Everyone hears stories of novice anglers throwing something ridiculous and landing a trophy fish. Sure, that happens occasionally, but so does winning $100 million in a lottery. Just don’t count on it when targeting speckled trout!
Targeting big trout requires patience, understanding and determination. It also requires a plan, about 90 percent of which occurs before the boat leaves the dock. Anglers who fish specifically for trophy specks might spend long hours casting hundreds of times, hoping for one or two bites while ignoring nearby boats that fill ice chests with smaller fish.
“Sometimes, fishing for big trout is about as exciting as watching ice melt—until one hits,” said Capt. Kirk Stansel of Hackberry Rod and Gun. Stansel guides on Lake Calcasieu near the Texas-Louisiana border.
“When we leave the dock, we have to decide whether to target big fish or a lot of fish. It can be pretty slow when looking for that one big strike.”
To catch trophy trout, anglers must first find them. To find big trout, get away from the crowds. Whenever possible, fish odd hours and go during the week or on non-holidays when fewer people head out onto the water.
Moreover, avoid following schooling specks that feed on shrimp and the flotilla of anglers chasing schoolies. Until a trout reaches about two pounds, about 80 percent of its diet consists of shrimp. Although all trout eat shrimp, trout exceeding three pounds generally prefer to eat fish, usually mullet, menhaden, pinfish, croakers and even small trout. Monster trout occasionally hang under trout schools, not to eat the shrimp, but to eat smaller trout.
Bigger trout generally prefer bigger baits. Imagine what a 10-pound trout might gulp! In addition, a big trout doesn’t need to feed nearly as often as a small trout. A giant trout conserves energy by occasionally grabbing one big, easy meal that it can catch without expending too much energy rather than chasing down a bunch of tiny morsels. Find the right bait, and you’ll usually find the trout.
“Bait is the key to finding big trout,” Stansel said. “I look for a reef with good tidal movement and a good supply of bait. I like to see bait acting nervous and jumping out of the water in all directions.”
Instead of running down prey in open water, big trout act more like redfish or largemouth bass. They prefer to settle into cover and wait for morsels to come to them.
They hang around sea grass beds, oyster reefs, rock piles, sunken boats, jetties, drop-offs, humps or other hard, irregular structure where they can ambush prey. Go to isolated reefs or channel edges with access to deep, salty water surrounded by abundant large forage.
“Big trout are loners,” explained Capt. Chad Peterek with Chad Peterek Guide Service who fishes the Baffin Bay and Port O’Connor areas of Texas.
“People can occasionally catch a really big trout while fishing around smaller trout, but when I’m looking for a big fish, I like to fish close to a drop off,” he said. “I’ve caught more big trout in areas within 500 yards of a big drop-off than anywhere else. When it’s cooler, I fish over a drop-off and throw deep. During a warming trend, I like to fish shallow, but close to an area with a sharp drop-off.”
In clear grassy flats, such as those found on the Middle and Lower Coasts of Texas, big trout also like to hide in sand pockets. On large sandy flats, lush sea grass doesn’t always grow evenly.
Anglers with polarized glasses often spot whitish patches punctuating the dark green vegetation. Big trout frequently hide in grassy edges next to sand holes to wait for something tempting to swim too close. Place a bait at the edge of the grass, but in the sand where fish can easily see it.
“Bigger trout are structure or cover oriented like largemouth bass,” Peterek explained. “They wait for something to come to them rather than run it down. Big trout use those sand pockets as an ambush point. They hide in the grass and ambush anything that appears in the sand pocket.”
The old adage “bigger bait equals bigger fish” does apply.
Peterek, who caught trout topping 11.25 pounds in the past, said “When I’m fishing for bigger trout, I predominantly use a bigger bait. I’ve seen big fish eat tiny baits, but bigger fish generally feed on bigger baits.
“In topwaters, I like to throw a MirrOLure He Dog,” he explained. “In calm conditions, I throw a She Dog because it’s a little smaller and doesn’t make as much commotion as a He Dog. In soft plastics, I like a six-inch Gambler Flapp’n Shad. When I’m fishing shallow, I rig it with a 1/16- or 1/8-ounce leadhead. When I’m fishing deep, I’ll use a 1/4- to a 3/8-ounce leadhead.”
Although one female speckled trout may produce millions of offspring, very few live long enough to weigh more than 10 pounds. Don’t keep any extremely large trout and handle each fish as little as possible and with great care. Photograph them and release them to breed and fight again.
Top Waters for Topwater Trout
Baffin Bay/Lower Laguna Madre—Laguna Madre covers 609 square miles and connects to the Gulf of Mexico near Port Mansfield. An inlet off Laguna Madre, Baffin Bay covers about 100 square miles. These waters delivered the Texas state record, a 15.60-pounder caught in May 2002.
Sabine Lake, Texas/Louisiana—On the Sabine River, Sabine Lake stretches about 19 miles along the Louisiana-Texas state line near Orange, Texas. The Neches River enters from the northwest. On the Louisiana side, Sabine National Wildlife Refuge covers 124,500 acres of bait-rich marshes. Sabine Lake connects with the Gulf of Mexico through Sabine Pass.
Calcasieu Lake, Louisiana—Calcasieu Lake south of Lake Charles produced three of the top 10 trout caught in Louisiana and the state record trout caught on a fly. The lake measures 12 miles long by nine miles wide and covers about 52,700 acres of the Calcasieu River delta. It connects to the Gulf of Mexico through Calcasieu Pass.
Super Specks from Just Over the State Line
ABOUT 2-1/2 HOURS FROM Houston and 25 miles east of the Texas-Louisiana line, Calcasieu Lake south of Lake Charles, La., attracts many Texans seeking to land giant speckled trout. Most Texans run out of Hackberry down the western shoreline on La. 27.
“I’ve fished the lake since the early 1970s and usually bring over about 70 to 100 customers each year,” said J. B. Gibson, a businessman from Spring, Texas. “I’ve caught several trout over 8 pounds. My biggest weighed about 8.5 pounds. On Thanksgiving weekend in 2010, my grandson and I caught 25 trout over 5 pounds.”
Calcasieu Lake measures 12 miles long by nine miles wide and covers about 52,700 acres of the Calcasieu River delta. The lake sits adjacent to the Calcasieu Ship Channel, a deeper, wider and straighter version of the old Calcasieu River course. The channel cuts a swath 40 miles long, 400 feet wide and 40 feet deep from Lake Charles to the Gulf of Mexico.
The ship channel hits Calcasieu Lake at Turner’s Bay on the north end. Farther south, several openings including the Washout and Nine-Mile Cut connect the channel to the lake and bring in baitfish and predators with tides from the Gulf. At the southwest corner, West Cove extends across the channel. Reefs near Long Point and Commissary Point hold fish. Trout also hang around old rock jetties in the southern part of the lake.
“Probably about 85 percent of our clients come from Texas, mostly from the Houston area,” said Capt. Guy Stansel of Hackberry Rod and Gun (888-762-3391/ www.hackberryrodandgun). “During a north wind, Turner’s Bay is always full of fish. In a south wind, I fish West Cove, which has a lot of big oyster reefs. The south bank of Big Lake is another good area. The reefs off the east bank near Commissary Point have been really hot in the past few years.”
Known locally as Big Lake, the body of water solidified its reputation for giant trout between May 1997 and May 2004 when it delivered three double-digit specks to the Louisiana state record book. In addition, the lake contributed four trout to the Louisiana fly-fishing book including the 9.31-pounder state fly record caught by Capt. Jeff Poe of Big Lake Guide Service (337-598-3268/www.biglakeguideservice.com) in December 1996.
Tim Mahoney holds the official lake record with an 11.16-pounder he caught in May 2002. Anglers sometimes catch record book trout, but never submit the paperwork or officially weigh the fish. In May 2000, Stuart Roy caught and released a 32-inch trout with a 17-inch girth that some biologists estimated weighed between 12.5 and 13 pounds. Although the lake hasn’t produced a Top 10 all-tackle fish since 2004, John K. Mayne did add a trout to the Louisiana fly-fishing book in April 2008.
When Hurricane Rita devastated southwest Louisiana in September 2005, it shut down fishing for months. The reprieve from fishing pressure helped the system. In addition, the state lowered the daily trout limit on Calcasieu Lake and other southwestern Louisiana waters from 25 to 15 per day and mandated that anglers can keep no more than two speckled trout 25 inches long or longer per day.
“The fishing has been some of the best I’ve seen in the more than 30 years that I’ve been guiding,” Stansel said. “Calcasieu Lake still produces a lot of big trout, but not like it did during that phenomenal run in the late 1990s and early 2000s. The lake still produces several 8- and 9-pound trout each year and an occasional 10-pounder. One December, my nephew Brett caught about 40 trout, all between 4 and 7 pounds.”
Although Calcasieu anglers could land a Louisiana record speckled trout during any month, the spring typically produces the biggest fish. All three trout in the all-tackle list came in May. March produced two top 10 fish on the Fly list, while April added another.
“We’ve caught some trout over 8 pounds in the past couple years on my boat,” advised Capt. Erik Rue of Calcasieu Charter Service (337-598-4700, calcasieucharters.com). “May is typically one of the key times to catch big trout in Calcasieu Lake when the water warms up and the fish get really active. Topwaters are one of the best ways to catch big trout.”
Trout three pounds and larger primarily eat fish instead of shrimp and largely feed upon mullets, menhaden, pinfish and croakers. Topwater baits mimic baitfish, particularly mullet. For catching big trout in the spring, look for mullet schools. Watch for any frenzied action on the surface and toss topwaters into the ruckus.
“We catch a lot of fish on topwaters in the spring,” Stansel advised. “In the spring, when I’m looking for big trout I fish oyster reefs in West Cove with topwaters. A chrome and black She Dog is my favorite topwater bait. Finding baitfish is the key to catching big fish. In April, I look for mullet because pogies haven’t quite schooled up yet. Also look for good tidal movement. In the spring, I like an incoming tide, but either incoming or outgoing is good as long as it’s moving.”
Anglers also catch trophy trout on live bait. Attach a live croaker or mullet about six inches long to a circle hook and free line it over a good reef. Anglers can also rig it on a Carolina rig with a slip sinker and a long leader or dangle a live baitfish under a cork.
For trout numbers, drift the mid-lake reefs and toss 1/4-ounce jigheads tipped with plastic. Let the jighead fall to the bottom and hop it along the bottom. Hot colors for soft plastics include black and chartreuse, purple and chartreuse and glow with a chartreuse tail.
For area information, contact the Southwest Louisiana Conventions and Visitors Bureau at 1-800-456-SWLA or visit www.visitlakecharles.org. Anglers who fish with a licensed charter captain can buy a three-day non-resident license for $5. For more license information, call 888-765-2602 or you can visit their website at:
—John N. Felsher
—story by John N. Felsher