Cool Trout at Cocoa Beach
September 30, 2010
The stretch of shoreline around this Space Coast town offers some great speckled trout angling in the colder months of fall and winter. Here's how to find and catch some of these seatrout this year.
By Tony Clifton
It's no secret that Florida's seatrout population has boomed during the years following the adoption of the net ban constitutional amendment. Coastal areas where just a few short years ago catching a couple of 14-inch trout was something to brag about are now producing excellent numbers of 15- to 20-inch fish. Four- to 5-pound trout are no longer considered once-in-a-lifetime catches.
That's good news for anglers whose local trout fisheries suffered greatly in years past but are now on the mend.
For those who pursue their trout around the Space Coast area, however, the statewide rebound has only made a great trout fishery better.
"The area from Mosquito Lagoon to Vero Beach has always been one of the best spots in the state for both numbers of trout and big trout," says Capt. Shawn Foster, who has spent over 20 years guiding inshore anglers on these waters. "Even when commercial netting was at its peak, the habitat here was of such a quality that it would still produce a lot of trout, and some of the largest trout in the Southeast. Now that the netting has largely been stopped, things have only gotten better."
That is especially true during the fall and winter months. A quick look at the diverse nature of the habitat certainly explains why the cooler months may well be the best time to visit this trout-rich locale.
This 100-mile stretch of water is some of the most varied and productive estuary habitat in Florida. On the upper end, in Mosquito Lagoon, numerous small mangrove islands are bisected by a maze of channels and bordered by a wealth of abbreviated grass flats. It's a backcountry bonanza to rival that of the Ten Thousand Islands region of the west coast. The area provides a tremendous amount of prime shallow-water cover that trout can easily utilize during the warmer months.
Move farther south into the Banana River and the terrain opens to an inland lake with little tidal flow but an extensive series of shallow grass flats bordered by a lesser number of mangrove shorelines. The grass flats may extend as much as a quarter-mile off of the shore, and trout can freely roam anywhere along them.
Slide into the Indian River, to the west, and the situation changes again.
Capt. Shawn Foster hoists one of the gator-sized trout that the Cocoa area gives up during November. Photo by Tony Clifton
Here one is faced with deeper water, and given the smaller number of grass flats combined with urban run-off, the water is not as clear as in the previous two areas. The west bank has some grass flats in the 2- to 5-foot-depth range, while the primary cover on the east bank is scattered small grass flats with a lot of boat docks.
As one gets closer to the Vero Beach area, the river narrows, deepens, and presents a considerable amount of mangrove shoreline and some very narrow grass flats.
In terms of a diverse habitat, there is likely none better in Florida for the continued production of trout - and big trout at that. In fact, the current world-record spotted seatrout weighed in at 17.7 pounds and was caught just a few years ago on the southern end of the area.
In terms of locating the trout, however, the sheer expanse of habitat poses its own set of problems. There is simply too much room for fish to roam. During warmer weather, roam they will. No mangrove shoreline is too shallow for trout to move up and feed upon. They can literally be in water less than a foot deep, and this vast expanse of shallow flats and mangrove shorelines provides plenty of it.
In short, while the trout are both large and numerous, anglers have to search through a lot of water to find them - at least, they do during warmer weather.
All that begins to change when the first chill breezes of winter start to blow. Such weather can occur as early as the first weeks of November.
"Once that water begins to cool," Foster states, "the trout tend to stage up to move to their winter ranges, and when they do they become a lot easier to find. They stop roaming all that shallow water and begin to drop back to deeper channel edges and sharper drops. That puts a lot of trout into a lot less water and makes the cooler months the best times to fish this area."
The fall months are a high transitional period for Cocoa Beach trout. The weather guides their movements, and changing weather can produce an almost daily reversal of their movement patterns.
"There is no tidal flow in this estuary system," Foster explains, "so the trout behave more like largemouth bass in a freshwater lake. During warmer weather they move up very shallow onto the grass flats and the mangrove island edges during the early morning and late afternoon. During the midday hours they drop back towards the deeper end of the grass flats. This is a normal warm weather pattern."
Add a bit of chilly weather, however, and that normal daily movement pattern reverses itself.
"Once the nighttime temperatures start to consistently drop into the 50s," Foster continues, "the morning movement to the extreme shallows stops. The fish start holding on the deeper edges of the flats, especially in areas where you have a fairly sharp drop from 2 to 4 or 5 feet of water. They may move up to the extreme shallows around the mangrove islands and shorelines for a short period during the midday, but those movements will be brief. It's a complete reversal of their normal summer pattern and it is dependent on the temperature. If we get a week of cold weather, they spend most of their time on those drops. If we get a week of unseasonably hot weather and have daytime temperatures in the high 70s and low 80s, they turn right around and go back to their summer patterns. This type of yo-yo situation can occur through November, and you have to plan your trip according to what the weather has been for the last couple of days. It's definitely a transitional period and you have to stay on your toes."
This on-again-off-again pattern lasts until the first solid cold front of the fall. In most years that occurs somewhere around Thanksgiving. While most anglers curse a sharp cold front, Cocoa Beach trout experts relish that first winter blast!
"The first sharp three-day cold front of the winter will settle these fish right into their winter patterns and concentrate them on deeper drops," Foster emphasizes. "You may get some brief midday movements to very shal
low flats if you have a good warm-up after a front, but for the most part that big cold snap is going to stack these fish up and make them a lot easier to find."
There are several depth and cover situations that Foster has found can consistently produce winter trout in the Cocoa Beach area, and he notes that it is well worth an angler's time to locate them. One is a sharply dropping mangrove shoreline.
"The ideal situation," he explains, "is a mangrove shoreline that has just a short stretch of clean sand bottom right at the base of the mangroves and then drops quickly off into at least 3 feet of water, with 6 or 7 feet being better. The closer the drop is to the mangroves, the more productive the spot is likely to be. If there is a long flat between the mangroves and the dropoff, it is not going to hold nearly as many fish. Winter trout want a very quick access to deeper water, and they aren't normally going to make lengthy movements."
While mangrove shorelines are easy to find, it can take some searching to locate the precise points along where deeper water meets the trees. But the effort is certainly worth it. It's quite possible to have a 1/4-mile stretch of mangrove with grass flats extending for various distances outward from it, and just a few spots where the channel swings in tight to the trees. Those few key places may well hold the majority of the trout in that area.
Docks are another key winter holding point, and they are a lot easier to visually locate. But there are some subtle clues that can help anglers determine which are likely going to be the most productive.
"The best docks," Foster notes, "are those that have 4 to 6 feet of water off their end. That's pretty deep water in this area. Of those deeper docks, the older wooden ones are normally more productive than those set with PVC pilings. Old wood accumulates marine growth, which sets up a mini food chain. It will draw baitfish, which makes it convenient for the trout. Another big plus is if there is oyster located around the end of the dock. This contributes to the food chain and gives the trout everything they need for a winter holding spot. They've got deep water, food and cover. They don't have to do much moving and you can have trout hanging on these key docks all winter long."
While mangrove drops and docks are prime winter habitat and serve as central holding points from December through February, a sudden warming trend may move fish off of them temporarily. A week of 80-degree weather may ease the trout to the nearest shallow flat for brief periods during the midday hours. They are not totally corralled. But Foster knows one other situation where they are.
"If I had to pick the one depth and cover situation that would provide the most consistent winter trout fishing in this area, it would be the manmade canals," he states. "Not all trout move into the canals. In fact, a lot of the smaller trout just stay out on the drops and docks. But when it comes to big trout, the canals are the best bet."
It's not hard to see why. Unlike the "buck trout," larger fish don't roam as much. In that respect, they share a lot in common with trophy-sized largemouth bass. When they find an area that serves their needs during that particular season, they are in no hurry to wander off and look for another one. As long as the conditions and forage are good, they can remain in one relatively small area for months. When it comes to the requirements of a large trout in the colder months, it's hard to beat a canal.
"Trout want deeper water during the winter," Foster points out, "and the manmade canals in the Cocoa Beach area are the deepest water available. Even a shallow canal will be 4 feet deep, and there are some that go to over 12 feet.
"They also want access to shallow areas where they can feed effectively," he continues. "There is plenty of shoreline in a canal, and it's just a tail flick away from deep water. It's the best environment around, and the big trout will normally be in those canals by mid-December and stay until at least late February."
While any canal can be attractive, Foster finds that the best ones have three key ingredients.
The first is a maximum depth of at least 10 feet. This provides the deep refuge a coldwater trout needs, and there are few places in the area outside of canals that can provide that depth of water.
The second is that the canal needs some areas of natural, undeveloped mangrove shoreline located within just a few hundred yards of it. These are the feeding areas.
Lastly, look for those canals meeting the above requirements that have large boats that look like they have not been used in a while and are moored to docks. These provide the cover a large trout feels comfortable with.
Hit this trifecta, and the fishing can get very interesting!
"On a warm afternoon," Foster notes, "you can often see these big trout in the canals just suspending a few inches below the surface next to docks or boats. It's awesome to see a wad of 6- to 12-pound trout just lying there. And they can be caught if you do it right."
Doing it right starts with the proper tackle, and that applies whether one is fishing canals of the drops or docks in the open lagoon. Cold water limits plankton and algae growth, resulting in extremely clear water. Big trout are wary, and longer casts are needed. Foster favors a 7-foot spinning rod and reel, spooled with 10-pound-test line. A 24-inch section of 20-pound fluorocarbon leader completes the rig. There are a number of live baits and lures he may choose to tie on.
When it comes to sight-fishing for big basking trout in a canal, Foster is convinced that a live jumbo shrimp in the 4- to 5-inch range is the best way to start.
"Rig this without weight on a 2/0 shook," he says, "and toss it behind and to one side of them. Let them see it, but don't hit them on the head with it. Just ease it into their view and a lot of times they slide over and eat it."
Soft-plastic jerkbaits can also be effective, especially if trout aren't visible and you are blind-casting. This lure can be rigged on a light, open jighead for canals, or in Texas style with a wide-gap hook when you're working mangrove drops or docks. Natural baitfish colors are normally best.
Both baits also work well on mangrove drops and docks, but here Foster adds to his repertoire a live 4- to 5-inch mullet, a 4-inch mud minnow, or a 3-inch pinfish. These are tail-hooked with a very light split shot placed 18 inches above them. Tossed to the shallow side of the drop and eased gently over it, they attract even the most sluggish coldwater trout.
Under certain specific situations, Foster will also tie on a topwater plug.
"If you get a strong four- or five-day warming trend," notes Foster, "these trout eat topwater baits. This is especially true if the warming trend is followed by another strong cold front. I've had days just before a big front when
catching 100 trout was nothing. They just go crazy if you're in the right place."
Keep these tips in mind, and you'll be in the right place for Cocoa Beach's winter trout.
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