Springtime Success: Bait Migrations and Precise Lure Placement

Springtime Success: Bait Migrations and Precise Lure Placement
Eric stuck another nice one.

With the arrival of spring comes new seasonal patterns and a change in guiding locations for Jay Ray and I. Port Mansfield was terrific this year but I am ready to be back to a more relaxed way of fishing and a bay system that seldom throws a pitch I cannot at least swing at. I believe the new trout regulations that became effective on March 26 will have a very positive impact on our fisheries. After 45 years of guiding it is nice to have the confidence that you can, on most days, have your clients standing in the best place they can be for that day.

In the Rockport area this time of year, I focus heavily on moving water that pulls and pushes across submerged grass and shallow sand bars. Bait concentrations are always at the top of the list when trying to locate areas holding decent numbers of fish. I will continue to try and pound into your fishing brains that numbers of fish will not be found where there is not an ample food source or bottom structure that provides plenty of ambush points. This is elementary to many but still a couple of factors that you must have if you are hoping to put yourself in the proper position for success.

In my latter years of guiding I find myself focusing on being able to put my groups in areas where they can observe both the bait and bottom structure. You need to be able to see the structure in order to place the lure where bites are possible. I also need my clients to get bites for confirmation that fish are not only present but catchable. It’s the days when I am not able to put them in such areas that frustrate me the most.

I honestly have tremendous confidence in areas that are showing me the right stuff, even if I am not getting bit. Over the years I have learned that it is so much easier to teach and coach when your clients are getting bites and can recognize what is needed to get those bites. Many times it is simply lure placement. This is especially true when we are fishing in areas where water movement is creating a stacking effect for the fish. When this happens one must be able to make accurate casts to those exact areas.

I remember a day years back; I was fishing with some fairly skilled guys and we were working a small diagonal cut in one of our major reef structures. The trout were stacked in a small but deep bend in the cut. With the amount of water movement we had, you had to cast accurately up-current of the bend and just on the far edge of the cut. Specific lure placement and the ability to allow the lure to drift naturally into the bend was met with an immediate take from 3- to 4-pound trout. It was literally every cast IF one could make that cast. If not, you were either hung up on oyster clumps and likely to lose a lure, or the lure drifted off the proper line.

Despite the guys’ experience, they were not great at precision casting, and in this instance it was hurting them. I stood next to them with the same lure they were using and made a cast to demonstrate the necessity of landing it precisely in order that it would drift on the proper line. I then demonstrated the sequence of twitches that would draw a strike as it drifted into the zone where the fish were staged. Cast after cast was met with sharp thumps and white water on the hooksets from solid trout. My point here is that there is way more than just being in the right area when it comes to getting the most out of being in that area.

Bait migrating from the gulf into the bays plays a huge role during springtime. Feeding activities of pelicans and gulls, slicks appearing on the surface, and actual sightings of bait are evidence that a migration is occurring. I always tell my guys that if we can find the menhaden along shallow shorelines or in backwater areas, there will likely be solid trout and reds with them.

Menhaden are very oily and trout and redfish alike will “slick” big time when feeding on them. However, platter-size slicks popping in shallow water doesn’t always mean we can catch them. When this happens, I often make careful mental notes of the area, ease out, and then return a few hours later. I did this multiple times in 2023 and had very little success early on the slicks, but caught decent to good trout in the same areas later in the day.

I believe that trout are being conditioned to stay shallower longer than ever before. I further believe this might be due to a steadily increasing dolphin population in middle coast bays. Dolphins are known to be highly intelligent with great ability to learn, which begs the question whether they also have ability to reason. I put this question to Dr. Greg Stunz and here is what he had to say:

“Only a few animals on the planet possess the dolphin’s level of intelligence. Dolphins can reason, have great memories, and can solve problems. They are also self-aware, which is something only the most intelligent animals have. They are known to hunt cooperatively with artisanal fishermen in other areas.”

So, there you have it. There is no doubt that dolphins can be a problem for us while fishing for trout from Port O’Connor to the Corpus Christi Bay area. I have seen them in the Nighthawk Bay area and the shoreline south of Bird Island, but they did not seem nearly as aggressive on the days I encountered them. Middle coast dolphin, it seems, follow us and almost stalk us, waiting until trout are hooked and released, and then crash the party. I try to just leave the area when I see this pattern developing, but one thing is certain, where you find dolphin there are also trout and bait fish present. I know I sort of got off track on trout staging longer nowadays in shallow water, but it definitely reinforces the tenet that it is easier for them to catch their prey in shallow areas versus deeper water.

Spring is windy all along the gulf coast. Wind creates lots of color changes in the water that will stack both bait and game fish, so I will stick with my theory that wind is our friend. Here in Rockport we are fortunate to have lots of boat launches in all the area bays. We also have a lot of water that can be protected in just about any wind. Many times I wait until the morning of the trip to decide which boat launch I will use. Being able to fish in conditions that guides in other systems cannot even think about fishing in is a luxury. The more days we can spend on the water in a variety of conditions the better anglers we will become.

I have a number of “clear water” baits at the top of my go-to list this time of year. Despite the winds, the abundance of bottom grasses in our area bays contributes to the water holding decent clarity a surprising number of days. It’s another luxury we have that allows for more opportunities on the water.

I had tremendous success last spring with the MirrOlure Lil John XL and 5-inch MirrOlure Provoker in the Opening Night color when fishing heavily grassed flats. Both trout and reds were eager to take the lure when some of my other favorites were turned down time and time again.

A few years back we had an abundance of needlefish and even some ballyhoo in our bays. On a hunch, I began dipping my Opening Night baits in chartreuse dye to create a clear chartreuse lure. Not sure what it was but the trout and the reds in our back lakes could not resist them.

I also throw a ton of the Texas Customs Double D baits this time of year. I simply love their suspending and floating characteristics and have great success with them when I find large pods of baitfish, and also when I see lines of bait strung out along a shoreline. They are also very effective in areas of scattered shell where bait is stacked along a line where the shell meets with larger areas of sand bottom. The ability of the lure to be worked at multiple depths and with multiple actions is a real plus to anglers.

Closing thoughts on the new trout regulations: How could keeping fewer ever equate to having fewer? Keep what you need for a meal and release the rest.

May your fishing always be catching! -Guide, Jay Watkins