There’s a booming big trout fishery in the Big Bend.
Bruce Cooper had already launched his boat when I arrived at the public ramp at Keaton Beach.
Scenic waterfront home in Keaton Beach.
“Hurry up, Jamie, we got to get going,” said the Florida Fish and Wildlife law enforcement lieutenant. “Get your gear in my boat; the tide and moon are perfect. We’re going to catch some 6- or 7-pounders today.”
With a big grin, I shook Bruce’s hand while at the same time thinking to myself, “Uh-huh, 6-pounders. Yeah. Uh-huh. Buddy, this old boy has been to that dance and heard that song a bunch of times. Six-pounders. Ain’t no way man.”
As we pulled away from the ramp I marveled as much at the look of the shoreline as I did my friend’s promise. Could this be the same place where as a kid growing up in the late ’50s and early ’60s, my family and I had spent so many great summers swimming and fishing? Keaton Beach had sure changed. There is no evidence of the small wood frame cabins or the old pavilion and restaurant. In their places dozens of new waterfront homes have been built.
Minutes after leaving the ramp, Bruce had already shut down the motor and was picking up his pushpole. We were probably less than a quarter of a mile offshore and Bruce began silently poling us even closer. He handed me a plug with instructions to tie it directly to my line, leaving off any leader. The lure was around six inches long, off-white with a dark brown stripe down its back. Bruce was tying on an identical lure. Both looked as if they had been dropped in the middle of an interstate highway and run over by a fleet of semi trucks.
When I questioned Bruce about the lures he said one of his friends had given them to him a couple of years ago. He didn’t have the foggiest idea as to who made them but they had turned out be the hottest trout baits he had ever used.
I had brought along a light spinning outfit and Bruce was using a baitcaster. Both of us were equipped with 8-pound-test line. At the spot where Bruce wanted to start our drift I noticed that the water was shallow, not more than three feet deep.
When I mentioned the depth to Bruce he told me that he always fished for trout and reds in close to shore. The main trick was to keep from disturbing the area you plan to fish, and work the tide right. He wanted to catch the tide about two hours from peak high, then fish until about two hours into the fall. We’d need the water to get the boat in and of the places Bruce wanted to fish. Also, Bruce does not run his motor anywhere close to the area he intends to drift. When trout are up shallow, as they often are in early spring, it doesn’t take much commotion to spook them.
The breeze gave us a nice drift and put a slight ripple on the surface. As we started our first drift Bruce suggested that I cast as far as I could against our drift and then reel fast while working the plug just below the surface.
I made a couple of quick casts to get the feel of the lure and on the third cast I felt a hard hit and at almost the same instant Bruce got a hit. I knew I had a good fish on and I quickly let off a little tension on my drag. My first thought was big red, but seconds later a flash on the surface told me I had a trout.
I got to thinking maybe old Bruce had not been jerking my chain after all about those 6-pound gators. I had not yet turned my fish when Bruce said, “This one might be a good one, too.”
My trout tipped the scales at a shade over six pounds and I found myself entertaining serious thoughts of getting it mounted. I mentioned this idea to Bruce—busy releasing a fish of almost identical size—and with an impish grin he said to hold off a little while because he had a feeling we’d catch some even bigger.
Bruce wasn’t jesting. In four hours we caught and released 32 trout, all above the slot limit with the biggest weighing seven pounds, two ounces and measuring 29 inches. These were heavy fish—evidently full of roe going into the spawning season. We did manage to catch seven beneath the high side of the slot limit (15 to 20 inches; bag limit 5 in these waters) and I was able to take home a few fillets.
It was one of those rare fishing days when everything was perfect, but in talking to other anglers and reading reports, I know we witnessed a good example of how trout fishing has improved along this stretch of Florida coastline. For Bruce, who’s tuned in to the Keaton Beach flats, it was a routine day. Like many anglers here, he credits the net ban and good enforcement to back it up. The way things are going, in another year or two Bruce thinks that 10-pounders won’t be uncommon.
In my boyhood days I fished these same waters and most of the time my daddy and I tagged along with an old commercial fisherman by the name of Bill Kirby. Mister Bill had a small shack not far from where Bruce and I were fishing and his method was to fish with half a dozen long Calcutta poles all at the same time. I would often watch in amazement as he worked the poles by slapping them in the water to attract trout, mackerel or bluefish. At times he would use artificial baits but for the most part he used cutbait, so the first order of business was to catch a bunch of pinfish when we arrived at one of his favorite grassflats.
Mister Bill didn’t need a whole lot to get by on, but he always managed to catch trout, using the same method day in and day out. We would make our drifts close to him. Bill always protected the area he planned to drift, never running the motor through the fishing zone—just as Bruce and I did on that spring day off Keaton Beach. At the end of a drift, a wide returning loop returns you to productive waters.
More than the look of the Keaton Beach waterfront has changed since those early days. In all of the many times we fished these same flats alongside Mister Bill, not once did we catch a spotted trout that weighed over four pounds.
Enjoying the resurgence of big trout in these waters, Bruce and I fished from Hagin’s Cove north to Yates Creek and Rock Island (Mr. Bill’s favorite honeyhole was the grassflats off of Rock Island). The shoreline is productive throughout this stretch, but it’s critical that you pay close attention to tides and plan your trip so you will have plenty of water to get to and from your fishing waters. It can get mighty shallow in close to the shore. If you’ve never fished the Keaton Beach area, you might hire one of the fine local guides the first time out.
About Keaton Beach
To get to Keaton Beach, turn off of U.S. 19 just south of Perry onto State Road 361 and follow it for approximately 18 miles where you will actually dead end at Keaton Beach. There is a spacious public boat ramp with plenty of parking and a well-stocked marina is close by, with everything a saltwater fisherman needs, from bait to gas. There are motel rooms and restaurants either at the beach or in Perry.