Wow, forty eight degree average water temperatures in Tampa Bay! Say what? We haven’t seen that kind of temperature since the 48 degree stint we had back in 2001. However, over the last few days we’ve had a warming trend with a good amount of sunshine, and as a result, a rise in water temperature to about 55 degrees. This makes for some interesting gator trout action! Before we get into the scales and tails of things, let’s clarify what constitutes a gator trout. First, they are all females, hence the title Gator She-Trout. Males rarely grow over 20 inches, so we know a gator will be a female. So how big does it have to be to be a gator? We’ll there are no set sizes that I know of, but let’s consider the fact that they grow in excess of 40 inches and over 17 pounds! Knowing this, would you classify that 4 pounder as a gator? Though a beautiful trout, it is hardly a gator. I consider a 26-27 inch, 6+ pound trout to be the beginning boundary of a gator, and nothing less.
Now that we got that out of the way, let’s go look for some gator trout. First and foremost we need to look at the water temperature to determine where they will be and what the pattern will be. As of the writing of this, Jan 16th 2010, the water temperature is a solid 55 degrees in Tampa Bay, which tells us that it’s about 10 degrees lower than their comfort zone, and 5 degrees lower than we’d liked to see for normal winter-like activity. Knowing this, we should anticipate the following:
1) Bait Choice: Some anglers insist on artificial baits and lures, so a “very” slow retrieval rate should be used until the water temps climb back up to the 65 range. Personally, in these conditions I will only use live baits such as mullet, pins, pigs and menhaden if I can find them. Though many are tempted to use the tradition trout baits, they are simply too small, which leads to the next topic.
2) Bait Size: When we think of trout bait we think of some sort of herring, pilchard, shrimp or other small fish, and this simply will not work for gator trout. As mentioned above, pigfish, pinfish, mullet and menhaden. When I say mullet, I’m not talking a 5 inch finger mullet but rather an 8-12 inch fat boy! As for pins, pigs and menhaden, I look for them in the 7-8 inch range, which is a pretty large fish. I have found that a pigfish seems to be the best bait for trout if you can find them, as they are much more active and also can’t keep their grunting mouth shut! They attract gators like nothing else. Unfortunately, they move offshore in the winter where they are most abundant, but bringing them back from a trip or buying from a local tank can be very rewarding!
3) Trout Patterns: It’s a trout, just bigger right? That’s what many anglers think and that is why they have never enrolled in the gator club. Despite it looking like a trout, it seems to want to really put itself in a different category from its younger kin. They “do not” feed on every tide change, nor do they feed in multiple periods such as at the beginning and end of a tide. They typically feed about 2-3 hours and then they are done for 21-22 hours. They do not chase small baits, and yes they do indeed cruise the shallowest of water with no cover.
4) Line Choice: Because the water is very clear in the winter months, I really feel that gators can become very line shy at times. Seeing as the gator trout seems to elude many anglers, it is in your best interest to use fluorocarbon line throughout, and ensure it is a good quality line. You’ll kick yourself for buying that cheap line when you see it break on that 10 pounder!
5) Finding Gators: Now this is one area that the gator has not really strayed much from tradition, but does take it to the extreme. As with its younger kin, they gravitate to structure. The gator trout particular likes areas along channel drop-offs where a sudden depth transition exists, and especially a channel cutting through a very shallow flat. Once you have found a good area such as this, always remember that they often return to the same structure day after day until a major change in water temperature occurs, which could be weeks or even months. Unlike trout under 20 or so inches, they will push up into very skinny structure free water with no fear from predatory birds.
As far as the tide goes, I’ve always found the outgoing tide to be the best. I like to get there as the tide is still coming in so I can push back to the skinny water. One advantage of pushing into skinny water is that the bottom has already warmed during low tide, as it was exposed to direct sunlight.
One mistake often noted is fishing the skinny water too soon after a cold snap. I know we are all revved up when we go from 30 degrees to 65 in a day, but it takes the trout 2-4 days of warmth to move out of their winter fortress.
As you fish that outgoing tide, try working the structure free shallows and fall back until you begin to see grass beds and structure, at which point you’ll want to find a roll off ledge nearby and work the edge. I like finding areas that roll off from a shallow grass area to a 4-6 foot snady bottom. This enables the gator to roll off and float at different debts, while darting out onto the shallow to grab passing bait. Typically, float your bait a few feet off the bottom and try to let iot ride just on the deeper side of the ledge.
6) Casting & Catching: The last thing you want to do is spook that trophy with human noise and movement. Long casts are essential, and a silent lip should prove valuable. Back to the bait for a second. As with snook, many anglers just can’t seem to grasp the idea of tossing out a large bait, as this limits the overall take. While it is true that you are most likely to catch many more snook on small pins versus a large one, it is also most likely that the one strike that does come via that large bait will outshine your other 6 catches! Here’s where you get the best of both. As with all trout, they are attracted to other feeding trout and usually come to investigate. Wisely, the experienced angler utilizes both small and large baits! This can be done by asking your buddy to fish with small bait, or you can simply fish multiple rods, “ensuring you set the drag on the unmanned rod to light!”
7) Area /Day/Night: Look for the largest fish to be in the shallows during the day when it’s hottest, mainly over dark bottoms that have been exposed to plenty of sunlight. At night, look for the larger trout to move to the deeper water because it retains a stable temperature longer. Many anglers still retain the common trout traits and look for those densely covered grass flats. This is where you’ll find the smaller trout, as they use this for cover. Gator trout have a lighter color back with usually less spots, and blend into the sand better. You’ll want a flat with lots of potholes in the open, preferably adjacent to a densely covered grass flat. This type of flat has the best of both worlds.
8) Natural Noise: We all know that human noise is bad for fishing, but commotion in the water can also be a bad thing such as when grouper fishing. Leave a grouper in the water too long and his bellow sounds the run and hide alarm. Fortunately for us, trout like to see other trout thrashing. Obviously, when you get that trophy you want him out of the water yesterday, but when you get that little one, take a little time and have some fun reeling it in, as it only increases your chances of attracting the gator. In fact, one of the best baits for gator trout are smaller 8-12 inch trout (not legal and don’t do it!)
9) Perfect Scenario: It’s three days after a 10 day stint of 50 degree weather. The water temp has risen from 55 to 60 and the sun is in full shine. You have a few 5-7 inch pigs in the well and the craving to find a gator. You’ve got your spot picked out, as mentioned above, and your gear and boat are good working condition, the tide is near peak and it’s close to dawn—now what? Now you head out very early! Early in the winter…but why? Don’t you want the sun to heat things up? In part, yes, but you also want to take advantage of a special feature that trout take advantage of. You “see” trout have a layer of tissue just behind their eyes called the tapetum lucidum, which allows them to see better in low light conditions such as cats, dogs, etc. This gives them a big advantage over baitfish that lacks the feature, and is why large trout feed best at dawn, dusk and on rainy days. It has been shown that the larger the trout grows, the better their eye sight becomes.
So now you’re on the water, you’ve got all the above going for you (good luck meeting all those conditions!) and now it’s just a matter of presentation and skill.
1) Fish deep in early morning, shallow in hottest part of day, and deep again in late evening
2) Look for a large grass flat with a good channel adjacent and a lot of open sand with potholes
3) Work the shallow areas and fall back with the tide until you hit grass, then roll off to some depth
4) Long casts are essential
5) Large baits, namely pigfish, pinfish, mullet and menhaden work best
6) Live bait in water under 65 degrees for best chance
7) Limit line visibility
8) Dark bottom shallows heat up and attract bait and trout
Best of luck!