Grab up some gators before trout season closes

Just last month we were counting down the remaining Christmas shopping days. Now, the calendar tells us we have seven days after this one to keep speckled trout in North Suncoast waters.

The seasonal closure that prohibited trout harvest during November and December in the state's South Region rotates to the North Region during February. You can still catch trout, but all must be released alive.

The fall and winter months see an influx of large "gator" trout (20-plus inches) congregating in coastal shallows for spawning. Seasonal closures give the fish a break.

The specific point of regional division is often a muddy point, with many claiming the Anclote River — roughly the Pinellas-Pasco line — defines the two regions on Florida's Gulf Coast.

In truth, the river channel sits well within the North Region. For clarity, here's the official word from the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission:

Northwest Region means all state waters north and west of a line running due west from the westernmost point of Fred Howard Park Causeway (28E9.350'N 82E48.398'W), which is approximately 1.17 nautical miles south of the Pasco-Pinellas County line to the Florida-Alabama border, and adjacent federal waters.

Blade runners

Expect to find winter trout around oyster bars, limestone outcroppings and warm arteries such as residential canals, coastal rivers and the Anclote power plant outfall canal. Day-to-day, you'll rarely miss by targeting grass beds.

Except for severe cold snaps and blustery conditions, trout prefer hunting the food-rich environment of swaying sea grass blades. They'll often belly down in the lush carpet for a nap, but when they're in the food mood, trout utilize the transitional zone between grass and sand for ambush strategy.

Patrolling the lower contour of potholes and sandy troughs, trout can watch for baitfish and crustaceans wandering near the edge and nab these hapless meals when they fall into range.

The broad grass flats in front of the power plant, as well as those flanking Anclote Key's east side will hold trout. Move in closer to the barrier island's north end and you'll find a smattering of cuts and troughs that hold enough water to keep trout comfy during outgoing tides.

Winter's extreme lows can isolate these and other skinny areas with treacherously shallow water, so proceed with caution. Chasing fish into low-tide havens risks damaging your engine, as well as the fragile sea grass beds.

Trolling motors are effective, but combining wind drifts with occasional push pole steering affords optimal stealth and habitat consideration.

The deeper grass flats at the north end of St. Joseph Sound (south of the Anclote River), along with those off Hudson and around the Cotee River stilt houses can also produce good winter trout action.

Baits and tactics

The sardines that fuel much of the warm-season action become scarce during winter. Live pinfish or shrimp under a popping or clacking cork rarely go unnoticed when hungry trout hunt the area you're fishing.

Give the cork a tug and the surface commotion attracts the attention of envious predators that will find your bait when they investigate what sounds like feeding activity.

If you don't care to fiddle with live bait, the same strategy works with a quarter-ounce jig or a soft plastic jerk bait.

Corks help avoid snags in dense grass, but for working sand edges, rocky points or shell bars, tie on a jig with a grub or shad tail and hop it across the bottom.

Soft plastic jerkbaits rigged weedless on weighted hooks also perform well in this scenario, plus they'll slide through grass without snagging.

Trout, especially big gators, will smash anything they see moving across the surface. Work a topwater plug in slow side-to-side cadence and get ready for a violent explosion.

Live release

For those fortunate to catch more than their daily limit of trout, or those looking to practice catch-and-release skills, consider these points:

• Trout are relatively fragile, so the less you touch them the better they fare.

• Needle-nose pliers help with hook removal, but a long-handled hook plucker allows you to liberate the fish without touching it. Grip your line in one hand and use the other to remove the hook.

• If you must grip a fish you intend to release, wet your hands, avoid touching the eyes or gills and try not to rub away the protective slime coat. Gripping a trout by the outer gill flaps or the fleshy ridge under the jaws usually works best.

• Keep fingers clear of a trout's mouth. A pair of long, sharp teeth protruding from the top jaw will deliver a painful poke.

Border patrol

When the North Region closes, local anglers often fish the open waters of St. Joseph Sound, south of Fred Howard Park. Just make sure you do not keep fish in the open region and then transport them by boat into the closed waters.

If you plan on keeping legal trout for dinner, you must launch your vessel from a ramp in the open region. You can run anywhere you please but you cannot possess trout while you're in the closed region, regardless of where you caught them.

Statewide, legal trout must measure 15-20 inches. Daily bag limit is four fish in the South Region and five in the North. One fish may measure more than 20 inches. For complete Florida fishing regulations, visit www.myfwc.org/marine/regulation.

Grab up some gators before trout season closes 01/23/09 [Last modified: Friday, January 23, 2009 7:26pm]

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