Capt. Joe Ward chuckles when recounting the largest seatrout of his guiding career. Like so many other big-fish stories, this one nearly ended up as just that: a story.
Ward was chartering a grandfather/father/son trio, none of whom had much angling experience. They were fishing the hallowed trout grounds of Florida's Indian River,
however, and employing a deadly, time-honored tactic - live-shrimping the deepwater docks.
As Ward helped the younger angler with a small fish, the grandfather suddenly began hollering. With arms flailing and feet shuffling, the elderly man somehow managed to wrench a monster fish boat-side, away from a maze of line-cutting pilings. (Ward cringes remembering the scene: "The rod tip was literally in the fish's mouth," he recalls. "And the poor guy kept reeling!")
Somehow the fish stayed on, and Ward wrestled it over the gunwale. On board, they all gasped at just how large a 13-pound gator trout looks out of water.
Big trout simply love shrimp. And while this encounter may have involved divine intervention, the circumstances come as no surprise. Fishing with live shrimp represents a top-notch way to catch trout anywhere, anytime, especially for beginner anglers. But shrimp are also effective for serious fishermen, who typically rely on one of three time-tested techniques for presenting these juicy crustaceans to hungry trout: under a popping cork, free-lined or on a jig head.
Jig 'Em Up
Ward's clients that fateful day last year were fishing shrimp on jig heads. Ward (772-201-5770, www.captjoeward.com) often employs the technique around deepwater structures such as docks or during Florida's colder months, when fish congregate in deep holes in channels off the main river.
For the record, Ward knows shrimp. In addition to his guiding services, he and his wife, Cammie, operate Capt. Joe's Bait & Tackle in Fort Pierce, where shrimp sales are a big part of the shop's business. Like many other charter captains, he fishes these tasty trout morsels in a variety of ways throughout the year. During the colder months, Ward relies on his depth finder to locate pods of trout in deeper channels. When he marks fish, he tosses out a buoy and begins working the area over.
No matter how Ward is fishing shrimp for trout, he insists on one thing: a small, light-wire hook. The reason? "The shrimp is able to swim around naturally with that small hook," he says. "That's crucial. A lot of people use big hooks, but if you have a 2/0 or 3/0, it weighs down shrimp. They'll go right down into the grass."
Keeping with that philosophy, when Ward drops shrimp deep, he uses a mere 1/16-ounce Troll-Rite jig head, which is built onto a No. 2 hook. He hooks the shrimp from the underside up through the head, between the eyes and the brain (which is clearly visible in a shrimp's transparent body). The jig rides on a 2 1/2-foot, 20-pound fluorocarbon leader, attached to either 10- or 12-pound mono or 20-pound braid via a line-to-line knot and fished on a 7 1/2-foot light- to medium-action spinning outfit.
Ward offers this sage advice for when a fish hits: Don't horse it! While that big 13-pounder stayed on, most often, excessive pressure will pull a hook right out of a trout's soft mouth. "Just use a steady wind," says Ward, whose flats boat is appropriately named Slow & Easy. "Don't pump, because as soon as you drop the rod tip, that fish will be gone."
Pop a Cork for Trout
Dropping live shrimp on a jig head certainly proves deadly at the right time and place, but the popping-cork rig surely ranks as the all-time favorite. This method, which relies on a colorful, fish-attracting popping float above a lively shrimp, takes trout - and other species for that matter - from the sandy potholes of Ward's backyard, along the entire Gulf coast and all the way to the flats of Texas.
It's also a particularly good strategy for catching seatrout in the coastal waters of Georgia and the Carolinas.
"It's the traditional way to do it," explains Capt. Greg Hildreth (912-261-1763, www.georgiacharterfishing.com), who operates Hildreth Charters out of St. Simons Island, Georgia. "We anchor up on points and shell bars where these trout intercept bait. It's almost like freshwater bass fishing in a river. The trout lay behind the bars, and they dart out to hit bait in the current."
While Hildreth employs this method primarily in the sounds and rivers, he also uses it to catch summertime trout along the beach, where tidal runoff flows into the ocean. The popping action of the cork mimics a feeding fish, which attracts trout and other game fish right to the vicinity of a nervous - and often frantic - shrimp.
Hildreth runs a No. 2 Eagle Claw Kahle hook just under the horns on a shrimp's head and uses a short 15- or 20-pound mono leader. A 1/2-ounce cigar-shaped lead between the leader and main line keeps the bait down.
For years, Hildreth used the traditional "pencil-long, float-high corks," but then came across Lowcountry Lightning adjustable rattling floats, developed by Richie Ferdon of Georgetown, South Carolina. These popping corks employ clackers and a special slipknot for easily and quickly adjusting the bait's depth, a perfect feature for fishing the extreme 7-foot tidal changes common in Hildreth's trout-fishing haunts.
"It gives you the best of both worlds," Hildreth says. "You get a Cajun-style clacking cork, but you can vary your depth with it."
Hildreth fishes his rigs on a Pflueger Medalist 6030 spinning reel spooled with 20-pound braid and attached to a 7-foot medium-fast rod. He lets the current drift his rigs to fishy-looking spots and pops the cork approximately every 5 feet. He adjusts his float depths on every drift, so the shrimp covers the entire water column.
"It doesn't take long to find out if the trout are there or not," Hildreth says. "They'll bite if they're there."
Lowcountry Lightning floats have become increasingly popular since their inception four years ago, and very recently, the patents and design were acquired by Betts Tackle (919-552-2226, www.bettstackle.net) in Fuquay-Varina, North Carolina.