By GB KNOWLES, Boating and fishing
Snook may be Florida’s most sought-after gamefish, but these sporty creatures are only available to a select few anglers and only in the southern half of the state. Redfish are proving to be the bass of salt water, as several tournament trails pursue reds in a number of southern states.
But redfish are kind of unpredictable. They seem to have some good years and some slow years. During the inaugural Oh Boy! Oberto Redfish Cup in Punta Gorda, fishing was so slow that only one red was weighed in on the final day of the fish-off. So it isn’t really surprising that many polls have ranked the simple spotted seatrout as the favorite fish in Florida. There are good reasons for that.
Trout are plentiful from Pensacola to Jacksonville and along the Carolina and Texas shorelines as well. Since they are an inshore fish, they can be caught in just about any kind of weather. Meanwhile, you can catch trout from fishing piers and bridges or in small boats like kayaks and canoes.
That means trout are available year-round for any angler, no matter their age or financial well-being. Add to that the fact that trout put up a respectable fight once hooked and are delicious eating, and you have a contender for the All-American Piscatorial Prize.
Trout are plentiful during all seasons, but they really shine during the winter. For this reason, they are also responsible for bringing a lot of wealth to Florida in the form of northern tourists who enjoy fishing in the Sunshine State.
All these factors make trout the perfect Florida fish. In fact, they are so popular many fishing guides in the Florida Keys specialize in trout. It’s a high compliment to this fish when it is favored over bonefish, tarpon, permit and other exotic gamefish that share the Keys flats with trout.
There are some drawbacks to trout. They are a fish particularly susceptible to red-tide mortality. Yet they seem to always bounce back. Also, trout, like many saltwater fish, can have worms in them, especially during the summer.
But winter trout seldom have to worry about a red tide, and in the cold water, they seldom have worms. They also seem to fight better when the air chills down, which happily coincides with their peak of availability. Cold weather tends to concentrate trout in deep holes.
Winter trout have fewer food sources around, keeping them a bit hungry and easier to catch. Migratory baitfish, like scaled sardines, usually move to the Florida Keys during the winter, which means this abundant warm-weather baitfish is rare now. Hence, winter trout target resident food sources, like shrimp.
Winter trout can be easily caught on artificial lures and flies. The Tsunami Trout Mauler has been a particularly hot lure in the last few years. Meanwhile, a lot of anglers will use big shrimp because they are looking for big winter trout and big shrimp cast well.
But trout tend to swallow live baits, and it is hard to unhook them without killing them. For this reason, experienced trout anglers use long-shanked hooks when targeting trout. It’ difficult for a trout to swallow these longer hooks, and the extended shank makes unhooking a trout much easier because it adds leverage shorter hooks don’t enjoy.
The only problem with artificials is they have to be worked very slowly when it is cold, so a large live shrimp is often a better tool for locating fish. Most anglers know winter trout can be found in deep potholes and channels, like the one leading into Bull Bay from the south. However, one thing a lot of anglers don’t know about winter trout is they can also be caught along the Gulf beaches.
A few years ago, I found some huge trout hanging out on a shell bottom just about 100 yards from the beach. I had three young kids with me and we did not have a boat, but by casting really large shrimp, we were able to reach them from the shore.
I have a picture, somewhere, of the three kids wearing giant smiles as each one holds a trout of over 5 pounds.
Gulf-run trout are usually found around the abundant nearshore rock piles that abound along many Gulf beaches. The beach off Boca Grande has as many rock piles as anywhere. Meanwhile, fishing the Gulf rocks for trout often means a bonus of redfish, sheepshead, bluefish and pompano. All these gamefish can also be found on the beach rocks during the winter.
By casting a jig around while fishing for beach trout, you can often end up with a fine pompano to put on the table beside the trout — which aren’t too shabby to eat either.
Trout are at their finest eating condition in the winter. In fact, I’ve got a fishing guide buddy who catches thousands of snook a year, but he and his wife prefer trout over snook.
A lot of northern tourists also like them because the flesh of a trout reminds them of northern fish. In fact, both freshwater and saltwater trout have very soft flesh and for this reason, they make excellent seviche.
But trout are equally good when fried. One little trick for eating winter trout is to scale them rather than skin them. Not only will the fillets hold together better with the skin on, but, unlike the skin of snook or flounder, the skin of trout has a good flavor.
Trout not only have soft flesh but their scales are very soft as well. They are easy to scale and that means you might as well scale them rather than skin them. You won’t be scaling many sheepshead during the winter unless you want a good workout and a long time at the cleaning table, but trout are a breeze to scale.
So, give the winter trout a try. The season is open for harvest as of the first of the year and this is one fish for everybody.