PORT MANSFIELD, Texas When hunting season is over and the winter blahs set in, there's no better cure for cabin fever than a fishing trip to the Laguna Madre in south Texas.
There, not only is the sun bright and the weather probably a lot warmer than wherever it is you call home, but the expectations of catching a trophy-size speckled trout are better than average.
Even though the water along the Texas Gulf Coast chills considerably in winter, female speckled trout with developing eggs still have to eat. Coaxing these lethargic fish to take a lure is a test of an angler's endurance and skill, but it can be done.
Slowing a lure's retrieve until it's barely moving by a trout's lair is the surest way to entice these supersize specks, and Captain Bruce Shuler of Get-A-Way Adventures Lodge (www.getawayadventureslodge.com) in Port Mansfield, Texas has perfected the techniques it takes.
"In December through February, we get the biggest trout of the year in the southern end of the Laguna Madre," Shuler said. "But if you don't put a lure right in front of their nose, and leave it there, you won't even know they're around. It's a very specialized type of fishing. I call it a 'molasses bite' because you have to fish so slowly."
Shuler favors MirrOlure Catch 2000 hard baits (red head, white body) or a YUM Money Minnow (pearl/chartreuse back), but he rigs them in a special way to make them more productive.
"The Laguna Madre is saltier than the Gulf in the winter and lures behave differently," he said. "Depending on where you're fishing, suspending baits sometimes will practically float and sinking baits will stay up farther in the water than you want them to. So if you want a bait to just barely come over the top of the grass where the trout are holding, usually you've got to customize the lure a little."
Shuler, who tests his various lures in the saltwater swimming pool at his shoreline home before he goes fishing, often swaps out the treble hooks on his hardbaits so that they cause the lure to sink deeper. Rather than putting larger trebles on the bait, however, he uses double- and triple-strength hooks that weigh more than the factory hooks.
"You don't want a hook that's too big for the lure and harder to set, and you don't want hooks that cause the lure to sink too fast and too deep," Shuler saod. "So, you've got to experiment until you find the right combination of hook and lure. You want the different lures you doctor to cover a certain depth of water. The fish might not be in the same area at the same depth every day, depending on what they're feeding on and where they find it."
When trout seem to favor a soft swimming bait such as a 5 or 6 ½-inch Money Minnow, which are rigged with a single, weighted 6/0 or 7/0 wide-gap hook, Shuler employs a different tactic to keep the sinking baits from sinking too fast and too far.
"I'll take a diabetic syringe and shoot air into the soft-plastic body so it'll just sink to a certain depth and no deeper," he said. "You have to shoot some more air into it after six or seven casts, but it works. It doesn't take a lot of air, and you have to be careful to center it so that the bait doesn't get out of balance."
Whether using a hard lure or a softbait, the action isn't as important as keeping the lure at the proper depth. Shuler stores his doctored lures in their own compartments so that they don't get mixed in with each other or standard lures. Once he determines the proper depth and the best lure for the job, the fun part begins.
In truth, however, this is no load-the-boat enterprise. Relatively few trout are caught in deep midwinter, but those that are tend to be trophy-size females that aren't in any hurry to bite. Shuler said that if it takes less than about a minute and a half to retrieve a suspending lure, the retrieve is too fast.
"The object is to get the lure down there where the trout are suspended and keep it down there without worrying about whether it's going to sink some more," Shuler said. "After I cast and let the lure settle a bit, I point the rod at it and just kind of twitch it along a little with the tip. I reel up the slack as I go. It'll drive you crazy, but it's the only way to catch the big female specks that come into the Laguna Madre in the winter."
Some of these trout, the so-called "yellowmouths," are caught in water that's less than 3 feet deep and the average water depth where Shuler and his clients fish is usually less than 6 feet. Stealth and long casts are essential to success, which is why wade-fishing is the best approach.
After locating "broken bottom" consisting of sand and scattered patches of eelgrass, Shuler anchors his flats boat, dons warm neoprene waders and jacket, slips into the water and starts fishing.
"Although south Texas and the Laguna Madre don't get the same kind of winter weather like they do up north, the water feels mighty cold when you stay in it for any length of time," Shuler said. "Layering clothes generally is a good idea. You can always take some off. Some days are warm, but they're never going to be so warm that you're wading wet."
Medium-action rods of 6 ½ to 7 ½ feet paired with bait-casters are the preferred tackle. Shuler keeps the drag fairly soft, because hefty speckled trout are notorious for using their frangible mouth membranes to tear loose from lures.
As for the strike, don't expect much of a jolt even if the fish might weigh more than 8 pounds. Typically, an angler will feel a weight on the line or, as Shuler puts it, "the water feels thicker all of a sudden."
That's when to set the hook and hold on, because there's nothing lethargic about how a jumbo yellowmouth trout fights. It's likely to be a wallowing surface fight, punctuated with short bursts of head-shaking and drag-pulling.
If you want a true fishing adventure at Laguna Madre, try to schedule a winter visit. The cooler the weather, the better the chances for a big sow trout. Just be sure to pack a lot of patience and persistence for your trip.