The day you catch a memorable fish seems to start like so many others - a soft-glow sunrise; if you're lucky, a light breeze to keep the bugs off; and just enough anticipation without too much expectation. That describes the late spring day I caught my first trophy trout on Florida's Indian River.
I remember making a few casts with a red-and-white D.O.A. Bait Buster and the feel of sea grass lightly brushing the hook. Then, as if forever captured in slow motion, I remember the boil, then the take and the astonishing feel of power from the other end of the line.
The thrill of catching and releasing that 6-plus-pound trout remains an inshore highlight for me. I can only imagine the excitement of battling a double-digit trout like the 17-pound, 7-ounce current all-tackle record caught in 1995 near Fort Pierce, Florida - the same vicinity I was fishing.
The pursuit of trophy trout becomes obsession for some anglers and guides. And when April approaches each year, thoughts turn first to Florida's grass flats, particularly those from Stuart to Fort Pierce.
"While fishing the south Indian River, I have positively identified two giant trout that would have bested the current world record," says trophy-trout enthusiast Dr. Jay Wright, an Orlando physician who plies the Indian River each spring in search of "gators." "And I've seen countless fish that could capture most of the line-class records. It's only a matter of time before someone gets lucky and is in the right place at the right time."
Whether someone breaks the current all-tackle record depends on many factors, not the least of which is the health of the fishery and the ecosystem. Then, as Wright states, the right place and time must occur simultaneously. Then, the angler must use just the right bait and just the right presentation. Oddsmakers might be able to quantify all that, but suffice it to say: The opportunity exists - barely.
Trout by the Numbers
The abundance of older - 3- to 6-year-old - trout from Volusia County (Daytona Beach area) south to Miami, which includes Fort Pierce, increased from 1990 through 1997, according to the Florida Fish and Wildlife Research Institute in St. Petersburg. The numbers grew initially because of state harvest regulations set in 1989, says Mike Murphy, an FWRI research administrator. Since 1997, abundance has leveled off, though reasons are unclear.
During the early '90s, biologists sampling trout with nets encountered 13- to 15-pound trout (potentially 9- to 10-year-old fish) fairly regularly, about every other trip. Today, those fish appear only occasionally. That may be due to the high number of younger age-class fish, Murphy says. However, the fishing effort targeting trout has increased tremendously in recent years. Since 1998, recreational data shows almost a tripling of fishing effort. And while recreational statistics come from surveys that produce estimates and not absolute measurements, Murphy says the trend is definitely correct.
On the water, guides and anglers report seeing and catching good numbers of bigger trout. Capt. Ed Zyak (772-485-3474, www.stuartflatsfishing.com) of Jensen Beach, Florida, has caught multiple trout over 8 pounds and one to almost 13, but agrees fish that size prove very rare. "I think there are more bigger trout now. I see a lot of 6- to 8-pounders, especially in the winter, so I know the numbers are up. They're hard to catch in winter with the clear, shallow water. But when you see 10 or 12 together, that's pretty cool," he says.
Murphy says biologists haven't determined any specific reason why trout grow bigger near Fort Pierce than seemingly anywhere else in the United States. Speculating about general conditions, he offers the following possible factors:
good forage base,
plenty of sea grasses,
access to flats near inlets with high-
salinity water and
length of growing season.
In fact, Fort Pierce trout also spawn perhaps 50 or 60 times from late March through September on average; fish living farther south may spawn year-round.
Zyak and Capt. Mark Nichols, owner and creator of D.O.A. Lures in Stuart, start seeing bigger trout in March, though April and May seem to be peak months. Both say, however, that they've caught giant trout in midsummer too.
Zyak starts a big-fish hunt early in the morning. He'll work flats starting from Jensen Beach and move north to Vero Beach. He looks for isolated, out-of-the-way flats without much pressure. "A discreet little hump in the middle of the Indian River will hold monster trout. It doesn't get pounded. Big fish don't tolerate a lot of commotion," he says.
Flats in depths of about 18 inches surrounded by water 4 to 5 feet deep allow trout to feed in the shallows but move to deeper water to escape predators. Such spots work well on any tide, though certain locations produce better on certain tides. A flat that's shaped like a V, for instance, might trap bait as the water flows into the V on an outgoing tide, making that the best tide to fish.
However, if he had to pick one tide to fish, Zyak says he'd fish the low incoming. "The first thing it does is just limit, a little bit, where the fish can hold," he says. "You target the little holes, troughs and runs that are left. It almost narrows your search."
"Good" trout water generally looks green - not gin-clear but not murky, Zyak says. A new-moon phase, with its accompanying strong tides, cranks the fish up and generates a brisk bite.
To work fishy zones, Zyak gets out of the boat to wade. He throws big topwater plugs like MirrOlure He Dogs and She Dogs; bigger plugs help weed out smaller trout. If he wants to add snook to his creel, he works the plugs steadily. If he's waiting for the big gator, the action becomes work-and-pause.
After a hookup, gator trout fight much stronger than their smaller brethren. "Once they get big, they really pull hard," he says. "I've had them jump, tail walk, thrash their head around. It's a whole different animal once they get that big shouldered."
Nichols agrees that fishing low-light conditions - even predawn and night hours - in very shallow water (sometimes less than a foot) produces very big trout. When the sun comes up, he targets the pockets behind spoil bars, looking for mullet. Most of the potholes and more grass seem to occur on the south side of bars near Fort Pierce.
The best bite erupts when the water temperature remains steady for several days. Nichols looks for tidal flow and generally prefers the outgoing, though he has caught some of his best trout on the incoming.
Nichols fishes a shallow-running Bait Buster early. However, a new bait he has designed - a rattling 8-inch mullet - should be ready this summer. Nichols has high hopes for the new bait to become a trophy-trout special: "I can't wait to get the actual product out," he says. "I'm going to paint it in speckled-trout, largemouth-bass and rainbow-trout colors."
Best Bait Buster colors include red-and-white, black back over silver and black back over pearl. If he's fishing the St. Lucie River, where the water quality improves, he'll switch to black back over gold. Fish the bait as a topwater lure early but not real aggressively, he says. After dawn, lower the rod tip and try to let the bait scoot along the top of the grass. Pull, surge and then slow down averaging a medium- speed retrieve.
As daylight progresses, Nichols may switch to a D.O.A. Shrimp, fishing it methodically in the grass. "I let it sweep with the tide, let it fall and let it set."
Another trick Nichols uses is the Clacker, his version of a popping cork. "The fish get just stupid as a rock over this thing," he says. "I caught two of my biggest trout last year - over 9 pounds - with this."
The noise attracts fish, and the action suspends the bait in front of their noses. Fished with a gold-glitter D.O.A. Shrimp in colder water or a glow Shrimp in summer, the combination becomes deadly for trout of all sizes.
Choose Your Weapon
Jay Wright, who moved to Florida from Texas, became hooked on big Lone Star trout. Now that he lives only a few hours from Fort Pierce, he can spend weekends haunting gators each spring.
Wright says he prefers fishing flats near inlets. He wades almost exclusively looking for potholes and the schools of mullet that big trout love. Like Zyak and Nichols, he believes in big topwater baits and chooses the Heddon Super Spook in bone color as his weapon of choice. But he'll also use soft plastics in pumpkinseed with a chartreuse tail or red-shad color, or a glow Corky's plug when the water temperature remains in the 60s.
Wright likes moving water, but not a ripping current. And he pays close attention to major and minor feeding periods, stating that 80 percent of the bigger trout he's caught have hit at those times.
When he fishes conventionally, Wright uses a 7 1/2-foot G. Loomis rod with a Daiwa 2500 spinning reel. He spools the reel with 10-pound Ande braid since he's targeting a 16-pound line-class record and that's the actual breaking strength of the Ande. To the line, he ties a small Spro swivel and 3 feet of 20-pound fluorocarbon.
When he fly-fishes, Wright chooses his tackle based on the wind. He'll fish floating line as light as 5-weight and as heavy as 9-weight. Bigger flies such as Seaducers with bunny tails and poppers usually do the trick. (At press time in late February, Wright reported he had just caught a potential 12-pound-tippet world record - an 11 1/2-pounder.)
Zyak uses a 7-foot medium to medium- heavy Shimano Crucial rod with an extra-fast tip and a 2500 Shimano Symetre reel spooled with 10-pound PowerPro. "Part of the reason I throw 10-pound braid on those reels is I can throw it a mile. The trout have no idea there's an angler on the other end," he says. "And the cool thing is, with the braid, it lands, the fish hits, and there's no stretch in the line."
Zyak bumps up his leader to 30-pound Gamma fluorocarbon because of the snook he and his clients may encounter. He ties line to leader and uses loop knots to tie on plugs. He also removes the standard treble hooks from lures and replaces them with extra-strong trebles.
As he talks, Zyak becomes more and more energetic. Starting a conversation with a trophy-trout addict about his favorite fish is like starting an engine cold and hearing its rpm rise as it generates heat.
"One thing they do is bury up in grass. They'll eat the plug and go right down. I've walked over and pulled a 10-pound trout out of the grass ? Big trout are my favorite species."
We're with ya.