Spotted Seatrout are one of the Atlantic seaboard's favorite and most common inshore gamefish. But consistently catching trophy-sized seatrout is a whole different ballgame -- one that requires stealth, some serious know-how, and an entirely different set of techniques. It's time to put down the popping corks, move away from the channel edges where the little trout live and go in search of that "gator trout" that will get your knees shaking.
So many people that trout-fish regularly catch loads of trout between 14 and 22 inches, but go their whole lives never catching more than a handful bigger than that (if they're lucky). The main reason is that they simply don't fish where the big ones are. The typical 3- to 6-foot deep grass flats most commonly thought of as good trout water are not usually good areas to look for trophy trout. Sure, one could randomly run into a monster as it transitions from one haunt to the next, but don't hold your breath. Trophy sized trout -- AKA "gator trout" -- act like an entirely different species than their smaller kin.
Fish the flats
Once seatrout hit about 22 inches, they prefer very shallow, healthy grass flats for much of the year. One main reason is lack of predators. In the shallows, large aquatic predators like dolphin and sharks can't get to them, and airborne predators like ospreys and pelicans are no longer a threat because of their size.
|Once seatrout hit about 22 inches, they prefer very shallow, healthy grass flats for much of the year. One main reason is lack of predators.
Another reason is water temperature. In the cooler months, shallow flats warm up during the day and draw fish out of the cooler, deeper water. In summer, the shallow flats cool down at night more than deeper channels, which also draws the fish into the shallows until the heat of the day begins.
Big mullet use the same exact areas for the same reasons, so seeing a bunch of big mullet jumping around on a shallow flat is a solid indicator of a great fishing spot. One thing I've learned after chasing these things for years is that often when you think you are too shallow to find fish, you probably aren't shallow enough!
Optimum big trout territory is often less than a foot deep. I've seen the exposed dorsal and tail fins of absolutely massive trout ticking down super skinny flats so shallow that the fish can't fully submerge. In fact, the very biggest trout I've caught -- a monster 33-inch, 13-pound slob--was so shallow, the dorsal fin and tail fin were partially out of the water when I casted to it! When the distance between the dorsal and tail fin of a spotted seatrout is about two feet, you know you're looking at something special.
|Here's one of my clients displaying a nice catch. Trophy-sized trout certainly cruise around on shallow flats, but there are certain areas they concentrate and can be more easily targeted.
Feeding at the trough
Trophy-sized trout certainly cruise around on shallow flats, but there are certain areas they concentrate and can be more easily targeted. One is a slight depression or trough running through a flat. A thing to remember when targeting big trout in the shallows is that the most minuscule variation in depth can make all the difference. Depressions or troughs that are just a few inches deeper than the surrounding flat act as highways for large trout as they follow the tide on and off of flats.
Big trout can be extremely spooky, but in such spots I've picked off dozens of "gator trout" at a time as they funnel through -- and without moving the boat at all. It may take some research to find one of these areas, but it's well worth it because the trout will use it every day on the same tide. Extreme low tides are the best times to research, because most of the flats are exposed and it's much easier to see slight depth variations.
|Another area that trophy-sized trout concentrate in the great numbers are what I call basins.
Another area that trophy-sized trout concentrate in the great numbers are what I call basins. It could be a large sand hole, a back mud bay, or even just a deeper part of the grass flat, but it will hold numbers of big trout if its slightly deeper, somewhat protected from the elements, and completely surrounded by expanses of very shallow grass flats. Especially in the cooler months, trophy trout cruising around on shallow flats will find one of these basins and stay there for weeks.
Eventually, hundreds of large trout may settle into the same area. It's possible to see more than 200 or 300 large trout in a basin only an acre in size. These areas are often completely cut off from main channels on low tide, but as long as the trout can stay submerged, they will remain there through the bottom tide. Finding these beasts is a feat in itself, but catching them is another story.
Spot and stalk
Stealth is key to success. Slowly creeping up on big trout with a good trolling motor will work, but poling into a spot or wading is best. The farther one can stay away from the fish, the better. Running your big motor anywhere near these fish will send them heading for the hills and give them lockjaw -- sometimes for hours. Also, it's critical that you lead your cast far in front of the fish, so they don't hear splash.
|It's critical to have super sharp hooks and fight a large trout with a light drag.
Tools of the trade
The best tackle for chasing big trout is a light-weight rod and reel set up capable of making extremely long, accurate casts. To maximize casting distance, I use high-quality, 8- to10 lb. braid and long 7-foot, 6-inch, or 8-foot rods on all of my trophy trout outfits. Being able to cast that extra five or 10 feet can make the difference between catching the fish of a lifetime or not. I also use a 5-foot piece of 15 lb. fluorocarbon leader attached to the directly to the braid, because big trout are seasoned and can see extremely well.
It's critical to have super sharp hooks and fight a large trout with a light drag. They have a soft mouth and can generate some violent head-shakes, along with seriously powerful bursts of speed. If they aren't hooked well, they'll pull the hook if the drag is too tight.
When selecting a lure, I've found that it's typically best to match the hatch to whatever forage is in the area. Big trout favor a diet of smaller fish, shrimp and crabs. I once caught a fat, 28-inch trout that looked like it had eaten a brick. I felt around it's stomach and realized a huge blue crab had been in the wrong place at the wrong time!
"Walk the dog" style topwater plugs like a large Zara Spook or Top Dog are great choices during low-light conditions when baitfish are running big. Suspending twitch baits like a Mirro-Dine, or a Sebile are excellent choices in and around potholes and basins. Weedless flukes of your favorite brand are also fantastic all-around big-trout slayers. Sometimes though, especially on a calm bluebird day or in a heavily fished area, big trout can be extremely wary and discerning of artificials, so it's time to rig up a livey.
A free-lined jumbo shrimp (the bigger the better) is a top pick, as long as there aren't too many pinfish to rip it to shreds before trout find it. Pigfish, mullet, thread fin, large pilchards, pinfish and big mud minnows are all excellent baitfish, but again, match the hatch.
|Pigfish, mullet, thread fin, large pilchards, pinfish and big mud minnows are all excellent baitfish for big trout.
If worse comes to worse and the fish are there but won't bite anything, a big piece of cut ladyfish will often do the trick. It's not the most exciting way to catch a trophy trout, but effective nonetheless. I learned that trout will eat cut-bait while fishing for reds with cut ladyfish with a friend and fellow guide in Mosquito Lagoon. We saw what we thought was a large bull redfish finning towards us on a shallow flat, but it turned out to be an unbelievably mammoth, nearly record-sized trout! Long story short, it pulled the hook and we both nearly fainted.
Large trout can be a challenge, but with the proper techniques and a little luck, bringing a "gator trout" to the boat is well within reach on your next inshore fishing trip.
-- Tight lines
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Captain Tyler Kapela owns and operates "Hit and Run" Fishing Charters. Contact Tyler at Inshorefishtampabay.com, call 727-421-1051, or follow him on Facebook.