We’re on the cusp of the speck migration

Autumn speckled trout
The vast majority of the speckled trout that anglers catch in the interior marshes during the fall and winter are males.

Although on the surface, August and February seem to be polar opposites, the two months actually have a lot in common.

By February, you’ve had your complete fill of winter weather. Your house is cold, the lawn is full of weeds, the garden looks like your favorite plant color is brown. You spend every day thinking about spring, and yet Jack Frost refuses to let go. He blows front after front through the state, killing any hopes for decent fishing action.

There’s not an angler anywhere in Southeast Louisiana who would complain if the entire month of February were just removed from the calendar.

The same is true for many anglers in August. This month is hotter than Texas asphalt, and it seems to relish making fishing trips a living hell. You have to get up well before the butt crack of dawn, motor an eternal distance to the fish, and fill your ice chest before either 1) you risk getting zapped by lightning in one of the ubiquitous thunderstorms or 2) you melt under a relentless, penetrating sun in dead-calm conditions.

Getting up early and catching fish in the big bays with live shrimp was awesome in June, but by August, you want a change.

The good news is that, to quote Sam Cooke, “change gonna come.”

That’s because right now, as you read this, the days are getting shorter. Consider this: In Baton Rouge on June 21, the longest day of the year, sunrise was at 6:03, and sunset was at 8:10. That’s 14 hours, 7 minutes of daylight.

Today, sunrise was at 6:26, and sunset is at 7:54. That’s 13 hours, 28 minutes of daylight.

OK, it’s only 39 minutes less, but you get the picture. The days are getting shorter.

That declining photoperiod is setting off a little trigger in the brains of speckled trout across the coast that it’s almost time to be done with the spawning season. And when that happens, the males will begin making their way into the interior marshes, according to Jerald Horst, retired fisheries biologist and author of the just-released book Trout Masters Too.

“People conclude that the trout migration in the fall is because of bait. That’s not the case,” Horst said. “It’s because of photoperiod and temperature.”

Those two factors trigger the cessation of spawning, Horst said.

“When procreation is no longer the priority, speckled trout are no longer bound to high-salinity areas,” he said.

Interestingly, it’s only the males that migrate en masse back inland. The females simply disperse throughout the entire system.

“Some (females) will stay in the bays and beaches deep into the winter, but they don’t feed very much when it gets cold,” Horst said. “Anglers follow the males into the low-salinity waters. Some females are in there, of course, but they’re by and large just scattered to the four winds.

“Speckled trout definitely do segregate by sex.”

Scientists aren’t entirely sure why male trout move inland, but they do know that males have much more efficient osmoregulatory systems, which is what regulates salinity levels within a fish’s body.

“Males can live in almost pure fresh water,” Horst said. “Females can’t.”

The migration inland isn’t like someone flips a switch. As a general rule, biologists mark mid-September as the end of the trout spawn, but it begins trailing off weeks earlier, and some males will begin their seasonal move before the spawn is entirely done.

“It’s kind of a gradual shifting of the center of the population,” Horst said. “The migration is not uni-directional. It’s more like pulses, the fish move toward the inside, and then they move a little toward the outside for a day or two, and then they move more inland.

“It occurs over a period of time.”

The only exception to that rule is when a tropical system pushes salty water inland during a surge. A large number of male trout and even many females will move in with it. The males might stay inside, but the females will likely migrate back to the outside over the following days and weeks.

Bayou mouth speckled trout
Specks will feast on white shrimp at the mouths of bayous emptying into interior lakes during the months of October and November.

Whether they come in en masse during tropical events or more slowly during typical late summers, male trout don’t lack for grub in the interior marshes.

“By October, we start getting substantial fronts, which move white shrimp out of the ecosystem,” Horst said.

This makes for the absolute easiest fishing scenario of the entire year, according to Horst. Wise anglers, he said, will focus on the mouths of bayous where they empty out into a lake or small bay during a falling tide.

“That bayou will be spilling the goodies it carries,” Horst said. “Now, you might think, why doesn’t that trout just go into the bayou to eat the shrimp? And the answer’s easy: Because it takes a lot of energy to fight current.”

Sometimes the area of diffused current may be nothing more than a wide spot within the bayou itself — anything that slows the current and allows specks to hunt like the marauding hordes they are.

“Speckled trout are predators — like wolves,” Horst said. “They’re constantly moving. That’s the major thing that differentiates trout from redfish. They’re highly mobile. You have to re-find them everyday.”

Horst said trout will completely abandon the mouth of a bayou during a rising tide. They’ll go find something else that is a better set-up for them with the tide moving in the opposite direction. But other specks will group up at the bayou mouth again the next day on a falling tide.

That action’s still a couple months away, but the spawn is definitely winding down, and the first of the males are beginning the move to the inside.

Fall is coming. Are you ready?

Anglers interested in a personalized, signed copy of Trout Masters Too can call 985-795-9224.

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