Gator Trout – The brilliant philosopher who called a monster speckled seatrout a gator trout for the first time deserves recognition. Erecting a monument in his honor seems appropriate. A commemorative plaque or medal of achievement would be the bare minimum for the person with enough creativity to conceive the expression ‘gator trout’ and enough clout to make it stick. That wordsmith, as far as I know, remains unknown.
About Those Gator Trout
The traditional consensus is that at 25” a seatrout can be officially crowned a gator trout. Pretentious anglers fishing in waters polluted with gator trout may try to raise the gator trout bar to as high as 28”. These anglers, perched on their high horses, should understand that there are more effective ways to assert angling superiority over your peers – just mentioning that you fly fish works well for most.
Gator trout are different. Yes, gator trout are speckled seatrout, but barely. They are masters at expending the least amount of energy possible for the largest meal available. They are rigid disciples of solunar theory; almost cult-like in their adherence to the major and minor feeding periods. Their movement is methodical, carefully moving up into ambush points to feed and then sliding back down to resting positions when they’ve finished.
In our waters, the supply of gator trout does not meet the demand. The rare moments when you cross paths with a gator trout are special. Brilliant memories born from these occasions imprint themselves in the mind. If it’s been awhile since your last gator trout, then carefully flipping through these memories like old photographs can help bridge the gap between your last gator trout and your next.
The Last Gator Trout
My last gator trout came in September. I was alone scouting a new section of the back country near Charlotte Harbor. I wish I could say that I outfoxed a wise old seatrout, but the truth is I didn’t have to work very hard for this gator trout. The water was an easy read, practically pointing me to where a plug should be delivered. The first cast connected with a slot size snook that, I soon realized, was a gator trout. I quickly went from torqueing on a snook, to loosening the drag and babying a gator trout.
I rarely crave holding a fish for a photo these days, but I regret that I had nobody with me to grab a quick shot of me with this fish. It was a beautiful gator trout with a cavernous mouth that you could have squeezed a 16” softball into. I fumbled my phone out of my pocket with my free hand and took a second-rate picture of 2/3rds of the fish. Then I watched the giant swim off and hoped the time between this fish and my next gator would be short.
While you patiently wait for your next gator trout, you gain a real appreciation for tween trout, the seatrout that don’t quite reach the 25” mark, but exhibit many of the characteristics of gator trout. Before seatrout reach the 25” threshold, many have already begun behaving like a gator trout. In the waters around Sarasota, most seatrout over 20” are not tethered to the school like smaller class-size seatrout. The safety of the school is no longer necessary and an appetite for larger meals compels these tweens to adopt the life of a gator trout. Like a snook a few inches short of the slot, they’re still a respectable fish.
As my son gets older, I’m able to take him on more serious fishing trips. He’s reached a skill level and developed enough patience to no longer require the crutch of live bait. This summer, he took to working a subsurface plug. During our family beach trips, he became extremely confident with this lure by hooking countless lizardfish. To protect his confidence, I never told him that lizardfish are trash fish. I should probably do that soon before he goes around bragging about his PB lizardfish to friends.
I took him, and his new found confidence, flats fishing in Sarasota a few weeks back. I was hoping he would connect with a fish of higher prestige. I gave him the bow that day and sat on the gunnel, prepping another rod for him to use. Occasionally, I would look up from my work to redirect the trolling motor and verbally nudge him to put a cast ‘over here’ and to make sure he worked ‘that area’ really well.
After five minutes, he let me know that my encouraging gestures were unwanted. “No Dad, I’m going to cast over here.” “Suit yourself,” I thought and carried on about my work. As I was looking down, in the middle of seating a knot, I heard him mutter something like, “Got him,” and then the sound of a large seatrout thrashing its head at the surface. It was no gator trout, but it was certainly a tween. And if I’m being honest, then I must admit that the joy and excitement that we shared (see his cheesy grin below) when we hoisted his 22” seatrout out of the water, far surpassed any gator trout moment I’ve experienced.
Houdini Gator Trout
A year ago, I stumbled upon an area that one shrewd gator trout calls its winter home. I’ve seen this fish on six different occasions. It’s been hooked and all the way to the boat, but has never been in my boat. It is an escape artist and it has the horrible habit of carefully inspecting what it’s about to eat. It softly inspects potential meals with its mouth and rejects them immediately when something feels off. It’s a habit that wise old gator trout are notorious for. It’s why seasoned anglers, targeting large gator trout with live bait, insist on leaving the bails of their reels open.
This crafty fish was nearly hooked twice a week ago by David, an excellent angler from Pennsylvania. He got a close look at the gator trout as it nosed his lure and he cursed in shock about the incredible size of this fish. He cursed even louder on his next cast when the big gator trout came back a second time to taste the lure and quickly spit it out. It is a dogged old gator trout that has probably been the source of a lot of expletive laced rants over the years.
David brushed off the missed opportunity and went right back to casting and working his plug. He even managed to smile while holding a tween size trout that he caught only 5 minutes after his heart breaking gator trout experience. Overall, it wasn’t a bad first gator trout experience for David. His reaction to the shocking size of the fish was awesome and it reminded me of a shockingly large speckled seatrout that I came across ages ago.
Marlboro Man’s Gator Trout
The first time I heard the term ‘gator trout’ uttered was a long time ago when I watched an angler fishing in thigh deep water in the northernmost reaches of Sarasota Bay. He was shirtless, sporting cutoff jean shorts and towing a yellow bait bucket he had tied off to a rear belt loop. Had he been wearing a shirt, it would have been lettered with ‘Marlboro’.
He was looking around for anyone within sight to celebrate his momentous catch. He noticed me on the shoreline and showed off a fish I hardly recognized. It was all of 30”, probably more. And fat, grotesquely fat. There were rolls of spotted scaly fat draping over the shirtless angler’s arm near the tail. His other hand, supporting the pectoral fin area, had disappeared, eclipsed by even more fat. From shore I shouted, “Is that a seatrout?” He laughed and howled back, “No buddy, it’s a Gator Trout!”
I’m not sure that I’ll ever see a fish like that again in Sarasota Bay, but I can certainly hope. The fertile waters of our bay and expansive seagrass beds have always supported a healthy seatrout fishery. It’s conceivable that with more thoughtful management of our resources, area anglers could enjoy more frequent encounters with gator trout. For now, I appreciate the number of gator trout that we do have in our fishery, but I wouldn’t complain if we had a few more.
See you on the water soon!