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Wild Side Column: Spotted sea trout really aren't trout

A spotted sea trout caught near Cedar Key, on the Gulf Coast of Florida. Photo by Dan Wilcox

Carol and I decided that we like Cedar Key, on the Gulf coast of Florida, so we made an offer on a house there for our winter retreat. After clearing lots of snow early April 4, we left our home near River Falls and headed south. The roads were covered with snow and ice as far south as Des Moines, Iowa. It was a relief to drive on dry pavement. We visited friends near Columbia, Mo., and Pensacola, Fla., on the way to Cedar Key.

We closed the deal on our house on April 9 and spent several days arranging for utilities and moving in. I was finally able to launch our fishing boat and get out on the water last Saturday. It was a beautiful warm day but a bit windy from the south, so I stayed inside the islands that surround Cedar Key, casting for redfish and spotted sea trout. The Gulf is shallow along the "Nature Coast," with extensive areas of salt marsh, tidal creeks, oyster bars, islands and sea grass flats.

I fished with a spinning rod, a popping cork, a 2-foot long leader and a jig baited with shrimp. I drifted across seagrass flats and caught spotted sea trout. They feed on smaller fish and shrimp and bite aggressively. They aren't bulldog fighters like their red and black drum cousins but they do put up a tussle on light tackle. They are excellent table fare with mild fine-textured meat. They are best when iced down right away after being caught.

Spotted sea trout (Cyanoscion nebulosus) really aren't true trout of the Salmonidae family. They are members of the Scianidae drum fish family. Spotted sea trout are elongated, have a slightly arched back and are silver with black spots on their sides, dorsal and tail fins, reminiscent of rainbow trout. Unlike other members of the drum family, they don't have barbells on their lower jaw. Like other drums, they have a lateral line that extends out to the tip of their tail fin. A notable thing about sea trout is two large canine teeth extending down from their upper jaw that they use to capture prey.

Spotted sea trout are found near shore in and around seagrass meadows, mangroves, shallow channels and oyster bars. They range from Prince Edward Island in Canada south along the Atlantic coast to Florida and along the Gulf coast to the Yucatan Peninsula in Mexico. They have a lengthy spawning season in spring and summer. Like other members of the drum family, males make a "drumming" sound to attract females at spawning areas. The eggs are pelagic (float in the water column) and receive no care from the parents. The eggs hatch after 18 hours. The larvae seek shelter in bottom vegetation and shell rubble, feeding on small copepods. Spotted sea trout grow fast, shifting to a fish and shrimp diet, reaching 15-inches long in two or three years.

Spotted sea trout are among the most popular saltwater game fish in Florida. The Florida Game and Fish Commission manage spotted sea trout for commercial and recreational fishing with the goal of maintaining a healthy population of spawning fish. They established a slot size (minimum 15 inches, only one fish over 20 inches), and limits (five fish per person per day in the Northwest Florida zone).

The University of Florida Nature Coast Biological Station in Cedar Key is conducting research on spotted sea trout in cooperation with the FGFC and local fishing guides. They received a grant of $19,500 to fund a tagging study on spotted sea trout in Cedar Key and Steinhatchee. Mike Allen, director of the biological station, said that the study will help the FGFC with management of spotted sea trout. Currently, over 90 percent of the over-15-inch-long fish taken by anglers are females.

FGFC Conservation Officer James Fox measured my fish when I returned to the Cedar Key city marina. He remembered me from last year when he gave me a warning that I needed to have a fire extinguisher on my boat. The fire extinguisher was on board and I had a good conversation with Mr. Fox.

I'm learning how to fish in this fascinating area. I've caught a few spotted sea trout on a fly rod. Catching a big "gator" trout on a fly is on my bucket list. Feeding sea trout often regurgitate their food when excited. The oils from the partially digested food rise to the surface to make a slick. The odor is described as similar to watermelon or newly mown grass. I'll have to watch for slicks and train my nose to sniff out feeding sea trout.

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