Spotted seatrout are one of the most sought-after sport fish in Florida, thanks in part to the fact that most anglers can catch a dozen or more without a great deal of skill or effort.
This species can be found in the western Atlantic from New York down the coast around Florida to the Gulf of Mexico and in almost all of our state's inland salt waters. These fish are easily accessible and anglers can wade, pole, paddle or motor the sea grass flats to catch them.
Adult trout feed mainly on shrimp or small fish. That is why most artificial lures, from hard-bodied topwater plugs to soft-bodied plastic jigs, will fool them.
Spotted seatrout prefer water temperatures between 58 and 81 degrees, and may die if caught by surprise and trapped in shallow water during a sudden cold front. In the colder months, spotted seatrout move off the shallow grass beds into the deep holes and canals where the water is warmer, making them a favorite target of winter anglers.
Tampa Bay's spotted seatrout stocks were hit hard by a lingering Red Tide in 2005. Biologists do not know exactly how many fish died or how long the stocks will take to fully recover.
The good news is that most seatrout spawn before they reach the end of their first year, or when they reach an average length of 12 inches. A 5-year-old fish averages about 18 inches in length, and this species can easily live eight or nine years.
Older females spawn more frequently than younger ones and, as a result, play an important part in keeping population healthy. That is why the largest fish — those 20 inches or longer, often referred to as "gator trout" — are regulated by the state.
Trout never travel far from the seagrass beds where they feed and reproduce. That is why Tampa Bay, with its vast grass flats, is ideal seatrout habitat.
Catch and release
Trout are relatively hardy fish, but anglers should still take great care when handling them.
Land your catch as quickly as possible. Leave the fish in the water and unhook it using pliers or a dehooking tool. The quicker you release the fish, the better its chances of survival.
If the hook is too difficult to remove in one clean motion without ripping flesh, wet your hands before lifting the fish out of the water in order to keep its protective slime intact.
Be careful not to tear additional tissue when removing the hook. Back it through the original hole. If this fails, cut off the tip of the hook and try backing it out again. If the hook has been swallowed or is deeply embedded, cut the leader as close to the shank as possible and leave it in the fish. Most non-stainless steel hooks will dissolve in a few days.
But even if you do everything right, a trout may still die after it swims away. Biologists estimate that 8 percent of sea-trout that have been caught and released do not survive, as compared to 5 percent of redfish and 2 percent of snook.
This may not seem like many fish, but when multiplied by the pressure of millions of anglers, it could have a significant impact. That's why biologists are studying whether it would be better to raise bag limits so anglers harvest fewer fish.
The regulations governing spotted seatrout couldn't be more confusing, primarily because it is one of several species managed on a regional basis in Florida.
The state first designated sea-trout a restricted species in 1989 and set a 14-inch minimum, 24-inch maximum size limit and a 10-fish bag limit.
In 1996, the state imposed the first regional closed seasons, reduced the bag limit and increased the size limit. Four years later, more modifications came.
Currently, the statewide slot limit is standardized at 15-20 inches, but anglers may keep one trout per day longer than 20 inches.
The seatrout season reopened Jan. 1 in Florida's South Region, the waters south of the Flagler-Volusia county line on the east coast and the waters south of Tarpon Springs' Fred Howard Park Causeway on the gulf coast. The bag limit in this region is four fish per person per day. Its closed season is November and December.
But in waters north of those boundaries, the limit is five fish per angler per day. On Tuesday, the season closes for all of February, so anglers in the Northeast and Northwest regions will have to practice catch and release.
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