Gulf Coast Trout On The Comeback Trail

Gulf Coast Trout On The Comeback Trail

West Coast seatrout stocks took a hit from red tide a few years back, but they have come roaring back. Here's what happened and how the fishing is today. (August 2009)

Eric Bachnik of MirrOlure displays the kind of trout that Tampa Bay now is giving up regularly.
Photo by Frank Sargeant.

It was an inshore angler's worst nightmare. Windrows of dead game fish stretched for miles along the shores of Tampa Bay and the stench of decaying flesh hung in the air like a pungent fog. Overhead, buzzards by the hundreds wheeled and dipped.

It was one of the worst red tides in Florida's recorded history, covering most of the state's West Coast from Dunedin to Naples, and it lasted for months rather than the usual few weeks -- from mid-2005 to well into 2006, the killer algae lingered.

When it was over, millions of fish were dead, and some anglers figured delicate species like spotted seatrout might never recover. For months after the horrific event ended, not a single trout was caught on vast flats that before had produced keeper fish by the hundreds.

But that horrible black (or red) cloud had a silver lining. Now, three years after the last of the noxious algae disappeared, the fish are lighting up all over the "dead zone," and there are plenty of big fish once again, too.

"Trout are delicate, but they spawn young and they grow fast," said Ken Haddad, executive director of the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, who is a marine biologist. "With good water quality and adequate harvest regulations, they can come back very quickly."

One of the interesting phenomena observed by many anglers after the algae disappeared was that the number of shrimp seemed to go up astronomically. There were suddenly so many shrimp that catching them with bait nets became a major nighttime sport. Anglers lined the rails of the Sunshine Skyway and other spans and also waded the flats with headlights, scooping up prawn-sized shrimp everywhere.

Shrimp are generally not affected by red tide as finfish are, and many anglers theorized that the algae had killed most of the predators of larval shrimp, allowing a huge generation of shrimp to reach adulthood. Those shrimp, the theory goes, would then have had a landmark spawn, providing endless food for the next generation of trout spawned after the red tide. Even though there might have been far fewer spawners, the young fish would have been more likely to survive and grow rapidly.

Trout can spawn at age 1, and they lay tens of thousands of eggs, spawning repeatedly in the warmer months in Florida. Normally, nearly all the eggs and larvae are eaten by pinfish, baby snappers and other predators. But here again there were far fewer seeking the prey, so it's likely more of the young trout survived.

Whatever the reason, the trout are back strong.

"We're seeing as many keeper fish this winter as we did before the fish kill in St. Joseph Sound," said Captain Woody Gore, who makes a big part of his living chasing trout. "There are days when we'll catch 40 or more trout over 20 inches out there. The really big fish over 24 inches have not come back yet, but the numbers are there and the fish are getting bigger every month."

Gore noted that the fishing is best in his area in winter, but the sound also provides steady action throughout the summer months, and some big spawners move in around the new and full moons from May through July.

Captain Rick Grassett, who primarily fishes Sarasota Bay and Charlotte Harbor, reported similar results.

"We had just about zero trout for the first six months after the red tide, and then we started catching little guys, and you could see them growing, and in a couple of years we had lots of keepers again, and now we're starting to see the 3- and 4-pounders again," Grassett said.

HOW TO CATCH 'EM
Seatrout can be caught just about anywhere along Florida's West Coast where the combination of clear water and sea grass bottom can be found. But there are some areas that are noted for producing more and larger fish.

St. Joseph Sound near Dunedin is one of these areas. In winter, the spoil islands here are famed for producing fish of 3 to 5 pounds. In summer, the fish don't run that large, but it's no problem to connect with plenty of 15-inch "keepers" throughout warm weather. And you won't see the crowds of live bait tossers that jam the islands in winter.

Basically, the islands are limerock piles with a few trees growing on them, the rubble dredged up from creating the Intracoastal Waterway. The trout hang around them because they are good spots to ambush baitfish.

Fishing a live shrimp under a popping cork is the can't-miss tactic, and you may connect with an occasional redfish -- and in the warmer months, some trophy-sized snook with this tactic, too. The snook season, however, is closed from May through August on the West Coast, so it's going to be catch-and-release action.

Another favorite area for many trout anglers is the Pinellas Point flats, a sprawling shoal that juts out more than a mile into Tampa Bay just southeast of downtown St. Petersburg. The flat here averages 1 to 3 feet deep and, thanks to the clear Gulf water that flows over it with each tide, it has a rich turtle grass bottom that's trout heaven. Expert anglers like Eric Bachnik, who heads L&S Baits in Largo when he's not out fishing, wear the fish out here by throwing big topwater plugs like the MirrOlure Top Dog and bringing them wig-wagging over the holes and cuts in the grass.

Also on Tampa Bay, the South Shore region stretching roughly from Apollo Beach to the Skyway offers some prime action, particularly south of the big spoil island at Port Manatee. Other areas are throughout Bishop's Harbor and on to Mariposa Key.

The water here is clear and has a nice combination of grass, sand bottom and shell-bottom cuts, which hold trout year 'round. The fish are shallow at dawn and dusk, and move out to hard bottom slightly off the edge at depths of 8 to 10 feet during the heat of the day. A nice bonus in this deeper water in summer is the silver kings. You often see tarpon rolling as you're drifting along casting for trout, and a few years back I had one over a buck-and-quarter eat a 12-inch trout as I was reeling it in. The fight lasted all of two jumps, but it was temporarily spectacular.

The easy way to connect with the trout in the deeper water is to toss a 1/4- to 3/8-ounce leadhead jig. Any make will do the job, and I like a 3-inch paddle tail trailer i

n white, yellow or chartreuse. Even better are swimbaits like the 4-inch Tsunami Split-Tail, a jighead with a molded plastic body that has a very fish-like profile and extremely erratic action. It's murder on the trout when fished with a sharp pull-and-drop action.

Whatever the jig, make sure it hits bottom between pulls, and keep a sharp eye on the line. Most strikes occur on the drop, and you have to be alert to sense them. Microfiber line and graphite rods help a lot in feeling the bites.

Beyond the Skyway at the mouth of Tampa Bay, the flats around the mouth of the Manatee River and from there to Anna Maria Sound also hold plenty of trout anywhere there's grass bottom. You find plenty of snook around the points and islands, too, as well as cruising redfish now and then.

The water here is mostly shallow, and one of my favorite lures for this condition is the MirrOdine, a slow-sinking sardine mimic that only sinks to about a foot. The lure has small treble hooks, which are easy to get out of trout you intend to release, but it's still a good idea to flatten the barbs to help the release process. The action on this lure is to snap the rod enough to make it flash sideways, and then hesitate a second, then flash again. It's one of the most effective suspending lures to come along in years.

In Sarasota Bay, deep grassflats like those off the historic John Ringling home, as well as bars like the aptly-named, mile-long Long Bar, are gathering areas for trout, plus reds, snook and flounder. Captain Rick Grassett likes to fish flies on Long Bar -- any gold streamer of 2- to 3- inches long will do. But he prefers a DOA 3-inch plastic shrimp under a popping cork on the deep flats.

"The trick on working the cork is to keep the rod low, like you're working a topwater plug," Grassett advised. "That gives a better 'pop' that seems to lure the trout from a long distance."

The captain added that popping the cork causes the plastic shrimp to flip toward the surface. Hesitating after the pop causes it to flutter back toward bottom. Nearly all the strikes come as it sinks, so it's important to hesitate several seconds between pops. When the cork sinks, you simply start cranking and you're in business.

At Charlotte Harbor, Captain Scott Moore catches all the trout his clients want during summer by fishing small sardines along channel edges, often in the same waters where trophy snook hang out. He uses a 2-inch foam float, size No. 1 hooks and 20-pound-test leaders to target trout, moving up to 25-pound-test leaders and 1/0 hooks for snook.

"For numbers, a lot of times you'll find more trout out in 4 to 6 feet over the grass, but we usually catch the bigger ones in shallower water," Moore observed.

Some of his favored areas are Bull Bay, Turtle Bay and the flats behind Devilfish Key.

Another great fishery exists on the broad grass flats from Anclote Key northward all the way to Crystal River. Pretty much anywhere in this area, you can find big trout from early spring through late fall around the shorelines, rock outcroppings and in grassy potholes. Farther out, over grass in 6- to 10-foot depths, you have a shot at all the smaller fish you could ever want to catch. Many are just under the 15-inch minimum size limit, but more and more are growing to keeper size, too. The best bet for the offshore fish is probably a swimbait or jig. Inshore, the DOA shrimp, topwaters, the MirrOdine, or live sardines work well in summer, while live shrimp are the ticket in winter.

Captain William Toney of Homosassa has developed an interesting spring and early-summer fishery for big trout by poling the rocky flats between Chassahowitzka Point and the mouth of the Crystal River and sight-fishing. The clear, shallow water is challenging and it takes long, accurate casts to catch the fish, but there are plenty of them. It's a great spot for fly-rodders, as well as those who love topwater plugging.

If you're inclined to fish the area without a guide, be sure to take a chart -- and a spare prop. The limerock bottom is unforgiving, and in some areas, water only inches deep will be encountered several miles from the nearest shoreline. It's no place for blundering around in a deep draft boat, or even in a flats skiff unless you have jet-drive.

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