Big gator trout – showing up at a flats near you

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Here in Florida, there’s rarely a time of year when we need to hang up our tackle. As a matter of fact, each season has its run of wonderful gamefish to keep lines tight and anglers happy. In these cooler periods, many fun species show up to keep the magic happening. One of our favorite winter arrivals are the larger breed sea trout that invade most flats to spawn. They are eager feeders and will enthusiastically strike artificials, making for a wonderfully productive day on the water.

For years, Capt. Richard Seward – also known as “Mister Trout” – has made a science of finding and catching these frisky lunkers. He said that “90 percent of all the really big breeders that I’ve caught are usually hooked right after those first cold spells. Then when winter gets really cold, they seem to get even bigger. They tend to stay in the shallows, but want deeper water close by as a refuge.”

This past year, primarily because of the red tide, not quite as many of these so-called “gator trout” showed up in area waters. But according to Seward, many anglers are already catching some larger winter trout. But he added that “the biggest of the big yellowmouths show up when water temperatures get really cold and they should hold right into early spring”

Capt. Woody Gore is another skipper who enjoys targeting those outsized winter trout. It’s his view that 26 to 30-inch “gators” are as much fun as any of the snook and redfish that he catches in the warmer months.

“The nice thing about the larger trout is that they arrive hungry and ready to take your bait. So most times you do a lot more catching than you do fishing.” Gore contends that they are so eager to eat, that it doesn’t take much skill to find and catch them. “As a matter of fact, most any kind of jig with some kind of wiggle to it is about all you need. Most of your paddle, curly or shad tail jigs with good action are excellent. You do best by pretty much just swimming them.”

Seward also enjoys catching the large beeders using plugs like the MirrOlure 52 series. “But it needs to get down to where the fish are. So you have to find out how long it takes to drop.” He suggests counting as it’s going down. “Generally a 52 MirrOlure will sink about a foot per second. So if you’re fishing in say 6 feet of water, you count to 5 and that gets you down pretty close the bottom,” He highly recommends crimping the barbs on all those treble hooks. “It’s no big deal because; if you keep a tight line you’re not going to lose any fish.”

Another good setup for trout any time of the year would be using one of the popular shrimp lures under a popper cork. Gore contends that they definitely do get the attention of those big winter trout. “And I like to hook the shrimp lure so that it swims naturally. Then when you pull it and jerk it, on the release it swims straight down just like a regular live shrimp would.” He added “that surface pop from the cork gets the same reaction as a top water plug. You know trout are always looking up, so they see all that commotion. Then the next thing they see is that shrimp coming down. And it’s just natural instinct for them to hit it.”

Seward prefers fishing for them after the water temperature has dropped down into the low 60s. “That’s when they seem to turn on the best. And all you need to do is find some grass with some deep holes. I usually fish for them on a cold morning when they’re going to be laying in those deeper spots, where you’ve got a nice tight wad of them right in there,” he said.

Now when water temperatures drop into the 50s, the trout become very lethargic. Seward suggests that, on those occasions, “you might want to drop down a live shrimp – and let it fall right beside them. And they should eventually take it.”

Capt. Woody Gore is more inclined to use jigs over live shrimp. “I do because these larger trout tend to swallow the live shrimp and the hook gets deeply imbedded in their throat. Now that’s a death sentence for the fish. But with jigs, they generally get hooked in the mouth.” Gore advises that if you really must fish with live shrimp, use a circle hook — which tends to get the fish in the lip. “The negative is that, with live shrimp you will catch lots of trout, but you’ll also catch pinfish and a lot of other less desirable species.”

Kayak guide Neil Taylor also says lures are perfect and adds “The very biggest trout will probably be in the shallows where you will also catch redfish.” He uses 1/8-ounce jigs and 12 Fathom paddletail mullets or the Slam-R.

Of course, here in the South Region of Florida’s west coast – below Fred Howard Park – trout season is closed through the end of the year. But even after it reopens on January 1st, it’s always a good idea to release those big breeders. Even though trout fishers are permitted one per day over 20-inches, Gore always advises his clients that “it’s okay to take a quick picture of the larger, over 20-inch trout before a careful release – preferably with some kind of tool so that you don’t touch the fish. This way, you have a nice picture to take back, and you didn’t have to kill a trout that’s going to make more trout for you.” He urges all anglers to put all those larger trout back not only because they’re the breeders, but they really are not as good table fare. “To me, the trout that taste best are those about 15 to 17 inches. And you should eat them the day you catch them. They really don’t freeze that well. So just keep what you’re going to need for dinner that night, and put the rest back, especially those bigger breeders.”

As for the novice angler, Seward highly recommends a high degree of patience. “Move the lure at a snail’s pace. If you don’t work that artificial slowly, you’re not going to catch them because those big trout won’t move very much in the cooler times of year. They’re not going to expend any more energy than they have to. Again, just be patient and crawl that jig along the bottom.”

Both Seward and Gore say there are many delicious ways to prepare trout fillets. But Capt Woody’s favorite is “Trout Ala Russa,” a dish that has been quite popular over the years in many of Tampa’s old Cuban restaurants. He said that “you just bread the fillets, sauté it in a light butter and garlic mix with just a sprinkle of lemon juice. Then add some chopped hard boiled egg and pimento on top. – and boy, they are delicious.”