September 30, 2010
The Sunshine State's most popular saltwater fish can provide great sport along our southeast shore. Yet some areas simply do not attract these fish. Let's see why and where these situations exist. (November 2006)
Mastering the fishery for seatrout along Florida's most populated coastline involves understanding and searching out prime habitat.
This is true for all angling efforts, but is especially necessary along Florida's Gold Coast, where development has reduced seatrout habitat significantly, albeit in different ways.
Remember that the spotted seatrout's entire life cycle revolves around inshore sea grass bottom. The larger and more varied the size of this grassy habitat, the more seatrout it can hold. Couple this with large surrounding bays featuring a brackish ecology backed up by some mangroves, and you're really in business!
The inland waters from Palm Beach to Fort Lauderdale simply don't have this kind of habitat that supports a large seatrout population. To the south, however, Miami's North and South Biscayne Bay feature widened inland waters with extensive sea grass beds and excellent seatrout fishing.
The habits and feeding preferences of Gold Coast seatrout reflect the general tendencies of the species statewide. The temperate, moderate days of spring and fall are very much to the liking of "spotsides." The months of March, April, May, October, and November are peak times to pursue these fish, since the conditions can often produce an all-day "bite."
The chill of winter dictates afternoon fishing, and the heat of summer encourages early and late angling efforts. Fortunately, spring and fall keep seatrout fishing endeavors to more civilized, less red-eyed times.
Fall fishing for Gold Coast seatrout also involves seasonal specifics. This is a time when there's less daylight, caused by the shorter days, as well as the cloud systems associated with cold fronts cascading through the region.
Aficionados know that seatrout generally seem to bite better in a low-light setting. Fall brings increased winds from fronts and high-pressure cells that follow fronts, and those winds create surface wavelets over the grass flats.
Such conditions make seatrout more likely to strike. You find that these spotted predators, as "ambush and lunge" feeders at this time of year, have less chance to examine your offerings for authenticity.
Of equal importance is that the fall season brings the annual heralded mullet run into the Gold Coast. This event can run from late September well into November by the time the baitfish reach the inside grass flats of North and South Biscayne Bay. As the mullet mill, hurdle, or shower down the mainland side flats, you can be sure the trout are feeding on them from below.
As November wears on, shrimp runs take the place of the mullet in Dade County and again stimulate the seatrout's predatory instinct. These may be different grass flats than those that featured mullet runs, but the resulting action is the same.
Another bonus of Gold Coast seatrout is the unexpectedly large proportions of "gator" trout that Biscayne Bay offers up. That is particularly true of the North Bay section of Dade County.
Some anglers have theorized that North Bay trout often run bigger than in South Bay due to less angling pressure in the more urbanized, less picturesque north section. While this may be true, a broader explanation would include the huge amount of baitfish -- such as glass minnows, whitebait, and mullet -- that funnel through the smaller North Bay. This gives the North Bay seatrout a proportionately much higher protein potential per square mile than South Bay.
Gator experts also know that large trout love large finfish meals, a fact that backs up that second theory. Regardless of the whys and wherefores, your seatrout efforts in northern Biscayne Bay may result in a trophy-sized trout that keeps you coming back for more!
GATORS VS. SCHOOLIES
Knowing how the habits of smaller trout and gator trout tend to differ is the basis for solid angling techniques for spotsides. Though the two may mingle around mullet muds, smaller fish of 1 to 3 pounds often school together. Larger seatrout of 4 to 10 pounds tend to be more solitary.
It is quite common to find smaller fish schooling well up on a grass flat at high tide. These trout are quite responsive to techniques like drifting artificial or natural baits under popping corks. Big gator trout pick out areas offering more of a high-protein reward. Expect to find them around dropoffs, potholes, grass clumps, mullet-attracting sandbars, and nighttime dock lights.
Examining the stomach contents of large and small trout provides clues that can guide you towards the most effective baiting techniques. My own research has turned up pinfish, pigfish, mullet, needlefish, pilchards, small seatrout, gobies, and even a sea horse. Smaller seatrout have yielded higher numbers of small minnows, shrimp, whitebaits, and a few small crabs.
Therefore, at least along the Gold Coast, utilizing large finfish baits and artificial lures that imitate them are best for gator trout. I've followed this rule since 1962, and it's netted me trout up to 9 pounds -- which, along this part of Florida's coast, constitute true trophy fish.
Bottom line is, leave the popping corks and live shrimp alone until you encounter smaller school trout. Then you can employ this popular rig with great success on the grass flats, attracting multiple fish to the chugging sound that the cork produces.
Since the grass flats of the Gold Coast feature hordes of pinfish, the practice of using live shrimp under a popping cork is often unrealistic and quite expensive -- the pinfish make short work of them. Instead, consider using a D.O.A. artificial shrimp or a mullet strip as substitutes. Both of these baits are far more durable.
Also, choose your natural and artificial baits to resemble the baitfish that are prevalent over Gold Coast grass flats in the fall. Those include normal-sized silver mullet, finger mullet, pilchards and, during the winter, shrimp.
"Matching the hatch" is a good idea wherever you're fishing. Moreover, when your targets are trophy trout, use the "Large bait, large fish" concept. Oftentimes, a bigger fish will grab these big baits crosswise in its mouths, pinning them down with its pair of canine-like teeth. Then, as the trout swims along, it turns the bait, lining it up to go down its gullet headfirst.
Finally, the victim is swallowed in a couple of
vicious gulps. Perhaps this is part of the reason the big trout are called gators!
Obviously, in order to obtain an optimal hook-set with big natural baits, give your fish a little more time to swallow the offering. To the trout, the newer artificial soft-plastic jerkbaits have a fleshy, realistic feel. This increases the amount of time a trout will hold onto this kinds of offerings before spitting them out.
Adding to the soft lure a gel attractant like Carolina Lunker Sauce may increase the length of a gator trout's "grab-and-mouth" time even more.
LOCATION, LOCATION AND LOCATION
It is just like in real estate -- location is everything in seatrout action in this region. Remember that on the Gold Coast, Florida's most likely and productive seatrout habitat lies in Dade County's North and South Biscayne Bay. Miami's Government Cut separates these two bodies of water. Each area has plenty of sea grass flats that hold seatrout. Because of their characteristics, each area "fishes" somewhat differently. Yet both areas have excellent hotspots that are quite easily found and fished.
North Biscayne Bay is bounded by Haulover Cut to the north and Government Cut in the south. North Bay has only two ocean inlets to feed it and is more lagoon-like, in that it is more easily impacted by freshwater from rain and run-off.
The brackish quality of North Bay makes it the epicenter of some very productive trout fishing. Although any grass beds in water from 3 to 6 feet should produce seatrout, some areas are true hotspots. All of them can be found on maps or by asking tackle shops or marinas.
Using the Broad Causeway as your northernmost east-west running boundary, fish the grass flats to the west of Miami Beach's Biscayne Point and Stillwater Drive. Another location on the mainland side is on the grass flats east of the Jockey Club. Or, using the John F. Kennedy (79th Street) Causeway as your northern boundary, fish the huge grass flat on the Miami Beach side that runs west of Mulloy Channel from La Gorce Island to the back of Mount Sinai Hospital.
Finally, on the mainland side, fish the grass flats east of Palm Bay Towers. All these areas are trout hotspots year 'round, but they are truly hot during fall and spring.
South Bay begins on the southern side of the Rickenbacker Causeway that leads to Virginia Key and Key Biscayne. One of the best hotspots in this region lies along the south shore of the causeway at an area called Hobie Beach. The flat runs from the high bridge right to the Seaquarium.
Be sure to arrive early in the day, during a high tide. Toss a D.O.A. shrimp inside the buoys and let the action begin. Be sure to keep your vessel outside the buoys. The inside is prohibited area.
South Bay's seatrout hotspots are primarily on the mainland side from the Viscaya historic house all the way down to Coconut Grove, and then from Matheson Hammock to the Florida Power and Light facility at Turtle Point. As the grass flats are quite shallow, it's best to fish them on a late-stage incoming tide coupled with some onshore wind.
TECHNIQUES FOR SEATROUT
It is always a good idea to fish the lower-light times of day for trout: Dusk, nighttime, dawn, and overcast days produce more seatrout along the Gold Coast.
Tidal considerations for seatrout are less important. Any lunar or tidal phase is capable of yielding good catches. All you need to realize is that trout move into the flats on the rising tide and spread out to feed. On the falling tide, conversely, trout move off the flats and concentrate along flats and dropoffs, watching for baitfish exiting the shallows.
There are four main methods for fishing the grass flats of the Gold Coast -- drifting, poling-and-casting, working the mullet muds, and chumming.
The reason why one other method â€“ wading-and-casting -- is not included for Gold Coast seatrout is because many of the grass flats have a mud bottom that is too soft for wading and can even be hazardous.
All that is needed for drifting the trout flats is a small vessel and some breeze. This can be done in canoes, kayaks, flats or bay boats. Just drift along quietly. When the strikes start coming, you can throw out a marker for your next drift over your newly found honeyhole.
As to bait presentation, fish popping corks with mullet strips on the upwind side of your vessel. Make sure that your drifting baits are far enough away from your hull to give the trout, which you may have spooked on the drift, time to settle down. I routinely fish mullet strips 100 feet upwind and use microbraid lines to compensate for the relationship of long lines and poor hookups.
Poling-and-casting the trout flats is a technique that ignores the wind and involves deliberate pushing the vessel near to fishy-looking spots and fan-casting those areas with baits or lures.
With this technique, it's essential that you cover the entire water column from top to bottom. This method need not be done just by poling. You can use oars, paddles, or even electric motors. The important distinction between this method and drifting is that you can pick where you're going.
Seatrout are generally not sight-cast as individual fish. Instead, anglers fan-cast to areas that are likely looking hangouts. These are generally potholes and dropoffs, especially if they hold schools of baitfish.
Working the mullet muds for seatrout can be an extremely productive method. Muds are enticing to seatrout because when mullet root along the bottom eating algae, they stir up bottom life, like shrimp, into the water column, making easy picking for the trout. If the mullet muds are created by finger mullet, the seatrout will grab them as well.
When approaching a mud, having the highest vantage point possible is a real plus. That way, you can see the mud actually welling up, indicating in real time where the banquet is being served. In my experience, the best place to do this is from the poling tower of a flats boat. When searching for muds, wear glare-blocking polarized sunglasses and a long-peaked cap with a dark underside.
Some of the best baits for fishing muds are soft artificial lures that have bright colors, with scents impregnated or added. Bucktails tipped with a piece of fresh shrimp also work well.
Although it may come as a surprise to seatrout anglers, some of my best days on the grass flats have come from chumming. The ideal times for this are extremely windy, cloudy days that also feature good current. All you need is the standard ground-fish block chum, a mesh bag, and a good anchor and line to keep your vessel steady.
On the rising tide, let the chum scent pass onto the flat. On the falling tide, position your vessel on the channel edge and chum the dropoff to draw the trout exiting the flat.
When you try this method, you'll first see pinfish and pilchards rising off the stern to gobble the chum particles, eventually followed by the seatrout. This is an ideal time to fish finger-sized mullet strips well back in the chum line on straight 10-pound spinning rigs, with 1/0 hooks and no leader. This is a method of trout fishing that can always be employed during inclement weather on the Gold Coast grass flats.