Florida's favorite saltwater fish can be found just about anywhere in the state, but some areas offer even better options for catching a few. Here are several hotspots you should try this year! (May 2006)
One could debate which of Florida's saltwater game fish is the most glamorous quarry to pursue. And, if you choose to do so, bring your lunch. Devotees of tarpon, snook, permit, bonefish, wahoo, billfish, cobia, and even redfish, can be quite passionate -- as well as long-winded -- in their views. But when it comes down to which species is the most popular and widely available, the discussion is brief.
There's no doubt that in terms of angler-hours, the spotted seatrout is the Sunshine State's most sought-after saltwater fish. Not only is it readily available from the Keys to the westernmost reaches of the Panhandle, and along the entire east coast, but there's no season of the year when they are not biting.
Heat of the summer, dead of winter -- it makes no difference. If you know where to look and stay at it, you can find at least some seatrout that will eat.
Expert trout anglers, however, know there's one time of year when the looking is less and the biting is more. And that time is right now.
If there is a peak trout season in Florida -- both for numbers of fish and trophy class fish -- it's the period from mid-April through mid-June. During this time, trout have moved from their winter haunts and are getting down to the serious business of eating anything they can catch. Whether your goal is an 8-pound-plus trophy for the wall, or a limit of school trout for the table, there's no better time of the year to collect them.
Just how you do that is wide open. This is not a season where specific techniques are the order of the day. In fact, angler options are varied, and depending upon whether you are seeking a trophy or a fish dinner, several options can prove effective.
If you're looking for an 8-pound fish, don't venture out without a topwater plug tied onto at least one rod. Big trout are geared to ambush from below, and topwater plugs have a legendary ability to entice them. The current world record of 17.7 pounds was taken on a walking plug in May on the east coast of Florida.
At the same time, don't neglect a floater/diver minnow lure like the Bomber Long A, Rapala, or Storm ThunderStick. Some anglers feel that when twitched quickly, just below the surface, they are deadlier on big fish -- and especially during those frustrating periods when trout just blow up behind a surface bait. Shift to a jerkbait, and a lot of those boilers become biters. These lures also catch more than their share of school trout, and often pull the larger fish from that school.
Though some big trout have fallen for soft plastic grubs on a leadhead jig and similar lures (like the D.O.A. Shrimp), these are normally a better bet to collect your limit of eating-sized fish.
These baits don't always have to be bounced along the bottom, either. Anglers on the shallow grassflats of the Gulf Coast find them deadly when fished under a rattling cork on a 2-foot leader. Not only does the cork draw trout, but it keeps the jig out of the grass.
Lastly, a countdown, vibrating plug such as a chrome Rat-L-Trap can sometimes be a trip-saver. Trout tend to bunch at this time of year, and when it comes to covering the water quickly to find that group, few lures perform as well.
Armed with an effective array of lures, here are some top spots to toss them this time of year.
SANTA ROSA SOUND
Pensacola-area anglers have a wealth of water to choose from, but many local experts rate Santa Rosa Sound as the best bet. Just why that is so can be summed up in one word -- grass.
Submerged grassbeds are premier trout cover, providing both cleaner water and a variety of forage. Unlike many other area waters, the sound has a wealth of submerged grass. Called "eelgrass" or "snake grass" locally, it is a distinctly bladed grass that seldom grows more than a foot or so off the bottom. Large beds of it grow shallow almost to the shoreline, and extend as far as 40 or 50 yards offshore until they hit the first significant drop to deeper water. Although grass is subject to seasonal fluctuations, you can normally find good grassbeds along the length of both sides of Santa Rosa Sound. That's a lot of grass, and as to how to fish it, the determining factor depends largely on light levels.
Early and late in the day, or throughout the day under heavy overcast conditions, savvy anglers start on the shallow side if they are looking for larger trout. Bigger trout move shallower under these conditions than the smaller school fish, and may be as shallow as 2 or 3 feet. Those trout are there to eat; and aggressive topwater plugs, shallow jerkbaits, and lightly weighted swimming grubs can be deadly.
Under bright conditions, the larger trout normally move to the deepest outside edge of the grass and can be difficult to locate. That's when school trout can be the best bet. They don't seem to make as radical a depth change in response to light levels as do the bigger fish. Generally they range along the outer portions of the grass with 4 to 6 feet being the most consistent depth to find them. Hard plastic jerkbaits can cover a lot of water to find a school. But once they locate fish, many anglers prefer a lead-head jig under a rattling cork. Top jig colors include chartreuse with flake, a combo of red and chartreuse, or clear with flake, if a lot of glass minnows are visible.
The key to Santa Rosa Sound trout fishing is to find good clean grass, the clearest water, and then figure out what portion of the grass the trout are using.
Moving east along the Panhandle, Apalachicola Bay is another hotspot, and grass is still a key. But to find it, you may have to look a bit harder.
This bay doesn't have an abundance of submerged grass. In many areas, strong current flow prevents its growth, leaving sandy bottom and oyster beds instead. Oyster edges can be productive cover up until late May, especially on a rising tide early or late in the day. Baitfish hug the shallowest edge of the oyster bar they can, and the early portion of the flood tide can create excellent ambush situations on oyster edges.
Grass is still a preferred cover, however, and anglers can normally find good beds between East Point and Carrabelle. Another reliable area is along the inside edge of St. George Island, especially in the areas of Marsh Island, Pelican Reef, Goose Island, Horseshoe Cove and Cedar Point.
Once you locate grass, find the areas of it that are the most productive, normally centering around depth ch
anges. The bay doesn't have a lot of sharp drops and break lines. It's generally shallow, with a rather gentle gradient. Trout do prefer "drops," and in this area, even a one-foot drop can be a draw for them. Any area that has a more pronounced change of depth in the vicinity can become a focal point for trout.
As with trout in virtually any area of the state, dim light gets the larger fish moving to areas of shallower grass, while bright light moves them to the outer edges of the grass, on whatever drops exist. The smaller school trout tend to linger over the deeper sections of the grass.
Under normal conditions, grass located in areas with the better drops is the most productive. However, if a strong wind has stirred up the water, anglers are advised to search for any grass in the cleanest water available. Trout abhor dirty water and will leave even their favorite grass to avoid it. But they'll still seek grass if they can find any with clean water.
Aggressive topwater plugs, hard plastic jerkbaits, or a lead-head jig under a cork are top bets. In this area, however, many anglers find a jig body in a combination of red and yellow to produce most consistently.
Moving south along the Gulf Coast, there are many fine spots for trout. One particular favorite is Anclote Key near Tarpon Springs. It's not only a great spot for both numbers and size, but it's not a tough place to fish.
The entire bay between Anclote Key and the Florida Power and Light Company's Anclote Power Plant is one big grassflat, broken by the 10-foot depths of the Intracoastal Waterway. The flat is also laced with troughs and sand holes. At the mouth of the Anclote River are a number of small spoil islands with rock, oyster and grass.
Where the savvy anglers start their search depends almost totally on the tide stage. Rising water moves trout to shoreline edges or up onto the shallow flats, while the dead low tide concentrates them into troughs and sand holes. The movement of the trout between these locations is not hard to figure.
If, for example, you are greeted with a low tide, the troughs on the bay side of Anclote Key are top spots to be. Good troughs also exist on the north side of Dutchman Key, and some excellent low-tide holes are scattered between the two isles.
As the tide rises and falls, trout seldom make lengthy migrations from the grassflats to deeper water. They just come off the grass and drop into a trough. Many local experts actually favor the lower tide stages because this concentrates the fish.
On rising water, the trout gradually filter out of the troughs and onto the shallow grassflats, where schools can be more scattered and tougher to find. This is when many local experts either drift the flats with the wind -- ready to throw a marker buoy on the first trout caught so they can stay in the area -- or work the windward side of the river mouth spoil islands.
Topwater plugs can be highly effective under dim light, but a number of anglers discover that lightly-weighted swimming grubs in the 4- to 5-inch range are deadly on bigger trout. Regardless of what you throw, this is a convenient area to fish and you seldom need to travel more than 4 miles from the Anclote ramp to get into solid action this time of year.
Slipping over to the east coast, we come to the area around Mosquito Lagoon. Getting there is simple -- put in at the Apollo Beach Ramp and head south. But if you're looking for an untapped area for big trout, head north to the ICW on the south side of New Smyrna Beach.
Unlike the lagoon, this area is a narrow channel lined with mangroves, and bisected by numerous mosquito impoundment channels, tidal creeks and shallow back bays. It doesn't take a great deal of imagination to fish. You just follow the tide and the channels.
The center of the fishing action is the main ICW channel. Everything starts and ends here, and the basic pattern is simple. From a dead low tide, rising water moves some fish -- often the larger trout -- to the mangrove edges under dim light. Other fish follow the finger channels into the back bays and cuts. As the tide falls, they move back to the main ICW channel.
During early summer, the ideal situation is to have a high tide at sunrise. Stay in the ICW, check the mangrove shorelines, and watch for bait and feeding fish. Topwater lures fished tight to the trees can be deadly. Once the sun tops the tree line and the tide continues to drop, savvy anglers will start probing the down-current side of intersecting creeks and cuts. The falling tide brings food, and the trout take advantage of it.
As the tide bottoms out, concentrate on the 5- to 8-foot drop out from the shoreline, where the shallow flat meets the ICW. Don't worry about the time of day. On one June trip with local guide Scott Tripp, 5- and 7-pound trout came aboard from an 8-foot drop between noon and 2:00 p.m.
Keep in mind that water clarity can change, so find the clearest water in any given area. Also keep some gaudy jerkbaits with you. Both of those big trout mentioned earlier will hit a hard plastic jerkbait with a fluorescent blue back, chrome sides, and fluorescent orange belly. Matching the hatch is not always the best way to go. Give them something they can see in stained water and they will eat it.
It's no secret that northeast Florida is one of the top trout spots in the state. Other areas may be better for numbers, but few produce as many 7-to 9-pound trout as does the First Coast. In this region, one of the most overlooked spots is the maze of hard-running tidal creeks in the Fernandina area. It's characterized by tides that routinely move 4 1/2 to 5 1/2 feet of water in a stage, oyster-lined banks, and extensive areas of shoreline Spartina grass
There are four keys to finding big trout here. First, find the cleanest water, then look for visible baitfish. If you find both of those in a spot that offers the trout a quick access to deep water, you are getting close. Finally, commit to memory every spot where you contacted good trout and exactly on what stage of the tide it happened.
Unlike the placid waters of the west coast, these move fast and change depth quickly. The trout move with equal speed. You may get into a spot where it's a trout per cast, but don't count on it lasting more than an hour or so. But somewhere above or below there, those trout will be doing the same thing at another prime spot.
Some of the traditionally productive areas are around the mouth of Sawpit Creek, the Shave Bridge, and the areas around the mouths of Tiger Basin and Egans Creek.
On rising water, fish as tight as you can to the grass and oyster bars. this time of year, topwater plugs can be deadly all day. As the water drops, tossing hard plastic jerkbaits over drops can be very effective and can rival surface baits for big fish. On a dead-low tide, sinking plugs or 4- to 5-inch plastic jigs will take trout holding in deeper water off of hard drops.
Regardless of where or how you fish, if trout are high on your list, you don't want to miss this month.