Big-trout dance — How to catch more specks fishing with croakers

This captain swears croakers just catch bigger trout. Here’s how to fish these awesome baitfish.

When Capt. Joey Garriga stopped his 24-foot Triton bay boat in the middle of nowhere in the Gulf of Mexico, it begged a question.

“Uh, Captain, you do know we’re working on a trout story right?”

Garriga, of Poggey’s Boat Charters, simply laughed and went about the business of dropping anchor and setting up for action as sun broke on the horizon. We were only a few miles south of Pass Christian Harbor.

The captain set out lines: croakers on Carolina Rigs and croakers on popping corks. He had four lines out in short order with lively croakers doing the big trout dance at varying depths.

“Basically we use a Carolina Rig anywhere from 2 feet of water down to 18 feet of water,” Garriga said. “It’s just what the trout want that day, sometimes they want the bait on top under a cork and sometimes they want the bait on the bottom.”

I asked him why we stopped in open water and didn’t head to the marsh.

When you fish for specks with croakers, hold on tight because redfish love them, too. Paula Welch caught this bull red on a croaker in the Biloxi Marsh.

“I’ve got places out here in the middle of nowhere,” Garriga said. “You’ve got one little shell island that goes from 8 feet to 6 feet. It might not be but 2 feet of difference, but it makes all the difference in the world, just the structure. It’s not bass structure but it’s some kind of contour change.

“Anybody can do it; you go out there and zoom your depth finder in and find where the bottom goes from 8 feet to 6 feet, or 8 feet to 4 feet. You might have a 100-yard spot or a 50-yard spot in the area that just pops up.”

Garriga said he had smoked the trout at this obscure location in days past but not on this day. We hung around for 20 minutes with no takers, gathered up the lines and anchor and headed further south toward the Biloxi Marsh on the west end of the Mississippi Sound.

The Biloxi Marsh, which is actually in Louisiana waters, is due south of Pass Christian and features a series of marsh islands, bays and bayous that lay between Lake Borgne and Chandeleur Sound.

Garriga focuses mostly on the eastern edge with keys being his major focus. He defined a key as a build-up of shells, such as a finger, island or lump made up of shells.

“I like to fish shells,” Garriga said. “Flatboat and Cabbage reef are shell keys. I like to fish rock ledges and shells, anywhere the key is built up. Especially if you can find some tide flow going around it or over it.

Capt. Joey Garriga prefers croakers in the 3 to 4-inch range.

“If you’re in a slack tide find somewhere with a pinch point, two points that are close together that make the water push through twice as fast. You get more tidal movement at a pinch point even though it’s a slack tide.”

We set up down current from one the aforementioned pinch points and put out the lines. When fishing with croakers Garriga prefers to anchor up current instead of down current like he would when fishing artificials. We weren’t able to do that at this particular spot due to the geography of the area.

“Set up above it (the key, point or cut) or to the side where the tide is going away from it,” Garriga said. “You don’t want to set up with the tide coming to you because it’ll keep your line slack and roll your sinker to you.

“Set up where the tide is carrying your bait away from you or swinging from side-to-side. That way you can cover more ground. If you’re not catching fish here (where your cast lands) it just kind of rolls along the bottom, it’s almost like plugging. Once you get a hit there you start keying in on that spot. Instead of throwing up current you throw with the current or let it go sideways. That’s not always possible, you got to get where you can get.”

Gale Fullilove caught this nice 5-pound trout on a croaker while fishing with Capt. Paul Leoni of Southern Comfort Charters, a partner boat with Capt. Joey Garriga’s Poggey’s Boat Charters at Pass Christian Harbor.

We caught a few keeper trout on both a cork and a Carolina rig, but the size wasn’t what Garriga wanted, so we hauled the anchor and headed south to another one of his obscure out-of-the way spots.

Like our first stop, Garriga dropped the trolling motor, headed the Triton into the wind and dropped the anchor, pausing only to make sure it grabbed the bottom. He rigged a lively croaker on a Carolina Rig, handed me the rod and told me to cast over there, waving his finger in an easterly direction.

Capt. Joey Garriga firmly believes big trout like big baits, like a croaker, which is his favorite.

I lobbed my Carolina-rigged croaker in the general direction he had pointed and before the 3-inch morsel of deliciousness hit bottom a trout almost jerked the rod out of my hand.

Garriga’s cast landed a few feet south of the ripples my cast had made and he, too, was hooked up before the weight hit bottom.

The action continued like this for several minutes. Trout from 1 to 3 pounds were smashing our croakers as soon as the croaker neared the bottom. If the egg sinker hit bottom and rolled 6-feet in the current without a trout smashing the croaker we’d reel him in and toss him back out.

When the bite slowed I took a moment to shake off the disbelief of the melee that had just taken place and started asking questions.

The setup we used, popping corks and Carolina rigs, is the same setup used for fishing with shrimp. Why use croakers?

“I feel you catch bigger trout on croakers,” Garriga said. “When they’re eating croakers good it’s nonstop action.”

When we first arrived the trout were slamming the croakers. Even a croaker neophyte such as myself didn’t have any problems hooking up. As the bite slowed, a little more finesse was required to ensure a hook up.

“Be patient, when you first feel a bite, she is just going to hit it once or twice,” Garriga said. “It’s always different. Sometimes they’re finicky; sometimes they’ll mouth it for a long time and just swim away with it slowly. Other times they’ll hit it once or twice and take it fast.

Expect to catch larger trout when fishing with croakers. These four nice specks fell to a Carolina-rigged croaker.

“I wait until they bow the pole. They’ll thump it two or three times and they’ll usually just take the pole down. When they take the pole down, try to jerk his teeth out.”

After I had a few swings and misses he suggested I put my pole in the rod holder and not touch it until the rod bowed over. He said he makes his less experienced clients do that.

Ouch.

Using a popping cork is easier. The captain said that under a popping cork trout just slam the croaker, typically taking the cork down and then you set the hook.

The technique of the day was Carolina-rigging a croaker, but he has another trick up his sleeve when neither it nor the corks are getting the job done.

“I also free line croakers with just a small split shot,” Garriga said. “Sometimes I have fished both corks and a Carolina rig and not caught a fish, put one on a free line with just a little BB shot and start catching fish in the same place our other baits were. The fish tell you what they want.”

Garriga hooks his croakers one of three ways.

Trout typically swallow a croaker head first and will not let go, even after being caught.

“Sometimes I hook them through the lips, sometimes through the tail. Again, it’s whatever the trout want. Sometimes if they’re finicky changing it from the tail to the lips can make a difference. When free lining I like to go through the eyes or the lips.”

We ended the morning with a box full of fat trout, all caught on croakers. I do love that thump you feel when fishing with soft plastics on a jig head but when you can feel that croaker on the end of your line getting nervous and then the SLAM! of a fat trout inhaling him — well, that’s just a whole lot of fun, too.

When we parted ways I thanked Capt. Garriga for the great trip and expressed my amazement at how he finds fish in what appears to be an open-water no-man’s land.

“Fishing is easy, parking the boat in the right spot is the hard part,” he said with a grin.

For trophy specks, croakers!

When Capt. Joey Garriga goes trophy speckled trout fishing, that means he’s geared up for fishing with live croakers.

“Big trout like croakers,” said Garriga, of Poggey’s Boat Charters in Pass Christian.

Live croaker are a killer bait for fishermen targeting trophy speckled trout.
Live croaker are a killer bait for fishermen targeting trophy speckled trout.

With that in mind, gearing up for big fish is important. Here’s Garriga’s checklist for croaker fishing:

  • Hardware: 1/2- to 3/4-ounce egg sinkers and barrel swivels
  • Hooks: 3/0 or 4/0 Kahle
  • Corks: Boat Monkey popping cork
  • Leader: 20-pound monofilament or fluorocarbon leader
  • Main line: 30-pound braid
  • Reel: Lew’s 300 or 400 spinning reel
  • Rod: 7-foot, medium-action Speedeaux Custom Spinning Rod
  • Bait: 3- to 4-inch croakers

Garriga said a Carolina rig is his preferred tool.

“I like about 18 to 24 inches of mono leader, which is usually 15- to 30-pound test,” Garriga said. “I use 30-pound braid on my larger reels and 20-pound on my smaller reels. I use a barrel swivel and a 3/0 or 4/0 Kahle hook, according to the size of the croakers.”

Garriga suggested using a quality leader such as Seaguar Senshi and being certain that the leader has a lesser pound test rating than your main line. Following this simple rule will you allow to break off the short leader and hook if you get snagged or a bull red grabs your croaker and heads south. “

Boat Monkey corks, an egg sinker, barrel swivel and a Kahle hook are all you need to start catching trout on croakers.
Boat Monkey corks, an egg sinker, barrel swivel and a Kahle hook are all you need to start catching trout on croakers.

He said when he’s forced to go to fishing a cork, he has a reason to grab a Boat Monkey model. Spinning gear on a long, medium-action rods are his choice.

“The Boat Monkey cork has heavy gauge wire on it,” Garriga explained. “It doesn’t bend, and it throws well. I like to use the bigger cork when it’s a little rougher conditions, it makes a little more noise. On calm days I use the smaller one, the cigar type.”

The washer between the cork and weight on a Boat Monkey keeps the weight from damaging the bottom of cork, and it adds extra sound.

“You want to have that clicking,” he said. “It sounds like shrimp popping. A popping cork sounds like bait hitting the top of the water and fish hitting the bait.”

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