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Panhandling for Summer Trout

Panhandling for Summer Trout

Catching speckled trout along West Florida's shore takes more than charity. You need to know what the trout are doing, which provides clues to the places to fish and tactics to use this month.

By Rod Hunter

No knowledgeable angler is going to list August as a hot month for catching seatrout along Florida's Panhandle coast. Unless, of course, they are talking about the weather!

By the time we enter August, the Gulf of Mexico becomes, as one veteran guide termed it, one large, warm bathtub. And that only describes the water temperatures. Anglers above the surface are going to get an even bigger dose of the heat.

For a notoriously delicate fish like the trout, these are not the most favorable conditions for feeding. Nor is the situation the most comfortable for anglers pursuing them.

However, as many experienced fishermen have discovered, trout still must eat, so they can still be caught. In fact, for anglers who understand how trout behave when "beating the heat," limit catches are not uncommon. Here's a look at three areas along the Panhandle where the fishing can indeed be hot in August.

The maze of bays, sounds, passes, and rivers in the Pensacola area offers some of the best, although often-overlooked, trout fishing in Florida - even in August.

"Santa Rosa Sound is probably one of the best trout fisheries in the state, although not a lot of people have heard of it," says veteran Pensacola guide Wes Rozier. "It won't produce as many 7-pound-plus trout as some of the top big-trout areas might, but when it comes to numbers of quality fish, I'd put it up against some of the best waters in Florida."


Just why that is so can be summed up in one word - grass.

The largest trout are found in the grassbeds that are in water at least 6 feet deep along the Panhandle shore at this time of year. Photo by Rod Hunter

"Submerged grassbeds are premier cover for trout," Rozier states. "They provide the kind of clean water that trout love, along with a wealth of baitfish, and the cover trout need. Santa Rosa Sound, unlike a lot of other spots in this area, is loaded with grass. You can run from one end to the other and find good grassbeds on both sides."

The grass Rozier refers to is locally called "eelgrass" or "snake grass." It is a distinctly bladed grass that normally grows little more than a foot or so off the bottom. In the sound, large beds of this grow so shallow they almost reach the shoreline, but frequently extend as much as 40 yards outward. When they reach the first significant drop into deeper water, lack of light penetration prohibits further growth.

For Rozier, this is a key cover for trout. But given the size of these grassbeds, he can be a bit picky about which sections he chooses to fish.

"When you have a dim light situation," he explains, "the bigger trout seem to prefer to get up into some very shallow areas. At dawn or dusk, you may find the larger fish well towards the shoreline side of the grass, in depths as shallow as 2 to 3 feet. There's a lot of bait up there, and the bigger fish don't seem to feel like they are as vulnerable to other predatory fish in that shallow water as the smaller trout might be.

"That's a peak time and condition to go after some of these larger trout that may go 5 pounds or better," he continues, "and on a real overcast day with an approaching storm front, you might actually find these fish up in that extremely shallow grass for much of the day."

Under those dim light situations the fish are there to eat, and Rozier recommends aggressive lures like topwater plugs. Virtually any topwater lure that will catch largemouth bass will also catch trout. The key is to get it to the fish when they are there and ready to eat. Unfortunately, that can often be a brief period.

"Once the sun gets up and starts to beat on the water," says Rozier, "those bigger trout tend to move back to the very outside edge of that particular grassbed. I mean right down to the exact dividing line on the end of the drop where the grass ends and the open water begins. If you look hard enough you might find some of them, but they can be scattered."

For those who missed the morning bite and would prefer to do more catching than looking, Rozier does have a back-up plan.

"The smaller school trout don't seem to make as radical a depth shift during the course of the day," he notes. "They seem to be very content to range along the outer portions of the grass in 4 to 6 feet of water. Fish the shallow side of that depth on a dark day and deeper on a bright one. But if you concentrate on good grassbeds in that depth range, you should find some trout."

For those deeper fish, Rozier often favors a leadhead jig and plastic trailer. Many anglers here fish the rig under a float, but this guide has another trick up his sleeve.

"I use a topwater plug like a Zara Spook," he explains, "and remove all the hooks except for the front treble. I then tie an 18-inch leader onto the tail and run a plastic jig on that. The plug does the same job the float does - keeping the jig dancing above the grass without getting down and fouling in it. But there are times when you can run across some aggressive fish that bypass the jig and attack the float. These are often larger trout, and with a float you don't have a prayer. With the topwater plug you catch some of them. Using this kind of plug instead of a float doesn't affect the action of the jig at all. It's the best of both worlds."

While the grass flats of Santa Rosa Sound often capture his attention, Rozier also notes that anglers shouldn't overlook the mouths of the Blackwater, Escambia and Perdido rivers.

"A lot of trout in this area are very river-oriented," he states. "That is basically where they live for much of the year and they make an annual summer migration to the Gulf waters to spawn. But by late August, many of them are heading back to the rivers and they can stack up in serious numbers on the mud flats at the mouths. Few people fish the river mouths, but you can have some fantastic trout action."

To arrange a day of guided trout fishing in the Pensacola area, contact Wes Rozier at (850) 457-7476, or on his cell phone at (850) 982-7858.

Moving east along the Panhandle coast, Apalachicola Bay is the next inshore angling epicenter. As in the Pensacola area, savvy anglers key on grass.

"Water tem

peratures get very high here in August," says Harry McGhin, who operates Apalachicola Bay Fishing Charters and specializes in inshore angling for trout and reds, "and the trout tend to move into deeper water once you get past May and June. You can still find some fish in shallower water, especially early in the morning, but they tend to be widely scattered. The most consistent pattern for locating August trout in this area is to find submerged grass in about the 6-foot depth range."

Simple enough - at least, at first glance. But sometimes finding the grass can be half the battle!

"Apalachicola Bay does not have a lot of submerged grass," McGhin notes. "There are many areas of the bay where the current flow prevents it from growing and you are left with sand bottom and oyster. These can be very productive in cooler weather, but are not normally good bets in the late summer."

Anglers seeking grass find good cover along the shore side of the bay to the east of the town of Apalachicola, between East Point and Carrabelle. McGhin rates this as a normally productive section and feels that trout use this area to spawn, since he often catches roe-laden trout there in August. Another grassy section is along the inside edge of St. George Island, particularly in the areas of Marsh Island, Pelican Reef, Goose Island, Horseshoe Cove and Cedar Point.

Anglers concentrating their efforts in these areas won't have much trouble finding grass.

For McGhin, however, the next step is finding the right grass.

"Grass is the key," he states, "but those grassbeds that border on some type of depth change are normally going to be the most productive. Apalachicola Bay doesn't have a lot of sharp drops and break lines. It's a pretty shallow bay with a gradual slope and a rather gentle gradient. But trout love to hang on drops, so even a depth change of just a foot can be important."

If that is the best depth change they can get, they use it, and that particular section of grass normally plays host to a lot of the trout in that area. From there they may range a bit shallower - up into 4-foot depths - early and late in the day, or even during the midday if it is heavily overcast. But during the brighter, hotter midday hours, the deeper grass on a drop in the 6- to 7-foot range is normally the best bet.

While McGhin can get very selective regarding the grass he fishes, there is one situation in which he pretty much takes whatever he can get.

"This is a very shallow bay, and a strong wind can stir it up pretty quickly," he explains. "Trout require clean water, and when it gets stirred up and turbid they shut down and refuse to bite, or they move to find cleaner water. That's one situation in which I would pay more attention to water color than depth, and I normally start looking for grass and clean water along the lee shoreline. On a north wind check the mainland shoreline, and on a south wind the inside of St. George Island can be good. But the place you caught them yesterday may be dead if it is stirred up, and you may have to go looking."

Like many Panhandle experts, McGhin is convinced that a plastic-tailed jig fished 18 to 24 inches under a noisy cork is hard to beat when fishing over submerged grass. He favors a 3-inch curly-tailed grub with a yellow body and a red tail.

If live bait is used, McGhin removes the jig and puts a 4- to 5-inch finger mullet, small pinfish, menhaden, or live shrimp under the float.

Another effective choice in this situation is a hard-plastic floater/diver jerkbait in white with a red head, or a flashy chrome baitfish pattern. Over six feet of submerged grass these can be twitched down to two or three feet below the surface, but staying right in the strike zone a foot or so above the top of the grass. The larger finger mullet profile and erratic action is often the ticket to trigger a strike from any bigger trout in the area.

Harry McGhin can be reached for guiding at Apalachicola Bay Charters by calling (850) 927-2931.

Moving to the extreme eastern end of the Panhandle, the hot topic for trout anglers is still grass. But they may have to travel a bit farther from the ramp to find such productive spots.

"Grass is the key cover for late summer trout, and you seldom find them around any other type of cover during August," states veteran guide Jody Campbell. "But unlike some of the areas to the west of us, the productive grass is frequently going to be outside the bay, and up to several miles out into the Gulf."

There are numerous offshore sandbars and humps, some located as close as a mile or so from the coast, that rise out of deeper water and play host to some surprisingly lush grassbeds.

Veteran Gulf anglers know these can be fish magnets during the summer months, and trout are one of their most popular residents.

"Some of these offshore grass bars can be pretty big," Campbell notes, "and the trout can roam anywhere along them. The most effective technique is to drift until you locate a school of trout and then concentrate on that area until you run out of fish.

"Everybody has their own particular method of doing this," he continues, "but I have always found it more effective to drift with the tide, and move from the deeper sides of the bar towards the shallower crown with the water movement. On a rising tide, I start on the Gulf side in 7 or 8 feet of water and let the tide move me up onto the shallower areas of the bar.

"On the ebb tide I do the reverse - start on the shoreline side and drift towards the crown from that direction."

Top lures for this situation are no different than those favored to the west - jerkbaits, a jig or live bait under a float, and topwater plugs during the early morning hours. The depth and cover the trout prefer may change, but the baits and lures they eat do not.

While the offshore action is normally best, bay-bound anglers can still corral some trout.

"The inner bay doesn't hold the concentrations of trout the offshore bars do," says Campbell, "and they can often be scattered. But there can be some excellent topwater action early in the morning - especially if you catch the tide on the last of the rise or the first part of the fall."

Grass is still a key, and Apalachee Bay has a lot of it, mixed in with shallow water oyster beds.

Campbell zeros in on those grassbeds lying along channel edges, points, and anywhere else there is a sharp break from deeper water to the shallows. That quick access from deeper water to the grass is critical during August. So, too, is the layout of the grassbed itself.

"I want to find those sections of the grassbed where you have a good number of white holes," explains Campbell. "These are sand and gravel openings in the

grass, and they seem to draw bigger trout. They can tuck themselves into one edge of that hole and have a perfect ambush situation for any forage fish that hits that opening. Big trout don't do a lot of chasing. They ambush, and white holes are the perfect ambush spot. The more you have of them in grass that is adjacent to a deep water break, the more of those bigger trout you find."

Jody Campbell can be contacted for guided trout-fishing trips in the Apalachee Bay area by calling (850) 926-1173.

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