Gator Country

Without Healthy Grass Beds, Florida’s Famed East Coast Lagoon System May No Longer be the State’s Premier Destination for Giant Trout

Jerry McBride January 12, 2015

Two miles of previously lush green vegetation dotted with sandy potholes and carved by narrow channels—once home to monster gator trout—had been reduced to a single acre of sparse seagrass. I fished the entire stretch in less than an hour and paddled home.

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Photo: Jerry Mcbride

I released just three trout, but they measured 28, 31 and 32 inches…my kind of trip. Yet, I was a bit uneasy. Where were the juvenile trout? A year earlier I could have spent the entire day sampling sandy depressions and cuts along the same shallow shoreline, cursing dozens of nuisance 18- to 24-inch juveniles I’d invariably wade through to snare a 40-inch-plus linesider or a couple of legitimate gators.

Without seagrass nurseries to feed and hide juvenile fish and the forage they require, sufficient numbers of trout may never reach adulthood…

The small fish were a time-consuming annoyance, but their absence does not bode well for the Indian River Lagoon. The estuary’s south end is losing its 80-plus-year battle against polluted discharges from Lake Okeechobee, while the rest of the 156-mile-long waterway faces an even more insidious adversary—a multi-source, nutrient-fueled brown algae scourge that virtually overnight reduced 43,000 acres of rich seagrass habitat to a sandy desert. Comparisons of satellite photos taken in 2012 versus recent images reveal vast stretches of missing grass beds not only in the IRL, but Mosquito Lagoon and the Banana River as well. Increased commercial trout fishing pressure has further depleted what fish remain in the decreasing habitat.

As an apex predator, limited numbers of giant seatrout can survive this exposed existence. Small trout, essentially a forage species for numerous animals higher up the food chain—including bigger trout—don’t fare as well. Without seagrass nurseries to feed and hide juvenile fish and the forage they require, sufficient numbers of trout may never reach adulthood to maintain the Indian River’s status as a premier gator trout destination.

Dr. Grant Gilmore has studied the IRL’s unmatched biodiversity for decades. My observations regarding the lack of small trout in some areas didn’t surprise him in the least bit. “I’ve been waiting for someone to tell me that,” he said. “I’ve been predicting it for some time.”

One of Gilmore’s recent spawning surveys had already indicated the trout population is becoming top heavy. “To our surprise, we found good numbers of trout still spawning in one of the traditional areas despite the total absence of seagrass. But instead of the high frequency mating grunts we would normally encounter, all we recorded were low frequency sounds. That means old fish.”

That’s not likely to change unless the grass recovers. “Trout hatchlings do best in really shallow shoal grass, where other predators can’t reach them. Unfortunately, these particular larvae all settled out over sand so, of course, none of them are going to survive.”

Portions of the Indian River Lagoon are now lacking several year classes in a row, leading Gilmore to speculate anglers may begin to see a decline in big trout numbers in sections of the estuary within a couple of years.

Recent kayak expeditions to Florida’s Gulf of Mexico leave me optimistic that I’ll still be able to satiate my future giant-trout addiction even if the IRL declines further. Sarasota Bay, Steinhatchee, and the stretch from St. Joe Bay to Panama City revealed numbers of impressive trout that I hadn’t encountered in previous years. In each location I photographed and released multiple gators, which conventional wisdom says rarely exist outside of Florida’s famous East Coast estuaries or Texas’ Laguna Madre or Baffin Bay.

Whether due to genetic differences or environmental factors such as colder water and shorter growing seasons, the Gulf Coast’s big trout reputation has never gotten much respect from East Coast trout connoisseurs.

Dr. Gilmore, in fact, grew up fishing Sarasota Bay, but did not encounter his first true gator trout until moving to the East Coast in the early 1970s. “I always thought the stories about giant IRL trout were a myth, until I was fishing with one of my Harbor Branch Oceanographic Institution colleagues after work. While fan casting the lush shallows he landed a trout over 40 inches. He was supposed to bring it in the next morning to see if it was a new world record, but his family decided to eat it for dinner.”

Sarasota Bay, Steinhatchee and the Panhandle’s Forgotten Coast offer distinct fisheries with seemingly little in common. Metropolitan Sarasota Bay’s lush seagrass and dark bottom look nothing like the oyster creeks, limestone rock gardens and spartina grass shorelines at Steinhatchee, nor the dazzling sugar sand potholes of St. Joe Bay or Crooked Island amid sparse human populations.

Although dissimilar in appearance, the aforementioned destinations share predictable big trout common denominators. No matter where you fish, big trout prefer mixed bottom ambush sites featuring some combination of seagrass, sand, rock or shell that the exquisitely camouflaged predator can blend in with. They also prefer areas with adjacent drop offs offering deepwater safety, and some type of topographical feature such as a bar, channel or point that funnels current and forage through the ambush site. They particularly gravitate to areas with the aforementioned features that further provide shallow, heat absorbing bottom nearby.

Florida’s voters finally granted trout a chance at adulthood when they banned commercial gill nets in the mid 1990s. But 30-inch trout don’t magically appear overnight, taking most of a decade to attain gator status. Gilmore says a few select trout beat the odds to survive 15 to 20 years. Fortunately, a growing number of Gulf Coast kayak clubs and individual anglers now embrace a catch-and-release ethic, recognizing that the genetic and economic value of releasing big females far outweighs an unceremonious burial in the cooler. And thanks to increasing angler awareness, fewer big fish are subjected to often-fatal lip gripper weight measurement and photograph sessions.

Unless Florida courts unconscionably reverse Florida’s gill net ban, which is under appeal again as of press date, or the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission forsakes its recreational anglers and further expands the commercial hook-and-line limits and seasons as they did last year, the big trout future looks promising in the sparsely populated Big Bend and Panhandle. Here the presence of wildlife preserves and military bases including the Big Bend Wildlife Management Area, St. Marks National Wildlife Refuge and Tyndall Air Force Base prevent major coastal development.

Florida’s populous southwest coast maintains a more tenuous grasp on their emerging gator trout fishery. Longtime anglers know they’re just one toxic algae event away from starting all over. “I just began catching decent-sized trout again last year after the red tide wiped out our inshore fishery in 2004,” Venice kayaker John Donohue told me.

While only time will tell, our most important and fragile estuarine ecosystems that support a diversity of wildlife are at risk of detrimental habitat destruction. Sadly, gator trout aren’t the only creatures in jeopardy of losing it all.

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