Gunning for Gator Trout
by Capt. Scott Sparrow
an unedited version of an article
just appeared in theJuly/August
2003 issue of
Fly Fishing in Salt Waters
On May 23, 2002, Bud Rowland
Port Isabel, Texas was doing what he loves best -- sight
to giant spotted, or "speckled" sea trout.
"I was drifting along," Rowland recalls, "and all of sudden, alongside
me were two huge trout." He also spotted a smaller trout
with the two big fish.
the big trout looked to be about 30 inches long, but the other was
35 inches or more. Using his favorite big trout fly --
his own Numero Uno -- he presented to the largest fish. "It landed
about six or seven inches from her nose," he said. Rowland expected the
small trout to rush forward and grab the fly, but instead he watched
biggest trout slowly swim forward. "She just opened her mouth and
that fly, and started moving," he reports. "I set the hook and the rest
minutes later, Rowland landed the largest speckled trout ever taken on
a fly rod, and the third largest speck ever taken on fishing tackle of
any kind -- a 37 1/4 inch, 15 lb., 6 oz. fish that later was certified
as the new IGFA 16 lb. tippet class world record. Realizing the
of his catch, he waved down two fishermen, who gladly photographed him
and the trout, and witnessed the weigh-in on a certified Chantillon
scale. And then, as Rowland went to release the fish, the incredulous
offered to rescue the trout from an obscure old age by offering to buy
it: They thought she deserved, at least, to be mounted. But
released her anyway. "I release nearly all of my big trout anyway, and
now her genetics can continue in our bay system," he said. (Photo is of
Bud with a smaller trout.)
R. Hewitt once pointed out that as a fly fisher matures, he eventually
grows weary of catching the most and the biggest fish, and finally
to the most difficult ones. For those of us to whom difficult
have become alluring, there is no greater angling challenge than giant
speckled trout, for they are among the most difficult gamefish to be
anywhere. "Tougher than permit!' asserts
one master fly fisher. "Psycho!" exclaims another. But these men also
when they speak of her. Indeed, if this fish were a disreputable lady,
the passion that she would generate in a few would be more than enough
to protect her from the contempt of the many.
Venues. The spotted seatrout, or cynoscion nebulosus ("starry
is a member of the croaker family, and inhabits estuaries and inshore
from Massachusetts to the Yucatan peninsula. However, the largest
that have been taken on a fly rod have been caught in the 152-mile long
Indian River lagoon system on the east coast of Florida, and on the
Laguna Madre of deep south Texas. Florida and Texas fly fishers
to monopolize the IGFA’s world records in the open division -- with
from 8 1/2 pounds to over 15 pounds. If records mean anything,
Lower Laguna is currently the premier venue for trophy specks, claiming
five out of seven of the tippet class world records. Bud Rowland
alone claims three of the five Lower Laguna records -- the 4 lb, 6 lb
16 lb records -- and would have racked up a fourth world record in May
of 2001 if he hadn’t released a 10 lb. trout before weighing it,
that it must have been too small to qualify.
Laguna is the only true subtropical fishery outside of Florida in the
U.S., and is remarkable among trout fisheries for its sight casting
While the Indian River Lagoon system has an average depth of three
the 300-square mile Lower Laguna averages just over a foot of normally
clear water. And while the trout in the Indian River Lagoon System
in and out of the shallow water in response to water temperatures, the
trout in the Lower Laguna evidence very little movement to and from the
Gulf inshore waters, and can be found on the shallowest flats during
warmest and coldest seasons, alike. Indeed, the Lower Laguna is truly
in offering year-round sight casting to world-record class fish.
development. Before speckled trout reach the spawning age of two
and a length of about 15 inches, they feed on shrimp and tiny baitfish
and, while feeding, will usually attack just about anything that you
in their direction. Indeed, small topwater and subsurface flies will
as many as a half dozen slashing strikes on a single retrieve through a
school of feeding trout. Fly fishers can easily catch a dozen small
on Clousers under dock lights at night, or by blindcasting topwaters
the edges of channels on summer mornings.
trout are females, with the males rarely growing beyond 20 inches in
A six year-old male will average 19 inches in
length, while a six-year-old female will run around 26 inches. These
trout tend to feed only two hours out of every 24-hour cycle, and when
they do feed, they usually gorge themselves on large baitfish such as
pinfish, or pig perch. Feeding infrequently, and roaming the shallowest
waters as solitary hunters, trophy trout behave like a different animal
altogether from their younger kin. If small trout are among the easiest
prey for fly fishers, large trout are among the most difficult.
casting fruitlessly to over 20 trout from 4-9 pounds apiece, a visiting
fly fisher -- who has fly fished the world over -- said to me, "This is
the most difficult sight casting I’ve ever encountered!" He's not alone
in this assessment.
the Fish. Locating trophy speckled trout is at least half the
for their movements are as arcane as any fish to be found. Still, a
angler soon learns that trout follow fairly predictable patterns.
Trout gravitate toward structure, such as along channel dropoffs; on
edge of depth transitions; along the banks of spoil islands; and on top
of submerged spoil islands. Furthermore, the same fish will often
to the same structure day after day for a period of weeks, or even
Big trout can also be found cruising the structure-free, open flats
the water is especially clear and consistently shallow. Small trout
go onto the shallowest flats due to their vulnerability to pelicans,
and herons; but trout from 20 inches up gravitate toward these areas
the water temperature becomes attractive to them. In the winter, trout
-- and redfish, too -- will predictably go shallow during the
or third day of a warming trend. In the summer, they will go skinny
a cool night, after a rain has cooled the shallows relative to the
water; or after a flood tide has pushed cooler water into the shallows.
trophy trout are usually quite willing to take a fly on the open flats,
it is usually difficult to present the fly before the fish spots you.
a well-known fly fishing author was wading with me recently on the
"white sand" of the Lower Laguna Madre, we took one step in the
of a huge trout that swam into view about 90 feet away, and she
turned away. Clearly, the fish had seen us. While the trout's reaction
was par for the course, there are times when a big trout will swim
up to you, too. Given their unpredictability, one of the
fisher's greatest allies is time -- lots of it -- on the water. When I
asked my fly fishing buddy, Cecil Marchant, "What is the secret to
big trout on a fly rod?" he said, "Just being there. Just paying your
fly fishers -- such as Rockport guide Chuck Scates -- often have the
skill and experience to take advantage of those
occasions when nature rewards our persistence. Indeed, when Scates came
upon a congregation of huge trout in July of 1989, he was prepared to
was guiding out of South Padre Island at the time, and had been off the
water for a week recovering from sunstroke. Since he had some clients
the next day, he went out alone to see if he could handle the
and find some fish.
time, Scates had been fishing for IGFA world records, and he had a rod
outfitted with two-pound class tippet for redfish, and a rod with
tippet for trout. As he approached a spoil island where he often
he spotted dozens of fish with their backs out of the water, driving
toward the shoreline. Thinking that the fish were redfish, Scates
the rod with the two-pound tippet, and waded toward the fish. Then he
that they were huge trout! After hooking and breaking off on two fish
one of which would have gone over 10 pounds -- Scates finally landed an
8 lb, 11 oz. trout that broke the IGFA two-pound class tippet record.
years later, his record still stands.
will often express surprise when a trophy trout flees so quickly and
from his first presentation, and will often blame the fish or the fly
the rejection. I am convinced, however, that a big trout's so-called
usually stems from having already sensed the angler's presence. Lower
Madre guide Skipper Ray agrees. In fact, when I recently asked him,
is the secret to catching big trout on your fly rod?" he replied, "See
the fish before she sees you" -- as if this should be the most obvious
thing in the world. But it isn’t always the first thing that fly
consider. Nor is it easy to accomplish once you’ve embraced it as your
first order of business. But as Sparse Gray Hackle once asserted,
"The real expert is always willing to credit the fish with the
wariness which it always manifests, and he is willing to take the
to stalk as he should."
fishers willing "to take the trouble," there are a variety of
that can help them fulfill Skipper’s maxim.
a low profile. If the bottom is firm enough, wading is an excellent
way to avoid being noticed. For myself, I don’t hesitate to take it a
further by dropping to my knees in shallow water whenever I see a big
nearby. If the bottom is too soft to wade, using a kayak is an
alternative for getting within casting distance. Bud Rowland and fly
owner Larry Haines frequently fish for big trout from aboard their
Systems "Ride" offshore kayaks. The wide and stable, sit-on-top
of the Ride permits fly fishers to stand while casting, or to ride side
saddle when they want to "scoot" slowly along.
profile is also ideally paired with an intentionally non-aggressive
It's important to move slowly and deliberately, and to blend in to the
natural order. I have even observed that trout will acclimate to your
if you act in a nonaggressive manner. Lower Laguna fly fisher Tom
-- who held the four-pound tippet world record trout until Bud Rowland
edged him out -- refrains from even looking at a big trout that he has
spotted, having observed that big trout do not react as much to a
who is just going about his business. Kilgore also keeps his arms to
side as he casts to visible big trout -- again in order to minimize the
appearance of aggression.
slow, and then go slower. Speckled trout are masterfully
on the dorsal side, with brown and green interspersed with the black
for which they are named. Consequently, they are exceedingly difficult
to pick out, especially on a dark, grassy bottom. To be successful at
trophy trout, you have to move so slowly that you have a chance of
the trout before she becomes offended by your presence. This takes an
belief that a big trout may appear at any moment, and a relentless
of every nuance of your surroundings. Unless a wading angler
and studies the water with consummate thoroughness, he will spook most
of the fish before he sees them. Learning to see the "lifeless" tip of
a trout’s tail above the surface, the black edge of its tail moving
the surface, or the subtle snakelike movement of its dorsal fin amid a
school of mullet, can make the difference between catching a big trout
and never seeing one.
to see tailing trout. In the midsummer, when the tides are low, big
trout can often be seen tailing on calm mornings. But few of the
I’ve interviewed over the years have ever actually seen one. When Jim
a fly fishing writer, came down a couple of years ago to do some
on the Lower Laguna, he asked, "What do you think would make an
"How about tailing trout?" I answered.
fished the Texas coast for years," he remarked. "but I can’t say that I
recall ever seeing one."
out before sunrise to a grassy flat adjacent to the Intracoastal
and anchored. As the sun approached the horizon, we looked out across a
flat that is usually overlooked by anglers on their way to more remote
settings, and saw, in Kuper’s words, "five acres of tailing trout."
a VIP topwater, Kuper slipped out of the boat and proceeded to catch
trout up to 24 inches that were tailing in the foot-deep water.
instances, a tailing trout barely breaks the surface as it forages head
down on a grassy flat. Typically, the tail will appear as a tiny black
triangle. When compared to a wiggling sheepshead tail, or a waving
tail, a trout tail is easy to overlook. But once you see the first one,
you’ll know what to look for, and your chances of success will be
poised for a quick cast. Once you spot a trout, you have to cast
because as soon as the fish moves, you will probably lose sight of her
due to her camouflaged coloring. Trout also move erratically when
so it's hard to predict where they will go once you lose sight of
To remain poised for quick action, most of the fly fishers I know use
baskets while wading. In particular, Kathy and I favor an innovative
basket called the Strip'n Aid, made by Lake Fork Industries of Waco,
Having relied upon this toothy contraption for almost four years -- and
urged our clients to do so, as well -- we have observed that it greatly
decreases a fly fisher's response time, and clearly results in at least
50% more hookups on big trout and redfish alike.
stalking big trout, in particular, I have developed a casting method
I call the Heron Haul, which can be used alone or in conjunction with a
the Heron Haul, you first aerialize the amount of line that you can
lift off the water, and lay it on the water directly behind you. Then,
facing forward, you hold your rod over your shoulder so that the tip of
the rod points backward and downward so that there is no slack between
the rod and line. Strip a bit of line off the reel and hold it in your
left hand high against your chest, so that you'll be ready to cast.
forward, simply drag the line behind you. When you spot a fish, haul
with your left hand as you make your forward cast. It's important to
your forward cast slowly, as you would normally do on your initial back
cast. This will allow the rod to load properly, and will keep the line
from tracking too low and hitting you.
are using a stripping basket, you can shoot some or all of the line on
your basket on your second forward cast. Once you become adept at the
Haul, you can even shoot some line off of your casting basket on your
forward cast. Most of the time, however, you’ll need at least one false
cast to reposition your line after the water haul, and shoot the
line toward your target.
Haul achieves the goal of minimizing body movement and false casting,
it's not always possible to use it. If you have a tail wind above 15
the wind may blow the line toward you, thus ruining your slackless
cast. Also, if there’s a lot of floating grass, you may not be able to
drag your fly without fouling it. Using a weedless fly helps, but there
are some days when you just can’t afford to drag the fly behind you.
from aboard a drifting or poled skiff. Although fishing from
aboard a boat may seem to contradict the low-profile philosophy,
have to learn to see big trout before they can sight cast to them. By
time aboard a boat with an experienced angler or guide who can point
the fish, a fly fisher can develop the sighting skills that will
into success, regardless of whether he continues to fish from aboard a
boat, or decides to wade.
other end of the continuum of experience, advanced fly fishers can
the greater visibility afforded by the boat, and actually catch some of
the fish they see by making precision casts within seconds of spotting
a target. Bud Rowland believes that sight casting from a boat
the best overall approach to fly fishing for trophy trout. While
he often wades or uses his kayak on calm morning, his method of choice
is to fish from his boat from midmorning until midafternoon, while the
sun is more directly overhead. With the sun and the prevailing
wind behind him, Rowland can often approach within a few feet of big
before they see him. Indeed, he has caught most of his trophy trout
short, precision casts from his drifting boat.
Casting Tactics. Whenever it’s calm and/or sunny, it’s usually
to refrain from casting until you see a tail, a wake, or a cruising
beneath the surface. But when windy and cloudy conditions
every fly fisher going after big trout should have an effective blind
that is effective during the summer months, in particular, is to cast
along the edge of the Intracoastal Waterway, and strip them back onto
flat. Big and small trout alike often feed right on the edges of
channel edges -- especially on the outgoing tide -- so this strategy
reap dozens of strikes over the course of a few hours, even on windy
After the sun rises, the topwater action usually falls off, but by
to small Clousers, the fly fisher can extend this action for another
low light, but calm conditions, I often combine limited blind casting
sight casting by making short casts in all directions, and leaving a
"donut" of reachable water untouched. While I'm stripping, I will study
the untouched water for signs of cruising or tailing trout, and
the fly as soon as I spot a target.
sun is bright, but the water is too deep to see individual fish, an
strategy is to cast to "potholes" -- light-colored openings on an
grass-covered bottom that tend to be a bit deeper than the surrounding
area. Big, solitary trout are famous for lying up in potholes,
they warm themselves on a chilly day, and attack approaching bait from
below. While you can easily spot a pothole with polarized sunglasses
some distance away, it is often hard to see a trout lying up in one,
if you're only a few feet away. So it’s a good practice to imagine that
each pothole harbors a big trout, and to put your topwater fly over the
middle of it. Subsurface patterns work well over potholes, too, and are
usually superior as the day progresses.
Flies for Trophy Trout (See
on fly designs for illustrations for these flies.)
trout's tendency to feed only two out of every 24 hours on large
it makes sense that they would only rarely take any offering,
of its size. And if they were hungry, it also makes sense that they
overlook small flies in favor of large baitfish imitations. However,
Rowland -- whose successes lend credence to his claims -- says that
assumptions are false, and that big trout will eat just about any
fly at any time. In support of his bold contention, Rowland recently
a trout over 10 pounds on his fly rod on a size 6 Numero Uno fly. When
he landed the trout, Bud discovered a half-digested, regurgitated
mullet hanging from its mouth. Such anecdotes point to pure aggression
as a prime impulse behind a big trout's strike.
trout readily take both topwater and subsurface flies of various
Most fly fishers I know opt for topwaters in the early morning when the
light is low and the wind is calm, and then switch to subsurface flies
on fly selection with slides to illustrate.
Topwater Patterns, from top
to bottom. Some fly fishers use large, tightly stacked
flies like Larry Haines' Mae West pattern, or a similarly well-endowed
deer-hair mullet. The problem with flies comprised exclusively of
deer hair is that they tend to get waterlogged, and if they're large
to float for long, then they’re also difficult to cast. For that
I have developed the VIP popper, which has a small foam head in front
stacked deer hair. The VIP casts easily, floats low in the water,
buoyant all day, and makes more noise than deer hair. Indeed,
and I rarely anything else from dawn until midmorning.
requiring a delicate presentation, Skipper Ray prefers a Wilson’s Grass
Shrimp, a variation of the Gartside Gurgler.
Patterns, from top to bottom. Size and color preferences vary for
flies, too. For years, Chuck Scates has favored a chartreuse-and-white
Deceiver (top). Tom Kilgore depends on a large red and pink Deceiver
he calls his Thousand Dollar pattern, because he once caught a
trout with it. Skipper Ray usually prefers red and white
-- sometimes with a rabbit strip as a trailer. However, when conditions
call for a delicate presentation, Skipper opts for a lightweight fly
a Winslow Whisper.
final analysis, it's the angler -- not the fly -- that makes the
when fly fishing for trophy speckled trout. Indeed, we would do well to
remember another statement by Hewitt, in which he said, "Your fly is
right; the trouble is on the other end of the rod." If we take
for all of the things that we do imperfectly, and correct those errors
through diligent effort, catching a trophy trout can be surprisingly
Haines uses a small Lite Brite Minnow for big trout, and believes that
big eyes are an important trigger for trout. Meanwhile, Bud Rowland has
caught most of his world-record trout on his Numero Uno fly, tied in
color combinations on size 4 to size 8 hooks. Kathy and I like to
use Deceivers in the wintertime when the fish are feeding largely on
and a Mother's Day Fly tied on size 4 and 6 hooks -- during the warmer
months, when the shrimp are on the flats.
probably true that when it comes to trophy trout, the size of the fly
a tradeoff between imitation and ease of use. Large flies imitate
the primary food sources of big trout, but may hinder your
while small flies represent less important food sources, but may
a precision cast. Since big trout are merciless in rejecting poor
presentations, and willing to attack a fly of any size that is
well, a smaller fly may represent more of an advantage than a drawback.
flies with different sink rates. Tom Kilgore insists that a
sink rate is an often overlooked key to success. Big trout move
when they are hunting. On a vegetation-free flat, they will often
rush to seize a fly from 10 feet away, but in grassy conditions, they
to overlook anything that's not "in their face." Thus, in water
15 inches deep, it is important to use a fly that sinks fast enough to
get directly in front of the fish before she swims under the fly, or
direction. For this reason, Bud Rowland wraps his hooks with varying
of lead wire before he dresses the fly, and codes the flies according
the sink rate.
patterns that undulate. Flies that undulate at rest seem to
more strikes, especially when the trout are not actively feeding.
trout will sometimes go into a virtually unresponsive, sleep-like state
between feeding periods. While many anglers declare these fish
and move on, Skipper Ray uses a Seaducer with a bunny strip
to tease these sleeping giants into striking. He casts the Seaducer in
front of the sleeping fish, and lets it sit there until he sees the
move. Then, the mere twitch of the fly will often provoke a strike.
Bud Rowland outfits his Numero Uno with twister tails and "Flexi Legs"
to provoke these lethargic fish to action. He sweeps the Numero
by the sleeping fish again and again until it provokes a strike.
Similarly, I use Dupont Lumaflex -- sold as "Flex Floss" by Spirit
-- for tailing and/or legging on most of my VIP poppers and Mother's
Just the other day, for instance, Kathy and I were wading along the
of Laguna Atascosa National Wildlife Refuge on a sunny afternoon.
After 15 minutes of wading through a turtlegrass meadow, I spotted a
trout on the edge of a pothole. I cast my Mother's Day Fly to the fish,
and it landed a bit too close. The fish spooked, and swam a few feet
slowing down. I presented my fly two more times, but the trout recoiled
more violently each time until she was out of sight. I almost changed
but upon honest reflection, I knew that my presentation had been the
so I stayed with the fly.
continued wading for a while without seeing another fish, but finally I
spotted the shadowy form of a slow-moving trout about 70 feet away. I
off more line and casted, and again the fly landed too close for
The trout spooked slightly, but quickly resumed her unhurried pace. On
the next cast, the fly landed gently about two feet from the fish. I
sight of the fish for a moment, but then she came out of the
shaking her head and trying to throw the fly.
a spirited 10-minute fight, I landed an 8 lb, 2 oz. trout. Before
her, I held her in the water and admired her. Her silvery body
almost blinding in the afternoon sunlight, and her golden mouth was
cavernous. I turned the fish slightly so I could to see the sweep of
pink behind her gills, and the constellation of spots for which she was
so aptly named “starry nebulae.” As the trout swam away, cloaked
in the browns, blacks and greens of her mottled back, she merged
with the backdrop of seagrasses, and became another fond memory.
fishers would agree that saltwater fly fishing is difficult enough
going after a fish that is harder to catch than a permit. But there’s a
place in this world for mountains as high as Everest, and fish as
as trophy speckled trout -- and a place, as well, for anglers who set
sights above the known horizons.