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Monday, Oct 23, 2017
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Trout aren't always so shallow anymore

For most of the year, spotted seatrout fishing is a process of looking at likely grass flats and potholes at depths of 2 to 4 feet and then tossing pretty much anything you'd like to catch them on, including topwaters, slow-sinking hard lures, swimbaits or plastic shrimp. But come the sweltering days of hurricane season—and the downpours that sometimes come with it—trout become almost an offshore species in many areas. They move out to deeper water, both because it's cooler and because it's more salty. Fortunately, Florida's West Coast has miles of good deep-water trout habitat, particularly from Tampa Bay northward. Inside Tampa Bay there are numerous deep flats that produce loads of summer fish, and from Anclote Key north all the way to St. Marks, the deep grass flats stretch for miles offshore. Basically summer trout fishing starts at 6 feet and goes out to about 10 feet, which is the limit of seagrass growth in most areas. When you get out in "salt-and-pepper" country, where the bottom looks spotty like a mix of the seasonings, you're leaving trout terrain and getting into mackerel water.
Anywhere there's hard bottom, including limerock or coral outcrops, there are also likely to be trout in the 6 to 10 foot zone. The waters off Rattlesnake Key in south Tampa Bay are a famed area for this type of fishing, and there are similar areas off Weedon Island. The tactics that work for deep trout basically require more weight on the lure and a slower delivery; if it doesn't hit bottom, it usually won't get bit, though there are occasions—usually at dawn—when they go bonkers and come boiling up to smash a topwater Spook or 95M. This means plastic-tailed jigs and swimbaits in the 3/8 ounce range are more likely to do the job than lighter lures. Lures about 3 to 4 inches long seem most effective, in variations of white, silver or chartreuse. Basically, it's a drift-and-cast deal until you find fish. Throw a long line, let the lure hit bottom, and then hop it back to the boat, touching bottom on each drop. When you start to catch fish, put a marker over the side—or push the "Mark" button on your GPS—and keep drifting until you stop catching fish. Then motor around the location in a wide arc and drift it again. Fish often gather in areas that are shallower than the surrounding flats, as well as in areas that are deeper than average. A rock pile can be gold, and anywhere you see lots of bait "sprinkling" the surface is a good place to fish hard. The good thing about offshore trout is that the schools are often huge, containing dozens of fish, so you can often limit out on just one location. If not, though, continued drifting will usually turn up another school in short order. These fish tend not to be the big yellow-mouths you catch in foot-deep water in spring, but there are lots of legal-sized fish for those who enjoy a trout-fry. Added fish can usually be caught by hanging a couple of rods off the back of the drifting boat trailing DOA plastic shrimp about 4 feet below a float. If there's any wave action, these baits pop up and down just enough to draw a bite, and occasionally larger trout nail them while ignoring the jigs. You can also catch these offshore fish on live shrimp, but you'll have to deal with the jillions of pinfish that are also found in these waters, and they frequently nip the bait off before a trout can find it. In fact, baby pinfish make good baits for larger trout here, as do scaled sardines for those who go to the trouble to net them up. You'll catch lots of other species drift-fishing this way; mangrove snapper, black sea bass, grunts and the occasional gag grouper all spice up the action, as does the lightning quick strike of a Spanish mackerel every now and then—the big ones love to cut hooked trout in half. Easy access to the best flats is available out of public ramps at Tarpon Springs, New Port Richey, Hernando Beach, Pine Island, Chassahowitzka, Homosassa and Crystal River among other areas. The nice thing about fishing the more northerly flats is that you can ice down a limit of trout early, then go scallop diving for a few hours to cool off before the drive home—the scallop season runs through Sept. 24 this year north of the Pasco/Hernando county line.
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