Fall's a great time to target speckled trout in Florida, but you can only keep these tasty finsters in half of the state — essentially, the top half. That's because spotted seatrout harvest closes during November and December in the lower half.
The state's trout closures — also including a February shut down in the Northwest and Northeast Regions — are intended to lessen the pressure on these fish during their fall-winter spawning period. Catching trout, either intentionally or incidentally, remains legal during a closure, but you must release all trout alive.
Something else to consider: Launching into the South Region, catching trout in the open waters of the Northwest or Northeast Region and then returning to a boat launch in the closed region technically puts you in violation of state regulations. You can bet that law enforcement will be spot checking popular boat launches and where you caught a fish matters far less than where you possess it.
Good news is that northern regions contain plenty of productive trout areas. Better news is that trout tend to perk up in fall's cooler temperatures, so expect aggressive feeding. Dwindling baitfish supplies and the transition from the autumnal equinox to winter solstice tells the fish it's time to pack on the weight.
On the west side, some of Florida's best trout action occurs over the lush grass beds off Tarpon Springs and Anclote. Be careful here, as most of St. Joseph Sound (between Clearwater and Tarpon Springs) lies in the South Region. The upper end — basically north of Fred Howard Park — is fair game.
Drift the 3- to 6-foot grass flats from the sound to Anclote Key and cast ahead of your drift with 1/8- to 1/4-ounce jigs dressed with shad or grub tails in pearl, chartreuse, root beer or sardine colors. Soft plastic jerkbaits of similar colors also work well. Keep the baits moving to attract trout attention and to avoid snagging the thick grass.
Substituting wide-gap worm hooks with weighted shanks also alleviates the snagging problem, as does fishing your baits under popping or clacking corks. Tug the cork and its splashing noise simulates feeding, a sound that always brings in hungry trout. At daybreak, the splashing of a topwater plug will often fool large trout hunting finger mullet and minnows in the shallows.
Trout will be gathering in tight pods during fall, so finding one usually means finding many. If you can pinpoint a likely area, such as an oyster bar, a tidal cut, or a well-defined pothole, you can't miss by floating live sardines, pinfish or shrimp.
Same kind of stuff works on the east coast, and if you're looking to catch a trout dinner on the Atlantic side, try the marshes and oyster bars scattered throughout the river systems of St. John's and Duval counties. From St. Augustine Inlet, the Matanzas River runs to the south, with the San Sebastian River branching northwest. The Tomalto and Guana rivers lay to the inlet's north.
Up the coast at Mayport, the prominent St. John's River sprouts vast backwater systems, with Pablo Creek to the south and Sisters Creek to the north providing access to prime trout waters.
Release and regulations
Trout are a soft-bodied fish, so take care to minimize the catch-and-release experience. Start by avoiding treble hooks, which often take more time to remove. If you use hard baits, replace trebles with single hooks. Here, and with jigs, shrimp imitators or other soft plastics, mashing down barbs further facilitates quick release.
Whenever possible, keep your fish in the water while dehooking. Grip the leader and use a hook plucker or needle-nose pliers to remove the hardware. If you must touch a trout bound for release, do so with wet hands or a damp towel and grip the fish gently. Avoid touching the eyes and gills and don't squeeze the abdomen area.
During open season, legal trout must measure 15-20 inches. Daily bag limit is four per person per day in the South Region and five in the Northeast and Northwest Regions. Daily bag limits may include one trout over 20 inches.
Florida uses these descriptions for its trout closures: Northeast Region means all state waters lying north of the Flagler-Volusia County line to the Florida-Georgia border, and adjacent federal Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) waters. Northwest Region means all state waters north and west of a line running due west from the westernmost point of Fred Howard Park Causeway (28E9.350'N 82E48.398'W), which is approximately 1.17 nautical miles south of the Pasco-Pinellas County line to the Florida-Alabama border, and adjacent federal EEZ waters. South Region means state waters lying between the Flagler-Volusia County line on the Atlantic Ocean and the southern boundary of the Northwest Region on the Gulf of Mexico in Pinellas County and adjacent federal EEZ waters.
Editor's note: David A. Brown has a B.A. in journalism from the University of South Florida and you can see his work in Florida Sportsman, FLWOutdoors.com, Cabela's Outfitter Journal, TIDE, In-Fisherman, Louisiana Sportsman, The St. Petersburg Times and Saltwater Angler. He also ghost-wrote and published "Fish Smart Catch More!" for Tampa's cable TV host Capt. Bill Miller (www.billmiller.com) and a couple more publishing projects will be docking soon. He operates a professional writing/marketing agency, Tight Line Communications.