When most fishermen catch word of a speckled sea trout caught in New Jersey, they immediately dismiss it as an incidental catch, a lost fish that wandered too far north. But that’s not the case. New Jersey has its very own population of speckled trout, and there is a small fraternity of anglers who successfully target this species in Garden State waters in the fall.
George Spaulding, 79, of Cape May Court House has caught over 1,000 “specks” from Cape May County waters, topped off by a 9.5-pounder. George and his wife can be found speck fishing long after the last striper fisherman has called it a year. Ed Teise has caught more than 500 New Jersey specks – 92 of them in a single season. Mike Runyon is the season record-holder with 101 specks.
New Jersey’s speckled trout fishermen are tight-lipped about their quarry, which has kept many other anglers in the dark about this fishery. However, read closely and you will gain access to one of New Jersey’s best-kept secrets.
Waiting out the Conditions
To catch Garden State specks, a number of conditions must fall into place. A fisherman must be able to identify these conditions and have intimate knowledge of his fishing grounds, or fish with someone who does.
New Jersey speck fishermen patiently wait for three consecutive days with the right conditions in the right locations on the beach, in the inlets or in the back bays. How often the favorable conditions are in place will determine the quality of the speckled trout fishing over a given season.
- Water Clarity – On a scale of 1 to 10, with 10 being the clearest, specks require at least an 8.
- Water Temperature – Specks can be caught in the fall with water temperatures ranging from 72 all the way down to 46, but 55 degrees is prime speckled trout water.
- Wind Direction – Three days of wind from the north-northwest, northwest, west or a combination of these will pull speckled trout into the zone. After the specks set up, the wind can move around, as long as it returns to the northwest direction within a week.
- Tide – The speck bite is best on the strongest tide of the day when the current is moving the fastest.
When the above conditions coincide with full and new moon tides, use some vacation time and go on your speckled trout hunt.
Most of the New Jersey specks caught in the back bay waters are caught south of Barnegat Bay. Why? These waters are cleaner, clearer, saltier and contain more oxygen. Scout the back bay with your depthfinder, and stay within two miles of an ocean inlet. Mark the edges and feeder creeks. Find a sod bank you can fish from where you will be able to hit the edges and creeks you have found. At low tide, use binoculars to find all the tidal pools in the area you are going to fish. Then, find a way to fish them, one hour before low tide to one hour after. Tidal pools appear at low tide in and around the mudflats of the back bays and less frequently on the beaches. The amount of fish that stack up in these tidal pools can be phenomenal.
The best beaches for speck fishing are those that are completely natural, meaning they have not been filled in with sand via pumps or bulldozers. Seek them out. They have mussel beds and other marine habitats just beyond the breakers. You are also more apt to find tidal pools on natural beaches. Unfortunately, beach-replenishment projects destroy the habitat and the fishing.
On the beach, the first spots to check are the cuts between the outer sandbar and the beach that hold water at low tide. The best time to fish these areas is usually two hours before low tide, down to the bottom of the tide. However, the fish could feed at any time during the tide, and it may only be a short window.
Sand flats can be found in the inlets and up to a mile inside. The best spot to position yourself is on the edge of a flat, but avoid running over it with your boat, even with a trolling motor. The sand flats are a favorite with fly-fishermen for good reason: numerous trophy New Jersey specks have been caught on sand flats over the years.
Attention to Detail
Some fishermen refuse to take engine noise and other minor details into consideration when they are unable to catch speckled trout in New Jersey. This is the same type of mistake some captains make when fishing for bluefin behind scallop boats by motoring in fast and leaving the engines running while fishing, or the fishermen who fail to recognize that their white marlin baits are spinning instead of swimming. However, while the tuna and the marlin fishermen may still catch a few fish, enough that they may not realize they made mistakes, the speckled trout fishermen will catch no fish at all without paying close attention to the details.
New Jersey speckled trout will spook from your shadow. Long before you’ve made your first cast, be mindful of this fact. Even on the beach, a soft entry into the water (and into the area) is imperative. Boat traffic in close proximity will end the speck bite before it begins.
Early in the season, night fishing may be necessary to avoid boat traffic. During the day, hit the spot you plan to fish at night, especially if you are going to fish from a sod bank. Mark the edge of the sod bank or beach slew with a reflective marker. (I use a long stick with a bright eye tack pushed into the top.) When fishing the sod bank, you may be fishing 100 yards off it or more. The marsh can be dangerous on a dark night, with its soft bottom pools, undermined edges and deep creeks that are hidden by the reeds. The entire area needs to be closely inspected and marked before you fish there at night.
Lures and Presentation
My favorite speckled trout lures include the 4-inch Bass Assassin Sea Shad, Mirr-O-Lure 52M, 4-inch Culprit Riptide Mullet and the 4.5-inch Lunker City Salt Shaker. These soft plastics are rigged on round jigheads weighing 1/4-, 3/8- or 1/2-ounce, letting the water depth and current speed dictate the weight.
Presentation is critical when fishing for specks because they are sight feeders. Your cast must be up-tide far enough so that the lure stays in the strike zone as long as possible. Identify the strike zone, and then determine where to stand or anchor.
Lure color is determined by a few factors—time of day (or night), brightness and bottom composition. For fishing on dark nights, black or glow-colored lures are best, while over sandy bottoms on sunny days, white and pink lures get the most bites. Under sunny skies, fishermen working muddy bottoms will have the best luck with chartreuse.
I use an 18-inch section of 15-pound-test fluorocarbon attached to the main line with a uni-to-uni knot—no barrel or snap swivels. My main line is 10-pound-test PowerPro spooled onto a 2000-size Penn Battle, mounted on a 6-foot rod rated for 1/4- to 3/8-ounce lures.
In New Jersey, a deer hunter once placed his stand in a white oak grove. The first year, he saw deer every time he hunted the stand. The following season he returned to the same stand and half the season passed without a deer sighting, yet he refused to move his stand because of past success. What he failed to realize was that the deer were feeding in the red oak grove two miles away because the white oaks did not produce any acorns that year. Do not make the mistake of spending too much time trying to catch specks in one spot simply because you have caught them there before. Be proactive-always have another spot lined up before the one you are fishing dries up.