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The Annual Migration of To Popular Species Provides Fun for All and Plenty of Tasty Fillets...
For anglers here in south Mississippi we are blessed with a wide variety of saltwater offshore, near shore, and inshore species to seek throughout the entire year. That's right, no matter what time of the season, an angler willing to wet a hook has a good chance of doing battle with some sort of hard fighting fish. You name it, speckled trout, redfish, flounder, sheepshead, black drum, cobia, snapper, grouper amberjack, pompano, Spanish mackerel, king mackerel, jack crevalles, and a variety of sharks are all popular pursued species.
However, usually starting around mid March and generally running into November there are two species that take the spotlight without all the hoopla of the other more noted species like speckled trout and redfish. Now you might not see nearly as many articles or pictures regarding these two species, but I'll assure you anglers in south Mississippi will be out in mass with hopes of loading up these tasty fish.
The two species being referred to are the sand sea trout and southern kingfish, both bottom dwelling species, and some of the finest frying fish on the planet. In our region the sand sea trout is commonly called a "white trout", while the southern kingfish if generally dubbed a "ground mullet". For the most part when these two species begin to invade the Mississippi Sound the ground mullet numbers will rank the highest in March, and by April the white trout numbers will be incredible.
When these two species work their way back into the Mississippi Sound after having wintered over in the warmer and deeper waters of the Gulf of Mexico, an incredible fishing bonanza explodes that creates magnificent fishing opportunities for anglers with boats of all sizes. Yes, even the anglers in 14-foot skiffs are suddenly given the opportunity to load up their ice chest with some of the finest fish fillets know to the palate. Catches of 100 or more fish a morning are a common occurrence, and it's not rare to boat 200 to 300 of these early season visitors.
Hundreds of fish you say? Yes, and it's perfectly legal because there isn't a size or number limit on either species. How can that be you say with the tight restrictions on most species in this day and age? Well, both of these species are quite prolific, and spawn on a regular basis throughout the summer months. Of course that doesn't mean one should catch more than they need, especially if there is any chance the fish could go to waste.
Once the invasion begins, and the word gets out look for masses of boats anchored up over coastal oyster reefs, rubble piles, wrecks, and various other under water structure. When the bite is hot it's not uncommon to look all around and see anglers pulling in these small, yet beautiful fish one after another. Not only that, but also many anglers opts to use double or triple hook rigs, and haul in two or three fish at a time.
On light tackle these fish are a blast to catch, and make the ideal target species for young children too. That's right, constant bites on practically every cast are a sure way to keep youngsters occupied, and a great way to hone their hook setting and fish fighting skills. There are many sites that attract and hold these two species, and there are a few locations that generally produce all summer long.
For example, the Keesler Reef located in the Mississippi Sound south of the east end of Deer Island is a hot early season site. This is a large man-made reef made up of crushed rubble scattered about the area, thicker in some spots than others, and is encrusted in all sorts of bottom dwelling sea life. By cruising around the area (it's marked by two pilings), and keeping a sharp eye on the bottom recorder it's possible to locate some of the more concentrated bottom structure.
Once a good lump is found, then anchor up current so you'll be fishing back near, but not right on the crushed rocks. Oh, at time you'll lose some rigs fishing such an area, but the rewards are high when the bite is hot. Another prime site is the legendary White House Reef located a mile or so west of the Keesler Reef south of U.S. Highway 90 off Biloxi's front beach. This site will usually be marked by a couple of white PVC pipes, and this famous old oyster reef encompasses a large area.
Generally, if the bite has been consistent, by the time you get close to any of these sites you'll see boats anchored about the area. Another oyster reef that's give up thousands of these fish each year is the Bellefontaine Reef located approximately a mile or so in the Mississippi Sound off Ocean Springs Bellefontaine Point. Water depth on the middle of the reef is around 5-feet, and drops off to around 7-feet around its perimeter.
Most of the time anglers will keep the reef marked with a PVC pipe or cane pole, but it's not an area that stays heavily marked. Again if you venture to this reef look for boats anchored on the site. Matter a fact, on calm days we've been able to locate the reef by spotting "fish slicks" popping up to the surface. You see, when large concentrations of white trout are feasting around the reef they often regurgitate their stomach contents, and their oily stomach contents will rise to the surface. The Bellefontaine Reef attracts hordes of white trout and ground mullet, but it's also noted for holding some really big speckled trout too.
Since this site is loaded with small reef fish like grunts and croakers it's wise to take a few, especially the croakers, and fish them over the reef. A few hefty specks added to the creel are always a much welcomed bonus catch. One of my favorite live bait rigs is 4 to 5-feet of 30-pound-test Seaguar Fluorocarbon leader fished under an Old Bayside X-Treme Popping Cork, and sporting a size 4 4XStrong Gamakatsu Treble Hook.
Hook the treble hook through the tip of the croakers nose, and toss two rigs behind the boat at staggered distances. Set the reels on free spool and clicker mode, place in a rod holder, and just let them be. Any passing specks will find the croakers hard to resist, and generally by the time the clicker sings out the speck have swallowed the croaker headfirst.
A new fishing reef, post Hurricane Katrina is the "Hurricane Katrina Reef". Located south of the east end of Deer Island, this massive reef protrudes 4 to 6-feet above the Mississippi Sounds surface, and is nearly a mile in length. Running east to west in 8 to 10-feet of water, all sorts of fish have taken residence around this massive open water jetty.
During the summer months all sorts of fish, you name it, speckled trout, redfish Spanish mackerel, jack crevalles, black drum, sheepshead, tripletail, numerous shark species, bluefish, loads of baitfish, and of course white trout and ground mullet dwell around this huge man-made fish haven. At times fish can be taken anywhere along the haystack of large concrete pilings, but the majority of white trout and ground mullet are caught off either the east or west ends. By the way, this fishing reef is the remnants of the U.S. Highway 90 Ocean Springs/Biloxi Bridge, now replaced by a magnificent new state of the art bridge.
Back a bit closer to the shoreline is the Gulf Park Estates Reef. West of the Gulf Park Estates Fishing Pier in Ocean Springs, MS, this oyster clad reef is marked by a white PVC pipe, and water depth is rather shallow, say 5 to 6-feet. This reef too can be quite productive, and specks will take up residence over the shell bottom.
As summer progresses good numbers of these two species will work their way into coastal bays and their connecting rivers and bayous all along Mississippi coastline. Now, late summer and early fall fishing in areas like the Back Bay of Biloxi, Graveline Bayou, Bay St. Louis, Pearl River, and the Pascagoula River will deliver fine late season action.
Both white trout and ground mullet will eagerly eat fresh dead shrimp, squid, and cut bait from the fillet of a croaker. Although shrimp is excellent, small reef fish like croakers, grunts, and pinfish love it too, and can quickly pick the soft shrimp off the hook. Thus, tougher baits like squid and cut bait last longer on the hook under such conditions. At times, the bite on white trout can get so intense that by switching to soft-plastic baits threaded on a quarter-ounce jig head fish can be caught one after the other without having to bait up on each cast.
Rigging for these bottom feeders is simple, and any common bottom rig will suffice. For example, an everyday Carolina-rig will work effectively. To rig, slip a quarter-ounce egg or bullet sinker on the main line, and then tie on a small SPRO barrel swivel. Next, tie on an 8 to 12-inch length of 30-pound-test Seaguar fluorocarbon leader material, and finish off the leader's tag end with a 1/0 or 2/0 Gamakatsu Octopus Hook. Remember, you don't want the bait far off the bottom, so keep the leader rather short. Also, since ground mullet have a very small mouth, a small hook is required for a better hook up ratio.
As for tackle, any 12-pound-test spinning or bait casting gear will suffice, but by scaling down to 6 to 8-pound-test gear you'll enjoy catching these small, yet scrappy fish even more. When fishing these outer reefs for white trout and ground mullet in the Mississippi Sound expect to encounter plenty of croakers, gafftopsail catfish, sea catfish a.k.a. "hardheads", stingrays, and a variety of small sharks. Thus, a large selection of hooks and weights should be kept available.
For the best time to pursue these two species be sure to check Harold Wells Gulf Coast Fisherman tide tables for a strong tidal flow. Tidal ranges close to 2.0 and higher generally trigger a good bite. Once the tide starts to either fall or rise at a good rate, expect bait on the bottom to get churned up, and the bottom feeders to partake in a feeding frenzy.
When preparing these fish simply scale them, fillet, and then cut out the belly bones. Leave the skin on, it's mild, and helps hold the flesh together especially on the softer flesh of the white trout. Now roll them in a coating of yellow mustard, toss into some Zatarain's Seasoned Fish-Fri, and then into a skillet of hot grease. It won't take long for these small fillets to turn golden brown, and these fish McNuggets are to die for.
Bottom line, for those of us that partake in the catching of these fish, well, we'll be provided with plenty of nonstop action for most of the year, and we'll eat good too. So don't be left out of the action, just look for the congestion of boats, and take your share of these inshore invaders too. Good fishing!