Finding and fooling big trout in Florida waters is an awesome accomplishment, and one that requires an incredible amount of stealth, patience and education. Reaching lengths upwards of 36 inches and approaching 17 pounds, seatrout are typically classified as gators when they surpass 25 inches. Most large trout are females, and can spawn multiple times throughout a spawning season with the number of eggs released dependant on the female’s age and size. According to biologists at the FWC Fish and Wildlife Research Institute, the largest female trout are capable of spawning upwards of a million eggs per spawning event. Through studies in Tampa Bay it is believed that females over five years old are capable of releasing upwards of 18 million eggs per spawning season!
Most anglers agree that a gator trout is one of the most elusive and wary fish found on the flats. But often overlooked is what should be done before and after you’ve captured a trophy to ensure its post release survivability. Anglers searching out these hefty carnivores should be well aware of the following tips and make every effort to promote the health of these important game fish. Removing even a single spawning female from the ecosystem can have a detrimental influence on future populations.
If you’re in an area next to a drop-off or channel, try to revive the fish near the deeper areas where the water temperature is generally cooler.
In Florida, the early fall heat can be merciless. Water temperatures in many of the shallow lagoon systems can average 80 degrees or more, where dissolved oxygen levels are seasonally at their lowest. When a big trout is hooked and puts up a respectable fight, its body’s need for more oxygen rapidly begins to increase, putting the fish in a state of distress if the demand is not adequately met. Playing a fish down on light drag, as many carefully tend to do when engaged with a potential trophy, should be avoided. To reduce exhaustion and wear placed on a big female trout, prevent prolonged fights by stepping up your gear accordingly. This may be as simple as increasing the drag resistance on your favorite reel without having to completely move up a size and change outfits and leader. Limiting the wear on fish also means selecting terminal tackle that is the least damaging to the fish. Trout have soft mouths and lures with treble hooks should stay in the tackle box. Once the fish is brought to the boat try to avoid hoisting it high up into the deck. It’s a good idea (if you’re physically capable and the water is shallow enough) to hop out of the boat and meet the fish on her own terms. This will help keep the fish’s temperature stable and reduce unwanted stress associated with removing the fish from the water.
Once a big gator is thrashing around on the end of the line, try to think of a mortality clock that’s starting to tick. The decisions you make next can increase or decrease the fish’s chance of survival. First, wet your hands in the water before reaching for the fish. We all know about protecting its slime coat and this should be as second nature as remembering to tie your shoelaces. Next, if you insist on doing so, lift the fish out of the water with both hands. One hand should support its head and the other behind the belly midway to the tail. A good grip over the back behind the shoulder area will work as well. What you don’t want to do is squeeze the belly and you certainly want to avoid hanging the fish on a fish gripper or scale. You can certainly use a lipping device to control the fish, but never use these tools to hold fish vertically. Fish live in a zero gravity environment and have no internal support structure. The weight alone of a large trout hanging vertically can cause internal injuries and damage to the connective tissue that supports its jaw. Even if you watch the fish swim away, this could be a death sentence.
Most of us rarely experience the euphoria of holding a giant trout for a photo, but when that opportunity arrives being prepared may prevent an unfortunate loss to an incredible trophy. Always keep your camera within arm’s reach so that photos can be taken quickly and easily. Keeping a fish suspended or lying on a boat deck while you dig around for your camera is out of the question. If you weren’t prepared with a camera on hand you shouldn’t risk the life of a spawning trout just so you can impress your friends on Facebook. Prolonged time out of the water can lead to hypoxia or temperature stress, which is caused by the fish’s inability to breathe out of water. Think the scenario out in advance. Are you fishing alone or with a partner? If you’re fishing with a buddy, inform them in advance where the camera, pliers, Boga grip, and de-hooking tool are kept on your boat. If you’re wading, it’s a good idea to have a camera attached around your neck. This will prevent having to make a long hike back to the boat for it, which under the hot sun could result in an early demise for a large gator. Also try to avoid becoming too overzealous with shooting that perfect photo. Take a few quick pictures then ease the fish back into the water. Let the big trout remain in the water for a minute or two before lifting it out for another shot.
Ease the fish back down into the water using both hands while keeping a hold of the tail. Gently push the fish forward in the water, lightly forcing water through its gills. If you’re in an area next to a drop-off or channel, try to revive the fish near the deeper areas where the water temperature is generally cooler. Once the fish can pull away from a loose hand, she should be home free.
By practicing safe handling and release practices we can ensure the largest female trout will go on to spawn many times and ultimately produce future trophies for all of us to enjoy.