Originally published in Tideline magazine in November 2008
By Matt Winter
Capt. Ralph Phillips’ lure had barely hit the water when a spotted seatrout slammed it and made a spirited run toward an oyster bar in the upper Wando River.
Phillips quickly turned the fish and soon had it boatside. After releasing the silvery fish, he quickly cast again in the same spot.
Boom. Another hook-up.
After catching the fifth trout in as many minutes, Capt. Ralph Phillips knew it was dinner time in the upper Wando River. “Somebody must have rung the bell,” he said with a smile.
An extremely high tide had made for a slow morning at many of Phillips’ tried-and-true trout hot spots around Cainhoy. But once the tide turned and the water started flooding out of the marsh grass and mud flats, the trout bite caught fire.
Casting soft-plastic lures in a spot wedged between a dock and a small creek, Phillips and I caught 15 trout in about 25 minutes. Almost every other cast would draw a strike — sometimes a timid tap, other times the thump of a keeper trout.
This scenario — marauding redfish running us off a productive trout spot — played out again and again on a subsequent morning trip to the coffee-colored, mist-covered waters of the Wando River.
It was, we agreed, a great problem to have.
“People don’t believe me when I say you can catch 100 fish in a day, but you can,” Phillips says.
Indeed, late fall offers some of the very best fishing the Lowcountry has to offer. The muggy days of summer have given way to crisp, cool, clear mornings.
Gnats and mosquitoes are mercifully subdued. And spurred on by clearer water and the need to fatten up before winter, hordes of fang-toothed seatrout go on a frantic feeding binge.
To help you make the most of it, Tideline turned to two of the Lowcountry’s most seasoned and successful trout anglers. Phillips, a local businessman and former charter captain, has been targeting trout since the 1970s. An aficionado of artificial baits (especially topwater plugs), Phillips shared some tips at a recent seminar at Haddrell’s Point Tackle and Supply in West Ashley.
Jeff Yates, a full-time charter captain and member of a wellknown Lowcountry fishing family, also agreed to share some hard-earned trout tips. Aside from consistently putting clients on fish over the past six years, Yates also knows a thing or two about catching the huge “gator” trout that win tournaments.
Both captains agree that anglers can look forward to a few weeks of fantastic fishing in November.
“I can catch trout in this area 12 months out of the year, … but you’ve got prime time right now,” Phillips said in late October. “The next six weeks is absolutely prime time.”
Light bites, light tackle
Trout fishing is a light-tackle game, one that usually involves moving water, artificial lures and a lot of precision casting.
You can catch trout by dangling live shrimp and finger mullet under floats, and you can certainly catch some using Carolina rigs on the bottom. But trout — even very large ones — can have extremely light strikes. Often, they don’t even bite the bait.
They simply inhale it. An angler might feel nothing more than a light tap. A second tap most likely signals that the fish has spit the lure back out.
Such light bites put a premium on finesse fishing, which is exactly what expert saltwater anglers such as Phillips and Yates relish. Both use very light line, either 6- or 8-pound test.
Neither angler uses heavy leader; Yates ties a short section of double-line in front of his lures, while Phillips simply ties his main line directly to his lures.
“There’s nothing between me and that lure,” Phillips says. “If that fish breathes on it, I can feel it.
“I lose fish. I break the line, they hit an oyster shell … but I hook 10 to most people’s one. If you don’t hook them, you don’t have any chance.”
And besides, landing the fish isn’t nearly as fun as convincing one to bite.
“That’s what I’m almost addicted to,” Yates says, “feeling that hit.”
Take a break from bait
Not surprisingly, Yates and Phillips both prefer artificial lures to natural baits when targeting seatrout in the fall.
Phillips, in fact, is a die-hard artificial angler, and shuns “soaking baits” and “feeding the fish” year-round. His tackle box is filled with all shapes and sizes of top-water plugs and soft-plastic grubs.
Yates, who as a charter captain often takes out less-experienced anglers, sometimes relies on live shrimp and finger mullet to put fish in the boat. But in November, when these baits start getting scarce and the trout bite heats up, he turns to artificials on light tackle.
Like most experienced anglers, both captains have go-to trout lures.
For Phillips, it’s Bass Assassin’s 3- or 5-inch shad grub, in the “glass minnow” color scheme. He threads this metallic-blue, softplastic body onto a ⅛ -ounce red jig head, dark side up (he recommends rigging all soft plastics dark-side up).
Phillips almost never uses ¼ -ounce jigs; the lighter ⅛ -ounce is easier to bounce over oysterbars without snagging. Rigged properly, this basic soft-plastic lure will mimic not only glass minnows, but also small finger mullet and shrimp.
Deciding between the 3-inch or 5-inch variety depends on the size of the bait he sees in an area. It’s all about “matching the hatch,” he says, a phrase borrowed from freshwater trout anglers who construct flies to match hatching insects.
Phillips figured all this out by paying strict attention to what kind of prey items are around when he’s fishing. He also makes a regular habit of examining the stomach contents of the trout he catches. Even some of the bigger fish have been packed with small glass minnows. Trout, he says, lend truth to the old adage that “even elephants eat peanuts.”
“To me, the size of the bait is more important than the color,” Phillips says. “I want that bait to look as much like what they’re feeding on as I can find.”
Phillips fishes this grub much like freshwater anglers might fish rubber worms for largemouth bass. He casts the bait toward the shoreline, lets it fall to the bottom, then begins a retrieve punctuated by gentle snaps of the rod. He recommends casting upcurrent and hopping the lure off the bottom with the tide, because most natural baits swim with the current.
“Look at what the bait’s doing. If the water’s slack and they’re moving all around, you can cast anywhere. If it’s pushing hard, go with it, incoming or outgoing.”
When Phillips sees a lot of activity — shrimp skipping across the surface and game fish busting schools of finger mullet — he’ll fish his lures faster. When the action and current are leisurely, he’ll slow things down.
For Yates, the go-to lure for fall trout is the ¼ -ounce, 3-inch DOA shrimp. No other lure comes close.
“It’s about my favorite soft-plastic on the planet,” Yates says. “You can make a living with DOAs, and I have.
“I’ve caught bigger fish on a topwater. … But if you need to feed your family, you need to be throwing a DOA.”
Yates prefers the silver, gold and white color schemes, but says virtually all colors work in the Lowcountry.
The most important aspect of these lures, Yates says, is not the color. It’s the fact that these lures are designed to perfectly mimic the natural buoyancy of live shrimp.
“The whole trick behind this lure is the speed of descent,” he says. “It just falls at a certain speed and it triggers the bite.”
For this reason, Yates free-lines the DOA shrimp, without floats or any other drag-inducing terminal tackle. He’ll cast the lure up against the grass banks, but he’ll also fish the as 10 feet.
The trick, he says, is to resist the urge to move it around.
“A lot of people have trouble fishing this lure,” he says. “I know exactly what they’re doing. They’re working it like a grub.
“You need to let this thing sit, and keep your line tight so you can feel it. A little twitch every few seconds is all you need.”
Yates learned this technique when his cell phone rang during a session of casting and “working” a DOA shrimp. Yates answered, began talking and simply let the lure fall slowly to the bottom.
“A trout inhaled it — about took the rod out of my hand,” he says. “I went on a two-hourstretch of catching about 40 trout.”
Topwater for trophies
When bragging rights are on the line, trout anglers turn to topwater lures — especially at first light.
Yates, his father David and brother David Jr. were early Lowcountry pioneers in the use of topwater plugs for trophy-size trout, the big “gators” that top 4, 5 and even 6 pounds.
Phillips, too, has been pitching plugs for decades. In fact, it’s one of his favorite techniques.
And for good reason.
Topwater lures, especially during the two hours before and after low tide, are a blast.
Fishing them requires constant action — long, accurate casts, deft maneuvering and thoughtful presentation. And when a fish hits, it’s often catastrophic, the kind of strike that leaves a hole in the water and gets an angler’s heart racing.
And this is exactly why such a large percentage of topwater strikes don’t lead to hookups.
“The toughest part of catching trout or spottail on topwater bait… is this,” Phillips says, mimicking a dramatic Bill Dance hookset. Resisting the urge to yank the lure away from a striking fish is “the hardest thing in the world to do.”
“He doesn’t have the bait until he comes tight. When he swirls that bait, let him take it!
“When the line comes tight, then hook him. You’ve got to feel the fish.”
Topwater lures of choice include Rapala’s Skitter Walk, Rebel’s Broken-Back Minnow and the Heddon Zara Spook. Phillips is also a huge fan of the classic, open-mouthed Rebel Pop-R, a chugger often used in freshwater bass fishing. This time-honored lure gives anglers the option of aggressive or slow-asmolasses retrieves.
“You can’t fish it too fast or too slow,” Phillip says. “If you’re missing fish, slow it down. If you’re still missing fish, slow it down a little more. Work with it until you start catching fish.”
Though early morning is best, most topwater lures can land trophy trout at all hours.
“I catch fish all day long on topwater,” Phillips says. “It’s better early and it’s better late, there’s no question about that. When the sun’s overhead, it’s tough. But if there’s bait flipping, they’ll hit topwater.
“If it’s dead slick and there’s no bait, that’s when I go deep and start fishing the grubs and MirrOlures.”
Where to go, when to go
Great inshore anglers know how to catch fish at all stages of the tide. But most agree that trout fishing is best when the current is cooking along.
“The toughest time to catch trout is when there’s no movement,” Phillips says. “Either coming in or going out, I like moving water for trout.
“Why? The bait’s moving. If the bait’s moving, they’re feeding.”
In November, spotted seatrout can be found along most marsh grass banks in coastal estuaries, but they tend to concentrate along ambush points where some kind of structure disturbs the current. Schools of trout often stage on the lee side of docks, oyster bars and grass points, where they can attack small fish and shrimp swept through by the current.
“If you can find a bank with two or three docks — one dock is even better — you’re going to have a concentration of fish around that dock,” Phillips says. “It breaks the flow, it starts the food chain.”
Hard-bottom structures such as oyster beds and rock piles are also key. Creek mouths can also hold concentrations of trout.
Yates will often pitch DOA shrimp out ahead of creek mouths, letting the lures drift and fall downstream into the main waterway, where disoriented bait fish and shrimp are flushed by the tide.
If you find a good school, this easy technique can lead to strike after strike. “It’s almost a no-brainer,” Yates says.
Targeting these creek mouths works very well from late November through January, when trout tend to school up in warmer, deeper water.
“My favorite time to fish these creek mouths is the last hour of the outgoing and the first hour of the incoming,” Phillips says. “The bait and the fish are more concentrated in the low tide.”
Yates also recommends anglers pay attention to recent rainfall. A heavy influx of fresh water may push trout out from narrow creeks into larger waterways.
Building a collection of proven trout spots takes time, and both Yates and Phillips recommend anglers ride around at low tide to identify promising structures such as oyster beds.
The most important thing, Phillips says, is to just get out there and try.
“You won’t catch any trout sitting on the couch.”
Trout lures come in all shapes and sizes. Here are a few of the most popular among Lowcountry anglers (top to bottom):
REBEL POP-R: This topwater plug is a classic, known to freshwater bass fishermen the world over. The “popper” will draw heart-stopping strikes from trophy seatrout in the early morning. Just cast it out and work it back with a series of quick, short snaps of the rod. The open mouth creates a tantalizing splash on the surface. The dangling back hook resembles a shrimp’s tail. If a fish swirls and misses, wait a second, then give it a twitch and hold on tight.
HEDDON SPOOK: This sleek surface lure is a dead ringer for a finger mullet. Tie it on with a loop knot for the best action. Cast it out, then reel slowly while adding a series of short and rhythmic snaps. This technique, called “walking the dog,” will make the lure dart back and forth like a wounded fish.
DOA SHRIMP: Obviously, this rascal looks just like a shrimp. But the way it remains stable and upright while slowly falling through the water column is its secret weapon. The tricky part for anglers is resisting the urge to “work” it like other lures. Just be patient and let it drop. Give it only a twitch when it hits bottom. That’s usually all it takes.
BASS ASSASSIN GLASS MINNOW: Another classic. There are a hundreds of softplastic grubs to choose from, and every angler seems to have his or her favorite brand and color. This particular lure is a great all-around choice, as it mimics both minnows and small mullet. Use a ¼ -ounce jig head to keep you out of the oysters as you bounce it slowly off the bottom.