Winter to some saltwater anglers means putting away the fishing gear and waiting for the spring weather to show up. But there is no need to do that if you really want to fish. Granted you have to dress for the weather, and it may be a bit uncomfortable, but there are fish to be caught, even on the coldest of days.
We have fished for bass in Georgia when there was a ring of ice around the shoreline of the lake, launching the boat right through the ice. I’ve not seen it cold enough to freeze saltwater, but we’ve seen it absolutely just as cold.
In the winter and cold water, fish behave differently than they do in warmer water. Redfish and flounder have for the most part migrated offshore to the reefs and wrecks in search of warmer water. Baitfish migrated south to Florida at the first sign of cold weather; and, predator fish like cobia and tarpon, were right behind them.
Seatrout, on the other hand, react differently to the cold weather. Studies reveal that seatrout predominantly remain inshore during the colder winter months. The larger trout spend a lot of the summer weather in the ocean along the beaches. Catching these trout in the surf or from a boat can be awesome. While some of these large trout do move offshore, the majority of them migrate into the sounds when colder water arrives.
There is a reason the reds and flounder move offshore. They are looking for warmer water. There is also a reason the trout remain inshore. It’s the same reason; they are looking for warmer water. You’ll see what I mean later.
We fished a few places in December to set you up to catch these cold water trout. The places we fished were chosen from a number of NOAA charts. You can view online charts at www.nauticalcharts.noaa.gov/mcd/NOAAChartViewer.html. View chart numbers 11503, 11504, 11506, 11508, 11510, 11511. Those and several others are all viewable and printable free.
When we use the charts to look for likely places to find seatrout, we keep several factors in mind. Our choices depend on whether it’s a cloudy, overcast day or a clear, sunny day. The colder, more overcast days will send the trout deep, looking for warmer water. They can be found in the deepest part of a creek or river right along the bottom. They will be rather lethargic, and you need to put your bait directly in front of them to draw a strike. Capt. Judy Helmey, a GON contributor, and a number of biologists believe that the trout will actually try to bury themselves into the mud bottom on very cold days. It’s the trout’s way to keep warm.
On clear, sunny days, we look for the same deep holes, but we also look for shallower water where a grass or mud flat will be flooded at high tide. Even if the weather is cold, the sun will warm the shallower water, and on a midday, high tide, you can find not only trout, but the small reds and flounder that did not migrate offshore. It’s all about water temperature.
We first looked at a hole on chart 11504. There is a deep hole in the Brickhill River at the entrance to Hawkins Creek (more about this hole in a moment).
We traversed into the Brickhill River to Mumford Creek. The chart indicates a 33-foot deep hole right at the entrance to Mumford. Farther into Mumford Creek there are several additional deep holes. They are all on the outside bend of the creek. And, be advised that the inside of those bends will be shallow and more often than not high and dry on a low tide.
You can launch at Jekyll Island and head south, down the Intracoastal Waterway (ICW), or you can launch at St. Marys and head north to reach the Brickhill River. The Jekyll Island route is a shorter boat trip than coming up from St. Marys.
We fished these holes using live shrimp. But, we fished in December, and there had not been any extremely cold weather lately. Shrimp were still available at the bait shops when we went, but when the water gets really cold, and January will be the beginning of that drop in temperature, the shrimp tend to disappear from the bait shops. So, on our trip we also used mud minnows (also known as a mummichog or killfish). They tend to be plentiful year-round.
We fished with both spinning and baitcasting tackle. Our reels were spooled with braided line. We like to use braid whenever we can because it does not stretch on a hook-set like monofilament does.
To the braid we tied an 18-inch fluorocarbon leader with a 2/0 kahle hook. We have seen that a smaller hook allows a more life-like presentation of the bait while still providing a good hook-up. You would be surprised at how big a fish you can catch on a smaller hook.
We used two different types of floats. We found the best kind to use for the deep holes is a pencil float. The ones we used were 10 inches long. These floats come with a small bead and a stop knot. Both are critical for the float to perform properly. The idea is to let the bait get as deep as it can, very close to the bottom, and then allow it to drift with the current through the hole. In a hole with water 25 feet deep, you need your float to be up the line that distance. That’s a physical impossibility without the stop-knot and bead.
Some people use a rubber band and tie it to the line above the float. Then the bead goes on the line, followed by the float. The rubber band can be moved up and down the line but will remain tight enough on the line to keep the float at your desired depth. You can purchase float stops at most bait shops, but the rubber band works just as well, especially on braided line.
When we use a pencil float, we also use a swivel and a weight. The swivel between the line and the leader allows a small egg sinker on the line to stop at the leader. We used a 1/2-oz. sinker on our 10-inch floats.
We set the float stop at about 20 feet up the line. Then we cast the rig up current from the hole. We allowed the float to drift through the hole, and if we didn’t get a strike when it had drifted all the way through the deeper water, we reeled in and did it again.
Remember, these trout will be somewhat lethargic. They’re cold; they are not going to move a lot to strike a bait. Sometimes it took several passes before we hooked up. Capt. Judy says you have to put the bait right on their nose.
On the way to the Brickhill River from Jekyll is a mud flat to the west and south of marker 34 in the ICW. It’s actually the first place we stopped to fish. The sun was high in the sky, and we thought perhaps a few fish had made their way up onto that mud flat looking for warmer water.
In this situation we did not use the pencil floats. Rather we opted for a Thunder Chicken float. Made locally and similar to a Cajun Thunder float, this one has a weight at the bottom of its wire. This keeps the float upright and makes it easy to make a long distance cast. Thunder Chicken floats can be purchased at numerous tackle shops along the Georgia coast, including Bass Pro Shops.
We set the Thunder Chicken floats up with a 3-foot-long fluorocarbon leader and our standard 2/0 kahle hook. There was not a lot of current flow across the flat, so we popped the floats and slowly brought them toward the boat. The lack of current meant that the water might have a chance to warm more quickly. The surface temperature at the boat ramp was 59 degrees when we launched. The temperature here on this flat had warmed to 66 degrees. That’s significant enough to move fish.
We caught several small trout on this mud flat and decided to head for the first deep hole we had selected. The tide was running out, and the flat would be too shallow to fish shortly anyway.
At the entrance to Hawkins Creek on the Brickhill River the water is about 30 feet deep on the north, outside bend. We positioned the boat across from that bend in shallower water. The tide was headed out, so we cast our pencil floats up current and allowed them to drift through the hole.
We did catch about 20 seatrout, albeit most of them were undersized. The size limit on trout is 14 inches in length with a bag limit of 15 fish per person. Spotted seatrout is by far the most sought after fish on the Georgia coast, perhaps because of the comparatively large bag limit.
On our trip, we caught a total of about 30 trout. And we only fished in two locations. What you can do is choose some locations from the NOAA charts we have listed that are similar to the locations we fished. Along the 100-mile coast of Georgia there are myriad locations almost exactly like the ones we fished.
In the Frederica River at St. Simons (chart 11506), there are several very deep outside-bend holes. We have caught fish in these holes in the past.
On chart number 11511, Newell Creek and Big Tom Creek both have some very nice, deep holes on several of the bends in these creeks. We have fished successfully there in the past, as well.
Let’s get back to the entrance to Hawkins Creek on the Brickhill River. Chart 11504 is accurate. There is a bar right in the middle of the river. You can hug either shoreline to get around it, and at high tide, you can simply run across it with no problem. We had used our power pole to keep the boat in place on what we thought was the edge of the sandbar. We fished the outgoing tide and were really into the fishing, all the way up to the point that the boat was no longer floating.
The difference in the depth of the water from high tide to low tide along the Georgia coast can be 8 feet, even more on a full or new moon. What happens when you fail to pay attention happened to us. Before we knew it, the boat was grounded and even with four of us in the shallow water pushing, it could not be moved.
A check of the chart showed what we should have seen. All the depth soundings on NOAA charts are depths measured at mean low water. That’s the average depth at low tide. The chart shows a nice green area marking the sandbar, which means it’s out of water at low tide. There we sat, high and dry, so much so that we got out of the boat and fished the deep water from the sandbar. It was a full five hours later that the boat finally floated, and we were able to head back to the ramp. The worst part of this experience was that three different boats came by us while we sat on top of the sandbar. Frankly, it was embarrassing. It wasn’t the first time this has happened to us, and probably won’t be the last. But I will read my charts a lot closer in the future.
Trout can be found in these deeper holes all winter long. Simply plan your trip on a chart, and start hitting those holes one by one until you locate them. Oh, and watch the tide as you fish!