More than 15 years ago, I discovered how to target and consistently take trophy seatrout. Though I’d been catching loads of those smaller, tasty spotsides since the early ’60s, I learned that the truly huge specimens – called gators by many Floridians – were cautious and not easily fooled. Hard to tempt and harder to hook and land, those few I managed to catch seldom fell to artificial lures and showed a decided preference for natural bait “of the finfish kind.” Parenthetically, live shrimp never lasted long enough tempt the gators. All manner of life-forms quickly destroyed and consumed shrimp. I gave up on crustaceans for trout in South Florida decades ago.
My knowledge that gators prefer a mouthful of scaled protein accompanied me through my evolution to exclusively casting lures and flies for seatrout. Not surprisingly, throwing imitations for the big ‘uns really got hard – and I needed some help. The classic bait-and-switch, which was born on the used car lots of Florida and migrated to the offshore cockpit, proved the perfect model for tricking big trout into hitting artificials.
The theory is simple: Get a gator homed in on a hookless natural-bait teaser, then jerk the teaser away and replace it with an artificial before the trout can change its mind.
**Dialing for Gators
**There was no other skirt that gators whistled at as frequently as the pinfish. I knew advocates of the less-numerous pigfish, but there was no way a piggy fillet could retain its alluring grunt when rigged as a teaser.
My pinfish teaser has gone through a number of incarnations. I originally used a hook on a pinfish fillet, but found that it hung up in weeds and grass, and the hook spooked gator trout when they grabbed it. I also learned that tying the hook directly to fluorocarbon leader resulted in too many cutoffs from barracuda and sharks in my home waters on Biscayne Bay. These problems gave rise to the rig I now use. A wire leader, passed through the pinfish lips and finished with a haywire twist, gives me a weedless morsel that doesn’t bite back. My experience taught me to use shorter, lighter gauge wire in clearer water. A dark-colored swivel on the top of the wire leader retains the stealth and prevents the teaser from spinning on the retrieve.
My pinfish teaser can be cut in two ways for differing conditions. I plug-cut my pinfish into a finless, tailless creation when I want a teaser for windy conditions over deep flats. This shape casts well and sinks quickly. When I’m hunting gators in calm, shallow water, I cut a small, finger-size fillet off the side of a big pinfish and loop it to the wire leader. This creates a slow-sinking teaser with lots of scent and flavor.
**The Method, Man
**Teasing and hooking gators is a team effort. One angler works the teasing rod, and the other fishes the lure or fly.
Trial and error proves that the teasing rod must be sensitive to strikes and have the power to pull the teaser away from a big, toothy trout. A stiff, 7-foot graphite spinning rod and a reel loaded with braided line perform both tasks well. Teaser line should be high visibility, such as yellow, to help the teaser operator keep track of things. I keep the teaser stealthy with 2 feet of 20-pound fluorocarbon leader between the braid and the short coffee-colored wire leader.
Ideal conditions find two anglers on a flats boat drifting across the shallows in a light breeze. With the possible exception of the Mosquito Lagoon and other skinny places, casting for trophy seatrout is not sight-fishing to individual fish, but rather casting to likely places such as sandy potholes or fan-casting a grassy expanse or crown on a flat.
Staying “on the drift” best accomplishes this, although poling and staking up for casting in becalmed weather is possible as well. The angler on the teaser rod will always do better from the poling platform. There’s no better place to work the teaser, spot a gator that might be humping water or “submarining” just below the cut pinfish, and calling it out to the other angler who is positioned on the bow. This spread between the anglers is important but really essential when angler No. 2 is false-casting with a fly rod as the teaser person is pulling the pinfish out of the water to make room for the fly presentation.
**Casting to gator trout is a game of stealth and patience. The angler working the teaser essentially fishes the flat, prospecting until he locates a trophy trout. The secret is to keep the teaser moving at all times and not let it slow down, settle in the grass or give a big, wary sow trout time to inspect it closely. Conversely, when a big trout seizes the teaser, it’s crucial to overcome the impulse to strike hard, which spooks the fish. The best “dance step” for the teaser angler requires slow, constant reeling and a firm, steady pull to draw the teaser from the fish, as the angler casts a fly or artificial in front of the trout.
Casting to and hooking gator trout on fly tackle or lures has never been easy, and it never will be. But this method might make that task a tiny bit easier. And the way I feel about gators, I’m sure to keep using it.
About the Author: Jan S. Maizler is a Miami-based journalist who specializes in shallow-water angling. His latest book, Fishing Florida’s Flats, published by the University Press of Florida, is available on his website, flatsfishingonline.com.