Gunning for Gator Trout
by Capt. Scott Sparrow
an unedited version of an article that
just appeared in theJuly/August 2003 issue of
Fly Fishing in Salt Waters

On May 23, 2002, Bud Rowland from Port Isabel, Texas was  doing what he loves  best -- sight casting 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 along with the two big fish.
     One of the big trout looked to be about 30 inches long, but the other was clearly 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 the biggest trout slowly swim forward. "She just opened her mouth and engulfed that fly, and started moving," he reports. "I set the hook and the rest is history."
     A few 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 significance of his catch, he waved down two fishermen, who gladly photographed him and the trout, and witnessed the weigh-in on a certified Chantillon hand scale. And then, as Rowland went to release the fish, the incredulous onlookers 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 Rowland 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.)

      Edward 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 turns to the most difficult ones.  For those of us to whom difficult fish have become alluring, there is no greater angling challenge than giant speckled trout, for they are among the most difficult gamefish to be found anywhere.  "Tougher than permit!' asserts one master fly fisher. "Psycho!" exclaims another. But these men also smile 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.
     Top Venues. The spotted seatrout, or cynoscion nebulosus ("starry nebulae") is a member of the croaker family, and inhabits estuaries and inshore waters from Massachusetts to the Yucatan peninsula. However, the largest specimens 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 Lower Laguna Madre of deep south Texas.  Florida and Texas fly fishers continue to monopolize the IGFA’s world records in the open division -- with fish from 8 1/2 pounds to over 15 pounds.  If records mean anything, the 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 and 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, believing that it must have been too small to qualify.
     The Lower Laguna is the only true subtropical fishery outside of Florida in the continental U.S., and is remarkable among trout fisheries for its sight casting opportunities.  While the Indian River Lagoon system has an average depth of three feet, 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 migrate 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 the warmest and coldest seasons, alike. Indeed, the Lower Laguna is truly unique in offering year-round sight casting to world-record class fish.
     Trout development. Before speckled trout reach the spawning age of two years, 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 toss in their direction. Indeed, small topwater and subsurface flies will draw 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 trout on Clousers under dock lights at night, or by blindcasting topwaters along the edges of channels on summer mornings.
     The largest trout are females, with the males rarely growing beyond 20 inches in size. A six year-old male will average 19 inches in length, while a six-year-old female will run around 26 inches. These "sow" 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 mullet, 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.  After 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.
     Finding the Fish. Locating trophy speckled trout is at least half the challenge, for their movements are as arcane as any fish to be found. Still, a dedicated angler soon learns that trout follow fairly predictable patterns.  Trout gravitate toward structure, such as along channel dropoffs; on the edge of depth transitions; along the banks of spoil islands; and on top of submerged spoil islands. Furthermore, the same fish will often return to the same structure day after day for a period of weeks, or even months.
      Big trout can also be found cruising the structure-free, open flats where the water is especially clear and consistently shallow. Small trout rarely go onto the shallowest flats due to their vulnerability to pelicans, cormorants, and herons; but trout from 20 inches up gravitate toward these areas whenever the water temperature becomes attractive to them. In the winter, trout -- and redfish, too --  will predictably go shallow during the second or third day of a warming trend. In the summer, they will go skinny after a cool night, after a rain has cooled the shallows relative to the deeper water; or after a flood tide has pushed cooler water into the shallows.
     While 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. When a well-known fly fishing author was wading with me recently on the Caribbean-like "white sand" of the Lower Laguna Madre, we took one step in the direction of a huge trout that swam into view about 90 feet away, and she promptly 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 right up to you, too.   Given their unpredictability, one of the fly 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 catching big trout on a fly rod?" he said, "Just being there. Just paying your dues."
     Expert fly fishers -- such as Rockport guide Chuck Scates -- often have the necessary 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 make angling history.
     Scates 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 arriving the next day,  he went out alone to see if he could handle the boat and find some fish.
     For some 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 heavier tippet for trout. As he approached a spoil island where he often fished, he spotted dozens of fish with their backs out of the water, driving mullet toward the shoreline. Thinking that the fish were redfish, Scates grabbed the rod with the two-pound tippet, and waded toward the fish. Then he realized 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. Fourteen years later, his record still stands.

Skipper's Maxim

     A fly fisher will often express surprise when a trophy trout flees so quickly and decisively from his first presentation, and will often blame the fish or the fly for the rejection. I am convinced, however, that a big trout's so-called finickiness usually stems from having already sensed the angler's presence. Lower Laguna Madre guide Skipper Ray agrees. In fact, when I recently asked him, "What 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 fishers 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 inordinate wariness which it always manifests, and he is willing to take the trouble to stalk as he should."
     For fly fishers willing "to take the trouble," there are a variety of strategies that can help them fulfill Skipper’s maxim.

     Maintain 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 step further by dropping to my knees in shallow water whenever I see a big trout nearby. If the bottom is too soft to wade, using a kayak is an effective alternative for getting within casting distance. Bud Rowland and fly shop owner Larry Haines frequently fish for big trout from aboard their Wilderness Systems "Ride" offshore kayaks.  The wide and stable, sit-on-top design of the Ride permits fly fishers to stand while casting, or to ride side saddle when they want to "scoot" slowly along.
     A low profile is also ideally paired with an intentionally non-aggressive stance. 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 presence if you act in a nonaggressive manner. Lower Laguna fly fisher Tom Kilgore -- 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 person who is just going about his business. Kilgore also keeps his arms to his side as he casts to visible big trout -- again in order to minimize the appearance of aggression.
Go slow, and then go slower. Speckled trout are masterfully camouflaged on the dorsal side, with brown and green interspersed with the black spots for which they are named. Consequently, they are exceedingly difficult to pick out, especially on a dark, grassy bottom. To be successful at stalking trophy trout, you have to move so slowly that you have a chance of seeing the trout before she becomes offended by your presence. This takes an unshakable belief that a big trout may appear at any moment, and a relentless scrutiny of every nuance of your surroundings.  Unless a wading angler stops 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 below 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.
     Learn 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 anglers I’ve interviewed over the years have ever actually seen one. When Jim Kuper, a fly fishing writer, came down a couple of years ago to do some articles on the Lower Laguna, he asked, "What do you think would make an interesting angle?"
      "How about tailing trout?"  I answered.
     "I have fished the Texas coast for years," he remarked. "but I can’t say that I recall ever seeing one."
     We went out before sunrise to a grassy flat adjacent to the Intracoastal Waterway, 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." Using a VIP topwater, Kuper slipped out of the boat and proceeded to catch several trout up to 24 inches that were tailing in the foot-deep water.
     In most 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 redfish 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 greatly enhanced.
     Remain poised for a quick cast. Once you spot a trout, you have to cast quickly, because as soon as the fish moves, you will probably lose sight of her due to her camouflaged coloring. Trout also move erratically when foraging, so it's hard to predict where they will go once you lose sight of them.  To remain poised for quick action, most of the fly fishers I know use stripping baskets while wading. In particular, Kathy and I favor an innovative stripping basket called the Strip'n Aid, made by Lake Fork Industries of Waco, Texas. 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.
     While stalking big trout, in particular, I have developed a casting method that I call the Heron Haul, which can be used alone or in conjunction with a casting basket.
     To use the Heron Haul, you first aerialize the amount of line that you can comfortably 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. Walking forward, simply drag the line behind you. When you spot a fish, haul downward with your left hand as you make your forward cast. It's important to start 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.
     If 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 Heron Haul, you can even shoot some line off of your casting basket on your first 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 remaining line toward your target.
     The Heron Haul achieves the goal of minimizing body movement and false casting, but it's not always possible to use it. If you have a tail wind above 15 knots, the wind may blow the line toward you, thus ruining your slackless forward 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.

     Fish from aboard a drifting or poled skiff.  Although fishing from aboard a boat may seem to contradict the low-profile philosophy, novices have to learn to see big trout before they can sight cast to them. By spending time aboard a boat with an experienced angler or guide who can point out the fish, a fly fisher can develop the sighting skills that will translate into success, regardless of whether he continues to fish from aboard a boat, or decides to wade.
     At the other end of the continuum of experience, advanced fly fishers can exploit 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 represents 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 southeast wind behind him, Rowland can often approach within a few feet of big trout before they see him. Indeed, he has caught most of his trophy trout making short, precision casts from his drifting boat.
     Blind Casting Tactics. Whenever it’s calm and/or sunny, it’s usually better to refrain from casting until you see a tail, a wake, or a cruising fish beneath the surface.  But when windy and cloudy conditions prevail, every fly fisher going after big trout should have an effective blind casting plan.
     One approach that is effective during the summer months, in particular, is to cast topwaters along the edge of the Intracoastal Waterway, and strip them back onto the flat.  Big and small trout alike often feed right on the edges of channel edges -- especially on the outgoing tide -- so this strategy can reap dozens of strikes over the course of a few hours, even on windy mornings. After the sun rises, the topwater action usually falls off, but by switching to small Clousers, the fly fisher can extend this action for another hour or more.
     Under low light, but calm conditions, I often combine limited blind casting with sight casting by making short casts in all directions, and leaving a sizable "donut" of reachable water untouched. While I'm stripping, I will study the untouched water for signs of cruising or tailing trout, and reposition the fly as soon as I spot a target.
     When the sun is bright, but the water is too deep to see individual fish, an effective strategy is to cast to "potholes" -- light-colored openings on an otherwise grass-covered bottom that tend to be a bit deeper than the surrounding area.  Big, solitary trout are famous for lying up in potholes, where they warm themselves on a chilly day, and attack approaching bait from below. While you can easily spot a pothole with polarized sunglasses from some distance away, it is often hard to see a trout lying up in one, even 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 our page on fly designs for illustrations for these flies.)

     Given a trout's tendency to feed only two out of every 24 hours on large baitfish, it makes sense that they would only rarely take any offering, regardless of its size. And if they were hungry, it also makes sense that they would overlook small flies in favor of large baitfish imitations. However, Bud Rowland -- whose successes lend credence to his claims -- says that both assumptions are false, and that big trout will eat just about any well-presented fly at any time. In support of his bold contention, Rowland recently caught 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 10-inch mullet hanging from its mouth. Such anecdotes point to pure aggression as a prime impulse behind a big trout's strike.
     Large trout readily take both topwater and subsurface flies of various descriptions. 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 by midmorning.
     Side Bar on fly selection with slides to illustrate.
Topwater Patterns, from top to bottom.  Some fly fishers use large, tightly stacked deer-hair 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 enough to float for long, then they’re also difficult to cast. For that reason, I have developed the VIP popper, which has a small foam head in front of stacked deer hair. The VIP casts easily, floats low in the water, remains buoyant all day, and makes more noise than deer hair.  Indeed, Kathy and I rarely anything else from dawn until midmorning.
     For conditions requiring a delicate presentation, Skipper Ray prefers a Wilson’s Grass Shrimp, a variation of the Gartside Gurgler.

    Subsurface Patterns, from top to bottom. Size and color preferences vary for subsurface flies, too. For years, Chuck Scates has favored a chartreuse-and-white Deceiver (top). Tom Kilgore depends on a large red and pink Deceiver that he calls his Thousand Dollar pattern, because he once caught a tournament-winning trout with it.  Skipper Ray usually prefers red and white Seaducers -- sometimes with a rabbit strip as a trailer. However, when conditions call for a delicate presentation, Skipper opts for a lightweight fly called a Winslow Whisper.
     Larry 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 various 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 baitfish, and a Mother's Day Fly tied on size 4 and 6 hooks -- during the warmer months, when the shrimp are on the flats.
     It is probably true that when it comes to trophy trout, the size of the fly represents a tradeoff between imitation and ease of use.  Large flies imitate the primary food sources of big trout, but may hinder your presentation, while small flies represent less important food sources, but may facilitate a precision cast.  Since big trout are merciless in rejecting poor presentations, and willing to attack a fly of any size that is presented well, a smaller fly may represent more of an advantage than a drawback.
     Use flies with different sink rates.  Tom Kilgore insists that a fly's sink rate is an often overlooked key to success. Big trout move erratically 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 tend to overlook anything that's not "in their face."  Thus, in water over 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 changes direction. For this reason, Bud Rowland wraps his hooks with varying amounts of lead wire before he dresses the fly, and codes the flies according to the sink rate.
     Use patterns that undulate.  Flies that undulate at rest seem to provoke more strikes, especially when the trout are not actively feeding. Indeed, trout will sometimes go into a virtually unresponsive, sleep-like state between feeding periods.  While many anglers declare these fish uncatchable and move on, Skipper Ray uses a  Seaducer with a bunny strip trailer 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 fish move. Then, the mere twitch of the fly will often provoke a strike. Similarly,  Bud Rowland outfits his Numero Uno with twister tails and "Flexi Legs" to provoke these lethargic fish to action.  He sweeps the Numero Uno by the sleeping fish again and again until it provokes a strike.  Similarly, I use Dupont Lumaflex -- sold as "Flex Floss" by Spirit River -- for tailing and/or legging on most of my VIP poppers and Mother's Day Flies.

     In the final analysis, it's the angler -- not the fly -- that makes the difference 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 all right; the trouble is on the other end of the rod." If we take responsibility for all of the things that we do imperfectly, and correct those errors through diligent effort, catching a trophy trout can be surprisingly easy.
      Just the other day, for instance, Kathy and I were wading along the shoreline of Laguna Atascosa National Wildlife Refuge on a sunny afternoon.  After 15 minutes of wading through a turtlegrass meadow, I spotted a large 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 before 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 flies, but upon honest reflection, I knew that my presentation had been the problem, so I stayed with the fly.
I 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 stripped off more line and casted, and again the fly landed too close for comfort. 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 lost sight of the fish for a moment, but then  she came out of the water, shaking her head and trying to throw the fly.
     After a spirited 10-minute fight, I landed an 8 lb, 2 oz. trout. Before releasing her, I held her in the water and admired her.  Her silvery body was almost blinding in the afternoon sunlight, and her golden mouth was positively cavernous. I turned the fish slightly so I could to see the sweep of iridescent 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 seamlessly with the backdrop of seagrasses, and became another fond memory.
     Most fly fishers would agree that saltwater fly fishing is difficult enough without 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 difficult as trophy speckled trout -- and a place, as well, for anglers who set their sights above the known horizons.