Sunshine State Seatrout Prospects

Sunshine State Seatrout Prospects

Speckled trout continue to be Florida's favorite saltwater game fish. So let's see how the fish are doing and where the best places are to catch a few this year.

Big seatrout now turn up in many locations in the Sunshine State and can be taken on a variety of fishing gear.
Photo by Capt. Rodney Smith

Catching a 'gator trout on a topwater plug had been a dream of mine since I caught my first big seatrout from the Clearwater Beach Big Pier 60 in the late 1960s. That 7-pound speckled trout had inhaled a live threadfin herring free-lined under the pier's lights.

Snook were the fish I was after, and at first that was what I thought nailed the bait. Then that fat seatrout came to the surface, thrashing its body hard and shaking its head with a wide-opened yellow mouth. At first I was disappointed. But after an old-timer fishing nearby helped me net the fish, that changed.

"She's the biggest trout I've seen caught off this pier for years!" he noted as I began to appreciate the catch.

In 1980 my wife and I moved to south Merritt Island, where we lived on 5 acres of thick jungle wedged between the Banana River Lagoon to the east and the Indian River Lagoon on the west. It did not take long to understand why this area had earned the reputation for being the world capital for spotted seatrout. Trout were abundant beyond belief. On any given day, there was no problem in walking out the door and returning within 30 minutes with a decent trout for dinner.

The Indian River Lagoon system had a perfect habitat for these prolific game fish. Miles of ankle- to waist-deep flats covered with lush seagrass with a scattering of sandy patches dominated the area.

Nearly year 'round, a small plastic jig or a Mirrolure rigged to a light spinning rod were deadly for these fish. But during the late spring and early summer, endless schools of mullet frequented the area, and we changed our tactics to a free-lined finger mullet or a noisy topwater plug.

As the 1980s rolled on, Florida's spotted seatrout fishery took a severe beating from several fronts. Commercial netting took a heavy toll, and recreational angling regulations were unrealistic: 50 fish per day, per angler with a 12-inch minimum size limit. Water quality was declining from rampant development along the shore. All of these things negatively impacted much of the state's most popular saltwater fishery.

Today, new rules on commercial and recreational fishing have solved some of the problems, and the fishery has rebounded.

SPOTTED SEATROUT

If you have ever caught a 1- to 3-pound seatrout (about the average size of these fish) on medium tackle, you probably realized that they are not the toughest fighters in salt water. You might even wonder why seatrout are the No. 1 targeted saltwater fish in the state that claims the title of "World's Sportfishing Capital."

Well, there are a couple of reasons. Spotted seatrout are easy to catch from shore, a boat, docks, bridges or piers. They can be caught almost anywhere in Florida's coastal waters, including bays, lagoons, rivers and creeks. Speckled seatrout are decent tasting and are considered good table fare by a majority of anglers.

Places For Catching Trout

Our state offers an unusually wide range of great year-round fishing opportunities for these prolific fish. On one trip early one fall before the Gulf of Mexico's water temperatures had dropped below 70 degrees, I was fishing with Robin Simile of Tampa and Capt. Jerry Metz of Ft. Pierce. The three of us were fishing a Cotee Jigs tournament a mile or two outside of the mouth of the Suwannee River. While drifting over gin-clear grass flats in 3 to 5 feet of water, we caught and released well over 150 legal-sized seatrout, most of them between 1 and 4 pounds. The fish could not resist our root beer or chartreuse plastic tails on 1/4-ounce red-headed Cotee jigs.

As we drifted, most of the fish were taken from the deeper edges of the flats. Once we floated off the flat, we would motor back and start another drift. Such action is not uncommon along the Big Bend coast.

Another time, a group of us made a trip to Flamingo, the mainland's most southern point in the Everglades National Park, for a fly-fishing adventure in early March. We had set our sights high, and our targeted species were to be snook and tarpon.

By the time we arrived at our campsites, however, we had driven into a veritable arctic blast. The wind was howling from the northwest at nearly 30 miles per hour and the temperature was barely reaching 50 degrees. When we hit Whitewater Bay, it should have been called White Cap Bay.

We found our way into the lee of several mangrove islands while trying to fly-fish their calmer points. In these conditions, the snook and tarpon were nowhere to be found. However, the white and green streamers cast on 8- and 9-weight gear started attracting seatrout, some of which topped 20 inches. The trick was to stay back away from the area you wanted to fish and make a long cast. It was surprising how many nice trout we landed in that hideous wind. The seatrout saved an otherwise hopeless trip that first day on the water.

Unfortunately, the next day Whitewater Bay was the color of milk and the seatrout had lockjaw. If there is one thing I have learned about fishing for spotted seatrout over the years it is if they do not feed well in dirty water.

Another area for seatrout action is Tampa Bay, where I grew up targeting the species. In those days all one had to do to catch fish was pull off the side of a causeway and start wading along the miles of grass flats, using a rod and reel rigged with a live shrimp or a plastic shrimp on a jighead. It was as easy as that!

Florida Seatrout Regulations

The minimum size limit for the harvesting of spotted seatrout in Florida is 15 inches, measured from the tip of the nose to the tip of the tail. The maximum size limit is 20 inches, although anglers may keep one fish per day longer than 20 inches.

Anglers in the Northeast and Northwest regions of the state may take five trout per day. In the South Region, the daily limit is four trout per day, per angler. The South Region includes all waters south of the Rangler-Volusia County line on the Atlantic coast and waters south of the Fred Howard Park Causeway in Pinellas County on the Gulf Coast.

The dosed season for the harvest of seatrout in the N

ortheast Region or the Northwest Region is the month of February. In the South Region, trout may not be harvested during November and December.

All harvested seatrout must be landed ashore with heads and tails intact. Multiple hooks may not be used when fishing for seatrout with live or dead baits. Treble hooks can be used when fishing with artificial lures. A common-sense approach to fishing for seatrout when using lures rigged with treble hooks is to bend down their barbs. This will make for a quicker and safer catch and release.

 

Much has changed in the Tampa area in the past 30 years, but it's amazing how much good fishing is still accessible to the average angler. Capt. Mel Berman is a guide in that area and a voice to which other veteran anglers pay heed.

"Probably some of the more productive seatrout spots in the Tampa Bay are the rich flats in and around Fort Desoto Park and the Tierra Verde Causeway in Pinellas County," he noted. "You shouldn't overlook the deeper grasses along the Intracoastal Waterway and the adjacent spoil islands from Madeira Beach on up through Tarpon Springs."

Fort DeSoto County Park is located on Mullet Key at the very tip of the peninsula on the western side of Tampa Bay.

Other areas Capt. Berman mentioned are the vast flats fronting Tampa Bay's posh Westshore area and over on the west side of the bay all the way from Pinellas Point to Safety Harbor. Additionally, to the east of the now-restricted waters of Mac Dill Air Force Base, there are numerous grassy venues in Hillsborough Bay that hold trout. These stretch from downtown Tampa, past the Big Bend Power Plant at Apollo Beach, on down to Port Manatee.

"The approaches to the Sunshine Skyway Bridge are lined with lush grasses that also hold great schools of seatrout," Capt. Berman concluded.

A number of artificial lures work well for trout in the Tampa Bay region. Among them are soft-plastic shad or worm tails on light jigheads. Also, the new "swimming baits" are great producers, including the Tsunami Trout Mauler and the Paddletail Minnow. And your tackle box should include some small gold or silver spoons.

Though all of Florida's coastal areas offer excellent opportunities for catching trout, the waters of the Indian River Lagoon have produced more large spotted seatrout than any other place on this planet. Capt. Pat Murphy does a good bit of fishing for large trout in these waters.

"I prefer using topwater plugs for 'gator trout," Capt. Murphy stated, while noting he rarely catches them from the boat. "It's very difficult to pole or troll and catch large seatrout on the flats. To be more effective, you need to get out of your skiff and wade. Large seatrout are even more spooky than bonefish in my opinion."

The average natural depth of the water in Indian River Lagoon is 3 feet. Overall, the lagoon is very shallow, and the bigger fish tend to hang in or near the shallowest of these waters. This is where they can catch their food more easily. Big fish also often range through areas where schools of large mullet, pinfish, pigfish, yellowtail or needlefish are common. These are the favorite forage for large trout.

Capt. Henry Cross almost exclusively fishes the areas around Titusville for seatrout.

"I love using topwater plugs like a Chug Bug, nice and loud," Capt. Cross offered.

He believes the trout population is increasing, and during the fall of 2004 trout angling was outstanding. The seagrasses are thick in this area for miles. Both the east and west shorelines are productive, so you can start your fishing trips from whichever is most convenient to you.


"The approaches to the Sunshine Skyway Bridge are lined with lush grasses that also hold great schools of seatrout."
 

However, with the entire Indian River Lagoon complex covered with miles of grass flats, knowing where to fish can be difficult for first-time anglers in the area. The entire place looks like a spotted seatrout angler's mecca. Still, there are a few spots that stand out. Try starting out in the vicinity of Fort Pierce Inlet or Port Saint Lucie Inlet. Another region worth hitting is north and south of Sebastian Inlet. The Thousand Islands area on the Banana River Lagoon at Cocoa Beach, as well as the No Motor Zone at that lagoon's northern end, also produces trout. Finally, virtually anywhere you find grass or shell beds on Mosquito Lagoon offers good prospects.

By early June the dog days of summer are quickly setting in along Florida's east and west coasts. If you want to beat the heat and catch more trout, start your fishing well before the sun begins to rise. Either wade or drift in areas where the flats are carpeted by grass mixed with sandy areas. Especially concentrate on water with depths between 1 and 3 feet.

It is a good idea to have one rod rigged with a noisy topwater plug and at least one other rigged with a 1/4- ounce jig. While drifting or wading the area, keep casting to new spots, searching for schooling trout with each presentation. Keep a watchful eye out for fish chasing after baitfish, nervous schools of mullet, or terns and gulls diving and feeding. All these signs usually indicate the presence of feeding trout.

The tackle you use for this type of fishing is just as important as the fishing tactics you employ. Use small-diameter lines and try your best to keep your reel's spool completely filled with line. This should help you make longer casts, which improves your odds of reaching those spooky, larger seatrout.

It wasn't until the spring of 1980 that I finally nabbed my first 'gator trout on a topwater plug while wading near a Banana River Lagoon oyster bed. I was casting a 52M11 Mirrolure. When the monster struck, it sent a zillion finger mullet into a panic and peeled off 75 yards of my 8-pound-test line. To this day, that remains one of my fondest angling memories.

With the present quality of the Sunshine State's seatrout resources, this just might be the year that you, too, can create such a memory at one of the angling destinations mentioned here.

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