Florida's Favorite Saltwater Fish

Florida's Favorite Saltwater Fish

Regardless of where you live in the Sunshine State, there's good speckled trout fishing within a short drive. Here's a look at some of the top places to catch a few seatrout this year. (May 2007)

Photo by Lee Leschper

Spotted seatrout. Specks. Just plain old trout -- whatever the name, this member of the drum family is one of the top three species pursued by Florida anglers. In some sections of the state, they are No. 1. Speckled seatrout are both abundant and relatively easy to catch, especially during the spring and summer months.

To see just how this fishery is doing, we contacted Jessica McCawley, a Biological Scientist with the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWCC), Division of Marine Fisheries Management. She is the analyst for all finfish species managed by the state. Her current seatrout analysis projects a sort of double-edged sword.

McCawley indicated that over the past several years, the Spawning Potential Ratio (SPR) for seatrout has remained stable. The SPR is a measure of the annual spawn, as compared to what the estimated spawn would have been if no fish had been harvested. The current state target is 35 percent. At that level, the fishery is projected to be able to sustain itself under the current size and bag limit regulations.

On the Gulf coast, the most current estimated SPR levels are 38 percent in the Northwest and 44 percent in the Southwest Region. On the Atlantic coast, current SPR levels are 62 percent in the Northeast and 51 percent for the Southeast.

These estimates -- based on catch reports and sampling done throughout the state -- essentially mean that the fishery is currently healthy and not declining. That is very good news!

The other edge of that sword is that every year, the number of anglers is increasing. Between the state's general population growth and the increased number of visitors that are now fishing, the catch rate -- and consequently, the mortality rate -- for trout is expected to increase as well.

Even with that increase, the current SPR levels should allow current regulations to stay in place, at least for the near term. So the fishery is healthy, and spring is the ideal time to head for the grassflats in search of Old Snaggletooth.

Though trout are caught in literally every corner of the state, the methods and tactics vary slightly from location to location. The variance is partly due to the trout's habitat in those areas, and partly due to angler preferences.

Where and how can seatrout be caught across the state? Let's see, starting this month and continuing through the summer.

FLORIDA BAY

In Everglades National Park, the seatrout reigns as one of the fish most sought after by the average angler. While some fishermen sight-cast to redfish on the shallow flats, other fishermen are in the deeper water, drifting grass flats for some very large seatrout.

In years past, a huge commercial seatrout industry targeted Florida Bay, using hook and line with Dalton Special plugs on long Calcutta splatter poles. When the plugs didn't work, they used small live pinfish. Those days are gone, but the trout and pinfish are still there, and a Dalton Special still draws vicious strikes.

Carl Ross Key is at the center of an area that can holds plenty of seatrout. To the north and east, several channels run across grassflats that hold trout. Fish a high outgoing tide, drifting with live shrimp or pinfish.

Pinfish traps are no longer legal, but a few minutes anchored over a deeper flat with a chum bag in the water can provide more pinfish than you will need. Take along a small jointed cane pole and use a No. 10 hook with a split shot. When the chum starts flowing from the bag, drop your hook baited with a tiny piece of shrimp.

You should catch all the bait you need. You may even have trout chasing the pinfish as you catch them! If that happens, just put that pinfish on a bigger outfit and start fishing!

Another good area for trout in Florida Bay is on the grassflats to the southeast of Carl Ross, running roughly east from Marker 10X and Marker 9 toward Blue Bank. Start on the high tide as far to the east as you can, and approach toward Blue Bank. Start drifting until you find the trout -- they will be there.

As the tide drops, the schools of fish move in a westerly direction with the current. Be prepared to follow them and you can catch trout all the way down to low tide.

In most locations, trout are ordinarily caught on an outgoing tide. This area east of Marker 10X is one place where you can catch them on an incoming tide. Just as the school followed the current out, they turn around and ride the tide back in. You just need to stay with them. Lots of fishermen assume the fish have stopped biting when they quit getting strikes: In reality, the trout often simply moved away from the anglers!

In all these locations, look for trout "muds." A school of seatrout will stir up the bottom in a grassy area to make their prey easier to catch, clouding the water in the process.

Most anglers usually dismiss trout muds. But if you see an area of muddy water that might be 100 feet or so in diameter, fish it. It is likely to be a school of feeding specks!

BISCAYNE BAY

Some people may wonder why Biscayne Bay is even mentioned, since the southeast coast of the Florida peninsula is not noted for great seatrout action. This bay, however, defies that stereotype. It has a lot of good fish, and early summer is the ideal time to find those seatrout on the grassbeds in the bay!

In the south end of the Biscayne, off the shoreline at Mercy Hospital, are some good grassbeds that go from 2 feet deep down to 6 or 8 feet. On a high outgoing tide, the trout roam these flats in search of food. You can catch them on live shrimp under a popping cork drifted over the grass. They also readily hit plastic grubs fished on jigheads in the popular electric chicken color pattern. Trout Touts in red-and-white are also popular options for fooling the seatrout.

Find the edge of the channel coming out of the Coral Gables Waterway south of Miami and be there at dead high tide. Big "tide-running" trout can often be taken along that channel edge.

Farther south, just beyond Matheson Hammock, grassbeds extend out into the bay, to 6- or 8-foot depths. These grassbeds hold trout, but the area is more difficult to drift. Often the prevailing southeast wind sends your boat right to the shore. This is

a site where a trolling motor comes in handy. Live shrimp as well as plastic baits can be fished here.

Along this shoreline, the entrances to Snapper Creek and Gables by the Sea also provide dredged channel edges to target. Large trout can be found here early in the day and late in the afternoon, especially in conjunction with a high tide.

Some more grassflats surround the entrance to Kings Bay near the old Cutler Power Plant at Chicken Key. These flats hold fish and are good for drifting.

At the other end of Biscayne Bay -- north of Government Cut -- there is more boat traffic and more urbanization. Don't let that run you off. The grassbeds there are loaded with bait, and that means predator fish like seatrout are likely nearby. In fact, many people believe that the larger "gator" trout are more common in the north end of the bay.

SEBASTIAN INLET

Midway up Florida's east coast, Sebastian Inlet is known mainly for the snook and tarpon it produces, especially at night. But this time of year, the grassbeds inside and to the north and south of the inlet also produce large numbers of trout.

Schools of finger mullet make their way through the inlet and into the Indian River by this time of year, and remain here through the summer. At high tide, the grassflats are covered up with these schools, and they are easily spotted swimming on the surface all across the flats.

On these grassflats, topwater plugs are the order of the day. At high tide, move as far up on the flats as you can and fish your way back off with the current. The trout get up in the shallow grass to feed. As the tide moves out and the water drops, the fish move as well.

At low tide, the trout are found along ledges of the channels at the edge of the flats. They can still be caught; you just need to adjust your bait from a topwater to a jig-and-grub combo or live bait.

Pinfish and live shrimp work well for live bait, as do the finger mullet. However, smaller fish often get to your shrimp before a trout has a chance. One of the minnows, or a plastic grub on a jighead under a popping float, is a better bet. Sinking or suspending MirrOlures also works well in the deeper water.

Stick with color patterns that have some red in them. I personally like the red and white standard better than any other color.

ST. JOHNS RIVER

Continuing north, the St. Johns River and associated estuaries off the Intracoastal Waterway (ICW) provide more trout options. The fishing methods are different here because the water is different.

Instead of grassflats, as well as mud and oyster flats, salt marshes predominate. Here the seatrout run the channel edges and oyster bars. Four- to 5-foot tide changes puts water into the saw grass marshes on high tide. Add a little east wind, and the water backs up even higher. These grasslines are where trout feed on a high tide.

The Mill Cove area around the Dames Point Bridge over the St. Johns River has a perfect grassline for trout. On the south side of the river, the grass edge runs east and west in Mill Cove. At high tide, you can ease along the grass and chuck plastic grubs, MirrOlures or jigheads with shrimp or mud minnows right up next to the vegetation.

Moving east toward the mouth of the St. Johns, Clapboard Creek enters from the north. There is an island on its west side, about a half mile north of the State Route 105 bridge across this creek. The creek channel runs close to the shore of this island and forms a perfect run for trout.

Fish the high outgoing tide with a jig-and-shrimp rig or a plastic grub. Throw to the shallow edge and work the bait back into deep water.

Live shrimp under a float also catch trout here, but don't opt for a popping float. The water to fish is too deep. Popping corks work well in water down to about 5 feet deep. If the cork is set deeper, the rig becomes very difficult to cast.

This is where long slip-floats come in handy. Designed to handle a variety of weights and depths, they allow you to cast the float, and still be able to get a bait down deeper. It's possible to set the stop knot on a float at 10 feet or deeper.

Allow the float to move with the tide, keeping a live shrimp about half way down in the water column. Cast upcurrent and let the float come back down to you.

In the ICW, both north and south of the St. Johns River, are numerous creeks, bays and backwater areas. Any one of these feeders can hold trout on any given day. Small-boat anglers often troll grubs on jigheads in these creeks to locate the trout.

Sisters Creek carries the ICW north from the St. Johns and has several of these tributaries. Outside bends in the creeks are deeper, and trout often school in these holes while the tide ebbs.

On the incoming flow, they move with the water, headed back into the bays and flats to feed. These fish can be caught by concentrating on the mouths of the deeper feeder creeks, with either live or artificial bait.

IN CONCLUSION

There are numerous other areas in the state that you can visit to catch large numbers of trout. Or you may opt for some of the regions known for giving up big yellow-mouth gator trout.

Just make sure that wherever you end up, you know and follow the FWCC regulations for size and creel limits. The Northeast and Northwest regions of the state have a limit of five fish per angler per day, while the South Region's limit is four. In all three areas, the fish must all be 15 inches or longer, with only one allowed to be longer than 20 inches.

Trout fishing is at a peak in most areas of the state this month and should remain strong through the rest of the summer. Larger fish are spawning in most areas of Florida as well. That means they are aggressive and willing to attack most any bait you can put in front of them.

Visiting the areas and using the tactics covered just might provide some great fishing and fine eating this month!

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