April 22, 2021
By Capt. Matt Chipperfield
Utter the phrase “gator trout” to an inshore angler and his facial expression is likely to change. Eyes widen with excitement and fateful tales of trophy fish are likely to begin. Violent, ballistic, savage and hostile are common words used to describe encounters with these predators.
On the other hand, you may witness frustration wash over his mood followed by a shoulder shrug and a dismissive wave of the hand. Descriptives like difficult or futile come into play. Think bonefish are “The Ghost of the Flats?” Try a 30-inch seatrout in shallow water. They are not easy beasts to tame. Large trout are intelligent, cautious and highly aware of their surroundings. Simply stated, they are a worthy adversary and deserve the respect they demand.
However, like any sport fish, there are times when even the most difficult species becomes vulnerable. Enter the spawn. Trout, like most inshore sport fish, reproduce externally. Females disperse eggs into the water column while males secrete their milt to fertilize them. High energy is required to produce these eggs, resulting in increased metabolic activity. To meet these energy requirements large female breeders continually feed throughout the reproduction process. Predatory instincts often overwhelm their cautious personality and trophy-sized “wall hangers” (though few end up there these days, thankfully) become easier for anglers to fool.
Still, targeting gator trout during spawning periods can be a nuanced task with a handful of factors to take into account. Over the course of my career as a trout specialist, I have researched scientific journals and read other captain's testimonies. I tell my clients the difference between a fisherman and an angler is the angler's appreciation for the science behind the fish. So, let's make an angler out of you.
How do trout spawn? Like other inshore species the largest trout are female. They grow larger and faster than males, which top out around 24 inches. Females, on the other hand, often reach lengths in the mid 30s and can push 15 pounds! This may be because females must carry extra cargo in the form of egg sacks, and they require more body mass for those eggs. A female trout becomes sexually mature at around 12 inches and produces about 100,000 eggs, but the largest can produce 500,000 to 1.5 million eggs in a single spawn. Because of these growth rates and the importance of female egg production to the success of the spawn, most areas have a harvest slot that protects the mid-size and large-size females.
When do trout spawn? It is a misconception that speckled trout spawn only once during a season. In fact, they spawn multiple times. This is because a trout's reproductive rituals are almost completely determined by temperature and metabolism. Other influencing factors, like salinity and water quality, do affect the spawn, but temperature is the primary determinant on when and for how long these females produce their eggs. So, as long as the water temperature remains in the spawning “window,” female trout will produce eggs.
This window of opportunity for the spawn takes place in water that is usually between 65 and 75 degrees. In Florida, it is widely accepted that February through May are the best times to find spawning trout. But, I have also observed spawning behavior in the months of October and November when the temperature falls back through the target range. Although trout do continue spawning during the hottest months, their bodies focus on growth in warm water. They lengthen and become skinny as their metabolic activity peaks. Many females have spawned out by the summer, so finding full egg sacks is less likely. So, it would seem there are two primary seasons for the spawn: one in the spring and another in the fall.
Where do trout spawn? This depends largely on the ecosystem where a trout is located. Large breeders will utilize estuaries that support their reproductive cycle so long as the conditions are appropriate. These areas may be tidal grassflats, non-tidal lagoon systems, Intracoastal waterways or nearshore channels that contain fast-moving water to disperse roe. It truly depends on where you are and what is available to your local trout population. However, it is widely accepted that the best habitat for large spawning trout is shallow grassflats.
Skinny water estuaries with rich seagrass coverage provide ideal conditions for trophy-sized trout. They are typically free of large predators like porpoise and sharks which are the primary threat to trout over 20 inches. Shallow flats are also remote and harder to reach for the majority of anglers, resulting in a “low-pressure” fishery. Educated fish are tough, real tough. We want our trout aggressive and free from constant human interference. The flats also contain abundant food for these ravenous predators. They can devour baitfish without fear of becoming a meal themselves.
After you locate a preferred grassflat or trout fishery, keep your eye on the thermometer. Find areas within or close to the 65- to 75-degree range. Also, keep in mind that female trout are territorial; if they like an area, they will likely stay there. If you've hooked a large trout somewhere in the past or spooked a large trout while looking for one, stick around. Come back and try again. They likely will be back. Another trick I often use is to find thick congregations of male trout. Males grunt and vocalize to females during the spawn. Females will mix into these schools as they prepare to release their roe. You may have to weed your way through some smaller fish, but I promise the big girl is looming nearby.
What's the best bait for big trout? I'm asked this question frequently and my answer is always the same: Big bait equals big fish. Trophy trout possess a bucket-like mouth the size of a large grapefruit. They have two nasty fangs for slashing flesh and rows of spade shaped teeth to grasp wounded prey. When combined with their violent disposition you're left with a beast that will attack baits in the 15- to 20-inch range! A friend once said that if trout were any larger they'd eat small children. They're just plain mean. But, there are some tactical decisions that need to be made while choosing your inventory.
During lowlight hours of the early mornings and late afternoons I prefer to throw topwater plugs and surface flies. They're a fantastic “search presentation” that can work large sections of water. The Heddon Spook Jr. and Super Spook are my go-to plugs. I like to “walk the dog” with some very deliberate pauses during my retrieve. This allows for lazy or skeptical fish to catch up to the plug and give it a second thought. If you're a fly fisherman tie on a large popper or shrimp gurgler. Be sure to wait for positive contact, keep the rod tip down, drive the hook point home with a big strip set and enjoy the show. Watching the mouth of a 30-inch trout flare open as it catwalks across the water attempting to throw your fly will leave your hands trembling and your heart pounding.
As the light gets higher and the topwater bite fades I typically transition to subsurface twitch baits, soft plastics and baitfish flies. The Mirrolure MirrOdine in size 17 and 27 are absolute killers. A “twitch, twitch, pause” retrieve will almost always bring a large trout to life. If you find that the hooks are snagging on the bottom or collecting grass, switch over to an unweighted soft plastic paddle tail rigged with a weedless hook. And don't be afraid to throw the big ones. The Slayer SST XL series as well as Z-Man PaddlerZ soft plastics are almost 6 inches in length and can be used just like a hard-plastic twitchbait. They have great action and don't sink as fast as a hard-plastic lure. The same can be said for large baitfish flies and EP patterns. They're almost neutrally buoyant and can suspend in the water column as the fibers come to life.
To wrap things up, I'd like to emphasize the importance of catch-and-release methods and proper handling while targeting spawning trout. As I stated earlier, these large females can produce millions of eggs during a spawn cycle. They are vital to the long-term survival of the fishery and deserve a chance to propagate. Killing any female during the spawn is downright unsportsmanlike. It removes future generations of trout and doesn't allow large fish to pass forward beneficial genetic traits such as resilience and size. Three tools I keep on my boat at all times are Boga Grips or fish grips, a rubber-coated dip net and a pair of needlenose pliers. The rubber net is great for landing large fish while maintaining their slime coat. Slime is a prophylactic for trout, protecting them from bacterial infections. Wet rubber is much less coarse than regular threaded nets and keeps the slime and scales intact. The Boga Grip is what I use to control the fish's head while I remove the hook with needlenose pliers. I almost never remove the fish from the water during this process. Any surface they do touch, whether it's your hands or the deck, should be wet to maintain their slime.
When it's time for a photo raise them out while supporting their gut, take a quick pic and get them back in. A large trout should never be out of the water more than a few seconds. Let's keep them wet, let them go and let them grow! FS
Florida Sportsman Magazine May 2020