Sunshine State Trout Hotspots

Sunshine State Trout Hotspots

Speckled trout are by far the favorite of Florida saltwater anglers. Do you want to hook a few this year? These are the locations to target! (May 2008)

Jimbo Keith shows off a Suwannee Sound speckled trout as his dad, Jimmy Keith, tries his hand in the background.
Photo by Rod Hunter.

It's not hard to see why spotted seatrout are Florida's most popular saltwater game fish. Not only are they well distributed throughout the state, but also -- thanks to careful management -- they are relatively abundant. Better yet, they can be relied upon to provide action throughout the year, although management policies do not allow their possession during some months in varying areas.

Still, that doesn't mean you can't have fun catching and releasing them at those times.

As with any game fish, however, some months produce better opportunities than others. And when it comes to trout, the good news is that's this month!

For trout, May is a major transition month. Warming waters have moved them from their deeper winter haunts, and an abundance of baitfish puts them on the feed. In most areas, that feeding activity will occur in the shallow inshore waters that are accessible to just about any boater. Better yet, they're receptive to just about any angling technique you care to use.

Shrimp is a popular choice for those who enjoy watching a cork bob on the surface, and anglers can find them at most bait shops. For those who prefer to gather their own bait, warming waters assure an accessible supply of finger mullet, mud minnows and pinfish.

Those favoring lures find that topwater plugs can be a great choice, especially for larger trout. Whether you favor walking-type plugs like the Zara Spook, chuggers like the Storm Chug Bug, or propeller plugs like the Devil's Horse, all are good choices early and late in the day.

If trout boil, but don't take the lure, shifting to a hard-plastic jerkbait such as the Bomber Long A often puts those fish in the boat. Don't ignore jigs matched with soft-plastic trailers or swimming minnows. Those can often be the most effective choice during periods of bright light.

Regardless of how you prefer to collect your trout, this is a great month to do it. And here are five top spots to explore.

ST. AUGUSTINE
If your goal is a trophy trout, the Intracoastal Waterway near the St. Augustine Inlet is one Florida's best bets this month.

"I'd be willing to bet that more 7- to 10-pound trout are caught from this area in April and May than in many other waters that are well known for big trout," said Capt. Dennis Goldstein, who has 30 years of guiding experience in the area. "One reason for that is the annual menhaden migration, and the fact that a lot of big trout follow them. Some of those big trout actually spend a lot of the year in the Atlantic, just off the beaches, and surf fishermen catch some of them. But when a big bait migration arrives, like pogies or mullet, a number of them move inside the Inlet, and those big trout will follow them."

"Pogie" is a name commonly used for the menhaden.

While the trout are following the bait, those forage fish are following the tide. Timing the tides is a key to success in this area.

The northeast coast at the Ancient City sees four full tides a day, and the average tide is about 4.5 feet. Six-foot-plus tides are not uncommon on a full moon or if a northeast wind settles over the area. That means a lot of water in constant motion, keeping the fish in motion too. A spot may be really hot for 30 to 45 minutes, and then go virtually dead until the next tide hits the same stage.

Combine that with a relatively deep but narrow main waterway and a wealth of side creeks, and anglers do need to stay on their toes.

Here's how the local experts deal with these factors.

On the upper half of the flood tide -- especially if it occurs early or late in the day -- savvy anglers are tossing topwater plugs or hard-plastic jerkbaits along Spartina grasslines adjacent to a sharp drop. The best grasslines are those that host a lot of baitfish activity. Some of the best areas are not in the ICW itself, but in the lower sections of the major tidal creeks.

As the tide falls and baitfish move back to deeper water, experienced anglers turn their attention to the mouths of intersecting creeks that become funnels for those baitfish.

On the bottom end of the tide, look for oyster edges that have deep-water drops right next to them. Topwater plugs can be effective if the light levels are dim, but hard-plastic jerkbaits or 5-inch soft-plastic grubs on a jighead take more trout at midday.

MOSQUITO LAGOON
If swift tides are not to your liking, head south along the Atlantic Coast to Mosquito Lagoon. There's still some tidal activity here, but it occurs at a much more sedate pace. Game fish movements are not as abrupt, and a hot hole can stay hot longer. It also means that the trout, at least in the lagoon itself, are more oriented toward feeding during dimmer light.

"This is a good area to hit at dawn with topwater plugs," offered veteran guide Scott Tripp, "especially if you have a high morning tide. Big trout move up onto shallow flats and head right to the mangrove shoreline. They'll be right in there with the snook, and you can have a real interesting 'day' before 11:00 a.m."

The maze of mangrove islands and cuts provide plenty of shoreline for big trout to prowl. But savvy anglers often start their searches along those shores that show a relatively close proximity to a deeper cut or channel.

Big trout move shallow, but don't like to be very far from the safety of deeper water. If they must cross 50 yards of shallow flat to reach a mangrove shoreline, they won't. They find mangroves within a few yards of water that's five to eight feet deep.

Anglers who keep that thought in mind can look at a mile of mangroves and quickly zero in on the key feeding areas, which may not comprise a total of 300 yards of shore.

As the tide falls, trout move off the shoreline to seek deeper water. In the many cuts through the mangroves, any hole deeper than five feet can produce.

But Tripp has a better idea.

"The ICW to the north of the lagoon is a great

spot for low-tide trout," he noted. "This area is riddled with small tidal creeks and back bays that the trout move into with the rising tide. But when the tide drops, they come out to the ICW.

"In many spots, you have a shallow flat that comes out to three or four feet, has a drop, and then a secondary short flat that comes out to a sharp drop in six to eight feet of water.

"That second drop is where you find the big trout on the last of the falling tide, especially if that drop is located downcurrent from one of the tidal creek mouths."

In this situation, the tide is more important than time of day. In fact, on a recent outing with Tripp, we had a low tide at 1:00 p.m. on a hot, cloudless day. We moved between the prime drops and in the next hour, boated a number of trout, including fish of 5 1/2 and 7 1/2-pounds!

ANCLOTE KEY
Shifting to the Gulf Coast, you won't find as many 8-pound-plus seatrout as on the Atlantic side. But there are still plenty of trout to be caught. And the New Port Richey area is one of the prime regions for the action. It offers a wealth of offshore grassbeds, shallow flats and connecting rivers that form a very fertile environment. Though the trout may not run as big on the Gulf, this area has seen a steady increase in the numbers of 5- to 7-pound speckled trout over the last few years.

It's a large area for anglers to sift through. However, those who wish to zero in on one of the prime spots won't go wrong if they concentrate their efforts around Anclote Key.

This is the first major barrier island off the coast -- and a magnet for big trout during the April to May period. The waters surrounding the key are nothing more than a big shallow grassflat, bisected by a few deeper channels and dotted with deeper potholes. The environment is large and rich, and it is located just 4 to 5 miles from the public Anclote Boat Ramp.

The grassflats are extensive, and the trout can roam widely on a high tide. That's one reason why veteran key anglers rate it as one of the best locales to fish on a low tide.

The reason for that is simple: There isn't a lot of deeper water for the trout to use. They pretty much have to stack up in the deeper troughs and potholes that then remain when the tide bottoms out.

There are a lot of such potholes on the bayside of Anclote Key and extending up to Dutchman Key. A number of them are reachable by a shallow draft boat on even the lowest tide, but some aren't. Those, however, can be reached by anchoring the boat and wading. Under such conditions you can end up literally shooting fish in a barrel.

This fishing doesn't require a large lure selection. Topwater lures produce early and late, but a 4- to 5-inch soft-plastic tail on a 1/8-ounce jighead can often be the most productive at any time. Try electric chicken, pearl while or clear with silver-flake color patterns.

On a rising tide, the fish leave the potholes. But savvy anglers don't move too far from those depressions. Look for white sand holes on the flats adjacent to the potholes, and you're likely to find the ambush points that bigger trout are using on the flood tide.

SUWANNEE SOUND
Stretching between the Suwannee River mouth and Cedar Key, the Suwannee Sound is fed by a maze of inflowing tidal creeks that open onto shallow oyster flats leading to deeper-water grassbeds. This is a rich trout habitat throughout the year. And while it doesn't produce as many trophy trout as some other areas, it's one of the top spots in the state when it comes to numbers of quality fish.

Late spring and early summer are prime times to fish it, but anglers need to divide this period into two distinct phases.

"The tidal creeks are a key refuge for trout during the colder months," explained veteran guide Jimmy Keith.

"March and early April see those trout leaving the creeks and staging up on the shallow oyster bars near their mouths. Those bars hold heat, and that draws baitfish."

On a rising tide, look for those trout to push up onto the shallowest portions of the oyster flats, or to hold an ambush position on the edge.

On a warm afternoon, it's common to catch good trout in less than three feet of water.

As the tide falls, the fish come off the flats and can stack up in deeper depressions, or in the finger channels connecting the flats with the creeks. When the tide rises, they are once again back on the shallow oyster beds -- it's very predictable.

Those shallow oyster beds can be tough on artificial lures. But topwater plugs, shallow-running hard-plastic jerkbaits, or a jig suspended under a rattling cork like the Cajun Thunder can be very effective.

Normally by late April, the water has warmed enough for the trout to start moving out to the deeper grassbeds where they'll spend the summer. But their move isn't a sudden one.

"Even into late May," Jimbo Keith explained, "the fish will still be relating to the shallower flats. They'll just be further out on them. I'd be looking for trout in four to five feet of water near the outer edges of the flats.

"They still move shallower on a rising tide, but drop back to deeper grass on the ebb tide.

"Not all deeper grass is created equal, however," the guide continued. "Larger trout show a definite affinity for grassy areas that feature a hard bottom and have rock or gravel mixed in. This is where the mature fish will spawn, and it's worth the angler's time to seek out such areas.

"When you hit one of these key areas, " Jimbo concluded, "you'll normally be on bigger fish. And this is a great time to take them on topwater plugs."

ST. ANDREWS BAY
The Panhandle area has been offering exceptional trout fishing in recent years and one of the most consistently productive locales has been St. Andrews Bay at Panama City.

Part of a larger waterway that includes East Bay, West Bay and North Bay, St. Andrews is fed by numerous rivers that provide a winter home for trout. It offers massive and ideal trout habitat

Tapping into that bonanza isn't difficult during the April to May period. Trout are exiting the rivers and feeding heavily as waters warm.

Some of their best feeding areas are grassbeds in two to four feet of water. There are many such areas lining the bay, but savvy anglers concentrate on those where baitfish can be seen moving, where birds are diving or better yet, where you can actually see fish striking the surface. It's worth spending a bit of time running and looking before you start fishing.

On a rising tide, look for

baitfish and trout to push up as high as they can into the grass. Shallower edges in two- to three-foot depths are often the most productive, especially if you catch the peak of the rising tide early or late in the day. If a heavy overcast results in dim light, the action can go all day long. Big trout move very shallow under dim light conditions.

On falling water, don't abandon the grass. Just shift your attention to the extended points of grass coming off the major beds. The ebb tide pulls baitfish from the extreme shallows, and the current sweeps them across these points, creating a perfect ambush situation.

There is a wealth of productive grass cover in the bay. Some of the traditionally best areas include the marsh grass edges between Breakfast Point and Shell Point; the grass around the ICW where it enters in West Bay; Redfish Point; and the grassbeds between Goose Point and Cedar Point.

ROUNDING IT UP
From the upper Atlantic coast, to the shallow Gulf flats, to the grassy edges of Panhandle bays, the topography can vary. But one thing doesn't change. If you're looking to tangle with plenty of trout -- and some true trophy fish -- this month is hard to beat.

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