June 03, 2022
Large speckled seatrout—aka "yellowmouths," aka "gators"—are an elusive fish. Once trout get to about 20 inches, their diet switches from shrimp to mostly fish and they move out of deep, grassy bays to prowl shallow flats, docks, piers and the open beach.
Big seatrout also become extremely spooky, rivaling bonefish in their tendency to take flight at the bump of a push pole or the wave of a rod. Seatrout are caught from the Carolinas to south Texas, and because they’re found in so many types of habitats over hundreds of miles of coastline, there are a lot of different tactics for catching them.
The muddy, high-flow tidal creeks from North Carolina through St. Augustine, Fla., are live-bait country, while the clearer, sand-bottomed bays and beaches of the rest of Florida allow success with artificials. Alabama, Mississippi and Louisiana have more murky water in general, and the high fertility of it produces fatter trout than those found in most of Florida. Saltwater anglers in these states opt for artificials when the waters clear, but often rely on live baits when things are churned up. Texas has clear tidal lagoons and lots of grass flats like Florida, and artificials are the optimal offering here, too.
Wherever you chase lunker seatrout, the best bet is to offer them baitfish and baitfish imitations rather than real or fake shrimp, as studies of food preferences in trout have shown the larger fish feed mostly on finfish like croakers, pigfish, pinfish, scaled sardines and finger mullet among others.
Spring is a great time to look for trophy-class trout. The adults gather in nearshore locations, typically just off the edge of a large grass flat or in an area where flooded marsh and tidal creeks are nearby, but in water 4 to 8 feet deep. This is where they’ll spawn at night, often on the days around new and full moons from May through July.
Where there are large gathering of these spawners, you can actually hear them drumming on a calm night, particularly if you’re in a thin-hulled boat like an aluminum skiff, a kayak or canoe. It sounds a bit like the distant croak of frogs—a sort of "choom" sound. They don’t feed particularly well in these schools—they’ve got other things on their minds—but during the daylight hours the larger fish will spread out on nearby flats and pick off baitfish, and this is where some very interesting angling opportunities arise.
Large trout are known for occasionally pushing into water less than a foot deep to feed. They often follow schools of jumping mullet, which is one way to find them in areas you don’t know well. Although the mullet are adults and far too big for the trout to eat, their passage stirs up small baitfish, crabs and shrimp that the following trout pounce on.
Big trout also settle into prop scars in the shallows, as well as sand holes surrounded by grass or shell bottom. These fish rely on their camouflage to hide from prey, so they often hang motionless in the shadows at the edge, ready to rush out and grab any pinfish or mullet that comes swimming across the open water.
In clear waters like those found throughout south Florida and up the coast to Big Bend country, as well as in the bays along the Panhandle coast and in Texas’ Laguna Madre, it’s possible to sight-fish these big trout when the sun is high. It takes a silent approach, good eyes, polarized sunglasses and long casts to get them, but it’s the ultimate in fishing for gators.
Trout are far less visible than redfish because their spots and silver gray coloration allows them to blend with the bottom, but you can often pick out their shadow on light-colored sand like that found around lower Tampa Bay and Charlotte Harbor, or on limerock bottom like that found from Bayport to Steinhatchee.
On Texas’ Laguna Madre, the trout are sometimes found in water too shallow for anything but a "flats scooter" kayak or airboat, and wadefishing is the prime way to get within range of them.
Prior to and after the spawn, big trout also sometimes school up in the surf where the water is not so clear as to make them easy targets for bottlenose dolphins. This happens roughly from Orange Beach westward, particularly around the barrier island beaches of Dauphin, Ship, Horn and the Chandeleur islands, as well as in Texas from Port Aransas south.
It’s basically a matter of wading out to the first bar, then retrieving a walking topwater like the Rapala Skitter V or Heddon Spook, or a swim jig like the Z-Man Flex Jig rigged with a Z-Man Swimmin’ Trout Trick or Slick Lure along the length of the bar and just off the drop. Hang on, though—you might also hook a 20-pound redfish or jack.
Big-trout experts agree it’s hard to beat a pigfish or a croaker 4 to 5 inches long as a bait for trophy trout. The drumming noise these baits make on the hook draws yellowmouths from long distances. Pinfish also work, but not quite as well as the noisemakers. All three can be caught by setting a wire baitfish trap baited with shrimp tails or chopped baitfish chum on the flats. They can also be sabikied around rip-rap causeways and bridges.
The baits are typically fished with a Kahle-style widegap hook in size 3/0 or so behind the dorsal. They can be free-lined in the surf or on the flats or fished under a popping cork to keep them out of shell and rock bottoms. They’re deadly around deep docks and piers, luring out fish that ignore artificials.
My favorite setup for seatrout is a 2000-size reel on a medium-light, 7-foot spinning rod. The reel is loaded with 8-pound-test SpiderWire Ultracast braid, which is just slightly thicker than a strand of spider webbing and allows me to throw a 1/2-ounce lure into the next county.
I use Seaguar Gold Label 15-pound-test fluorocarbon leader beginning just outside the reel, which allows me to catch the fluoro with my finger when I cast. It’s tied in with a double uni knot trimmed close, with a drop of nail polish to smooth the flow through the guides.
This long leader not only acts as a stiffener to keep treble hooks from tangling in the more flexible braid, but also acts as a slightly stronger handle to control fish when I get them close. The long leader also allows repeated lure changes without having to retie a new leader.
When fishing docks and piers, move up to 15-pound-test braid and mono—otherwise you’ll break off a lot of trophies.
HANDLE WITH CARE
Because of the seatrout’s high reproduction rate, it does no harm to overall populations to keep fish for the table within the limits imposed by the various states. However, NOAA Fisheries reports that close to 80 percent of seatrout caught are now released. Whether those releases result in the fish surviving and growing larger depends entirely on the angler’s handling of them. Trout are among the most delicate of coastal species and are easily injured to the point they won’t survive for long after being let go.
If you opt for multi-hook lures when fishing for lunker trout, it’s a good idea to flatten the barbs on at least the rear treble. This allows easy release of those rare trophy females so that they may spawn…and perhaps even pay you a visit again next year when they’re a pound heavier.
The best way to release a seatrout is to keep the fish in the water and use your long-nose pliers to perform a no-touch dehooking. This is far easier with single-hook lures than plugs with trebles. Remember that the fish is basically holding its breath the whole time it’s out of water, so the dehooking and photographing should all be done in a minute or so if the fish is going to survive.
If you must handle the fish to get the hook out, it’s best to first scoop it up with a rubberized landing net or snap a small BogaGrip on the jaw, which will allow you to control the fish without putting the death grip on its shoulders and gill area. Wet your hands to avoid stripping the slime coat—a trout with a damaged slime coat usually does not survive, researchers say. Though it may swim off, bacteria sets in after a few days and soon kills it.
If you hold the fish up for a grip-and-grin, put one hand under the head, the other just ahead of the ventral fin and support it horizontally. This not only makes a more impressive photo, but also puts less stress on the fish. Avoid lipping a trout as bass anglers sometimes do. For starters, you’ll get a puncture wound in your thumb from the teeth, and you may dislocate the fish’s relatively delicate jawbone.
If you’re wadefishing, a great photo can be made by getting down to the fish’s level and lifting it just above the water as the picture is snapped. If a fish flops out of your hand and slams down on a boat deck, there’s no point in releasing it; instead, cut the throat latch, bleed it out and put it on ice.
And if you get into an area where cormorants or bottlenose dolphins have learned to prey on released fish (there are lots of these areas in southwest Florida), it’s best to crank up and find another school of trout. Otherwise, every fish you release will wind up as instant critter lunch.