Spotted sea trout have long been one of the most popular fish in the state. In the Nature Coast area that is especially true since extensive grass flats harbor one of the greatest concentrations of trout in Florida.
For the most part, they are relatively easy to catch and fun for anglers of all skill levels. A simple drift across a deep grass flat while casting jigs can produce steady action with specks in the 12- to 18-inch range.
That's where the easy part pretty much comes to an end.
Fish bigger than 20 inches, known by many anglers as "gator trout," develop much different feeding patterns and are not typically caught in the same places as their younger brethren.
'Gator' hunting spots
The most notable difference between gator trout and the more common sized fish is where they hang around. Schools of average size fish will stack up in 5 to 8 feet of water over grassy bottom. When they get bigger they develop feeding habits and locations more similar to those of redfish and move into shallow water, often as skinny as 18 inches deep.
During the winter months in southern Pasco County schools of gator trout numbering 50 or more are occasionally found in water so shallow they can barely be reached even in shallow draft boats.
In some spots they will move up onto the flats toward the shoreline with the rising tide, eventually reaching oyster bars, mangrove edges or patches of hard bottom. This is essentially the same thing the redfish do so it is common to find both in the same spots when the tide is right.
In other places, however, the jumbo trout will reliably congregate in featureless places on the flat that seem to defy explanation. There are many spots in the middle of wide open, expansive flats where schools of very large trout can be found on a regular basis.
Gator trout will also move into the rivers and creeks, something the smaller fish seldom do. Jenkins Creek in Hernando Beach, for example, produces some trout but the ones that come out of there are always big.
The same goes for the Anclote, Cottee and Weeki Wachee rivers, where a few specks can be caught a mile or more upriver, nearly all of which are big ones.
The fish found on the clear shallow flats are extremely spooky, especially when the water is clear, so be especially quiet when working your way into casting range.
Trolling motors can be helpful, but even they can send a school running if you use them too close to the pod. Using the wind, or "poor man's trolling motor," is the best way to get within casting range. If you know where the fish are, idle way out and around the spot and position yourself upwind so the boat simply blows into range.
When the exact location of the fish is unknown or they are scattered, keep your anchor out on the deck and be ready to ease it into the water as soon as you hook a big trout. This will keep you from drifting through the fish while you are reeling yours in.
When the bites slow, up the anchor and continue the drift, but if possible make a notation on a GPS plotter. This not only shows the exact angle of your drift but exactly where you had the strikes on the previous pass.
One odd difference between gator trout and redfish on the flats is their propensity to bite a lure even when in a full sprint to flee. If you are drifting and suddenly find yourself in the midst of a school of trout running to get away, quickly fling a cast out ahead of them. They will still hit a lure even when exiting the area.
Weapons of choice
Your normal flats fishing rod, 7-foot graphite rod and light spinning reel are all you need to target gator-sized specks. One alteration would be to switch to lighter line; long casts are critical and lighter line always casts better. Scaling back to 6- or 8-pound test braided line will help put more fish into your range.
Soft plastic jerkbait are far and away the best artificial lures you can throw for big trout. The key is to rig them on a weedless worm hook with no weight, not on a lead jig head.
To be effective the lure must move slowly and subtly. Weighted jigs must be worked quickly to keep them above the grass bottom and spook more fish than they catch.
Live bait is also effective once you have the fish located. Small pinfish are the best winter live bait due to the scarcity of sardines and the inevitable nibbling apart of live shrimp by packs of ravenous pinfish.