Stalking Sunshine State Seatrout
September 30, 2010
Spring and summer months offer some great options for targeting speckled trout in Florida this year. Here's a look at several of the best choices. (May 2010)
The extensive grass flats in Pine Island Sound offer great areas for attracting explosive topwater strikes from feeding seatrout.
Photo by Frank Sargeant.
Southern spotted seatrout, known widely as "specks," can be caught just about anywhere on Florida's coast where there's shallow water and abundant bait. But a few areas around the state provide exceptional action at certain times of year.
Spots where good anglers can expect to hook 50 fish per day are not uncommon. Of course, with a four-fish daily bag in much of the state, you have to release most of those fish. But for steady action, there's not much that beats the seatrout. Here's a look at some of my favorite destinations for spring, summer and fall, accumulated over 35 years of traveling the Sunshine State:
This big Panhandle bay is alive with shrimp, and that feeds an enormous seatrout population. When the shrimp are on the move in March, and again in October and November, you can find the fish by looking for "bird tornadoes" in the open water north of the U.S. Highway 98 bridge. Get on one of these aggregations and you catch trout until you get tired of it.
There's no reason to use anything other than a single-hook jig or shrimp imitation -- you get a bite on just about every cast. If the fish are not feeding under the birds, you can often do well by drifting and casting over grassy bottom at depths of 4 to 6 feet, again with a jig or plastic shrimp.
Of course, live shrimp are great, too, but you get a lot of pinfish and catfish stealing the bait.
Larger trout often hang around the oyster bars on the south side of the bay, on the back side of the barrier islands, where they grab a topwater lure readily.
Charlotte Harbor, north of Fort Myers, is a huge bay with broad grassflats around the shoulders. Just about anywhere you can see that grass you can catch trout. Some of my favorite spots are the side bays, including Bull Bay and Turtle Bay on the north shore, along with Jug Creek Shoal on the south. Best action is usually found by drifting and casting a jig, topwater lure or slow-sinking plug ahead of the boat.
On strong tide flows around the new and full moons, hit the swash channels that run out of the larger bays on falling water.
Live sardines are the favorite bait in this area. You cast-net them over the grass after chumming with a mix of whole wheat bread, canned jack mackerel and menhaden oil. Fish them unweighted on a size No. 1 short-shank hook. Most anglers nose-hook the 'dines.
For artificial lure anglers, you can't beat the MirrOdine, which is a slow-sinking sardine imitation. The DOA Shrimp is also great here, as is the 4-inch Tsunami split-tail swimbait.
PINE ISLAND SOUND
This estuary is found inside the barrier islands stretching from Boca Grande Pass to Sanibel Island. It's all shallow, grassy water and just an absolute trout factory. Find water 2 to 6 feet deep with good current and plenty of grass on bottom. Drift until you hit a school of fish. Mark the spot on GPS or by dropping a buoy so you work your way through it, then motor in a wide arc back to the up tide or upwind side and repeat the drift.
The 4-inch swimbait is my favorite for this action, but the classic plastic-tailed jig also does fine in weights of 1/4 to 3/8 ounce. Bounce either lure off the grass as you cast ahead of the boat. Be alert for the "tick" that means a trout has latched on.
In late March through mid-May, Pine Island has a good population of larger trout prowling the extreme shallows in depths of 1 to 2 feet. Wade or pole these areas and cast a topwater ahead of the boat, particularly over potholes or around oyster bars. You'll connect with some fish of 4 pounds and up.
Tampa Bay is another good fishery these days, thanks to cleanup efforts over the last 25 years. The top trout spot is probably the big bar south and east of Pinellas Point. It holds hundreds of acres of thick turtle grass washed with the clear water coming in from Egmont and Bunce's passes. The area is loaded with bait, birds and trout. The schools can be spotty, however, so keep moving and trying different depths, probing with a big, noisy topwater until you start getting strikes. Then slow down and work the fish thoroughly with jigs, swimbaits or plastic shrimp.
If you're interested in trophy grade trout, stick with the topwater lures though. Those big girls definitely seem to grab the floaters more regularly than they do sinking lures. Or maybe it's just that the smaller trout beat them to the smaller sinking lures.
Other productive trout spots around Tampa Bay include Rocky Point and Double Branch in the north end of Old Tampa Bay, Bishops Harbor and Cockroach Bay along the southeast shore, Rattlesnake flats near the mouth of the Manatee River, the flats around Fort DeSoto and Bunces Pass near St. Pete, and The Bulkhead grassflat east of Anna Maria.
In early spring and late fall, trout often gather in "green water" holes in all these areas. These are holes just deep enough that you can't see bottom, and have a milky green color to them. Fish them with a jig or shrimp and you'll load up on trout fast.
As spring progresses, these fish move out on the flats, often into water less than a yard deep. By July they head out to deeper 6- to 8-foot-deep grassflats, seeking cooler water.
ANCOTE KEY TO CRYSTAL RIVER
The waters of this area offer grassflats that extend four to six miles offshore in many areas. The region holds schools of trout that sometimes cover several acres. The fish found offshore tend to be small, but there are plenty of keepers in the mix.
Find water 5 to 10 feet deep and drift until you start scoring with swimbaits, jigs or shrimp. Make sure the lure is ticking bottom on each cast. If you're not using a heavy enough lure for the drift speed and you don't tick the grass, you catch few fish.
There's an unusual spring fishery in this area around the rocky shoreline, as well. Trout move into water that is clear as a bonefish flat over the craggy lime rock bottom to spawn in April and May. These big fish readily whack topwater offerings or slow-sinking lures The MirrOdine is hard to beat here.
This is fairly demanding fishing. Poling
is necessary because the trout spook at the sound of a trolling motor. The bottom is too rough and sharp to allow wading in most areas, so a very shallow-draft skiff is a needed.
Captain William Toney and Captain Earl Waters, both of Homosassa, are experts at this tactic.
Florida's east coast has fewer prime trout spots because its estuarine areas are narrower. But one super location is Mosquito Lagoon north of Titusville. There are several thousand acres of shallow grassflats here, and trout sometimes jam the oyster bars and grassy drops.
There are a few old Florida-style fish camps still surviving around the Oak Hill area. Put in there and motor south until you see likely water stretching away to the east.
In spring, millions of finger mullet get in the shallows here, and throwing a topwater like the Zara Spook among them can bring awesome strikes.
In winter, the fish stack in the dredged Intracoastal Waterway channel, and the rest of the year, they're scattered over the deeper grass, where you can drift and cast until you hit action.
For larger fish, visiting the oyster bars and the channels between spoil banks at daybreak is a good tactic.
The water there is very shallow. A kayak or aluminum skiff is the best bet.
By the way, this area is not misnamed -- it's alive with skeeters and no see 'ums, so don't forget the bug juice if it's warm and calm.
Florida's southeast coast, roughly from Daytona Beach to Miami, holds a unique strain of spotted seatrout that Florida state biologists have discovered to grow faster and larger, as well as living longer than trout found on the state's west coast. That's no doubt why 11 of the 17 existing line-class world records for the species comes from this zone. The all-tackle world record of 17 pounds, 7 ounces came from the Fort Pierce area in May of 1995.
Though water quality issues in the Indian River have somewhat reduced populations of these giant fish, this is still by far the best place to go if you have hopes of capturing a seatrout of 10 pounds or more.
In the northern end of the range, the big fish are most often caught under boat docks and around bridge pilings. As you go farther south, where the water becomes clearer and seagrass more abundant, the fish hang around oyster bars, potholes and cuts through the flats.
Mark Nichols, who founded the DOA Lure Company, fished the Stuart area for years before he became a manufacturer and is widely known as one of the best big trout anglers in the state. He has found that wade-fishing the shallows is by far the most effective tactic.
"Those big trout are really wary, and a lot of times they're in water under 12 inches deep, so getting to them without spooking them is a challenge," he said.
He prefers a plastic mullet he designed called the Baitbuster as one of the top big-fish lures, and also likes his company's very popular DOA Shrimp. Both are single-hook lures that allow easy release of the big females.