SOUTHPORT — The dawn winds were quiet, the surface of Wildlife Creek slick as a whisker. Captain Butch Foster launched his 19-foot Carolina Skiff from an N.C. Wildlife Commission boat ramp. His son, Chris Foster, warmed the engine while Butch parked the pickup and boat trailer. Then the fishing duo skimmed away, into the sunrise.
We found a place where the speckled trout are thick as flies, said Butch, a 62-year-old charter captain from Southport. We must have caught and released a hundred.
During the warmer months, the Fosters run Yeah Right Charters. Their big boat is large enough to catch Gulf Stream species such as wahoo and tuna as well as offshore bottom fish. But, in winter, they fish for fun.
Speckled trout are among the most highly sought inshore saltwater game fish, especially in winter when most other species of fish have high-tailed it for warmer climes. The waters of the Cape Fear River teem with all manner of fish. But when the winter chills the sea water temperatures, anglers head to the marshes and creeks near the river mouth, where the fish concentrate to take advantage of the higher salinity, warmer temperatures and more abundant prey than occur farther upstream.
Speckled trout can be anywhere or nowhere, Butch Foster said. We find them by trolling in the channels. The best time to look for trout is at low tide, when the oyster beds, sandbars and mud flats are exposed. If you go during the high tide, you might run aground or find yourself stranded when the tide falls.
The anglers conferred about the best place to enter the mouth of one of the myriad creeks that all looked the same. They picked a route between an island and the bank, but they chose the wrong side.
Im glad I have a stainless steel prop, Butch Foster said. Oyster shells wont damage it like they will an aluminum prop. If you fish for specks, sooner or later you will run the boat aground.
After running another quarter-mile upstream, Chris Foster took a position at the bow. Butch Foster slowed the motor speed while the anchor swung in Chris hands like a pendulum. When he reached a certain spot, Butch nodded his head and Chris dropped the anchor with a splash accompanied by the rattling of the lead chain.
They were right here, yesterday, said Chris Foster, 28, of Southport, who works as an electrical technician at nuclear power plants when he is not helping his father run charters. But that doesnt mean they will be here today. Speckled trout are the original here-today-gone-tomorrow fish. But they have got to be here somewhere in this creek because when the water is this low, there are not many places they can go to hide. Low water concentrates the shrimp, crabs and minnows that trout eat. When the tide is high, they fan out all through the marsh and into the grass where they are so scattered, you will be lucky to find one, never mind getting it to strike.
Butch Foster rigged an ultralight spinning rig with a red, quarter-ounce jig head. Then he threaded a twisty-tailed grub body onto the jigs hook.
This color is smoke/metal flake, he said. Its what they bit yesterday so maybe they will bite it today. We are a little bit earlier in the tide so it may take a while for the specks to start pecking.
Chris Foster used a light spinning rig spooled with 8-pound test monofilament. The heavier rig was necessary because he was casting an oblong-shaped lure that created more drag in the water than the lighter jig-n-grub Butch was casting.
This is a MirrOlure 17MR, which is a suspending twitch bait, Chris Foster said. You cast it, reel it, then pause it. A trout will follow it and when the lure pauses, he thinks its an injured minnow so he runs right on top of it. He cant stand missing an easy meal and eats it.
Both anglers cast and retrieved their lures, with the handles of their reels moving agonizingly slow when compared to a bass angler working a swimbait or crankbait. At first, nothing happened. Then came a strike that resulted in a speckled trout wriggling in the landing net. The strikes increased as the tide fell. Then the bite tapered off.
We need to move because the fish have moved, Butch Foster said. Chris, pull up the anchor and we find them again.
The creek forked, leaving two choices for the anglers to follow. They chose the left fork because the water appeared to be deeper.
Chris Foster soon hooked another speckled trout. Butch kept running the boat against the strong pull of the current while Chris caught another six specks. Then they dropped anchor and began catching trout on nearly every cast.
They arent big fish and you have to sort through a lot of them for a four-fish limit of 14-inch keepers, Butch Foster said. But even catching the little ones is a lot more fun than staying at the house, watching a football game. Id rather chill out, out here, than in front of the TV.