Inshore Gator Trout
Depth, structure and current are the ingredients for big trout.
The spotted seatrout or “spec” is arguably one of the most targeted species in southeast Georgia estuaries. These beautiful fish exist in large numbers and are quite accessible year-round.
However, this time of year something special happens. Big females show up in the marsh and surrounding creeks, and now is a great time to put a trophy fish in the boat.
We had the fortune to fish with St. Mary’s guide Joseph Stover in the middle of March, and he was ready to show us how to land a big trout.
We left the Meeting Street Ramp early on a Monday morning and headed up the Cumberland River on a mission to bag at least a couple of good-sized fish.
“In March and April, large numbers of big females show up in the area in preparation for one of several of the spawns that will happen during the spring and summer,” said Joseph. “They hang out in deep spots near structure and feed on bait.”
Joseph said there are three important elements for catching big trout this month—depth, structure and current.
Depth: When Joseph talks about deep water, 10 feet is a minimum.
“The target range is between 10 and 20 feet deep, but I have caught big spring trout in water over 30 feet deep,” said Joseph. “As the water warms up, the fish move to shallower areas, but the bigger fish tend to stay deep through March and April.”
Structure: Good examples of fish-holding structure include docks, pilings and shoreline bluffs with deep drop-offs and downed trees. While structure is a big benefit, it is the least important of the factors in Joseph’s opinion.
Current: The current is a very strong element in producing big trout. Joseph says the direction of the current is less important than the speed of the current. At dead high and low tides, the action tends to lag.
“Moving current seems to stir up the bait and, in turn, the fish,” said Joseph. “I like current that is not too slow or too fast. There needs to be enough to excite the fish, but not so much that it is tough to keep a bait down.”
The day we were out, we fished the bottom half of the outgoing tide and the top half of the incoming tide. We had good action while the current was moving and very little action in slack water.
“These fish tend to move as they feed, so it is a good idea to change your position and mix it up a little,” said Joseph. “Try the same spots at different tides and levels to see what the fish are wanting.”
The Presentation: The technique is to present the bait to the fish with a natural drift. In fact, you almost don’t have to cast at all. With the boat in the proper position, just drop the bait over the side, and let the current carry it along.
“This technique is great for a charter trip because anglers of all experience levels can have a great chance of catching a fish,” said Joseph.
The two important things to remember is the bait needs to be as close as possible to the bottom, and the drift must be drag free. If the line in between the rod tip and the float is pulling the rig in either direction, then the bait won’t appear natural to the fish and strikes will be limited.
When you start out at a new location, adjust your depth so the rig is just clipping the bottom, and then adjust it 6 to 12 inches, so the bait is drifting just off the bottom. You’ll need to keep adjusting the depth as the tide changes in order to stay close to the bottom without dragging and hanging up.
Deep: For depths over 10 feet, Joseph recommends a rod at least 8 feet long. A salmon rod is a good one to try. The long rod helps to manage the slack and takes up a lot of line on the hookset.
On the rod, Joseph likes a small to medium baitcasting reel, like an Abu Garcia 6500. The reel is spooled with braided line of 40-lb. test or larger. Not only is braid strong and doesn’t have memory like monofilament, it is buoyant and will stay on or near the surface. The heavier braid is more buoyant. This is important because it is easier to manage slack during the drift if the line rides high in the water.
The rig consists of a 12-inch pole float with a float stop and a small bead followed by a larger bead above it. This allows the angler to manage the depth of the rig.
Below the float, Joseph uses a large rubber bead between the float and the weight. A tip from Joseph is that a hard bead will crack the plastic nipple on the bottom of the float and cause the line to snag. A rubber bead eliminates that problem.
The rig is completed by a 2-oz. trout weight (swivel down), a leader of 20- to 30-lb. fluorocarbon about 20 inches in length and finished off with a 3/0 kahle hook.
Shallow: At depths less than 10 feet, Joseph recommends spinning rods of 6 to 7 feet in length with small spinning reels also spooled with braided line. The rig is essentially the same as the deeper-water rig, just downsized.
In this case, the float is a popping cork, and a 3/4-oz. trout weight is used. The leader and hook are the same as the deep-water rig. Joseph likes the large hooks even with smaller fish because they tend to hook the trout deeper in the mouth and prevent loosing fish. Trout have very soft mouths, and hooking them near the lips will often result in a tear and a lost fish.
Live bait: Joseph’s go-to bait is a live shrimp. Large shrimp are best if you can get them. In any case, it is important for the shrimp to be lively. If they aren’t active, change them out.
Hook the shrimp under the horn between the small and large dark spots on the top of the head. Just in front of the small dark spot is also a good spot.
Artificial: Joseph uses artificial baits at times. He said he uses jigs more than anything else. He recommends you use the lightest jig that will still get down to the bottom. A lighter jigs tends to swim more freely, producing a more natural action. A slow cadence on the retrieve seems to work the best. Retrieve the bait with the rod, not the reel, with a slow pumping action, causing the bait to rise off the bottom and then drift back down. Most soft plastic baits serve well as a trailer. A curly tail grub is a good choice.
“In slick morning or evening conditions, try a surface bait like a Zara Spook or Red Fin,” said Joseph.
These baits can provide some explosive action and are often very effective.
When fishing artificial baits, it is essential to tie a fluorocarbon leader to the braided line. This can be challenging if you don’t use the proper knot. Joseph recommends the FG knot for this application.
“This knot holds its strength the best and has a very slim profile, so it goes through the rod guides easier,” said Joseph.
Check out this You Tube video to see how to tie it: www.youtube.com/watch?v=pjzUb5QRKuk.
We fished a half-dozen spots the day we were out, but there are loads of locations in the area that fit the characteristics (depth, structure, current). Some good places to try are the docks along the west side of Cumberland Island.
Jolly River is a good spot across the line into Florida. Old House Creek, just north of Greyfield Inn, has a lot docks and bluffs that produce good fish. The Brick Hill River near Plumb Orchard is another of Joseph’s favorite areas.
Farther north along Cumberland Island there are many places with the ideal structure and depth.
The important thing is to fish the pattern. You will find many locations that will produce good fish if you just explore a little.
Georgia: The regulations in the area change periodically, so it is a good idea to check regularly. You can find the Georgia regulations using this link: www.eregulations.com/georgia/fishing/finfish-seasons-limits-sizes.
Last year, because of harmful cold winter conditions, Georgia DNR started a voluntary program called Return Over Eighteen (ROE), asking anglers to voluntarily release seatrout over 18 inches. To learn more about this program, check out the following link: https://coastalgadnr.org/ga-dnr-requesting-voluntary-release-spotted-seatrout-operation-“roe”.
Joseph has always released fish longer than 20 inches to ensure the breeding population stays strong.
Florida: Florida regulations can be found at https://myfwc.com/media/18835/quickchart.pdf.
Note the difference between the spotted seatrout and the weakfish. The regulations are not the same in either state.
Cross Border Cautions: The Georgia-Florida border runs right through this fishery. Be sure to know the license and creel regulations for the area you are fishing and have the proper license with you. The possession and length regulations are quite a bit different on either side of the border, and the rules in the area you are fishing at any time apply regardless of where you started. If you have fish in your boat in Florida waters, they must be in compliance with Florida regulations, even if you caught them in Georgia.
How Big Are The Gator Trout
Seatrout in Georgia don’t get as big as some of the more famous trout fisheries like Texas, Louisiana or southern Florida, but we still produce some quite impressive fish. According to Joseph, a big trout is anything over about 20 inches. A fish of 23 to 25 inches is a trophy in southeast Georgia.
“Most people in our area have never seen a 23-inch trout,” said Joseph.
We had good results on the day that we went out. We boated about 20 trout and several large redfish, some bigger than the slot. The largest trout was close to 20 inches. Joseph said the trout fishing will continue to improve as we go through April and into May. The redfish are a great bonus to add a little excitement.
If you would like to go out and see how this is done firsthand, contact Joseph Stover at Lo-Joe Charter company, and he’ll be glad to set you up with a trip. You can find him at www.lojoechartercompany.com, (912) 552-4691, [email protected], on Facebook at Lo-Joe Charter Company and on Instagram @lojoechartercompany.
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