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The Life and Times of the Speckled Trout

Time-honored fishing lore and biological research combine to make the quest for this popular game fish as frustrating as it is fascinating.

By Larry Bozka

It has occurred to me on more than one occasion that fishermen dedicate an inordinate amount of time trying to outwit cold-blooded creatures with brains the size of pencil erasers. The more we work at it, the more convinced I am that there is a great deal of truth to the ancient Roman adage:

“It is impossible for a man to learn what he thinks he already knows.”

If I didn’t know better, I’d swear the guy who thought that one up was a frustrated trout fisherman.

Then again, “frustrated trout fisherman” is a bit of an oxymoron. Trout fishing fanatics live their lives knee-deep in a sea of questions that, once answered, only spawn countless more questions.

That, for better or worse, is the nature of our sport.

Like all types of angling, speckled trout fishing is unofficially governed by a long list of mostly provincial “rules.” These edicts are confidently passed down by successive generations of trout fishermen, none of whom want to accept the fact that, heaven forbid, Granddad might have been wrong.

There are more opinions on trout behavior than the fish have spots. For every one there is, naturally, a contradictory theory. It’s all great fun, debating “the facts” about speckled trout with friends while milling around the cleaning table and otherwise hanging out at the local bait camp.

Sometimes, though, it helps to consult a professional.

Texas Parks and Wildlife Department biologist Britt Bumguardner works out of TPWD’s Perry R. Bass Marine Research Station in Palacios. It was here, at this unassuming mid-coast laboratory, where the state’s saltwater hatchery system was born in the mid-1970s.

Today, Texas coastal hatcheries are globally acclaimed. Even so, as time passes the research only intensifies.

Bumguardner is very close to wrapping up a project that involved the use of underwater hydrophones to listen in on schools of “drumming” male trout. The goal, he says, has been “to characterize spotted seatrout spawning habitat by locating concentrations of drumming males, and thus protect that habitat from activity that might impact spawning.”

Translated: He’s looking out for the fish.

It was, and always is, a learning process. All the same, Bumguardner and his fellow biologists have come as close as anyone on the planet to understanding the habits and habitat of the species properly known as “spotted seatrout.”

Their findings provide the compass that steers the constantly evolving course of coastal fisheries management. Likewise, they can also help guide anglers toward more productive fishing trips.

Like all wild fish, spotted seatrout live their lives in a vast and unforgiving arena. An individual fish’s chance of long-term survival is infinitesimally small. At the top of the food chain are better than 700,000 avid saltwater anglers, every one of them eager to land a bragging-size catch of the canine-toothed game fish.

Fortunately, the speckled trout is born to breed.

“In Texas, trout mature at about one year of age,” Bumguardner says. “Females begin maturing at about 11 inches, and all females reach maturity by the time they reach 12-1/2 inches. As for males, I’ve never seen one that wasn’t mature in the spawning season.”

Most veteran anglers believe the trout spawn is solely a springtime affair. According to Bumguardner, that’s a misconception.

“Peak spawning occurs in late April and May,” he says, “but it may be influenced by seasonal fluctuations in water temperature. A secondary spawning peak occurs in early August and September. Spawning most likely continues in the fall, until water temperatures begin to drop.”

It’s also generally accepted by fishermen that trout drop their eggs solely on firm-bottomed sand flats. Actually, Bumguardner notes, spawning takes place in a much broader array of environments.

“Mature fish have been collected from almost all types of habitat, from shallow grass and mud flats to bay oil well structures and channels and passes leading into the Gulf,” he says. “The fish spawn at around dusk, extending into the early nighttime hours. Basically,” he concludes, “trout spawn wherever they happen to be when conditions are correct.”

On the thermometer, that’s around 74 degrees Fahrenheit. Trout fishermen fervently anticipate the “magic mark of 70 degrees” for prime-time fishing in both spring and early fall. It’s an appropriate benchmark. Specks in the pre-spawn mode tend to be hungry and willing players.

Large or small, trout are also incredibly prolific. According to Bumguardner, females produce an average of 250 eggs per gram of body weight every time they spawn. For a one-pound fish, that translates to roughly 115,000 eggs. Since it spawns approximately once every seven days during the April-through-September spawning season, a single fish can spawn 25 times and produce some 2.9 million eggs for every pound of its body weight.

Most anglers believe that trophy speckled trout are “genetically superior” fish with eggs that are essentially the same. Bumguardner, however, thinks that’s unlikely.

“Age is the determining factor for size,” he says. “Unless there’s a trout gene for ‘luck,’ I don’t think an individual fish’s genetic makeup influences its survival. I believe the majority of spotted seatrout females have the genetic potential to grow large, provided they can avoid predators and severe cold weather [a.k.a. “fish-killing freezes”] long enough to get there.”

Growth rates vary. “Young fish grow at a faster rate than older fish,” Bumguardner explains, “and females grow faster than males. Temperature, salinity and habitat can also influence growth. TPWD has calculated an average size for male and female trout, and there doesn’t appear to be much of a difference in growth rates from the Upper Coast to the Lower Coast.”

“Why then,” I ask, “do Laguna Madre speckled trout so often grow larger than fish on the Upper Coast?”

“Primarily, it’s a matter of less fishing pressure,” Bumguardner responds. “The Laguna Madre on the whole doesn’t get as much traffic, so more fish survive and ultimately gain size.”

He’s quick to dispel the oft-heard notion that speckled trout from Baffin Bay and the Lower Laguna Madre represent a unique (and uniquely larger) sub-species of fish. “Trout from adjacent bays are more genetically similar to one another than those from non-adjacent bays,” he explains. “As such, the greatest difference exists between fish from the Lower Laguna Madre and Sabine Lake. However, there are no recognized sub-species of spotted seatrout throughout their entire range, and that includes the Atlantic, Gulf of Mexico and Caribbean.”

As a rule, speckled trout are essentially homebodies. The fish live their lives relatively close to the waters in which they were spawned. There are rare exceptions, Bumguardner points out, such as Sabine Lake trout that occasionally migrate to nearshore Gulf production rigs when salinity levels grow low. Regardless, those fish appear to be a local phenomenon.

Trout are also surprisingly “structure-oriented.”

Inshore structures, be it shell reefs, bottom ledges, jetty groins or even the notorious Baffin Bay “rocks” all provide refuge to predator-wary forage species. “Since it attracts the forage fish, it also attracts the trout,” Bumguardner says. “When you find the food, you’ll find the fish.”

It’s mind-boggling what even small speckled trout will attack and attempt to eat. School trout are notorious for striking mullet-imitating lures fully half their size, and the larger the predators become, the more likely they are to go after even larger prey.

On a cold November day in 1989, while boating across East Matagorda Bay with fishing guides Melvin Talasek and Billy Pustejovsky, I found a 30-inch trout floating dead on the surface. Lodged deep in its throat was a 14-inch-long mullet. Says Bumguardner, the story doesn’t surprise him at all.

“We once recovered a dead male trout from a spawning tank that had been partially swallowed and digested and then regurgitated,” he recalls. “A fish that is one-third skeleton and two-thirds fresh makes an unusual picture, to say the least. For trout, ‘prey size’ may be anything that is not a predator. In other words, if it isn’t big enough to eat them it is small enough for them to try to eat!”

For once, a time-honored trout fishing “rule” holds true. “Use a big bait; catch a big fish.”

“Then again,” Bumguardner says, “you have to remember that these fish are aptly described as ‘opportunistic carnivores.’ Fishermen tend to think that as trout grow larger they ‘switch’ their forage preference from shrimp to mullet and other baitfish. Actually, the larger trout are just capable of swallowing larger prey items. But if smaller bait is there they’ll eat it, and without hesitation.”

Essentially, when they’re in the feeding mode, speckled trout are virtual pigs. Trophy-sized females aren’t called “sows” for nothing.

It’s interesting that just as water temperature affects spawning, it has an impact on the speckled trout’s feeding habits as well. “Big trout eating large forage fish don’t have to feed often, especially in cold weather,” Bumguardner says. “The time of year and water temperature control the metabolic rate of the fish and thus the rate of digestion. During the winter it might take a big trout several days to digest a large meal.”

So, the biologist acknowledges, when big-trout specialists say they’re looking for “one big bite” in a day of fishing, they’re not exactly exaggerating. Selective trophy trout lures like topwater plugs target larger fish, but the angler seeking quality-size trout with oversized baits almost invariably has to compromise in terms of quantity. To a degree, the same holds true for fishermen who use large live baits like piggy perch, mullet, pinfish and croakers.

For the record, Bumguardner says, the latter are certainly effective offerings for bigger speckled trout, but not, as legend has it, “because croakers eat trout eggs.”

“I seriously doubt that trout feed more aggressively on croakers than they do on any other finfish,” says the biologist. “They’re not mad; they’re just hungry for a full-sized meal. The major predators of seatrout eggs would have to be the various mid-water filter feeders such as cabbageheads and comb jellies.

“To the best of my knowledge,” Bumguardner says, “neither of those has been found in seatrout stomach contents.”

That, of course, won’t keep some enterprising lure inventor from coming up with an artificial “cabbagehead pattern.” And I, for one, hope it doesn’t.

When new tricks like that are no longer tried, when boat-ramp bull sessions go by the wayside and trout fishing lore is perfunctorily displaced with raw biological data, the sport will quickly become very dull indeed.

We needn’t worry. It isn’t likely to occur.

First of all, a few hundred thousand lifelong Texas speckled trout fishermen will have to open their minds to new possibilities instead of readily accepting questionable theories that, repeated often enough, are eventually acknowledged as fact.

Furthermore, even if recreational anglers do achieve this near-impossible mental stride, scientists and researchers will undoubtedly continue to unearth newfound discoveries that will keep on changing what we already know as “fact” about the Gulf Coast’s most popular game fish.

Britt Bumguardner will be the first to tell you:

Even professional biologists occasionally have to admit that they might not know everything they think they know.

Trophy Trout Anglers Have to Go the Distance

The only thing rarer than a 15-pound speckled trout might be the angler who is willing to release it. Port Isabel fisherman Carl “Bud” Rowland did just that on May 23, 2002, when he caught and released the 15-pound, 6-ounce fish that now stands alone as the Texas state record.

Fishermen were amazed that Rowland caught the huge trout while fly fishing. Even more were shocked that he did it with a crab-and-shrimp-imitating fly of his own making.

Few, however, were surprised it came from the Lower Laguna Madre.

Ever since fisherman Jim Wallace caught the previous 13-pound, 11-ounce record on February 6, 1996, those who follow such things — including Wallace — were predicting the record would not stand indefinitely. Most were also certain that it would ultimately be broken somewhere on the Upper or Lower Laguna Madre.

Both Wallace’s fish and the previous record, a 13-pound, 9-ounce sow taken by fisherman Mike Blackwood on March 16, 1975, were caught from Baffin Bay. An isolated and, in some places, treacherous water body on the northern tier of the Upper Laguna Madre, Baffin Bay is generally ranked as the premier record-trout locale in Texas.

The reason is not, as some suppose, “superior genetics.” More than anything, it’s proximity. The lighter the fishing pressure, the heavier the trout tend to grow.

Baffin Bay rests almost 30 miles from the mainland at Corpus Christi. Just to further complicate things, the remote trophy-trout spot is studded with subsurface “rocks,” fossilized mounds left behind by prehistoric invertebrates called polychaeates. The ancient, unyielding structures often discourage would-be Baffin Bay boaters who have heard countless documented tales of cracked hulls and destroyed lower units.

Meanwhile, on the Lower Laguna Madre, the sheer driving distance from Texas’ larger cities keeps fishing pressure under check. Port Mansfield boat traffic is certainly increasing; just ask any longtime resident. Still, it’s minimal when compared to the Upper Texas Coast.

Texas anglers can now legally retain only one 25-inch or longer speckled trout per day. It’s too soon to assess the results, but whether it’s a 25-inch 5-pounder or the beast that Rowland landed three years ago, a carefully released trout can only grow larger.

With time, more and more fishermen are also practicing catch-and-release on a voluntary basis. Admittedly, few are likely to release a 15-pounder.

Nonetheless, thanks to conscientious management and faraway hotspots that by their own nature will always be producers, the odds of catching one are now arguably better than ever.

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