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$4,000 trout runs loose!

She might not know it (and I don't think she would be happy if she did), but somewhere in Citrus County, there's a big-momma speckled trout swimming around with a $4,000 bounty on her head. It's not the doing of fish wranglers, angry marine patrol officers, or even a shunned boy-trout. It's the grand prize of the 10th Annual Crystal River Rotary Trout Tournament and by Sunday evening, one lucky angler will be thanking Ms. Trout for the joy (and the cash) she has brought.

"All the big trout are females," said Capt. David Fairbanks, a five-time IGFA world-record holder and former fishing guide. "Rarely will you catch a male trout that weighs over 3 pounds."

Fairbanks' life's passion is catching trout _ big trout. He once landed 44 pounds of trout on four casts (four fish). His largest speck, a 13-pound, 2-ounce behemoth, dwarfs the 4-pounder that won last year's tournament. He's caught hundreds weighing more than 10 pounds, including the current world record, on 2-pound test line, a 10-pound, 1-ounce fish that inhaled a topwater plug.

He speaks of his quarry in glowing terms and breaks fishing down to a science.

"Learn as much as you can about the animal you are going after," said Fairbanks. "You have to be a student while you're on the water. You're hunting and learning at the same time."

"It's similar to watching Wild Kingdom," he added. "It all happens at the same time. All the animals know when it's time to eat. Right at the same instant you'll see the gazelle and the tigers getting active. You'll see a dozen different animals look up at the same instant. They know it's time. It's got to do with barometer and moon over and under. Take a look at farm animals, if they're lying down, forget about going fishing. It's all related."

Once you're on the water, Fairbanks points to such physical signs as birds diving on schools of bait, large surface boils, and the most obvious of all, a trout striking a baitfish, as signs to look for.

"You need to always be watching for signs," he said. "It's so important to pay attention to everything going on around you."

The secret to big trout is outsmarting the fish.

"They didn't get that big by being stupid," said Fairbanks. "When they get over 6 pounds, they become a different fish (from their smaller brethren). They are spookier and not so willing to eat up everything you throw."

Fairbanks finds a lot of his big trout hiding out under boat docks where there is deep water that holds bait. It's in these situations where one wrong move could scare the fish in to lockjaw.

"If you're gonna catch them you gotta go in very quietly. Fish for them just like snook. Be very quiet; no noise at all."

Fairbanks likes to work a noisy surface plug like the new eeZee Walker along the edges of docks or over grass flats. He said there's something about that silhouette cruising along the top that causes big trout to lose their cool.

"If you're after big trout, you have to use a big bait. I've found 11-inch mullet in the stomachs of 8-pound trout. That plug looks like a wounded mullet up on top of the water and the fish react. Sometimes they'll just slap at it like they're trying to kill it. That's when you'll catch them (and they'll be hooked) on the outside of the mouth."

One final tip from Fairbanks: If all you're catching is little trout, it may be time to think about moving to a different spot.

Big trout in Citrus

Finding productive trout areas depends a great deal on your geographical location. If you're fishing on the flats, the fish will be where the baitfish are. Currently, some of the better catches of specks are coming from the flats off the Crystal River in 8 to 12 feet of water. Anglers drifting with the wind and working a combination of jigs and live shrimp are catching specks up to 3 pounds.

As the water temperature drops, the fish will move off the flats and in to deep holes in the river. Free-lining a jumbo shrimp, working a sinking plug, or bouncing a jig along the bottom will often produce banner catches under these conditions.

Not too late to enter

Anglers have until 7 a.m. this morning to register for the tournament. Registration is $65 and will be available at the Crystal River Yacht Club, 3266 N Sailboat Ave. Spectators are welcome to attend the tournament weigh-ins at 4 p.m. today and Sunday at the yacht club.