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July 24, 2013

Gator Trout Hunt

The waters of Florida’s Indian River may be the best big trout habitat in the Southeast.

Mention the word “gator” to the uninitiated, and images of a big scaly lizard or university mascot come to mind. For the serious Southern angler, it conjures reverential visions of ­gaping ­yellow mouths, sagging bellies and near-yardstick dimensions. Spotted seatrout are popular throughout the Southeast and Gulf coasts, and while school-size specks can be easily fooled, true “gators” are among the most challenging adversaries on the flats. Two ­experts — Mark Nichols of D.O.A. Lures and noted local trout angler Jerry McBride — have ­perfected the art of gator hunting in Florida’s Indian River, racking up triple-digit ­numbers of ­trophy fish between them.

Dream Fish

“My definition of a gator trout is 28 inches or longer,” Nichols explains. “A six-pound fish is a really good catch, but it’s not a gator, not a dream fish. The ones exceeding 30 inches and 10 pounds, now that’s a true gator.”

Nichols, a native Texan, believes his adopted Sunshine State waters stretching from Stuart north past Fort Pierce might be the best big-trout habitat in the Southeast. His rationale? Warm water flowing in from the Atlantic Ocean keeps bait around longer, letting the trout grow faster and larger. But universal forage like shrimp and finger mullet throughout the Southeast and Gulf coastal waters means gator tactics can be applied regardless of locale.

The All-Tackle World Record spotted seatrout was ­captured near Fort Pierce in May 1995 by Craig Carson. When the International Game Fish Association certified his catch (taken on a Zara Spook), it registered a whopping 17 pounds, 7 ounces. And that’s not an anomaly. McBride, who typically stalks his fish from a kayak, released his personal best a few years ago after landing it at dusk on a Arkansas Glow D.O.A. C.A.L. Shad pinned to a 1⁄16-ounce jig head. Based on the measurements, it topped 15 pounds.

Gator Nests
“There are two ways to catch really big gator trout,” Nichols says. “The first is to use a topwater plug, and cast it a ­country mile so you don’t spook the fish. The other is to quietly approach the flat and get into the water. In many spots, boats aren’t able to float where those fish are holding, or they sense the pressure waves and won’t eat. They don’t get big by being stupid; they’re very wary. I have caught monsters when they were only 15 feet away, but only when I was in the water ­wading very slowly and very quietly.”

Nichols and McBride both agree that ­gator trout prefer moving current with quick access to deeper channels or cuts where they can escape predators. The presence of bait is another ­necessary attraction, along with thick grass or other hiding places where the fish can lie in ambush. The edges of the flats or dissecting cuts between grass patches are worthy of multiple casts.

“Big seatrout are like mountain trout,” McBride says. “They like fast-moving water and places to hide. But it’s all relative. On a flat that’s two feet deep, a cut or pothole that’s only a foot deeper will hold big fish.”

McBride favors a low tide versus incoming water in the ­Indian River. Based on his catch log, productive low-tide spots outnumber high-tide locations by a 10-to-1 margin.

“I love midday low tides,” he adds. “They make me happy ’cause that’s when I’m able to see into the potholes to cast lures at suspended fish.”

Nichols notes some flats might have only a couple of potholes with one or two resident fish, but those are the places where he’s caught his biggest trophies. He also p­refers ­solitude.

“If I want to catch a really big trout, I’m going to stay away from where everyone else fishes. That could be only 200 yards away under an old dock. I don’t care how good an angler you are, you still have to be where the big fish live to catch ’em.”

Nichols doesn’t accept the notion that all gator trout are necessarily lone individuals. He’s encountered flats with a mix of big trout and snook working in tandem to corral wads of bait. The trout were too large for the snook to eat, so they ­coexisted, at least until the food source was gone.

“But at a certain point in their lives, most do become ­loners,” he elaborates. “I guess you can still call it a school of one when the fish is 37 inches!”

Follow the Bait
To locate trophy trout, look for flats with a mixture of big mullet and smaller fare like pilchards or needlefish, with diving terns often a tip-off. But schooling fish aren’t the only thing on the menu.

“I don’t agree with the theory that big trout eat only ­finfish,” Nichols says. “Sure, they won’t turn down a finger mullet or pinfish, but whether it’s a 10-ounce or 10-pound fish, trout will always eat shrimp, especially if one is right in front of them. Shrimp are high in protein, they digest quickly and offer a good return with minimal effort. That’s why I throw mainly shrimp lures, although I will mix it up at times.”

When they want to maximize their casting distances, Nichols and McBride use 5 1⁄2-inch jerk baits. McBride often slips a clear cap over the end of the bait to add eyes for realism and increase durability when getting multiple strikes, and he fishes them with short darting twitches generated with a fast-action rod tip. In low-visibility scenarios where sight-fishing is impossible, a mullet-imitating lure is the bait of choice. Black back/silver side or pearl side/green back with a red throat are the most productive color patterns, according to the pair. But the majority of time, the standard 3-inch, quarter-ounce shrimp lure is tied on the end of their leaders.