From Fernandina to Miami and around to Pensacola, Florida's coast is loaded with speckled trout hotspots. Here are some that you should try this year.
By John Kumiski
Consider the following statement: "Seatrout stocks in Florida have never been better." Now consider this one: "Seatrout stocks in Florida are at an all-time low."
So which statement is true and which is false? As is the case with many statements that create controversy, the answer you get to the question of which statement is true and which is false depends on whom you ask. Since we want the most accurate information possible, let's go straight to the Florida Marine Research Institute (FMRI) and check with Dr. Susan Lowerre-Barbieri. She has spent the last three years doing research on Florida's most popular game fish, the spotted seatrout.
But first let's take a look at the fish themselves.
BASIC BIOLOGICAL INFORMATION Seatrout that don't get caught can live a maximum of 15 years, but only rarely do they reach the age of 12. Male spotted seatrout are generally heavier at a given length than females. In Florida waters, Indian River Lagoon and Apalachicola Bay spotted seatrout are also heavier than those in Charlotte Harbor.
Trout tend to stay in the same area for their entire lives. The limited amount of bay-to-bay movement evidenced in tagging studies supports the idea that spotted seatrout populations are almost exclusively affected by local fishing pressure. Fish caught in adjacent bays to the north or south don't affect the fishing in your own area much, if at all.
Capt. Dan Malzone boated this seatrout in the Tampa area while casting a Clouser Minnow. Photo by Capt. John Kumiski
Adult spotted seatrout occur in a wide range of estuarine habitats. Along the Gulf of Mexico coast, they are found in large areas of shallow, quiet brackish water with extensive submerged vegetation. They are also common around oyster bars, in deep holes, on sand bottoms, along mangrove shorelines, and in areas where some sort of structure exists. The absence of seagrass beds in an area does not preclude their presence there. They are frequent catches along Gulf coast beaches, where the bottom is pure sand.
Adult spotted seatrout eat mostly other fish, such as anchovies, mullet, pinfish, menhaden and silversides. Even small spotted seatrout are sometimes found in the stomachs of adults. They also feed on crustaceans, such as shrimp and crabs. Changes in seasonal food availability in Florida waters are the reason for seasonal changes in food preferences. Crustaceans are more available in summer and early winter, while baitfish are most abundant in late winter and early spring.
The spotted seatrout has a protracted spring-through-fall spawning season, with a peak in April through July in the Gulf of Mexico. Spawning in southwest and east-central Florida occurs year 'round, with a peak in April and May. Spotted seatrout are multiple spawners. The average interval between spawnings is a little more than three days in the Indian River Lagoon. Given a six-month spawning season, spotted seatrout females may lay eggs between nine and 60 times during a spawning season. A 2-pound trout can spawn between 3 million and 20 million eggs in a single spawning season.
In the Indian River Lagoon, it appears that older seatrout contribute more to the egg production per fish per season than do younger fish because they spawn more frequently. Most spotted seatrout become sexually mature at the end of their first or second year, when they're 12 to 16 inches long. Males generally mature at smaller sizes and younger ages.
HEALTH OF SEATROUT STOCKS Dr. Lowerre-Barbieri says that seatrout stocks statewide have generally been stable since about 1995. Spawning-potential ratios, which are a measure of the health of the spawning stock, are highest in northeast Florida and lowest in the southern part of the state.
Apparently the decrease in commercial seatrout landings has been more than made up for by recreational seatrout landings, a trend that can only continue as development and recreational fishing pressures increase. When the FMRI performs its next analysis of spawning-potential ratios in early 2003, it is hoped that not much will have changed since the 1999 study.
WHERE AND HOW TO CATCH THEM As fascinating as the biological background on these fish may be, it doesn't directly translate to fish on the line. Where-to and how-to information does that.
Northeast Florida Capt. John Bottko owns the Salty Feather Fly Shop in Jacksonville. His business is situated in the middle of the area with the highest spawning-potential ratios for speckled trout.
"My favorite way to catch seatrout here during the warm months is to fish lit docks at night," he says. "In downtown Jacksonville there are several large commercial docks that are really well lit and have fish holding on them most nights. There are also miles of residences along the St. Johns River that have docks, and many of those docks are lit. The best lights are always the ones that are closest to the water.
"You need to approach the dock quietly, with an electric motor or a push pole," he continues. "Not only do you not want to scare the fish, which are very sensitive to noise, but a lot of residences have dogs. If the dogs start barking, they wake the owners, who turn off the lights.
Water levels and conditions are also important to Capt. Bottko. High tides are always best because the water is closest to the lights then. Also, the water is usually cleaner. If the water is dirty, the fishing is usually poor.
"I prefer to fly-fish, and I like small white flies like Clouser minnows, shrimp patterns, or white Wooly Buggers," Capt. Bottko notes. "But the 3-inch night-glow DOA Shrimp works as well as anything you can use for this.
"Almost every light is good for at least a couple of fish. When the bite slows or stops, tie on something completely opposite color-wise to what you have been using. If you started with white, switch to black. You can usually get a few more fish this way.
"Change the way you retrieve it, too," the Captain adds. "The fish we get average from about 14 to 20 inches, but we get a 4- or 5-pound fish once in a while.
"If you want to catch trout when the sun is up, surface plugs like Top Dogs or Johnny Rattlers work well. Find some places where an oyster bed lies next to some marsh grass, and cast the plug over the top of the oysters at high outgoing
tide. This is the best way to get gator trout up here. If you see the trout boiling behind the plug but not taking it, try a Pop and Drop. Tie 18 to 20 inches of 12- pound-test mono to the rear hook of the plug, then tie a shrimp fly to the dropper. This works extremely well, and sometimes you'll get doubles," he concluded.
For more information on fishing northeast Florida for trout, contact Capt. John Bottko at (904) 645-8998.
Indian River Lagoon The Indian River Lagoon has produced as many world-record seatrout as any other place on the planet. If catching big trout is your interest, you should definitely consider fishing there.
Oak Hill At the north end of the Indian River Lagoon system you can fish in both Indian River Lagoon and Mosquito Lagoon. Capt. Mike Hakala fishes this area all year long. Mike says that when May comes around the water is warm enough that the bigger fish are starting to spawn. As a result, they feed aggressively, especially early in the day.
His favorite places to fish always have a dropoff, and they are usually either sand bars, like Mosquito Lagoon's Tiger Shoal, or oyster bars, such as those found in the numerous creeks in the Edgewater-New Smyrna Beach area. There should be plenty of bait against the bar, such as schools of finger mullet. Early morning, from first light to perhaps an hour after sunrise, is always best unless there's a heavy overcast. That can extend the good fishing time well into the day.
Capt. Hakala prefers using artificial lures and has two favorites. The first is a Top Dog Jr., which he uses to "walk the dog." The other is his own Flats Candy Minnow. This single-hook lure has neutral buoyancy, and when it's worked along bars where baitfish are present, it is particularly deadly.
Although Mike prefers not to use live bait, he says it also works.
"The biggest trout any of my anglers has ever caught was an 30-inch 11-pound fish that a woman got while drifting a live shrimp along an oyster bar at noontime one day in June," he notes.
For more information or to book a day of guided fishing in northern Indian River Lagoon or Mosquito Lagoon, give a call to Capt. Mike Hakala at 1-800-368-8340 or visit www.floridays.com on the Internet.
Sebastian Capt. Terry Parsons has guided on the waters of the central portion of the Indian River Lagoon around Sebastian Inlet for over 20 years. During the warmer months of the year, Terry prefers tossing surface plugs for trout, although he admits that he would probably be more successful on the really big trout if he baited up with live pigfish.
"The west side of the lagoon has a lot of residential docks," he explains. "Some of these consistently hold several species of fish, including big trout. The best docks look beat-up and have at least 18 inches of water underneath them. The deeper the water, the more likely it is that they'll have fish.
"The spoil islands are another good place to hunt for trout," he notes in regard to the debris islands along the Intracoastal Waterway, which traverses the lagoon. "The west sides of most of these islands have a bar extending toward the shore, with drop-offs all around it. These are good places to use surface plugs early in the morning.
"The North Clam Lease, east of marker 51 north of Sebastian Inlet, is a great drift-fishing area," he points out. "Try to set up a long wind drift between the channel and the flats, and cast with surface plugs or jigs.
"You can also drift or pole along the deeper part of the flats along the east side of the lagoon. Try to cast over deeper cuts through the grass. The fish will frequently lie in these cuts, particularly on an outgoing tide."
For more information or guide services, contact Capt. Terry Parsons at (772) 589-7782.
Fort Pierce/Stuart Capt. Mark Nichols, president of DOA Lures, gets as many big trout at the south end of the lagoon between Fort Pierce and St. Lucie inlets as anyone I know.
"First of all," Nichols says, "if you want big trout, you need to be where you think they are going to be when it is barely light enough to see. I like morning best, but evenings work as well.
"I prefer fishing on flats or off of bars between St. Lucie and Fort Pierce inlets on an outgoing tide. We always wade, since silence is a prerequisite for consistently catching trout of 6 pounds or better. The low profile and unobtrusiveness of a wader can't be matched by anyone who is in any kind of boat."
When Nichols looks for gator trout, he keys on schools of big black mullet that are rooting in the bottom, making muds. The trout don't eat these mullet, but they pig out on everything the mullet stir up. This situation invariably takes place in water that is at most knee-deep.
"I use either DOA Shrimp or a red-head/white-body shallow-running Bait Buster," the captain notes. "I cast them at right angles to the current, let them swing downcurrent, and work them back through the mud very slowly."
For more on gator trout fishing on the lower lagoon, contact Capt. Mark Nichols at (772) 287-5001 or visit www.doalure.com on the Internet.
Tampa Bay Capt. Dan Malzone fishes Tampa Bay for seatrout, and during the summer he likes the area around Fort DeSoto, near the mouth of the bay.
"The water is usually cleaner there, and it's almost always cooler, which is important during the hot weather," he says. "I like fishing over deep grass flats, in 6 to 8 feet of water, although dropoffs around bars can also be productive. The trout like to lie on the bottom near bars or on those deep flats during the hot weather.
"I prefer using fly tackle for these fish," he continues. "I use heavy chartreuse and white Clouser minnows with either a floating or a sink tip line, letting the boat drift as we blind-cast over these deep flats. A high outgoing tide works best for me, either at dawn or dusk. Fishing this way just doesn't work when the sun is up. It's also very important to be silent. Noise equals no fish.
"If I'm not fly-fishing, I'll use spinning tackle with white bait, a pilchard-like baitfish," he adds. "The bigger baits work better for the bigger trout, which typically are 3 to 4 pounds, with an occasional larger fish mixed in. I live-line the baits on a single size 1/0 hook with a fluorocarbon leader and no weight of any kind. You need to set the hook on the fish as soon as it strikes to avoid gut-hooking them."
To contact Capt. Dan Malzone about a day of guided fishing, call (813) 831-4052.
Panama City/Destin Capt. Gordie Hinds fishes the Florida Panhandl
e between Panama City and Destin, paying particular attention to Choctowhatchee and St. Andrews bays. He especially targets the arms of this latter body of water when searching for big trout.
"I like to throw large topwater plugs when I fish for big trout," he says. "The Top Dog and Top Dog Jr. are both good, especially in that bone color. I don't know why, but that one will often work when nothing else will.
"I also like YoZuri HydroTigers. These plugs are big, but I don't think you can have a plug that's too big for big trout, which up here is anything around 5 pounds or better," he says. "You can cast them a mile and cover a lot of water, and they really attract the attention of gator trout."
Fishing big grass flats that have considerable tidal flow and sandy patches on the bottom is another of Capt. Hinds' secrets. Four feet or less of water is the preferred depth, but the shallower it is the better for this sight fishing.
"The best times of day are real early and late, when it's almost too dark to see," he notes. "The number of these fish you catch in the middle of the day is so small I would just as soon fish for something else then.
"It's extremely important to be quiet when fishing for big trout. Any noise at all puts them on the alert. They see very well and are among the spookiest fish you can target."
Capt. Gordie Hinds can be reached at (850) 622-0611.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Capt. John Kumiski is a free-lance writer who makes his home in Cuhluota and is a frequent contributor to Florida Game & Fish.
Capt. Kumiski also guides on the Banana, Indian and Mosquito lagoons. To book a day of fishing with him, call (407) 977-5207.
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