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Fishing for speckled trout, as has been noted by Henry Lyman and Frank Woolner in their classic, The Complete Book of Weakfishing, is a mania that draws devotees from hundreds of miles away. When the big runs began in the creeks and rivers that spread like fingers from Port Royal and St. Helena sounds, my father flashed the word to selected relatives. Overnight our house on Pigeon Point in Beaufort became a makeshift lodge. Uncle Boots and Aunt Helen came down from Sullivan's Island. Uncle Charles (he was a traveling salesman, which may help to explain why he was the first member of our staid, somewhat Norman Rockwellian family to indicate to me—much to my father's distress—that being girl-crazy was normal) and Aunt Bryte cruised down from Charlotte in their Oldsmobile sedan. Rollaway beds and cots were strewn about the living room, and bourbon-bruised tenors sang into the night. Never before or since have I heard such a cacophony of snores.
Despite the drinking, all of us would be up at first light. We would struggle into long johns and rubber boots and be off to whatever creek bend, hole, trestle or shrimp-boat dock was deemed the hottest spot at the moment. The car would be filled with muffled coughs, clouds of smoke from Philip Morrises and Lucky Strikes and the aroma of Uncle Boots' beloved Limburger cheese, which for years I thought was a dead shrimp left under the seat by my father.
For the most part, we used what remains the preferred method for catching speckled trout: a live shrimp on about 18 inches of leader material dangling below a swivel sinker and a cork float. Ideally, the live bait was floated about an inch or two above the bottom. To achieve that, the float was made adjustable by means of a plastic bead and a piece of rubber band tied around the line. By sliding the rubber band knot up or down, you could alter the depth at which the shrimp hung.
Minnows are almost equally effective as live bait and a damned sight cheaper to obtain and keep alive. Shrimp are exceedingly delicate and must be kept in freshly aerated salt water.
Daddy had several minnow traps set all that time. They were always placed in small, brackish feeder streams, strategically located to keep him within a short haul of fresh bait. Nothing infuriated him more than to have a trap stolen or robbed of its contents.
Speckled trout are terrific fighters when hooked and delicious to eat, but they are extraordinarily sullen and finicky about what they eat. They are very sensitive to temperature changes and, as a result, they prefer to spend the hottest summer months (and coldest winter ones) in deep holes where the temperature is relatively stable. In early summer they spawn, usually in the deepest sounds and rivers.
As young fish (they mature at about age three) they tend to run in schools. As older fish (few males seem to live beyond four) they tend to be solitary, but will gang up in rapacious schools during sudden temperature drops. These rapid decreases can also have a deleterious effect. If a trout is in shallow water at the time, it becomes virtually immobilized, rendering it easy prey for man and beast.
And speckled trout are at once attracted to and repelled by noise. It depends on the nature of the sound. Bang an oar against the bottom of your boat or dump your anchor with a loud splash, and you may as well move on to the next drop. But the fish seem to be attracted to surface splashes. A time-honored technique of angling for speckled trout with the cork bobber calls for frequent (every 15 seconds or so) popping of the cork by raising the rod tip smartly. This serves two purposes: it animates the bait and makes a noise that the fish are drawn to.
In later years, having served my journalistic apprenticeship on the Beaufort Gazette and moved on to Charleston to further my newspaper career, my views on speck fishing were widened by a meeting with the inimitable Jake Jones.
Born a Tar Heel—and in the central, red-clay district of North Carolina, at that—Jake had come to the low country as a young man, caught his first speck and never seriously considered doing anything else. He was (or is—I've long since lost track of him) a guide. He was also a purist. No live bait. And no booze.