Cold Weather Canal Action
On The Fly Saltwater
by Article and photos by Ed Mashburn.
When I’m fly fishing for trout, I tend to overlook things which might bother me in other situations. For instance, normally I’d be pretty alarmed to be surrounded by a pack of snarling, barking, threatening dogs of various sizes. I’m fishing a canal near Orange Beach, Alabama on this chilly winter morning and on a dock close across the canal from me is a big Doberman guarding the dock and watching me closely. On another dock near to me is a wolf-looking dog which is growling and barking. On another dock a bit farther down the canal, a poodle is yapping loudly to warn me away from his dock. But today since I’m using my 6-weight graphite rod and catching speckled seatrout, I really don’t even hear the bad beasts making threatening noises.
Of course, although these speckled seatrout I’m casting to are not real trout, they look and act a lot like freshwater trout. When they can be reached on a fly rod, they strike and fight very much like real trout. Heck, they’re real enough for me.
Where to Find Them
When the days shorten andthe wind gets an edge to it, all along the northern GulfCoast from Florida to Texas, a mass migration of speckled seatrout occurs. These gorgeous members of the drum family leave their bay and Gulf of Mexico open-water haunts and travel up creeks, canals and bayous to find comfortable conditions for the cool months. This mass migration puts these fish within easy reach of fly anglers.
One of my favorite places to find specks, which will respond to a fly rod presentation, is around boat docks and seawalls on residential canals. These canals offer protected, deep water where winter specks will school up, sometimes in massive collections of fish, and these specks are within reach of small boat anglers with fly rods. And even packs of vicious dogs can’t keep me away from these specks.
A key to locating cool-weather specks is to find deeper pockets in the canals and creeks where the fish can group and work together to herd shrimp and minnows for easier feeding.
On a recent cool-weather speck fishing trip, I found a collection of hungry specks at the confluence of two major canals. After I let the water settle and quieten a bit from my approach and anchoring, I could make easy 50- to 60-foot casts toward an old, storm-damaged boat dock. When the fly slowly sank into the deeper water, all I had to do was keep an eye on my fly line and leader junction. When the line moved at all, I made a sharp strip set and more times than not, a speck would be on the fly.
What to Throw
By far the best choice for a fly-rod angler who wants to have a lot of fun with specks is to tie on a slow-sinking streamer which resembles a shrimp. Really, the resemblance doesn’t have to be precise. Any streamer which is about 2 or 3 inches long will be fair game for these hungry winter specks.
My favorite speck fly is a tan shrimp fly which sinks very slowly. However, for some reason, red and white streamers seem to work quite well. A slow sinking fly is important – these winter fish are not too aggressive.
On this most recent speck fishing trip, if I didn’t get a strike on the fly as it sank, I would make a very slow retrieve, trying to keep the fly close to the bottom. When a cool-weather speckled trout strike comes, it may be very gentle and hard to detect. By keeping my line tight and having close contact with the line, I could detect that insignificant change in pressure which meant a speck had taken my fly.
Other than residential canals, I have had some fast action for cool weather specks in big, natural bayous where I found smaller feeder flows emptying into the bayous. Some very nice specks can be found in such places. Let me assure you, a 3-pound speck on a fly rod is a whole lot of fun.
And a very common occurrence when fishing canals and bayous in winter for specks is to encounter redfish – sometimes big redfish.
Gear and Rigging
When setting up a fly rig for cool weather speckled trout, it’s best not to over-think the situation. A 6-weight fly rod will work, and since most cool weather specks will be under two pounds, this rod will be enough to control the specks and also provide a good fight.
A floating fly line will work well. I’ve never found it necessary to use a sinking tip. Most canal specks will be in 6 feet or less of water, so a 9-foot leader will allow a streamer to sink far enough to reach the specks.
Specks are not particularly leader-shy, so I make up my leaders from a butt section of 15-pound monofilament and attach a tippet of 10-pound mono. This leader casts well and is strong enough to give me a chance to land an extra-big fish when one shows up.
However, I would not recommend a rod any lighter than a 6-weight. We need to keep in mind that often these schools of 1- to 2-pound speckled trout will have some much larger redfish mixed in with them, and a 10-pound redfish on a too-light rod in a canal is bound to be a short fight with a very abrupt ending.