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Search for Florida's Monster Trout

Around the state for Gator Trout
by Frank Sargeant

    Anybody can catch little trout. No matter where you drop your shrimp or jig in Southern inshore waters, there's always a little "speck" hanging around ready to gulp it. But catching big trout, "gators" five pounds and up, is another ball game--one that very few anglers ever learn to play.
    The big trout is a different animal from the smaller fish. His mouth (we should say "her" mouth, come to think of it, since most lunkers are female) turns bright yellow, the shoulders deepen and broaden, and  food preference and habits change. While small trout survive primarily on shrimp, big ones eat mostly fish--often pretty big fish, at that.  I once caught a 6-pounder that had a foot-long mullet in its gullet.
    The all tackle record, 16 pounds even, came from Mason's Beach, Virginia, but big trout are far more abundant as you get further south. Of the IGFA line-class records, 11 of 15 were taken in Florida--and all but one of those on the east coast of Florida.
 A big trout can be a formidable adversary in shallow water, with plenty of strength to run against light gear and often some explosive, snook-like jumps to top things off.

 The Indian River

    There was a time when Florida's shallow Indian River, from Cocoa south, made it almost easy to land a trophy trout—7 pounders were common, the 10-pounder a daily possibility.
    Biologists say that there's a separate strain of seatrout there that matures earlier and grows faster than trout anywhere else in the South. That, plus the broad, shallow flats and the abundant bait supply created perfect conditions for lots of trophy fish, and it's still probably the top spot in Florida for a fish of 5 pounds or better.
   

Big coastal rivers such as Florida's St. Johns sometimes produce large trout from deep waters, but catching the lunkers in such conditions takes most of the excitement out of it.

But shoreline development, gill nets and overfishing have greatly reduced the numbers of these giants of the species, to the point that a 10-pound fish is now big news there, as well as anywhere else.
    Still, there are a few guys who manage to consistently find wall hangers. One of them is Jim Shupe of Winter Springs, Florida, who has one entire wall of his house papered with trout of 10 or better.

Live Bait Lunkers

    Shupe's philosophy is simple.  Fish where the big ones live, feed 'em what they normally eat--and be patient. He admits that he frequently spends an entire day on the water to get just one bite. But when that bite comes, it's a doozy.
    For Shupe, one of the best spots for lunker trout is the Banana River, an offshoot of the Indian River, which runs into a closed section of Cape Canaveral Space Center.  Shupe sees the closed area as a reservoir where trout can grow to adult size before being caught by hook and liners or scooped up in commercial nets. For years, one of Shupe's favorite areas was just outside the NASA Causeway. Now, that entire stretch of water has been closed to outboard powered boats to protect the manatees--but the closure is likely to give even further protection for big trout, and for anglers willing to pole or paddle a long way to get at them.
  

Trout release photo by Larry Larsen

The bait Shupe believes in, almost exclusively, is live mullet. He likes baits six to eight inches long, far too big to be choked down by lesser trout. He castnets his own, keeping them alive in giant, aerated wells. He fishes them on light 5/0 hooks, sometimes weedless models in areas with grass or oyster shell, with stout popping rods and line testing 20 pounds to give him plenty of hook-setting authority.
    He finds fish most often in water no deeper than five feet. Channel edges where tides sweep are a favorite spot, as are similar locations around shell bars. And if he gets company, Shupe moves--he believes big trout are wary and won't tolerate several boats prowling their feeding grounds.
    I fished with several trout experts while researching my book, "The Trout Book", and two that specialize in the Indian River are fly fishing guide Frank Catino and topwater expert Shawn Foster.
    "There are not as many big fish as there once were," says Catino, "but in winter when they go to the canals, you can still find some very nice fish by working the docks and the mangroves over deep water. These fish are survivors because the nets can't get them under the obstructions, and not many anglers can cast accurately enough to get them, either."

Wading For Whoppers

    On Florida's west coast, Richard Seward finds big trout in Tampa Bay--a location that offers tough fishing to many anglers. Seward's technique is to wade the shallows around outflows of tidal creeks, and cast to holes and cuts. Seward was once a commercial hook-and-line fishermen who perfected his techniques because he had to make a paycheck. He's now an ardent conservationist and FCA leader who releases most of his catches.
    "A lot of the water where I catch big fish, nobody in a boat ever bothers because they think it's too shallow," he notes.
    Some of this biggest trout have come from water only 2 feet deep--water where he switches to braided Dacron line, because it has more buoyancy than monofilament and doesn't sink into grass or shell. He adds a 3-foot leader of clear mono to cut visibility at the lure.
    Seward says wading is the only way to fish these shallows, because boats nearly always spook the fish. He relies on artificials--his lure box contains plastic-tailed jigs, slow sinking plugs such as the 52-M MirrOlure, and a selection of noisy topwaters including the Bill Norman Rat-Lure.
    Fishing is usually best in his waters during the cooler months, when fish move onto the flats on temperate days, schooling into the channels on cold nights.
    "Look for moving water," Seward suggests.  "It can be coming in or going out, but unless it's moving the big ones won't feed."
    One of his favorite techniques for a lunker is to cast a jig up-tide along the edge of an oyster bar and let the current sweep it back down, tumbling along bottom.
    "They lay right at the drop, waiting for bait to come down where they can trap it against the edge," he notes. "The biggest fish usually take these preferred feeding stations."


    Editor's Note: This article is a partial excerpt from the book, "The Trout Book".  The longer chapter provides additional how-to information on catching the giants
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