Tips and Tricks for Speckled Trout: Catch Specks Like a Pro!

Speckled trout are warm water predators that prefer mullet. And if you know where and when to find them, pick the right lures, and run an appropriate leader, you can catch them like a pro!

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The warm, shallow waters of the southern Atlantic and Gulf of Mexico are ideal habitat for one of America’s most popular saltwater game fish: speckled trout.

Aggressive predators that target large fish relative to their own body size, speckled sea trout thrive in estuarine environments rich in mullet. Like their relative the red drum, average specks aren’t particularly wary, but you need to hit the water with a plan if you want to catch your limit or if you hope to land a trophy fish.

And to formulate a plan to catch speckled trout, you need to understand them, their preferred hunting grounds, and their feeding behavior.

Want to catch specks like a pro?

Keep reading!

Speckled Trout Basics

Commonly called “specks,” speckled sea trout are known to marine biologists as Cynoscion nebulosus.

If you think specks are a true trout, I can’t blame you. There’s no denying that they look a bit like a trout, but speckled sea trout are actually a member of the drum family, and like both red and black drum, these fish love shallow, warm water, estuarial environments rich in prey, and moving tides that sweep fish into ambush.

Thriving in the warm waters of the Gulf of Mexico and the southern Atlantic coast, states like Louisiana, Texas, Florida, Georgia, and Alabama are known for extensive populations of these popular game fish, as well as the anglers who flock to inshore waters to catch them.

And while specks will move north along the Atlantic coast, like red and black drum, they’re cold-water intolerant, preferring temperatures between 59 °F and 86 °F.

If the mercury dips below 60, expect speckled trout to look for rivers and streams that are several degrees warmer than the salt marshes and sandy flats where you’ll usually find them.

That may sound like an unusual habitat for a saltwater game fish, but Mother Nature has equipped the speckled sea trout with tremendous adaptability to low-saline environments, and specks can be found far into the freshwater habitats offered by freshwater inflows to salty estuaries.

In warm climates, specks spawn in the late fall and early winter, typically November to December, and while they ensure the future of the species, they’ll typically stop feeding and the bite will turn off almost entirely. But October and January find specks greedily feeding on mullet, and they’ve been known to take prey that rivals them in size.

Of course the timing of the spawn varies by water temperature and thus by latitude, and the specks will start spawning earlier the farther north you go and the cooler the overall water temperatures in any given region. 

For instance, in North Carolina, specks typically start spawning in April, and they’ll wrap up reproducing by September. That’s a lot earlier than you’ll see the spawn in places like Galveston Bay!

Speckled trout are well-armed with long, canine-esque teeth, allowing them to seize and hold large fish.

One look at this mouth tells you that specks aren’t chasing minnows!

Voracious predators that are keen for big mullet, speckled trout grow to an average size of 11 to 14 inches and 1 to 3 pounds. They’re often caught at weights of 3 to 5 pounds, but wary old specks can reach a monstrous 10 pounds or more.

Jared Horst of Louisiana State University notes that “small trout eat large amounts of shrimp and other crustaceans. As trout become larger, their diet shifts toward fish, the larger, the better. Studies in Texas and Mississippi show that really big trout strongly prefer to feed on mullets; a large trout will find the largest mullet it can handle and try to swallow it. Often the mullet is half or two-thirds as large as the trout. The key to catching large trout is to fish where they are and use big baits.”

Where to Catch Speckled Trout

Specks prefer warm water and environments that hold plenty of prey, specifically mullet.

While immature specks feed on crustaceans like shrimp, mature speckled trout are largely piscivorous. That doesn’t mean that they won’t feed on shrimp if they run across them, but rather that the vast majority of their diet is made up of larger mullet.

Jumping mullets are often being chased out of the water by hungry speckled trout.

Bells should be going off in your head right there, because if you find the mullet, you’ll find the specks preying on them. 

Keep your eyes open: if you see mullets leaping clear of the water, that’s a very good sign that they’re being chased by a predator, and nine times out of ten, that’s a school of hungry specks in pursuit of a big meal!

Hunting habitat

Specks prefer moving water, and like reds, you’ll find them near natural funnels in a moving tide or current. They’re also drawn to locations where currents or wind-blow water hit still areas, creating a visible divide called an “edge.”

But unlike red drum, speckled trout prefer the top of the water column, hunting the surface rather than the bottom.

Now, in shallow bays, mud flats, and tidal lagoons, the bottom and the surface may only be a few feet apart, but where there’s a true water column, they’ll hunt higher rather than lower.

Look for specks in moving water near bridges, piers, erosion barriers, and jetties, where they’ll be looking to ambush mullet captured by a moving tide.

The Perdido Pass Bridge near Orange Beach, Alabama is a great place to look for specks.

Another great place to locate specks is in the natural funnels created by islands and other features. I look for any place that provides structure that channels current and cover that provides a hiding place for specks.

Like red drum, speckled sea trout will wait in ambush in natural funnels, looking for mullet that are captured by the current.

An incoming tide in St. Mary’s Inslet on the Georgia/Florida line is a great place to find specks pre- and post-spawn.

That’s why structure like bridge pilings or old pier foundations, especially if they’re swept by wind and tide, are also prime spots to find specks.

But don’t ignore rock walls, small islands, erosion barriers, jetties, and piers. Specks will congregate near these as well, hunting the edges and tips, waiting in ambush, and sticking tight to anything that disrupts the tide or wind.

Old pilings swept by tides can hold an astonishing number of specks.

And grassy marshes, especially where they’re fed by freshwater inlets or subject to strong tidal flows can be very productive.

Estuarine environments where you find water flow between islands or near streams and rivers can be excellent options for speckled trout.

Finally, a great place to look for specks in the cooler months of the year is in rivers, creeks, and streams that feed an estuary or mud flat. Those shallow, sun-warmed freshwaters are ideal for overwintering specks, and they’ll happily stay there until water temperatures rise into the low 70s.

A freshwater creek or stream feeding an estuary or mud flat can be a paradise for overwintering specks.

When to Catch Speckled Trout

Targeting specks takes more than knowing where to look; you need to have a solid plan about when to look for them, too.

Pre- and post-spawn

The spawn is obviously a bad time of year to catch specks, as they’ll stop feeding almost entirely while they focus on creating the next generation.

But prior to and after the spawn, hungry specks will be making up for their spawning-induced anorexia by hitting mullet hard. If you time the spawn correctly for your area, you can nail speckled trout in the pre-and post-spawn periods, when they’ll be particularly aggressive!

Dawn, dusk, and overcast, cloudy days

Like most fish, specks are more actively feeding in the 90 minutes surrounding dawn and dusk, though cloudy, overcast days can find them biting all day. This is especially true during very hot weather, when a cold front sweeps through bringing clouds, rain, and cooler temperatures in its wake.

Speckled sea trout are very fresh-water tolerant, and rain won’t typically run them off their prime spots like it can reds, nor will weeks of freshwater intrusion into a salt marsh bother them at all.

It is true, however, that specks prefer clearer water, as their keen vision is their primary hunting sense. So very murky or stained water can make it harder for speckled trout to hunt and feed, but it shouldn’t suppress the bite completely.

Tidal flows and wind

But if there’s a single factor that matters the most for timing your trip to the water, it’s tidal flow.

Speckled sea trout simply love moving water, and if you can time your fishing to take advantage of dawn or dusk during a moving tide, you’ll have the best chances to catch your limit.

If the tide isn’t in your favor, you can still try to find the spots where the wind will push water, capture mullet, and draw speckled trout.

One strategy that I use on windy days when the tide isn’t moving is to look for gnarly coast line.

Whether there’s a jetty, an erosion barrier, an old pier, or even a series of small islands, I’ll fish the edges and lees of whatever’s there, as the wind-blown current means specks will be hunting.

I like irregular shapes on days like this, and I’m not looking for pristine, ruler-straight white sand beaches.

Instead, I want gnarly coastline, lots of channels and twists and turns, and plenty of spots for wind-blown water to sweep through grassy areas and other optimal hunting grounds.

Even when you can’t catch a tide just right, a strong wind blowing water through areas like this creates excellent opportunities.

Speckled Trout Fishing Tips

You know where to look for specks. You’ve considered when to fish for them, too.

Now, let’s get into some of our best tips to catch speckled trout.

Stealth matters

While sexually mature specks aren’t what most anglers would consider wary, the larger, older specks that provide bragging rights are pretty well schooled on your tricks.

They’ll be easier to spook with a boat than you think, and it’s important that you stand off, use lures that cast well, and keep motor and boat noise to a minimum.

By this I don’t mean be quiet and stop talking, although that can help, too.

What I’d really focus on is outboard noise and waves slapping my hull.

One technique that I like to use on my kayak is to drift along with the current, letting my boat be pulled by the tide and casting into likely spots as I pass them. I’m not sure that this is as effective from a larger boat, but I’d still give it a try if the situation is right.

Another stealthy approach is to wade for specks, and this can be incredibly effective if you’ve found a likely spot on a moving tide.

Don’t be shy about wading for specks!

You won’t risk spooking big fish, and if you can find a location with a natural channel, especially if there are plenty of live weed beds nearby, you can cast where you need to without scaring off skittish specks.

Live bait: mullet, mullet, and more mullet

It’s not that shrimp can’t attract specks; they can and do.

It’s rather that mature speckled sea trout are mullet specialists, preferring a big, juicy fish to all other meals.

If you’re going to use live or cut bait, mullet is the way to go by a country mile! Either option - cut or live - should be rigged with a sharp 1/0 circle hook like the Owner Mutu Light Circle Hook

These hooks are plenty strong - you don’t need a thick gauge for speckled trout - and their self-hooking design means that you won’t miss a strike - ever!

Ask any charter captain you meet: they’ll recommend circle or octopus hooks for live bait.

The Best Lures for Speckled Trout

Two things are important to consider when you’re thinking about lures for specks.

First, speckled sea trout are legendary for their appetite and aggression, and they will hit large lures far more frequently than small ones.

Second, specks hunt high in the water column. Unless the bottom and the surface are just a foot or two apart, working the bottom isn’t going to get you very far.

As a result, I focus on three general lure types: plugs, suspending twitchbaits, and topwater.

Plugs

When I think about plugs for specks, I’m looking for shallow divers and mullet patterns.

Two options that I particularly like are the MirrOlure 17 Mrbg Mirrodine and the 6-inch Daiwa Salt Pro Minnow.

Both of these lures dive to a depth of about 3 feet, running right where you want them.

And the big Daiwa Salt Pro Minnow in particular is a speck hammer, allowing you to cover water quickly and attract big fish looking for a sizable meal.

Twitchbaits

Twitchbaits are the saltwater equivalent of the jerkbait, and they’re at their best when the water temperature is on the cool end and you need to keep a lure front and center to draw a strike. A good twitchbait like the MirrOLure Skin Series C-Eye MirrOdine CS17, which is about as realistic a mullet pattern as you’ll find anywhere, are dynamite.

These suspending twitchbaits can be worked at the edges of a moving current, around the points of structure, and past brings pilings.

They’re so effective when the water’s in the 70s that they should be illegal.

The Bomber Mullet Slow-Sinking Twitch is also a great option, especially if the water is a bit murky, because its bright, reflective pattern shines like fish scales, ringing that dinner bell for all it’s worth!

Topwater

Topwater lures are a great way to target actively feeding specks in any conditions.

Because specks choose large mullet when they can, I’m going to upsize my lures, and many will resemble their favorite prey item.

I’m sure you won’t be surprised to hear that I love a big Super Spook, especially in “silver mullet.” 

If I see mullet getting hammered near the surface, or I see mullet leaping clear of the water, you better believe I’m casting a big spook into that madness, and with a few jerks of my rod tip, there’s a very good chance it’ll get hit more or less immediately.

These lures cast beautifully, even on windy days, and whether you choose to “walk the dog” with them, pop them in starts and stops, or jerk them hard and let them sit for a few seconds, you’ll get immediate attention if specks are around.

Other lure options to consider

There are of course other lures that work well for specks, and one of best is a soft-plastic paddle tail.

Since specks target larger mullet, I like to throw a big, unweighted paddle tail like the 5.5-inch Yamamoto Swimming Senko.

In cooler water, I’ll use a 1/0 offset worm hook like the Gamakatsu, and rip this unweighted paddle tail into darts, turns, and starts and stops ending in long glides.

In warmer water, I’ll swim it past likely spots, run it above the tops of grass, and burn it with a series of twitches past where specks will be waiting.

And I’m certainly not afraid to throw any big worm or Senko in the same way.

Leaders

Specks have mouths that are full of sharp teeth, and if you don’t use a leader made from tough mono or fluorocarbon, you’re going to lose more than a few fish to break offs.

I prefer a 20-pound mono leader like Trilene Big Game, but fluorocarbon works well, too. I typically tie about 2 feet of leader onto my line using a Double Uni, securing my terminal tackle with a Uni or Palomar, as needed.

Final Thoughts

With a good plan in mind, you can all but guarantee that you’ll be on speckled trout every time you look for them, catching them like a pro rather than a sometimes angler.

We hope that this article has helped you take your speck fishing to the next level, and we’d love to hear from you if it has.

Please leave any comments or questions below!

About The Author
John Baltes