This Often Overlooked Species Just Might Be the Challenge You've Been Seeking
Fly fishing in saltwater flats usually conjures up images of tarpon, bonefish, snook and permit; the "big four" so to speak in this realm of mangroves, grasses and sand. Then there are redfish and black drum. These two species are much more widespread and available, making them a viable target from Texas to the Carolinas. Again, these two fish are very popular among fly anglers and considered high on the list of angling achievements.
However, there is yet another species of the drum family that I consider even higher on the list than redfish and black: the spotted seatrout (cynoscion nebulosus). The spotted seatrout is perhaps one of the first fish that novice saltwater fly anglers target. The smaller versions of these fish are voracious feeders, attacking anything that gets near them, making them perfect for novice anglers.
Spotted seatrout are readily found from Maryland to Texas, in large groups, and it is not unusual once a single small trout is caught, to catch a dozen or more in the same area. Perhaps this is why many people forget about seatrout and don’t give them the respect they deserve, especially the large ones we call gator seatrout.
What is a Gator Seatrout?
There are trout, and then there are trout! 30.5 inches, sight cast and caught on a Game Changer fly. She couldn't resist the wiggle! Quick photo and back she went.
Gator seatrout are what we use to designate the larger specimens of the species. It is a term that is used throughout their range and can vary in size from one location to another. Whether an area considers a fish of 20”, 25” or 27” in length a gator depends on what the average size of a fish is in that location.
Gator seatrout in my area are usually considered trout above 25” in length. Personally, I reserve the term for fish over 27” in length. While a couple of inches does not seem like a lot to many people, it dramatically reduces the number of fish in a given area.
No matter the exact length, these fish are the big breeders of their seatrout world. Unlike the smaller ones, they are usually solitary fish and normally have a “home range” on a flat. These fish have keen eyesight, a highly developed lateral line, camouflage that makes them almost impossible to distinguish, and they are extremely wary.
In addition, Gator seatrout may only eat one large meal a day, compared to smaller fish that gorge themselves at almost any given opportunity. All of this combines to make them one of the most difficult fish to actually target and truly sight fish on a saltwater flat. This is the very reason they are one of my favorite species to target on the fly and a fish that I specialize in taking on fly gear.
Targeting Gator Seatrout
Flip Pallot releases a gator seatrout, taken on fly, during a trip. This big girl will spawn for several years to come, providing the next generation of these beasts.
When I first began fly fishing some 31 years ago, gator seatrout were considered a wonderful, accidental catch. The catch usually happened when the seatrout, unseen by the angler, happened to be in the area a fly was cast and presented to another fish. No one was specifically targeting them and it remained that way for a long time. Then, about 15 years ago, I was fortunate enough to start fishing with the very person who got me into fly fishing through his television series, Flip Pallot.
I was just starting to prospect targeting gator trout; I had areas where I knew they loved to be, but was having difficulty getting their attention. So, for my first trip with Flip, I decided to take him to the areas and see what he thought. Flip became as enthralled as I was at the thought of actually targeting the fish, not just lucking up on one. He did give me some strange looks when I mentioned tailing, backing, and finning seatrout, like most other people when I spoke at seminars about it. I knew they existed, but most people had never witnessed this behavior.
That initial trip proved to be an eye opener for us both. Flip got to see some fish activity he had not observed before and I got to see some of the greatest casting and fishing in the world.
Despite all of that, we never managed to get a single gator seatrout to the boat. I blew the only chance we had and received a “Flipism” that I remember vividly to this very day, but that’s another story.
The day instilled a fire in both of us and also made us realize that we needed to change a few things to have a real shot at being successful; these things still hold true today for anyone wanting to target these trophy fish.
3 Tips for Success
Tip 1 – Lighten your saltwater gear
First, we needed to lighten our gear up. 15 years ago, the average rod for saltwater was promoted as an 8 or 9 weight rod. While these rods were fine for redfish, snook, tarpon and permit, they were too heavy for the majority of the seatrout.
The issue was the rods being too stiff or having too much backbone to make the fish fun, the line was too heavy and either spooked the fish as it landed or at least made enough “noise” when it landed that their lateral line picked it up and kept them from eating. We decided to drop down to 6 and 7 weight rods. These rods allowed a much more delicate presentation and our success rates went up.
Now, with the added fishing pressure, we are primarily using 6 weight rods and even some 5 weight rods.
Tip 2 – Lengthen your leaders
Second, we needed to lengthen our leaders. Again, during the initial fishing, the average leader was 9 foot in length; only trout anglers and some bonefish anglers were using anything longer. We realized that by lengthening our leaders to 12 or even 15 feet, we could reduce the chances of spooking these fish even more.
This keeps the tip of the fly line further away and allows an angler to drop the fly further past a fish, without them realizing it. This becomes most important when the fish are laid up, instead of moving.
Tip 3 – Give them something worth eating
Game Changer flies get the job done with gator seatrout.
Third, we needed flies that would give a Gator Trout a reason to eat. Since these fish might only eat a single meal in a day, we needed flies that would provide them a meal big enough to get their attention. This was one of the most difficult obstacles we faced. Sure, you can tie big flies easily enough; but we needed to be able to cast these flies 50 to 60 feet, with a 6 weight fly rod, on a long leader, into the wind.
Synthetic fibers were just starting to enter the fly world and they offered limited realism as far as movement in the water. I had been using some larger baitfish flies, tied EP-style, with some limited success. We wanted something that offered a more realistic movement in the water, without needing to be stripped fast or without having it sink too fast.
The first fly we developed together, for this specific purpose, was the Lady of Okeechobee. The fly was tied with a marabou tail, a sparkle braid body, an artic fox fur head and either beadchain or micro lead eyes. These materials were combined to provide a long, undulating fly that could be used to mimic a baitfish or shrimp, depending on color and stripping method. The fly was successful and has taken Seatrout to 33”. Still, the fly presented some issue, especially for anglers who did not possess better than average casting skills. The biggest issue was the fact it absorbed water and could become difficult to cast over time.
The Game Changer's movement and action in the water is unparalleled.
Fast forward to the last few years and things have improved in the synthetic material world. We have re-designed several patterns using just synthetics, allowing the fly to remain castable during the entire day and also increasing the durability of the fly. Then, last year, I was introduced to the now famous Game Changer. The fly has been just that for targeting gator seatrout! It provides ultra-realistic movement, a large profile, and looks like the perfect meal for these fish. Now, with the new shorter length Fish-Spine shanks becoming available, we can keep an increased number of links, while tying smaller flies for or 5 and 6 weight fly rods.
Get out There and Fish!
There are other things that you can do to help increase your chances of locating and catching gator seatrout. In fact, I could spend a couple of days teaching a course on it. Still, by following the three guidelines above, a person can increase their chances of success.
One warning for those who have not done this type of fishing: it becomes incredibly addictive and will start to consume your fishing thoughts. Sight fishing a gator seatrout on a fly rod is an achievement many people may attain once or twice, but becoming very successful requires patience, a little luck, and true angling skill. Hopefully these pointers will help you too.
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About John Tarr:
Captain John Tarr is the owner and operator of Tailhunter Outdoor Adventures, an inshore fishing guide service located on the east, central coast of Florida (find Tailhunter on Facebook here). Captain Tarr has been a fishing guide for more than 20 years, and specializes in fly fishing the shallow saltwater flats along the Florida coast. While most notably known for redfish, this area is also home to spectacular fishing for snook, tarpon, black drum and spotted seatrout.
John was first introduced to fishing by his grandfather and the innovator of Strike King Fishing Lures, Bill McEwen. John spent countless hours fishing largemouth bass in Horseshoe Lake, Arkansas. In 1982, the family moved to Edgewater, Florida and their concentration turned to saltwater gamefish. John received his first boat at the age of 9 and his passion for the area has never wavered. Five years later, foul weather cancelled a Saturday fishing trip and John spent the morning watching a television show with host Flip Pallot; this show introduced him to fly fishing. A few months later, for his 15th birthday, John received his first fly rod outfit from his grandparents, who continued to fuel his passion for fishing. That was 31 years ago.
Captain Tarr started his guiding career while working as a law enforcement officer. While trying to make a name for himself in the guiding world, he finished his law enforcement career and continued his career in the fly fishing world. Captain John has been a published fly tier, had several articles published in magazines, been a part of several television shows, and assisted teaching schools with Flip Pallot, Lefty Kreh, and Chico Fernandez. Captain Tarr continues to teach all aspects of fly fishing with friends across the southeast, as well as run his guide service, write articles, and tie flies.