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Area trout always on small side

January 22, 2009

Growing up in the Mid-Atlantic states meant catching big sea trout, properly called weakfish. These hard fighting fish are quite beautiful decked out in fluorescent silver, pink, and purple.

The Chesa-peake and Delaware Bay used to give up huge numbers of these fish and 10- to 12-pound fish or larger where common during their peak cycles. It was no great feat to catch 10, 20 or more large trout per angler on a four-hour party boat excursion.

These beautiful fish where so abundant that anglers would abuse the resource to the point that part of a day's catch sometimes would end up as fertilizer in home gardens. Since 2001, anglers in these waters are hard pressed to find any. Go figure.

Article Photos

Capt. George Tunison

This is one case where irresponsible anglers and charter boat captains damaged the resource as much and probably more than commercial overfishing.

Our southern spotted sea trout (cynoscion nebulosus), or "specks," typically average much smaller in size. A real trophy in Florida would be a 6-, 7-, 8-pound or sometimes larger specimen. Specks can live up to 15 years under good conditions and many times that 20-inch fish you just caught can be 9 to 10 years old.

Specks are multiple spawners. During a six-month period a typical two-pound female may spawn between three million and 20 million eggs per season. In the Indian River area the interval between spawning may be as little as three to four days.

Trout become sexually mature at the end of the first or second year when they are 12 to 16 inches long. Males generally mature at smaller sizes and younger ages, and our trout do not migrate. Many times fish are caught over and over, which shows the value of careful catch-and-release of these delicate fish.

Indian River, The Panhandle, and other eastern/north Florida areas typically give up the state's larger trophy fish. The world and Florida record is a bit over 17 pounds and was caught at Fort Pierce. What a monster trout!

In Charlotte Harbor or Pine Island, trout of this size (five pounds and up) are very rare with most specimens weighing mere ounces up to a couple of pounds. Rarely do you see "gators" of five pounds or more. This is a prime nursery area to be sure and we are blessed with an abundance of small fish. So why don't we see many trophy size trout in our waters?

I asked Mike Murphy, a biologist for the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, who told me there are several reasons, with our higher water temperatures being the chief culprit. During the summer these fish can become so heat stressed they stop feeding.

It is true that the larger fish are caught on the east side of Florida which is influenced by the cooler Atlantic Ocean water temps providing a thermal refuge to heat stressed fish. Our fish baste in hot water in the harbor and the Gulf remains very hot as well providing no thermal relief.

Lawrence Delancy, a biologist for the state of South Carolina, says that large numbers of small fish feeding in one area may be a factor as well. The formula is: high population density equals intraspecific competition for food and space, equals smaller individuals. He further suggests that high mortality rates due to predation by sharks, tarpon and other fish that feed on small trout is a cause as well as high harvest rates by anglers, all which don't allow fish to attain larger sizes.

Finally he said that bigger fish don't always have the chance to feed as well due to the numerous smaller, hungry, juvenile fish packed in one area.

If you are a true trout trophy hunter head to the Indian River Lagoon for one of the best shots at a true Florida gator. Please handle all trout carefully.

Capt. George Tunison is a Cape Coral resident fishing guide. Contact him at, or Flying Fins Sportfishing.



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