Spotted seatrout are the most popular sportfish in Florida. This member of the drum family can be caught on a variety of live and artificial baits by anglers of all skill levels. But catching big, or "gator," trout isn't as easy as it seems. That is why outdoors writer and fishing guide Mike Holliday set out to write the definitive book on Cynoscion nebulosus. "For being such a popular species, there wasn't much information available," said Holliday, editor of Jupiter-based Florida Fishing Weekly. "But there are so many myths and misconceptions about spotted seatrout. I had to set the record straight."
Holliday's new book, Secrets for Catching Seatrout ($19.95, Frank Amato Publications Inc.), covers everything from tackle to tactics.
With spotted seatrout season set to reopen Jan. 1 in the south zone (south of Tarpon Springs' Fred Howard Park), here are a few tips from a pro to help you catch a big one:
Fish early and late: Seatrout have a layer of tissue behind the retina in their eyes called a tapetum lucidum, which allows them to see well in low-light conditions, much like a deer or cat. Most baitfish species don't have this type of vision, and are thus more susceptible to predation during those times. Seatrout grow up learning that they are more effective hunters in low light, and it becomes a habit to feed at those times.
Make the longest casts possible: Seatrout have good vision and hearing, and once you put a fish on guard, it's not likely to eat. By making the longest casts possible, you increase your chance of getting a strike from a fish that has no idea you are in the area. One of the best ways to increase your casting distance is to use a light, braided line that has a thinner diameter than monofilament.
Use artificial lures that resemble baitfish: As juveniles, 80 percent of a seatrout's diet is composed of shrimp, the other 20 percent is made up of fish. As a trout reaches maturity (around 15 inches in length) that equation flip flops. By using bait that trout feed on the majority of the time, you increase your chances of getting fish to bite.
Use shrimp or shrimp lures when the shrimp are running: When the shrimp are running (primarily March through May in Tampa Bay) a trout will focus on these crustaceans as the main source of its diet. That's when you have the best chance of getting them to eat.
Big baits catch big fish: Gator trout don't feed as frequently as the smaller fish because they eat larger food items. A large mullet or pinfish is a meal to a big fish. The same goes for lures. Use a topwater plug that represents a larger meal.
During cold weather, look for the largest fish to be in the shallows: It's commonly thought that trout move to deeper water during the height of winter. At night, larger trout move to the deeper water because it retains an average temperature longer. But during the day, when the sun is out, big trout move into shallow water, particularly over dark mud bottom to warm up and feed.
Look for grass flats with sandy potholes: Flats with dense grass and few potholes generally hold juvenile trout, which need the cover to hide from their greatest predator, adult seatrout. Gator trout have lighter colored backs, and tend to frequent the edges of sandy potholes where they can lunge out and grab any hapless baitfish that moves through the open area.
Use sound to your advantage: Most noise will scare trout and put them on guard, but the sound of fish feeding will actually attract trout from a distance. Use a popping cork — which mimics the sound of a predator eating a baitfish — to attract trout. Topwater lures that pop or splash like feeding fish work best.
When you catch a big trout, keep fishing: A common misconception about large trout is that they travel alone. That's usually not the case. When you catch a gator trout, it often makes enough noise to put the other fish on guard. But stick around and let the fish settle down. You will probably catch another big one. Whatever attracted that first trout (comfort, abundance of food or spawning behavior) will likely attract other large trout as well.
To order a copy of Secrets for Catching Seatrout, go to www.amatobooks.com. The book is also available at www.amazon.com and many local tackle shops.