It has been an amazing year for sea trout anglers on Florida’s west coast, and it’s not over yet.
Though the giant trout — 24 inches and up — are usually easiest to catch in winter, there appears to be so many of them in so many places this year, it’s likely that reports of the giants will continue through the summer spawn.
“We used to be lucky to get one 20-inch trout in a day, and now some days we don’t get anything smaller than that,” said captain Richard Seward, whose nickname is “Mr. Trout” and who once was a commercial hook-and-liner for the species.
Many other anglers have reported catches of large fish, including some more than 30 inches long, in the past four months. It used to be that 30-inch trout were pretty much unheard of on Florida’s west coast, though they’re not so rare on the east coast where a slightly different strain grows faster and lives longer.
Captain Sergio Atanes caught a fish for the ages a few weeks ago. Fishing large greenbacks for snook and trout, his anglers landed trout of 24, 241⁄2, 27, 27 and finally 29 inches, the latter an enormously fat fish that dragged his Boga-grip scales down to more than 10 pounds.
“I have seen some big trout, but never such fat trout as these were,” Atanes said. “They were thick, heavy fish, really healthy looking.”
So what’s going on here?
It’s hard to say, but it was not many years ago when anglers on the Gulf coast said trout here simply didn’t get very big. That was in the day when the size limit was 12 inches and the bag limit was pretty much whatever you wanted it to be. On top of which, trout were still legitimate targets for net fishermen, who caught any that did get up to gilling size during the winter nights.
Now, after years of tight harvest regulations — anglers are allowed only four daily between 15 and 20 inches in our part of the state, including only one more than 20 inches — Gulf trout are proving that they can reach awesome sizes, growing far out of the “panfish” stage into legitimate gamefish.
And the more big trout we have out there reproducing, the more big trout we’ll have coming up the food chain in years to come.
So, how do you go about catching these lunkers?
The easy way is to hire a guide such as Seward or Atanes to put you on them. But you probably can find a few on your own with persistence and skill.
Many of the jumbos this past winter came off the spoil islands between Anclote Key and Clearwater Beach, and that’s still a good place to find some this month. These fish will pull away from the islands and settle into holes in the grass flats, particularly those near deeper channels, where they’ll spawn from May through July on the new and full moons.
The Pinellas Point grass flats are often productive for large fish, for anglers who like to throw big topwaters, and stealthy wading anglers prowling the South Shore flats often will find big ones running the outer edges of the bar as the tides drop.
Big trout also gather around near-shore rock piles and wrecks. They are sometimes caught in numbers from inside Tampa Bay on this type of structure, mostly with jumbo shrimp or live sardines as bait.
Big trout also hang on Long Bar at the north end of Sarasota Bay at dawn and dusk, and around the oyster bars of Bull and Turtle bays, at Charlotte Harbor, throughout the summer. Topwaters or Johnson Silver Minnow spoons get them. Rocky Channel near Captiva is another famed spot for 20-inch trout, and plastic-tailed jigs often do the job here. There’s also a run of big fish onto the flats between Homosassa and Crystal River in April. Very shallow, rocky bottom and ultra-clear water is a challenge here, but the fish are there and readily grab MirrOdines and topwaters.
There are lots of great places to go these days for trout that were unimaginable on our shores just a few years back. And we owe it to good management of the fisheries that these fish are there today.