November 16, 2017
Sight-fishing, reaction strikes, and other cool-season tactics for seatrout.
Winter brings clearing skies and clearing water. On the lower Florida peninsula, that means great sight-fishing conditions for spotted seatrout.
As the sun slowly rises, we meander into position. There's a slight chill in the air and a shimmer of ripples on the Indian River Lagoon. A jacket and blue jeans is the attire today. Rigged up with long leaders and soft plastic lures, we're bumping the trolling motor at a turtle pace down the shoreline, trying not to spook fish.
Same day, 200 miles to the north, Capt. Roger Bump is bundled up for near-freezing weather. He and his anglers are pinpointing oyster bar dropoffs and ledges, casting big suspending plugs in an effort to entice a reaction strike.
Winter is a great time to target trout, but the setting and methods may differ sharply around the state. According to our updated Florida climate data in the 2015 Fishing Planner, average low temps for the month of December differ greatly from one end of the Florida peninsula to the other. In Jacksonville, for instance, the average low is 44 degrees. In Miami, it's 62. The average high for December tops out at 67 in Jacksonville and 76 in Miami. This can translate into some serious differences in the water temperature throughout the state. This calls for different techniques when it comes to trout.
As water temperature declines, metabolic rates in these fish slow down. This in turn slows the appetite of the fish. Based on what we know, seatrout tend to favor water temperature from 60 to 80 degrees. In winter, the water can get a lot colder than that, so finding warmer water can be a priority for anglers. On some waters, the majority of the trout are sitting still, waiting to ambush prey while warming up in the sun. Here it's best to slow your retrieve, giving a longer window of opportunity for the fish to eat the bait.
In my home waters of southeast Florida, a lot of anglers look forward to winter time trout fishing. There's something exciting about being able to watch a fish inhale a soft plastic in the shallow stuff. Captain Ed Zyak of Jensen Beach is a veteran of this fishery, and knows exactly what the “gator trout” of the south Indian River Lagoon like to do when the temperature drops.
Zyak targets these fish lying in the shallow water along shorelines, basking in the sun. He is looking for sand and muddy bottom up shallow that gradually tapers off into the deeper grassflats. No need to try and skip under the mangrove overhangs for these fish; they are lying in the open water.
As the sun rises, you'll find these fish moving up into those shallows, where the water is warmest. Keep your eyes open for any movement, especially around patches of grass or dark spots in the sand. Zyak prefers temperatures in the low to mid 60s.
“These fish seem to wake up once that water warms a little,” he said. “A morning of refusals and spooking fish can turn into multiple gator trout caught once the sun does its job.”
Finesse is the name of the game, and the tackle reflects it. A medium action, 7-foot, 6-inch rod is standard, paired with 3000 size reel and 10-pound braid. This allows for maximum casting distance. A 4-foot strip of 20-pound fluorocarbon leader attached to the braid with a double- uni knot works great.
Perfect with the long leaders and light braid are soft plastic lures. They land softly, and when casting to a fish in a foot of water, you want the least commotion possible. The natural colors offered by companies are excellent, and that is what the trout want this time of the year. You can also rig these baits weedless, so there is no exposed hook for the fish to see. Four-inch shad-style baits are great for this application. Zyak introduced me to a new one from D.O.A., with a slender profile allowing for long casts and an enlarged paddle tail for good vibrations. Zyak says it's a trout killer in the IRL.
When seatrout are hard to see, Zyak says he resorts to fan casting, starting from the shallow water and working into the deep. A soft plastic rigged on a jig head, hopped off the bottom, creating puffs of sand can entice a hard strike.
Jacksonville offers a great trout fishery, with opportunities to target these fish in even the coldest of weather, if you know what to look for. Captain Roger Bump says these fish like to stay a little bit deeper. Ledges, dropoffs, oyster bars, and shallow rock piles are what hold these fish this time of year. A depth finder is key when looking for these fish. “Four to seven feet is the average depth I look for, but I will venture out to 10 to 15 feet, especially when it's really cold,” says Bump. Look for these fish in the shallower water on an incoming and high tide. The opposite goes for the outgoing: Check the deeper slopes and ledges around creek mouths and bars. Check the water temperature as well; look for water in the 50s to 60s.
Differing from other regions, where small baits are key, Roger likes throwing bigger plugs. He wants to get the fish's attention and provoke a lure-pounding reaction strike. A few go-to plugs for Bump are the 5-inch blue back Bomber Long A, the 52M MirrOlure in red and white, and the Paul Brown Fat Boy. These lures get down in the water column and the bigger profile grabs the attention of the trout. These style baits also stay horizontal in the water column. Position yourself on the deeper side of an oyster bar or drop off. Cast your lure up shallow and then work it into the deep. Once these baits are in the strike zone the “twitch, twitch, pause” drives the fish nuts. “Most of the time, these fish will destroy the plug on the pause,” says Bump. Adding some flash and feathers to the rear treble gives a little extra movement and profile in the water, which you want.
The rod and reel setup Bump prefers is a 7-foot medium action rod and baitcasting reel. He spools it up with 15-pound fluorocarbon line, and ties it straight to the lure, no leader necessary. The reason Bump uses fluorocarbon is that it sinks compared to monofilament, which floats. This helps get the lure to the desired depth faster and will keep it there longer.
Tampa Bay has channels, bridges, mangrove shorelines and widespread grassflats. Trout utilize all of this, but as in many other areas, they prefer the flats.
Winter winds from the northeast affect Tampa Bay in a big way. These stiff breezes blow the water out, leaving a lot of places high and dry. Your favorite summer flat may be dried up, come winter.
Captain Ray Markham has been guiding anglers for many years on this body of water. When the water is blown out of the bay, he knows exactly where to go, to the deeper grassflat holes. Sometimes the water is so low, getting the boat into these pockets can be a daunting task. Once into these pockets, though, it can be like hitting the lottery, with payments in the form of chunky trout.
When the tide is too low, or water too cold, for trout to linger in the surrounding grass beds, the fish move into the holes. Look for spots with darker bottom, because they heat up the fastest. Plastic shrimp work great, especially worked slow, and when you think it's slow enough, slow it down some more. “I've caught more trout than I can remember just letting the bait sit there,” says Markham. Bass fishermen know this as “dead sticking,” a worm-style approach that is very effective on trout lethargic from cold weather.
Sometimes even the slightest color change in a lure can make a difference. If fishing with a partner, try throwing different lures, until you figure out what they want. Most of the baitfish you do find this time of year are very small. You can match these baits with a small suspending twitchbait such as the MirrOlure MirrOdine. On warmer days, Markham will fish a topwater propbait, ripping it with a fast jerk of the rod, allowing for the blades to move, and then letting it sit for up to 30 seconds. Trout will hear this and often slam the propbait on the pause. These fish are lazy this time of the year, and don't want to chase down a fast-moving bait.
Drifting or using a trolling motor in these deeper pockets works, but if you really want to stay quiet, wading is the way to go. With the water as cold as it is, sometimes into the 40's, waders are a necessity.
Stake out the boat on the outer edge of the pocket and get out. Fish from the edge, casting to the deeper spots for minimal noise.
There's no need to be up before sunrise for trout fishing on cold winter days. Markham often waits until 9 or 10 a.m. to head out. “These fish need time to warm up, before they can think about eating,” says Markham. FS
Spotted seatrout slot limit statewide is 15 inches minimum, 20 inches maximum, with the exception that you may possess one fish over 20 inches. Trout can be harvested year-round.
Bag limits vary regionally as follows:
Daily Bag Limit Per Person
Northeast—6 per day
Northwest—5 per day
Southeast and Southwest —4 per day
First published Florida Sportsman December 2014