Seasoned anglers know big speckled trout eat big baitfish, and there’s no better way to catch them than throwing a big mullet-looking bait during the winter.

In fact, their dietary habits change from eating shrimp and small baitfish to almost exclusively larger baitfish when they reach 20- to 22-inches. This shift in behavior immediately makes them more elusive as they go from eating 20 to 30 small shrimp a day to one or two 8-inch mullet.

Trout eat numerous kinds of baitfish. After all, they are opportunists, but the kind that offers them the most opportunity and is their preferred prey in virtually all ecosystems on the Gulf and Atlantic coasts is the lowly mullet.

“Mullet is an extremely important part of a large trout’s diet and is a very important link in the coastal food chain,” said Texas Parks & Wildlife Department biologist Jerry Mambretti.

Anglers who want to take up the pursuit of truly big trout should focus their efforts on fishing faux mullet around concentrations of mullet.

“It’s all about being able to present a good representation of a wounded mullet, and it doesn’t matter if it is winter, spring or summer. Big trout feed on mullet and smart anglers mimic them,” said guide Capt. Eddie Hernandez.

Hernandez said that during winter, anglers can score on big trout by fishing slow-sinking mullet imitations around mud flats adjacent to ship channels or the Intracoastal Canal.

“The trout go deep in winter but on warm afternoons, especially when you have a high tide, they move onto shallow mud flats. The black mud retains some heat and the water warms up a few degrees. That brings in baitfish, which in turns brings in big trout,” Hernandez said.

A Badonk-A-Donk SS fished on braided line and rigged with a fluorocarbon leader is a killer rig for these winter trout. The metabolism of the predator slows down to a crawl during this period, and this lure, which sinks at a very slow pace, looks just like an easy-to-catch wounded mullet. The braided line is important because it transmits the usually soft bite of these winter trout better than monofilament. A 10-pounder in winter will hit softer than a 2-pounder in fall. The angler often only feels a “tick” on the line, or the lure simply stops. Braid, however, stands out in clear water, and the water clears up a lot in winter. Adding a fluorocarbon leader helps to avoid spooking the trout, as the big specimens tend to get line shy.

For an area to be productive, it doesn’t have to be absolutely covered in baitfish. The presence of a few warrants fishing the spot and in fact, the best catches are often around small schools.

In the ship channels things can be different. Large rafts of mullet congregate along current lines leading from the Gulf into bays. They are often positioned between the shoreline and drop off, and this offers maximum opportunity to find big trout.

Drifting with the current and throwing a mullet-imitating topwater among the real thing allows you to cover water and find concentrations of trout. The most popular method is to use walking plugs like a Super Spook or Walkie Talkie Low Pitch and “walk-the-dog”. This involves using the rod tip to lightly retrieve the plug while moving it aggressively side to side. Some anglers will use a modified version of this to cover more water quickly where they make a twitch here and there, and reel it in quickly.

Chugging or splashing plugs like the A-Salt Pop-N Minnow are as the name implies, lures that chug along the water. You simply twitch the rod in a downward motion and they make a loud splash or chugging sound. Throw the lure, pop it twice, let it sit for five seconds, reel it in a few feet, pop again and repeat the process until you get it back to the boat. Most of the time the trout will hit during the five-second gap between pops, and tend to love this method when they are reluctant to hit a walking plug.

When you catch a fish or get a blow-up on a topwater, throw out a marker buoy and work the area over heavily. Winter trout typically hang together, and even if the blowups do not translate to a hookup, you can still score on fish. Trout willing to strike at the surface are usually willing to hit something below the surface.

Switching over to a six-inch Mud Minnow Paddle Tail or Badonk-A Donk SS can help you connect with these more-skittish fish. Again, braided line is an advantage due to the sensitivity of the strike, and keep in mind the possible need for fluorocarbon leader if the water is very clear.

Some of the best bites are going to be around eddies in the channel. Look for concentrations of mullet and trout around shorelines and island points where slack water gives the mullet a natural gathering place.

As winter segues into spring, mullet are still crucially important and will never leave the radar of big trout. The reports you hear of specks under the birds and hitting shrimp have little to do with trophy trout fishing. The search for giants is all about finding the mullet and being able to imitate them well.