When it comes to tasty seafood, speckled trout are spot-on. The fish with freckles inhabits just about every area of Florida's coast, but for the next two months, fans of those mild filets will have to focus their efforts on the state's northern regions.
Trout harvest is closed in the south region during November and December, but anglers can still keep their daily limits in the northwest and northeast regions (see "Trout Rules" below).
With less overall pressure than areas like lower St. Joseph Sound, Tampa Bay, Sarasota and points farther south, the northern waters tend to produce bountiful stocks of plump trout. As autumn advances, larger trout start to flood the area and shots at legitimate trophy fish increase significantly.
Wherever they roam, trout don't need a Farmer's Almanac to tell them that winter is right around the corner. That means intense feeding, but also heightened weather sensitivity. When fall winds blow white caps and frothy trails streak across the shallows, look for protected edges and tranquil coves where trout find calmer water and usually bunches of bait blown into vulnerable positions.
During calmer days, lush grass beds offer prime feeding grounds. Potholes are especially attractive to trout, as the border of a lower sandy depression meeting a higher grassy edge presents a strategic ambush point.
Similarly, prop scars offer narrow trenches that often harbor trout. Sarasota Capt. Rick Grassett suggests wind drifting grassy zones and casting artificials ahead of the boat to cover maximum water with effective retrieves.
Elsewhere, hard structure like spoil banks, oyster bars and rocks will also attract hungry trout. Spots flanked by sea grass are especially productive.
As the tide rises, move in with measured increments. In any such scenario, don't rush in too fast, even if the water allows. If you sit between the fish and the hard spots they want to access, they may decide to bypass your position.
Baitfish schools will be dwindling, but until they're gone you can't miss with a live scaled sardine ("whitebait") or a pinfish under a cork. Popping or clacking corks will help grab the trout's attention -- a helpful tactic when the trout are scattered and lazy on a slack tide.
Once the water starts moving in or out, the freckled fiends will actively patrol broad areas in search of their next meal.
Gold or silver spoons imitate the flash of sunlight reflecting off a bait's belly, while jigs and soft plastic jerkbaits resemble the profile of wounded or fleeing baits. Jigs, jerkbaits and artificial shrimp work well under those noisy corks. Give the rig a tug and the surface chugging pulls the trout's attention in your direction, where they'll spot the hopping lure.
Capt. Ray Van Horn said the linchpin of fall trout presentations is distance: "The bigger trout are more wary, so you're going to have to make long casts and really focus on stealth. That seems to be the key with big trout -- stay off of them so you don't spook them."
Van Horn and his tournament partner, Capt. C.A. Richardson -- both instructors with the Flats Class instructional series -- fish for fall trout with what amounts to a saltwater version of the bass world's dropshot.
Dubbed the "Flats Class Rig," the setup comprises a Strike King soft plastic jerk bait or tube rigged on a 1/0-2/0 circle hook with a ¾-ounce Tru Tungsten sinker hanging 18-24 inches below the bait.
"It's a distance achiever more than anything else," Van Horn said. "With 10-pound line, we can make long casts to the trout. The weight goes to the bottom and the bait runs just above the turtle grass. In the fall, the water is clearing up and the fish will see you from farther away."
Early mornings with calm conditions will find the bigger trout hunting finger mullet in super shallow water. This presents some of the best topwater potential you'll find all year.
Big trout won't hesitate to smack a full-sized model like a MirrOlure Top Dog or a Zara Spook, but if the fish shy away from a bigger lure, downsize to a less intimidating presentation like MirrOlure's Top Pup or the MirrOMullet.
However you fish for fall trout, don't make the mistake of crossing the boundary from north to south with trout in your cooler. It doesn't matter where you catch your trout, you simply cannot possess them on the water in the closed region. That means carefully planning your day, particularly where you launch.
For clarity, you can catch all the trout you want in a closed region, but every one must go back to the sea. Do the trout a favor and handle with care. Use long-handled hook removers for quick release with minimal contact. If you must grip a trout, wet your hands or use a damp rag. Supporting a fish in the water usually minimizes thrashing and that makes for an optimal release.
Size limits: Not less than 15 inches or more than 20 inches (statewide) except one fish over 20 inches per person
Daily bag limits: South Region, four per person; Northwest and Northeast Regions, five per person
Closed seasons: Nov. & Dec. in South Region; Feb. in Northwest and Northeast Regions
Regional descriptions: "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.
For complete Florida fishing regulations, www.myfwc.com.
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.