By Capt. Steven Holmes
Top Dog Dancing
Do you want to catch a Gator Trout? I mean do you want to catch a Trout over 5 pounds and possibly over 10 pounds? Do you have the stamina to dance with the Devil for up to 4 hours without even catching one Trout? If you don’t’ then chances are you will never catch a Gator Trout. What I am saying is targeting a Gator Trout is whole lot different from going after your everyday Schoolies.
The reason for this is just about any angler can go out on almost any given day and catch a Schoolie Trout in the 1 to 3 lbs. range. But, only those who want nothing less than a Trout in the 5 lb. plus range will usually catch a Gator Trout. The reason for this is a Gator Trout is a different fish from her (I refer to Gator Trout as she because most Trout over 5 lbs. are female Trout) smaller ken. The below picture is of a May charter customer and one nice Gator Trout. The reason this is unusual is that most Charter customers do not have the stamina to cast for hours unending to catch such a trophy. I am further pleased to tell you that Danny elected to release her back into the Crescent Beach Devils Elbow area. Want to know how that Trout was caught? Read on!
First lets review Trout fishing basics 101: To catch Trout the first thing you have to do is feed them what they are eating. In other words match your bait to what your quarry is feeding on. “Match the hatch” Also remember that all Trout just like any other predator are lazy. They lie in ambush just out of the flow of tide waiting on bait/dinner to flow by them. Since I know that Schoolie Trout are looking for a nice Shrimp dinner or small baitfish, my predominate bait will be live Shrimp as big as I can find them or soft plastic that resembles a Shrimp. For this reason I often find myself using a DOA artificial Shrimp on a Cajun Thunder Float Rig. Not only does it looks like the real thing but they are injected with farm raised shrimp essence for flavor. Another one of my all time favorites is an artificial grub in the 3 to 4 inch ranges. In shallow water I often use a light 1/16 to 1/4-oz jig head with a Saltwater Assassin (from the makers of Bass Assassin) or Mr. Wiffle Grub. I use light colors like chartreuse, white with a pink tail, Tan and white or the new very popular glow for clear water. For darker water I like root beer, purple, or plum, some have silver or gold specks flakes.
The lightweight jig-head makes the grub descend slowly. After casting the grub into likely places I work the grubs by lifting the rod tip 4-6 inches and then letting it down. Then reel in the slack and start all over again. Present this light package into creeks and the ICW were grass is in shallow water with deep water near by can be most effective. The strikes will usually happen on the grub’s descent. If you should happen to hook a Trout on his side or underneath you know the Trout was following the grub to the bottom and you hooked him as you raised your rod tip. For this type of presentation just remember to work your grub extremely slow. And when you think your working it slow enough slow it down some more. While grub fishing is normally used for targeting Schoolie Trout, it is also deadly on Gator Trout when working it around structure. Examples include bridges, pillions, piers, docks, rocks, oyster bars, and shipyards. Make sure you use some strong abrasion resistant line for this type of fishing. Also jigs and grubs are assume around docks that have lights.
Advanced Trout Fishing 102: To catch Gator Trout you have to remember what you learned in Trout basics 101 and feed them what they want to eat. For Gators that would be Mullet or other baitfish in the 5 inches plus size range. This is not to say that a Gator Trout will not eat a shrimp but they will not go out of their way to chase one down.
Top Water: So since Big Trout are looking for Mullet or other baitfish in this size for dinner I feed them what they are looking for. This is where the Mirr-O-Lure Top Dog or Top Dog Jr. surface walker or other large surface lures comes in. Using one of these lures I will first work the grass flats adjacent to the deeper water of the ICW near the entrances of creeks, both tidal and flowing streams. While this same area may hold Schoolie Trout it may also have a Gator Trout feeding on the Schoolies. Then I will work my way back into the creeks while I am constantly casting into small feeder creeks and indents in the sides of the major creek. I start off targeting smaller creeks were they merge with the larger creek. I do this by casting back into the creek and retrieving it along one side then the other side of the feeder creek. Then on high tide I like to use a G-Loomis 7-foot spinning rod to pitch my lure way back (” the next zip code”) into flats loaded with Oyster beds. Then using a walk the dog action I dance it across the surface.
Although a Trout can hear this clicking and popping sound for over 50 feet away, don’t think that once across an entire area is enough. Work the whole area by making your cast only 10 yards from your last cast and work the entire area exhaustively before moving on. This walk the dog action is imitating a wounded or dying Mullet. A Gator Trout is just like any other predator they know that attacking a wounded or dying pray is considerably easier than attacking a healthy Mullet traveling in a school.
When I am exploring new areas for Gator Trout I go out with the understanding that I am going cast a top water plug all-day and only catch one or two. For lighter color water I use chartreuse, pink, or my old favorite of a red head and white body. For darker stained water I use the same chartreuse or red head and white body. I have also had good results with Top Dog in black top and bottom with speckle silver sides. The best time for Gator Trout fishing is pre-dawn in area with lights or the first two hours or the last two hours of daylight have always been known as Trout time. However, this is not always the case. The Trout in the pictures were caught in the afternoon on a terminal blue sunshine day. The reason the top water plug still worked is that there was a nice breeze blowing a rippled on the surface. If it had been a dead clam day I would have changed out to a plug that counts down just below the surface.
Float Rigs: Another method my Wife Karen and I have been using for years is a 21st century float rig called Cajun Thunder. Utilizing this Cajun Thunder with a live shrimp on a 18-24 inch leader unweighted with a #4-1/0 Daiichi hook has been deadly on Trout, Snook, Reds and a whole list of other species to long to list. Instead of making a popping sound it makes a clicking sound similar to that made by a dying or sick baitfish on the surface trying to leave the areas in a hasty retreat. The best way I can explain it is picture this. A fish hearing this sound of a fish dying on the surface swims over to find his dinner. Then as he is looking up at this surface rig and planing his attack a nice tasty live shrimp floats down on top of him.
Normally a Gator Trout won’t go out of his way for a Shrimp but when a nice Shrimp snack is floating down right on top of him it’s an almost immediate knee jerk response. For this reason artificial soft plastics grubs work just as well if not better. I normally work this type of rig near Oysters, or at small creek mouths. I would not work this over the surface of Oysters due to hang-ups. The only down side to this type of fishing rig is it will catch all sizes of Trout from your average Schoolie Trout to the largest of Gators. For that reason I normally use 15-20 lb. test leader material. When I am fishing in Snook territory I definitely use the 20-lb. test because I have seen Snook as well as large Reds beat a path to attack it.
When the tide is all the way out I work the she
lf of the ICW and along the grass flats that are still accessible. For working the ledge of the ICW or deep-water creeks I prefer two different methods. Shallow diving lures like Mirr-O-lure 38MR or the old standby a gold Bomber Long A with a little orange on the belly. Work this particular type of plug by yanking it just below the surface then allow it to flutter back to the surface. Then start your yank and wait retrieve all over again. For deeper water don’t forget the old time proven model 52M series as well as Rapala’s Shad Rap, and RattleTrap. I find they work just as good today as they did 10 years ago. For the really deep waters of the ICW or St. Johns River I often use the grubs mentioned earlier or a small live Mullet or large Mud Minnow fished on a heavier 1/2 to 1-oz jig head or fish finder rig.
The only down side of using any of the above lures or bait is an expected by-catch of Big Reds, Flounder, Jacks and south of Palm Coast Snook. “If you call that a down side”.
For more information about NE Florida Angling. Visit out web site: www.southwindcharters.com
Originally published in Florida Outdoors Magazine. Copyrighted. All rights reserved