A Sea Change for Carolina Seatrout?

A Sea Change for Carolina Seatrout?

The boom-and-bust cycle of South Carolina seatrout appears to be entering a "boom" phase. Here's what's going on.

By Walt Rhodes

Repetition is the key to becoming good at something, and if there's one thing Capt. Jeff Yates has done over and over is fish.

"I started fishing the Wando River with my dad and brother when I was a little kid," said Capt. Yates, a life-long resident of Mount Pleasant.

Nearly three decades later, Capt. Yates is using his skills to guide other anglers after the Wando's legendary spotted seatrout population.

Spotted seatrout are also known as winter trout because the best fishing for the species takes place during the cooler months. Surveys conducted by the South Carolina Department of Natural Resources (SCDNR) shows that nearly half of the recreational catch of spotted seatrout occurred during November and December. While Capt. Yates fishes for seatrout all year, his passion is pursuing big trout during winter.

"The trout seem to move farther up the creeks and rivers with the cooler weather," he said. "In the Wando, during the summer the fish are mostly in the lower portions. By fall, they seem to be midriver, between the Hwy. 41 and Hwy. 526 bridges. Once winter arrives, I'm searching for them above Detyen's Shipyard at Hwy. 41."

Even though it has been Yates' experience that the seatrout are upriver, they are not necessarily found where you might think.

Photo by Ron Sinfelt

"The fish are not shallow," Capt. Yates said. "They like to be in deep holes along curves in the river and creeks. The outside of the curve is best because that is where the deeper water is located."

The curves could be any place, however. Sometimes Yates might be fishing a curve in the main river, but other times he's on a curve in a creek that is so narrow you can only cast straight forward or backward.

"I've gone up some small creeks," Capt. Yates said, recalling memorable fishing trips. "You wouldn't think the trout are there, but they are. I think they're going up there to get away from dolphins."

He suggested that anglers look for creeks with these curves. Most of the bends Capt. Yates fishes are only 6 to 15 feet deep, but they may not be limited to tidal creeks.

"There are times when we fish bends in the main river, and the portion of the curve where the fish hang is right in the middle of the river," he added. "A large mud flat comes off the shore on the inside of the bend at this spot, but then the bottom drops off toward deeper water. Most people would probably go right by the spot if they didn't know what to look for."

Once you learn to locate where trout are lying, you have to be careful approaching the fish.

"Dad taught us to get everything ready before we made the first cast," Capt. Yates said. "He told us to stop 50 to 100 yards away from where we thought the trout might be. We'd pull the rods out and get any lures handy, and then begin easing up to the spot. And for God's sake, don't bump the boat," he added.

Nowadays, Capt. Yates moves carefully into position with a trolling motor.

"I don't anchor. Once you start casting from an anchored spot, you're only hitting small points where the fish might be. By moving with the trolling motor and casting ahead, your lure stays in the zone where the fish might be for a longer period of time."

For targeting big winter trout, Capt. Yates prefers artificial baits, the bigger the better.

"My favorite bait is a 52M Mirrolure," he admitted. "I like it over other artificial baits because it doesn't have much action and sinks much slower, which is important. Almost all of the strikes are going to happen while the bait is falling. Because the bait is falling slower, a trout has more time to think about hitting it. A trout might move 10 feet in the summer to hit a bait, but in the winter they might not move 10 inches."

Grubs are another bait that Yates uses. He normally fishes with a 1/4-ounce unpainted lead with either a curly- or paddle-tail body. He might bump the weight up to 3/8- or 1/2-ounce, depending on the current.

No matter what kind of artificial bait he's using, Capt. Yates follows two rules.

"I use bright colors on bright days and dark baits on dark days. The only exception is a green-and-silver combination that seems to work well on either type of day.

"Think about what a baitfish will be reflecting. If you squirt a hose into the air on a sunny day, you usually see a rainbow of colors in the water. That's what a baitfish is reflecting, too. So I fish hot pinks, orange and chartreuse when it's bright. Dark-day bait would be dark blue, black or green with silver sides.

"I'll have four rods tied with four different colors," he said. "I'll try all four colors to see what's working. With the grubs, I keep a cup with as many as 10 different colored bodies in it. That way I can easily change the body without having to retie the lure."

The other rule is that Capt. Yates fishes with the same presentation. He'll cast at a 45-degree angle from the boat, and let the current sweep the lure back toward him, keeping his line tight the whole time. Once the lure is even with him, he gives the rod a sharp jerk upward, and then lets the lure settle. This sort of action is repeated until the lure drift is complete.

As for when to go fishing, he says the best time is whenever you have time.

"As long as the water temperature is above 50 degrees, I'm usually fishing," Capt Yates said. "The outgoing tide seems the best for me on the Wando. I like to get out there about an hour before the tide turns. To me, a perfect tide is when the high falls between 10 and noon. By the time you get out there, the sun is up, which helps keep you warm.

"I've been out there some days catching fish with ice on the boat," he added.

BIGGER SEATROUT?
Catching fish, especially big ones, always helps keep an angler's mind off the cold weather.

Some biologists have argued that a change in South Carolina's regulations could produce more of the trophy trout that Yates likes to target. Essentially, they argue that raising the size limit from 13 to 14 inches would produce a large number of bigger fish. Here's why.

Spotted seatrout are a member of the drum family. Among fishes in South Carolina waters, seatrout are related to spot, whiting, red drum (spottails) and black drum. Tag returns from Georgia and South Carolina indicate that a few seatrout may wander between estuarine systems, but most stay in the same sections of salt marsh or river system their entire lives. Therefore, state regulations can have a major affect on the species since the fish rarely cross state borders.

Spotted seatrout begin spawning at age 1 and they have a protracted spawning season. The fish will spawn several times between late April and September. The adaptive strategy behind this sort of spawning is that the fish don't put all of their eggs in one basket, so to speak. By spawning several times throughout the spring and summer, the fish increase the odds that at least some of their young will encounter good conditions for growth.

The tiny trout move into the tidal creeks where they develop during the summer. By September, the early-spawned seatrout will be over 7 inches long, whereas those spawned late in the summer will barely be an inch. Once the following spring arrives, the early spawners will be 11 inches plus and able to spawn for the first time. One hundred percent of the 1-year-old seatrout are able to spawn by August. For example, all female seatrout born in 2002 will have spawned at least once by August 2003.

Most organisms produce more and larger batches of eggs with age. Spotted seatrout are no exception. Over a spawning season, 1-year-old seatrout will produce slightly more than 3 million eggs. However, a 2-year-old female will spawn nearly 10 million eggs during a spawning season. It gets even better. At age 3, a spawning female seatrout will crank out almost 18 million eggs annually.

What this means is that if your seatrout population is allowed to have older and larger females, it will produce several times more fish for anglers. Currently, regulations in South Carolina allow anglers to harvest seatrout before the fish reach 3 years of age.

The regulations for spotted seatrout were changed in the late 1990s. The bag limit was reduced from 20 fish per person to 10 and the minimum size was increased from 12 to 13 inches.

"The objective of regulation modification was to allow more seatrout to spawn at least one time before they were harvested," said Dr. Charlie Wenner, a SCDNR marine biologist. "The long-term average size of a seatrout harvested in South Carolina is slightly more than 13 inches total length."

A slight increase in the minimum length - 1 inch - argues Dr. Wenner, would allow for a second spawning year and, ultimately, for more trophy seatrout.

"Young dead seatrout don't grow to be trophy trout," Dr. Wenner stated, referring to how the regulations in place affect seatrout populations. "With the current regulations, most of the trout harvested are small. Anglers have to ask themselves (if) are they happy with a 13-inch fish that gives a fish stick or one that really stretches the string? You could bump up the minimum size by 1 inch to 14 inches and have more trout swimming around, plus larger ones."

The logic behind an increase in the minimum size to 14 inches is simple. Keep in mind the differences between female seatrout.

"Right after a seatrout spawns one time and it reaches the current minimum size of 13 inches, the fish is usually harvested," Dr. Wenner said. "If you protect that fish with a 14-inch minimum size limit, it will have a better chance of spawning as a 2-year-old fish. The reproductive potential of one 2-year-old fish is worth a truckload of 1-year-old seatrout.

"By allowing more seatrout to reach 2 years old, you increase the possibility that a few more female trout will reach age 3. Remember, a 3-year-old trout produces six times more eggs than a 1-year-old fish. Anglers would notice a measurable difference in the seatrout population," Dr. Wenner added.

The trophy trout that anglers enjoy catching on occasion are females. At age 3, a female seatrout is 23 percent longer and 49 percent heavier than males of the same age.

A trophy seatrout in most anglers' books is a fish that weighs about 5 pounds. It takes on average six years to produces a trout that size in South Carolina. About 1 percent of the recreational harvest currently consists of trophy trout. Dr. Wenner said that percentage would increase if the minimum size were raised.

South Carolina sits near the northern edge of the spotted seatrout's range. Consequently, our seatrout population can face extreme weather, sometimes with catastrophic results. An increase in the minimum size to 14 inches, Wenner adds, would help protect against drastic population declines during those times.

"By having a protracted spawning season, seatrout populations hedge their bets against environmental conditions during the reproductive season," Dr. Wenner explained. "This is good insurance for the species' survival; however, winter mortality can also negatively affect the population. The best guard when dealing with lethal water temperatures during the winter is to have a lot of fish scattered across several age-classes. If a mortality does occur, the population can recover quicker with the appropriate age structure in place."

Anglers have to only look back a couple of years to see what Dr. Wenner is saying.

"If winter mortality of spotted seatrout is limited to a single year, the total recreational catch can rebound to more normal levels after one to 1 1/2 years," he said. "After Hurricane Hugo in 1989, there was a very cold period with snow at Christmas. The total catch of seatrout declined to some of its lowest levels in 1990, the fishing year after the freeze. Because trout can begin spawning at age 1, those that survived the freeze spawned in 1990 and their offspring were available to anglers by 1991.

"South Carolina then enjoyed several mild winters through the mid-1990s and the minimum size had been increased and the bag limit reduced. By 2000, our trammel-net sampling indicated the abundance of seatrout in the state's estuaries was high," Dr. Wenner said. "The estimated catch was approximately two times larger than the long-term average."

The good times were soon to be over, but not for as long as they could have been.

"From mid-December 2000 to mid-January 2001, the water temperature stayed below 45 degrees," Dr. Wenner stated. "Trout can't handle those low temperatures, and we saw a decline.

"Both the recreational catch estimates and our trammel-net sampling indicated that there had been a 75 percent decline in the seatrout population. We were lucky because we had a lot of fish of various ages going into the freeze.

"Fishing in 2001 was awful. It had improved by 2002 because the fish spawned after the freeze were becoming large enough to catch. I would expect fishing this fall to better than the previous two years," Dr. Wenner said.

"The trout population was in good shape because of the mild winters and regulations change. If hadn't been so good, the recovery would have taken longer. An increase in the minimum size to 14 inches would create an even larger seatrout population that could better withstand such mortality events. After all, if you lose 75 percent of a lot of fish, it's better than losing 75 percent of a small population."

FOR MORE INFORMATION
You may contact Capt. Jeff Yates of Tyjo Knot Charters at (843) 270-8956 or captjeffyates@aol.com. While he specializes in seatrout, he also guides for other inshore species such as spottail bass and flounder.

There are only two public boat ramps to access the Wando River. Remley's Point Landing is located upstream of the Cooper River bridges in Mount Pleasant. To find Paradise Landing, leave Mount Pleasant on Hwy. 17 North. Go approximately four miles past the Hwy. 41 and 17 intersection, and turn left onto Road 1453.



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