Although it’s not the most glamorous saltwater sport fish, the spotted seatrout (Cynoscion nebulosus) makes up for its lack of notoriety by being eager to bite and fun to catch.
[by Philip Monahan]
From the Southeastern states across the Gulf Coast of Texas, light-tackle anglers enjoy chasing spotted seatrout, which offer excellent table fare and are accessible to fly fishers many months out of the year because the fish inhabit inshore waters and live near the top of the water column. Historically, the species has been an important food source throughout its range, which explains why it has acquired a variety of different regional nicknames—17 of them, from speckles to truit gris, listed on Wikipedia—and the species continues to support commercial fisheries. Many a difficult day on the water, when the redfish or tarpon won’t cooperate, has been saved by a few willing seatrout putting a bend in a rod and ending up in the cooler.
Flies and Tactics
Because they are such avid feeders, seatrout are an excellent game fish. But don’t think that they are easy to catch; seatrout can sometimes be as finicky as their freshwater namesakes. Mostly in the three- to six-pound range, seatrout do get much bigger, especially in Florida. The all-tackle world-record fish—caught in 1995 near Fort Pierce, Florida—weighed in at an astonishing 17 pounds 7 ounces.
Although seatrout are actually bottom dwellers, they will attack surface flies in shallow water at dawn, but the hookup ratio tends to be pretty low with that method. Most anglers chasing larger seatrout choose baitfish patterns instead: Clouser Minnows, Deceivers, or patterns that imitate mullet or glass minnows. In winter, large shrimp patterns fished right on the bottom can be most effective.
The Big Chill
Spotted seatrout are vulnerable to “winter kills,” when water temperatures drop below 40 degrees, which is not that uncommon in the northern part of their range. When a cold front hits, the fish generally move to deeper water, but some do not make it quickly enough. Back-to-back winter kills in 2009 and 2010 hurt fish stocks in the Southeast, but the species rebounded well. But in February 2014, North Carolina closed its spotted seatrout fishery through June because of a massive kill after runoff caused water temperatures to drop rapidly.
What’s in a Name?
As a consequence of its plentiful regional nicknames, the seatrout is sometimes confused with other species. Fly fishers commonly encounter the terms sea trout and seatrout in articles and books, and the difference is important. A sea trout (two words) is an anadromous brown trout—one that migrates between rivers and the ocean, such as those browns found in southern Argentina and the British Isles. In some parts of the range, seatrout are called spotted weakfish, which creates further confusion, for the weakfish (Cynoscion regalis) is a different—albeit similar-looking—species of fish. To further confound things, a nickname for weakfish is summer trout. This confusion continues out on the water: a quick Internet search turns up many online discussions about whether an angler has caught a seatrout or a weakfish.
Range and Species History
Despite its shape, the spotted seatrout is, of course, not a trout at all, but a member of the rather large drum family (Sciaenidae), which includes about 275 species in 70 genera. Seatrout are found on the Atlantic Coast from the southern shore of Cape Cod, Massachusetts, to South Florida—although they are not common north of Delaware Bay—and throughout the Gulf of Mexico. A euryhaline species, seatrout are able to adapt to a wide range of salinities, so they can live in brackish or marine environments. They prefer shallow bays and estuaries that feature oyster beds and sea grass, which hold prey, especially during the warmer months. When temperatures cool or during times of low runoff, the fish may move to deeper water within the estuary, but they rarely stray from their home waters.
Seatrout spawning is triggered by water temperature, so it occurs at different times between May and September throughout the species’ range. During spawning, males come together at night to form drumming aggregations, vibrating their air bladders to attract females. Young seatrout are voracious feeders, gorging on plankton, and they grow quickly. Small fish often school together. By the time they are 12 inches, they eat mostly shrimps and crustaceans, but the diet focuses more on other fish the larger the trout grows.
The seatrout is prized as a food fish, and recreational anglers harvest millions each year—Louisiana anglers alone took home more than 9.5 million fish in 2000. Commercial fisheries also exist in Florida, Mississippi, and Louisiana. The species’ high reproduction rate allows for such a large harvest, and many states have size restrictions or slot limits to ensure sustainability. Most very large fish are females, which are often protected by
allowing the harvest of smaller males.
When cleaning seatrout, anglers often encounter “spaghetti worms” embedded in the flesh. Although these parasites may look disturbing, they pose no threats to humans, and it is safe to consume the fish after removing the worms.