange, white, and chartreuse. The Lewises don’t worry much over the color of the head; it’s the weight that is important. Stick with 1/4 oz. if possible. Jig bodies are too numerous to cover in entirety, but the more popular shapes are the screw or curly tail and the paddle tail. Traditional favorite colors include are chartreuse/red tail, plain chartreuse, and white/red tail. In the last decade or two by far the most popular color combination has to be “electric chicken” (or “pink and green screw-tail-glittahhh” as noted St. Simons fishing expert Peter Owens exclaims).

P.A. recommends buying your tackle as close as possible to where and when you are going to fish. The person behind the counter at the tackle store should know what they have been selling the most of, if they don’t, buy the colors they are almost completely out of. Don’t panic if the ones they are biting are not available. Mr. and Mrs. Lewis have found over the years that color is second to presentation.

Thin line diameter and a slow troll are the keys. When drifting back and casting over a spot, P.A. offers this tip; “you may want to have another rod rigged with a four-inch Mirror Lure in gold or silver. Trout will often jump all over these plugs which only run a couple of feet deep.”

After enjoying so many years on the coastal water fishing where the fish are with a wife that loves to fish, I wanted to know what the most unusual thing this duo had ever come across.

“It’s a toss up I guess,” said P.A. as he leaned back in the rocker on his front porch. “I think we saw something nobody else has ever witnessed. Once we were anchored up in Christmas Creek at the mouth of a feeder creek. Suddenly the water exploded all over us. I stood up on a cooler to get a better look and there was a grown gator eating a five-foot long shark! He was shaking him side to side and really making a commotion.

“Now I hesitate to tell this other one…once in the Turtle River a trained bottle-nosed dolphin swam up to our boat and put on a show. He walked on his tail, did all sorts of acrobatic jumps, then swam right up to the boat and started chattering at us like Flipper. I was scared he might jump in the boat, but Janice knew what he was doing. She started talking baby talk to him and feeding him Vienna sausages. He wanted his reward! She ran out of sausages and handed him a powdered donut, one bite of that thing and he gave her a disgusted look and took off. We never saw him again.”

What’s the best way to cook a trout?

“Fried! Make sure you take the skin off the fillet, sprinkle it with salt and pepper, dredge it in corn meal and deep fry it in peanut oil. Lock the doors before you take ’em out of the grease if you have neighbors. We serve them with the usual stuff, but Janice always fixes a potato mull when its her turn to cook.”

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