How to Catch Spotted [Speckled] Sea Trout - Rigs, Tips, & Techniques
Speckled Trout, Spotted Sea Trout, Gator Trout, Specks, and Trout are just a few of the many names that anglers call Sea Trout. But formally they are known as Spotted Sea Trout or Cynoscion Nebulosus. For the sake of this article, we will stick with calling this inshore gamefish Spotted, or Speckled, Sea Trout. Spotted Sea Trout are one of the most popular inshore saltwater gamefish found along the Gulf of Mexico from Texas to Florida and along the Atlantic coast from Florida to Virginia. While these fish are often overlooked in our home waters of Florida, Speckled Sea Trout are quite popular in Texas, South Carolina, and North Carolina.
In this How to Catch Spotted Sea Trout article, we will be talking about two main topics:
1. The BEST Speckled Sea Trout Fishing Rigs & Lures
2. Where to Find Speckled Sea Trout in Florida & North Carolina
Best Rigs, Lures, & Baits for Speckled Sea Trout
One of the most common questions we hear from anglers is what are the best rigs, lures, and baits to use when learning how to catch Sea Trout? While this is a good question, we think it is better for anglers to ask what is the best lure or rig for catching sea trout in the area that they are fishing. In an effort to better answer that question, we have asked one of our FFP Ambassadors and a FFP Co-Founder for their favorite Sea Trout lures and rigs for the areas they like to fish.
Capt. Gary Dubiel's Favorite Rigs for Catching Speckled Sea Trout:
I do not fish live bait, all artificial. Where I fish, it is a very big estuary, and the Sea Trout can be very mobile, so you need to cover a lot of water. There are areas that hold a lot of Trout. Depending on the season they are going to be in different areas. This means that we need to cover a lot of water, and it is a lot easier to do that with artificial baits / lures.
We do have some color typically due to tannins in the water. The water is not gin clear and so the fish are not super picky, which works out well for throwing artificial lures. I fish a variety of artificial baits...topwater lures when we can. You know this time of year (summer), first thing in the morning I like walk the dog style baits (like Zara Spooks and Rapala Skitterwalks) and chugger baits work really well.
As a guide, my bread and butter for speckled trout fishing in North Carolina is fishing with popping corks and soft plastics. That is probably the easiest and most productive way of fishing for speckled trout throughout most of the year here. I use a variety of soft plastics like paddle tails, shrimp, or jerk baits either on a jig head or sometimes on a weedless hook, depending on the type of bottom and depth of water that I'm fishing. Fishing artificial lures under a popping cork for Sea Trout can be very productive in North Carolina in the wintertime and in the early spring as well when you need to fish a little deeper and a little slower.
FFP Co-Founder, Ty Nelson, on His Favorite Speckled Sea Trout Rigs & Lures:
Speckled Sea Trout are ambush predators. They sit beneath sea grass, in potholes, or on the edge of oyster bars waiting to ambush baitfish. When I think about where Spotted Sea Trout live, they're primarily in grass flats or muddy creeks. The primary baitfish in those habitats are pinfish, mud minnows, mullet, and shrimp. As a fishermen, I try to simplify my techniques and match what mother nature is offering these gamefish.
During certain times of year, typically in Fall and Spring, there is an abundance of mullet on the flats. Knowing that Sea Trout like to feed on smaller mullet, and physically seeing that there is an abundance of mullet on the flats, I will primarily throw topwater baits early in the morning. The particular lures I throw are Rapala Skitter Walks and Heddon Zara Spooks in bone color. After 9 AM, I will switch over to a Slayer Inc. Paddle Tail (SST). I find that once the sun is up, the Sea Trout will stop aggressively hitting topwater baits.
How to Catch Sea Trout Pro Tip: Utilize the clouds to your advantage. When clouds cover the sun and cast shade on the water, Sea Trout will once again aggressively hit topwater baits. When you're given these cloudy conditions, use topwater baits to your advantage.
During other times of the year, typically Winter and Summer, there will be more pinfish and mud minnows found on the flats. During these particular times of year, I will almost exclusively throw weedless rigged Slayer Inc. Paddle Tails in various colors that match the bottom I am fishing. When fishing heavy turtle grass, I will throw Camo or Avocado colors. When fishing spotted bottom or sandy bottoms, I will throw lighter colors like Houdini or Gumbo.
My All-Time Favorite Artificial Lure / Rig for Sea Trout:
My all-time favorite artificial lure / rig for sea trout is the Rapala Skitter Walk Jr. in bone color. Walking the dog with this small topwater bait has been my most productive technique for catching BIG Sea Trout on Florida's East and West coasts. This lure covers a TON of ground, makes a lot of noise (which attracts BIG sea trout), and is the perfect size to get a good hook set on the fish.
Where to Find Spotted [Speckled] Sea Trout
There are a number of different environments that Speckled Sea Trout can be found in. Grass flats, potholes, mud-bottom creeks and rivers, oyster bars, and mangrove shorelines are just a few habitats that anglers like to fish for Sea Trout. To say that there is one best location to find Spotted Sea Trout would be inaccurate. We find that Sea Trout tend to move around depending on the time of year and waters temps.
Best Areas to Find Speckled Sea Trout in North Carolina in Fall & Winter
According to Capt. Gary Dubiel of Spec Fever Charters, Sea Trout shift around drastically throughout the year in his area of New Bern, NC:
The estuary I fish is huge as it covers 2.1 million acres of surface water. The fish here can really shift dramatically throughout the year. Some of the fish that are here for the winter travel out of North Carolina into Virginia and Maryland (to the Chesapeake Bay) in the summertime.
As the water temps begin to drop in late fall and early winter, we begin to see schools of Speckled Sea Trout push farther up into rivers and smaller creek systems where the bottom is muddy. The mud bottom retains heat better during the colder months, and typically holds more bait for the Sea Trout to eat. The fishing during late fall and early winter can produce some really large numbers and some good quality size sea trout as well. As the winter sets in and water temperatures continue to drop, we will see these same fish travel even further up river and up into shallower mud-bottom creeks.
What To Look For When Fishing for Sea Trout in North Carolina
Bait is a big thing for us here; without any lunar rise and fall of the tides, we do not have any water movement to indicate where fish might be. Additionally, our fish have a tendency not to leave a lot of scraps, so we hardly ever see any bird activity. What I look for when fishing for Sea Trout in my area of North Carolina is bait concentrations in the areas where I feel the fish are going to be. I look for shoreline structure that holds baitfish and also for abundances of bait that are acting very nervous on the surface. Finding structure and seeing nervous bait can both be very helpful in locating Speckled Sea Trout.
Best Water Temperatures for Fishing for Speckled Trout in North Carolina
This time of the year (summer), our water temperature will get pretty hot without any tidal flow, and my clients will generally be able to catch speckled trout with water temps as high as about 88.5 degrees. In the wintertime, it can get quite cold Depending on the water depth, we can catch speckled trout at varying surface temperatures. In 5 feet of water or shallower, we will catch Sea Trout starting at about 47.5 degrees, getting better at 50 degrees. At water depths greater than 5 feet, we can catch speckled trout at surface temperatures as low as 44 degrees. The reason being that deeper water maintains its temperatures longer than shallower water, and Sea Trout will seek out the warmest water they can find during the colder months.
It is surprising to some that Sea Trout feed during such low temperatures. Once again though, you have to fish deeper water. Anglers should be looking looking at 6 to 10 feet of water, where that water temperature is closer to 47 to 48 degrees. During these cold days, the Speckled Trout do not have the strongest bites, but that is where the Osprey CE 1000 reels on a microlight rod comes in handy. These smaller set ups are more sensitive and give anglers a better chance of feeling these subtle bites.
How to Catch Sea Trout Pro Tip: When that water temperature is 50 degrees or lower, you want to work your lures as slow as possible as well as gearing down everything. If the fish are going to slow down, you need to slow down and scale down tackle wise as well. You want to use lighter reels with lighter braid and fluorocarbon leader, smaller soft plastics, lighter jig heads with a slow presentation because the fish are going to be more lethargic and lazier in the wintertime. When the surface temperature falls below 44 degrees, your water temperatures get low enough to the point where the Sea Trout are lethargic and do not feed.
Best Rod & Reel Setups for Catching Speckled Sea Trout in North Carolina
For Speckled Sea Trout, I recommend light tackle here. 6’9” to 7’0”, light action to medium light action rods, with Osprey CE 1000 and 2500 size reels. In the wintertime, I will use 6# to 10# braid with my clients. In the summertime, I will use 10# to 15# braid because you never know when you may hook up into a striper or a redfish while fishing for Speckled Trout. This heavier lbs test braid gives anglers a little bit of extra power and higher breaking strength to help stop those larger unexpected gamefish. I adjust my leader depending on the time of the year and size of braid I use. With 15# braid, I typically use 20# 100% Infinity Fluorocarbon Leader just for abrasions. In the wintertime, I like to drop down fairly light fluorocarbon leader, between 12# and 15#.
Best Areas to Find Speckled Sea Trout in Florida during Fall & Winter
According to FFP Co-Founder, Ty Nelson, Sea Trout are found on grass flats and in pot holes on Florida's west coast during late fall and winter:
As Florida begins to cool off in mid to late October, we begin to see a resurgence of Sea Trout on the shallow grass flats on the west coast of Florida. During the late fall and early winter, I will target Sea Trout early in the morning with topwater baits. As I said previously, we see a lot of mullet on the flats during the late fall and I tend to match the hatch as much as possible. Typically, I am fishing 2-3' of water during the months of October, November, and early December.
As temperatures begin to drop further in mid December due to our winter cold fronts, I start to target Sea Trout in potholes that are 3-4' deep with weedless Slayer Inc SST Paddle Tail Baits. I find that these deeper pot holes have a more consistent water temperature during the night when compared to the nearby grass flats. Additionally, the sandy bottoms of pot holes will heat up much faster than the surrounding grass flats once the sun is up. During late December, January, and early February, I will find schools of Sea Trout well into the hundreds in a single pothole. Once you find potholes that are holding numbers of Sea Trout like this, it isn't uncommon to catch twenty or thirty Speckled Trout from a single pothole.
How to Catch Sea Trout Pro Tip: When fishing colder winter days on Florida's west coast, I would encourage you to fish your baits very slowly. Due to the cool water temps, I find that the Sea Trout can be lethargic until the water heats up in the late morning / early afternoon. This doesn't mean the Speckled Trout won't bite, but it does mean that you have to change up your techniques a bit. I will reel my paddle tail as slowly as I possibly can across the bottom of the potholes that I am fishing. I find that this slow retrieve performs really well during cold winter days.
Favorite Time of Day for Catching Sea Trout in Winter
My favorite time of day for catching sea trout in winter is between 10 AM and 3 PM. Waiting til mid morning gives the sun time to heat up the pot holes and flats, and also give anglers better visibility for finding potholes where Sea Trout will stack up in large numbers during winter months.
Favorite Time of Year for Catching Sea Trout in Winter
My favorite time of year for catching speckled sea trout on Florida's west coast is late fall (November and December). I find that the cooler temperatures tend to get the trout schooled up in potholes and the cooler water temps really get the sea trout bite going.
Frequently Asked Questions
How Do You Catch Trout in Saltwater?
From our research, we found that a lot of anglers ask: how do you catch trout in saltwater? If you are fishing for speckled sea trout, you will only find them in salt or brackish water. Speckled Sea Trout are a saltwater gamefish by nature. All of the tips above are used for fishing for sea trout in saltwater and brackish water.
What Do You Look For When Fishing for Speckled Sea Trout in Florida?
In Florida, we look for the right depth of water (2-3' in late fall and winter, 3-4' in spring, and 4'+ in the warmer summer months), potholes surrounded by grass flats, and birds diving on grass flats to find Speckled Sea Trout.
What Do You Look For When Fishing for Speckled Sea Trout in North Carolina?
In North Carolina, guides like Capt. Gary Dubiel look for bait concentrations in the areas where they feel like the Sea Trout are going to be. In the fall, he fishes the larger rivers. In the winter, he concentrates on smaller creeks. In spring and summer, he will fish the mouths of bays and more on shorelines.