While chatting with a fishing buddy recently, the conversation, as usual, turned to redfish, trout and snook.
If a visitor from Mars stopped in a local bait shop and asked what's biting, he would probably be told to fish for the Big Three, the Axis of Envy for every inshore angler.
But there are other fish in Tampa Bay. On a recent angling expedition, as we sat anchored waiting for the fog to clear, charter boat captain Tim Whitfield showed me photos of his recent catches.
"Isn't this a beautiful silver sea-trout?" he asked. "They're all over the place, and nobody fishes for them."
The species is a member of the drum family but is sometimes confused with another family member: the sand seatrout. The sand seatrout is primarily found in the Gulf of Mexico (although it is often caught in the Atlantic waters of extreme southeastern Florida).
The silver seatrout, however, is found primarily along sandy or mud bottoms in the Gulf and the Atlantic. It is slightly smaller than the sand sea-trout, though a 12-inch, 1-pound specimen of either species would be considered a great catch.
The silver seatrout is the smallest of the various Florida seatrout species, which include the state's most popular sport fish, the spotted seatrout, and the weakfish, a species primarily found in the Atlantic Ocean.
Silver seatrout feed on both fish and shrimp but tend not to be as discriminating or cagey as the more popular spotted seatrout.
"A lot of anglers look down their noses at silver trout," said Dave Walker, a Tampa guide who has been catching silvers in local waters for more than 40 years. "But this time of year, if you're looking to put some food on the table, you won't find a better fish."
In fact, silver trout have long been valued as a "fish fry" favorite. There are no bag or size limits for silver trout, so as long as you are willing to clean them, there will be no shortage of people to eat them.
"The trick is finding the big ones," Walker said. "Sometimes you have to weed through the little ones just to find one worth keeping."
The average silver seatrout usually weighs less than 8 ounces, whereas its cousin, the spotted seatrout, is common to 4 pounds on the west coast and even larger on the east coast.
If you're wondering how big is big, the state record for spotted seatrout is 17 pounds, 6 ounces. Anglers call those monsters "gator trout" or "yellow mouths" because of the distinctive coloring associated with the mouths of big trout.
While the spotted seatrout is usually found on the grass flats, silver seatrout tend to congregate where there are steep drop-offs, such as ship channels and around bridges. They're a schooling species, so once you find them, the action will be nonstop — until your arms get tired or something comes along to ruin the bite, such as sharks or bottlenose dolphin.
Silver seatrout will hit a variety of live and artificial baits, though the rig of choice is often a lightly weighted jig (1/8- to ¼-ounce) tipped with a piece of dead shrimp. If targeting silver seatrout sounds too easy, like catching fish in a bucket, and you want more sport, try downsizing the line to 6- or even 4-pound test. You will agree, that's entertainment.
Once you master the silver sea-trout scene, perhaps you'll want to try another seldom-sought species, the black sea bass. This structure-loving battler is a lot of fun to catch and it makes for a great fish sandwich.