Depending on where you come from, the spotted seatrout may range from an annoying nuisance to a fish worthy of the highest accolade. In some locations within its considerable range, there are those who do little more than target monster trout (regionally called gators or sows) day in and day out, while few will argue that even smaller ones can save an otherwise abysmal day on the flats. It’s true they are not the glitzy drag burners bonefish are or the thugs big redfish can be, but they can be every bit as finicky as a permit and as stout a fighter. Catching a giant trout ranks as a true accomplishment on fly.
While it’s probably true that most fly-anglers rarely target trout specifically, that’s mostly because they prefer to sight fish the flats where trout are most commonly found. Anyone who has ever tried to sight fish for them, especially the big ones, knows that their coloration makes them far more difficult to see than redfish. In fact, they could give bonefish a lesson in camouflage. When they are located, it’s usually in shallow water, where they tend to be superspooky.
However, the main reason people do pursue them has to be that they are found over such a wide range, from New England right around to Mexico and mostly in easily accessible shallow coastal waters. They typically are resident fish, and anglers catch them year round.
Many times spotted trout are caught as bycatch while pursuing redfish or black drum. “Most people don’t realize that trout will follow a big school of reds as they feed. They’ll even follow stingrays, too,” says Texas guide Scott Sommerlatte. “We don’t often target them specifically because the big fish can be so difficult to catch, and few anglers want to waste time with easier fish like reds around to catch.”
When smaller, specs (as they are known along the Gulf Coast) can be quite colorful, almost rivaling a rainbow trout in coloration, though rarely as vivid. Larger fish lack the coloration of their smaller brethren and take on an almost prehistoric countenance. Only the large, upper caninelike teeth and the spots on the fish’s flanks look similar.
Regardless of size, trout inhabit areas with grassy, sandy or mud bottoms, but one type of bottom that will almost always hold trout is a shell bed. Even so, many anglers swear the largest trout are found in the skinniest water, where they are easily spooked. Luckily, trout, more so than most fish, tend to frequent the same locations. “There are no random distributions,” says John Kumiski, a longtime Florida guide. “When you find them at a certain spot, chances are they will return to that spot under similar conditions. When I fish them seriously, I get out on the water one day just to locate them and then fish them the next.”
They prefer water temperatures from the low 60s to the low 80s, but unlike many flats species, trout do not migrate. What few movements trout make result from changing water temperature and spawning. The larger ones especially are very intolerant of low salinity, so heavy rains will push them off the flats and into deeper water, while periods of drought will allow the fish to wander into the headwaters of rivers and bayous.
Likewise, as water temperatures decline during fall, fish move into deeper bays and open waters. As temperatures increase the fish move back into the shallows. However, during the cooler months, trout regularly head into shallow water looking for bright sandy areas that will allow their dark bodies to warm up faster. “When they head into the shallows during the winter is the best opportunity to sight fish for them,” says Kumiski. “It makes it exceedingly difficult to present a fly to them in these conditions, though. The water is usually clear, and any weight to the fly will cause the fly to land audibly, which spooks them. I prefer to fish them with #4 or #2 hair bugs on a day when the water is not crystal clear and with some cloud cover. It makes it a little easier. And I find the best time to fish for them is right after a cold snap.”
Sommerlatte agrees that presenting to big trout in shallow water is tricky, but still prefers large flies. “Big trout eat large prey, so I prefer a 7- to 8-inch Seaducer. The presentation has to be all finesse, though, but I feel the fish are more likely to chase a bigger fly,” he says. “I have also found that big fish feed in cycles, too. If we catch a big sow, then I always suggest we start looking specifically for trout because they are probably on the feed. All of our biggest fish come in clumps.”
Studies show that small trout feed on small crustaceans, while larger trout feed on shrimp and small fish. The largest fish feed almost exclusively on other fish, such as croaker, mullet, pinfish, pigfish and menhaden. This preference for large prey makes large trout difficult to catch on fly for several reasons, two in particular: Large trout do not need to feed as often, and few anglers like to use giant flies.
As far as fly color goes, many feel it matters little. While he uses certain colors regularly, Kumiski doesn’t think color’s a major factor when fish are feeding. Sommerlatte agrees, but still prefers to start with a brown fly with copper flash. Most anglers just use colors they know work in their area.
One interesting trick, as when fishing for bluefish, is that in many locations anglers watch and smell for trout slicks. Since trout tend to regurgitate when excited or while feeding intensely, the oils from partially digested food rise to the surface to make a slick. Those that can smell it say the odor resembles everything from bubble gum to watermelon to freshly mowed grass.
While most anglers prefer to target gator trout, keep in mind that smaller trout can prove easier to find. Like many predatory fish, they are ambush hunters. They hang out along edges and sandbars waiting for prey to swim by. Often they school in deep holes, especially during the summer or dead of winter. Once located, these holes can produce large numbers of fish regularly.
Texas: Spring and summer throughout the shallow bays, estuaries and flats.
Louisiana: Biggest fish found over oyster beds and under shallow oil rigs in winter and spring.
Florida: The Mosquito Lagoon system on the East Coast, Tampa Bay and the Everglades offer the best shots during the winter, but the fish can be found in deep holes year round.