Searching the marsh guts for speckled trout
I looked at my fishing partner with a conspiratorial smile, and he returned it. The facial contortions were more like sneers, as if The Grinch and his twin brother had just swallowed Little Cindi Lou Who.
“Man, that’s a fishy spot—gotta be holding specks, right?” I hissed at my fishing partner.
The skiff’s trolling motor pushed us along a jagged “marsh tump,” a phrase I’ve heard used to describe a slice of saltwater marsh jutting out into deeper water. The dull, almost soothing slap of water pinged against the small skiff’s hull, like pans gently clanging together in the distance. A flooding tide carried ocean waters deep into stands of spartina, eel grass swayed gently below the surface. On the shoal extending from the marsh point, you’d only have a few yards of wet-wading before your knee-deep walk turned into an over-your-head soaker.
Water pushed past the marsh point with determination, but the backside eddy remained calm and inviting. The water was nearly gin clear, with the sun low and fading behind the clouds. Other key parameters—water temperature, presence of baitfish—combined for perfect conditions to catch speckled trout, also called specks or spotted seatrout.
My partner had tied on a hookless surface plug. I stood at the bow with my fly rod at the ready. Why was my companion’s lure hookless? We were playing the “pop n’ swap” game in which a spin caster and fly angler team up to fool a game fish into attacking the topwater lure. When it misses, you fire the fly at it. It’s a decades-long proven tactic, and fun as hell. Though I’m not exactly sure what the plug caster gets out of such an arrangement; perhaps a sense of angling altruism.
My friend’s cast was flawless, inches from the shoreline. Mere yards into the retrieve, his erratic reclaim drew the ire of a predator: A swirl the size of a pizza pan erupted behind his plug. I quickly shot the fly, a chartreuse foam popper loaded on an eight-weight fly rod, as close to the spot of eruption as I could. My retrieve was equally fitful, trying my best to mimic a wounded baitfish.
Success. Angrily, the fish peeled off line, making a good showing that belied its relatively short stature. Once to hand, I admired the pretty speckled trout, which stretched to 20 inches, before releasing it back into the brine. We moved from marsh bank to marsh bank, and for the next several hours we both enjoyed outstanding marsh fishing before the tide quit.
During that hiatus, for some reason Johnny Cash’s killer rendition of Kris Kristofferson’s “Sunday Morning Comin’ Down” broke through my brain. Billowy clouds strewn with contrasting deep and faint hues of grays wafted past the horizon. The air was idyllic, washing over my pores. There wasn’t a better place to be—among the Chesapeake’s magical marshes, where the salt meets the fresh and game fish run wild.
Fish Where the Specks Are
In my halcyon days of deep marsh excursions, each meandering twist convinced me I’d run out of water, forcing a retreat. Sometimes it did, others times not. Either way, fishing marsh guts, rips, and channels unleashes an exploratory joy in me. Willets, egrets, and herons flushed into flight by the boat’s wake. A marsh hawk slung low in the sky, scouring the black needlerush for its next meal. A crab pot lying orphaned against the lush, verdant spartina. Who knows what other gems were hidden from view further back in the wetlands.
Out in the marsh, there are days when there is no rhythm or reason to the tides; they pour in and out at a relentless pace, immune to tide tables and theoretical laws of lunar astrophysics.
Public ramps with easy access to fishing the marsh for specks abound on both sides of the Chesapeake. On the Delmarva Peninsula, the spring of the year brings good fishing for speckled trout and other game fish that prowl the marshy waters from the Honga and Annemessex rivers down to Onancock and Hungars Creek. Watts, Tangier, Smith, and Fox islands are all noted speckled trout grounds.
On the western shore, Chesapeake fishermen can find speckled trout, as well as red drum and some rockfish, cruising the marsh guts and oyster lumps in the Lynnhaven and Piankatank rivers. Fish the shorelines south of the York River, Mobjack Bay, or lower Rappahannock, just to name a few places.
A key to successful speckled trout fishing, at least in my experience, is finding clear water. If it stained or roiled, you got a real challenge. A moving tide is important, too, with each specific location having its preferred tide cycle for the best odds at catching. I love the beginning of an outgoing tide at the mouth of a creek or marsh gut.
Seven-foot rods with reels loaded with fourteen- to twenty-pound test line and eight-weight fly rods are ideal in my view. Lure options are numerous. I carry a selection of topwaters, soft plastics paddletails, popping corks, and of course live bait. If you pinned me down, I’d fish three- to four-inch paddletails. I fish a lot of Z-Man and D.O.A.s on the lightest jigheads I can get away with. On overcast days or at lowlight, I throw a topwater plug like Stillwater’s Smack Jr. or Heddon’s Super Spook, Jr. Slow-sinking twitch plugs, such as X-Raps and MirrOlures 52 series, can be effective, too. I like flies that resemble baitfish like menhaden, silversides, and minnows. Throwing crab or shrimp patterns work as well.
Hunting speckled trout in skinny water requires stealth; don’t spook your quarry. I fish out of a kayak, so I use a small anchor that I quietly slip overboard using an anchor trolley. For center consoles, stern-rigged power poles are popular nowadays.
Prized Game Fish
You never forget your first one. I certainly haven’t. Years back, a client pulled in a fat-bellied gator trout that topped eight pounds. The fish’s slivery flanks and gorgeous rounded spots initially caught my eye. The two teeth protruding from its upper jaw, almost the size of a tiny cat’s fangs, made me chuckle. It pounced on a plastic paddletail on a light jighead among the grass flats just north of Ewell, the tiny Smith Island fishing village.
Within the past decade, more Chesapeake anglers have discovered the joys of shallow water fishing for specks. That’s great, but it also means more pressure is being put on this great sport fish, so sensible regulations and angler ethics are critical to ensure populations remain stable.
Trout face other challenges, however. We’ve lost much of the Bay’s key shallow water habitats, so its urgent we build more three-dimensional oyster reefs and protect more marshes and grass flats. Trout are also susceptible to cold stuns and red tides. And like other drums, specks school up, making them targets for commercial netting operations and prone to being locally “fished-out.”
Last year, using a loophole in regulations, commercial fishermen used haul seines as “stop nets,” an illegal technique in which large quantities of speckled trout are kept alive in the net’s pocket to be harvested multiple times over several days. The sport fishing community alerted the Virginia Marine Resources Commission to the destructive practice. As a result, the agency issued a letter to participants to cease the practice. The Commission has also pledged to adopt language before the 2022 season clarifying the Commonwealth’s netting regulations. Given all of these factors, we should manage them—and, for that matter, all gamefish and forage—for maximum abundance, not for maximum harvest.
Although I enjoy other fishing styles, in my heart of hearts I’m a shallow water guy who much prefers the solitude of the marshes. The fewer crowds the better. That’s why I’m enamored with speckled trout, which ply their trade in these relatively peaceful settings. Amen to that.