Speckled seatrout are also known as sea trout, spotted trout, speckled trout, and speckled seatrout. Oh, and in Florida we call them Gator Trout!
Welcome to our “How to Catch Florida Speckled Seatrout – A Complete Guide.” In the massive guide below, we cover everything you need to know to find and catch (and eat) one of the most sought after fish in Florida’s marine waters.
[Page Updated – 30 July 2022. Bookmark this page (Windows CNTRL+D, MAC CMD+D) so you don’t lose it.]
HOW TO CATCH SPECKLED TROUT—Guide
Speckled Seatrout (Speckled) Gamefish Ratings
- Size: 4/10 stars
- Fight: 3/10 stars
- Difficulty to Catch: 4/10 stars
- Taste: 8/10 stars
INDEX to Sections in this Guide:
- WHY catch them?
- WHERE are they found?
- What do they EAT?
- HOW to catch them?
- WHEN is best for fishing for them?
- GEAR to use? (our best recommendations)
- Seatrout LAWS in Florida (and other states here)
- How to COOK them?
PRO TIP – They are usually called “Speckled Trout” or spotted seatrout or specks, speckles, or speckled. If it’s big like (25″+) then it’s a “Gator Trout” in Florida. Females get bigger than males.
Speckled Trout Facts
Similar Species: The weakfish (Cynoscion regalis) is very similar in appearance in all aspects except it doesn’t have spots on the dorsal side, it has wavy dark lines or groups of spots which are unevenly spaced.
The weakfish has the same prominent canine teeth in the front of the top jaw and the fins are simillar. Weakfish are known to inhabit the waters of Florida’s north Atlantic side around Jacksonville.
IUCN Redlist Status: Listed as Least Concern, there are plenty of Speckled Trout across its range and populations appear to be growing.
Appearance: Spotted seatrout are long-bodied fish, light silver in color with a greenish tint on the dorsal (top) side and white on the belly. Their rear fin is flat – like the shape of a broom.
The mouth is unique, being quite wide and with two distinctive large fang-like teeth in the top jaw giving it the appearance of a vampire. The mouth is soft, and can easily tear if fighting too hard with the fish. If you’re catching them, keep that in mind as you don’t want to rip the hook through the mouth.
In fact, the entire body is very soft. They have one of the softest flesh of any fish.
Length: They are typically in the 14-39″ range in Florida, though the Florida record is bigger. It takes trout two to three years to reach 16-inches in length.
Weight: Average weight is one to four pounds, but you may be in a spot where eight pound Specks are common.
Speckled Trout Records
The WORLD RECORD for Speckled Trout was a big 17 lb. 7 oz. fish caught by Craig Carson from Orlando in 1995. Craig caught the big fish in Fort Pierce on May 11, 1995. Craig threw a topwater plug to catch the beast.
A funny thing is, he was ready to eat it and a friend asked if he weighed it yet. He hadn’t, so he did and fortunately had a world-record fish in his icebox.
Florida Record Speck – Also the same fish as above, 17 lb. 7 oz.
Range/Distribution: The map below illustrates their distribution from the Northeast coast of the USA down to the southern tip of Florida and Key West, all the way around the state and to cover all southern United States. Mexico’s Gulf side is covered all the way to the north side of the Yucatan Peninsula.
Speckled Seatrout live on average for 6.5 years.
Habitat: Speckled trout prefer saltwater over brackish, but can be found in some brackish or heavily salted water up to 75% salinity. Preferred depth is 3 to 60 feet.
I have nearly always found these fish spending time in the long grass found in healthy marine environments where they can ambush pinfish and other baitfish. Water temperature around 80°F is good for seatrout in Florida, but they tolerate cooler by twenty degrees.
Specks spawn inshore in the shallows usually from March to November. As the water cools down after November, they seek deeper water which isn’t moving until they are active again in Spring.
Diet: Specks have a preference for eating other fish, usually baitfish. Fishing for big fish using a big pinfish or up to a 12″ mullet is a great way to land yourself a huge Gator Trout, but will take some patience.
Big fish don’t eat often, so take your time and target smaller fish as well.
Predators: As young, specks make excellent meals for all kinds of fish like striped bass, adult bluefish, flounder, snook, weakfish, tuna, sharks, stingrays and manta rays, and mahi-mahi (dorado). Trout flesh is soft and the fish are not nearly as fast as some other species in the water.
Why Catch Speckled Trout?
They are fun to catch but I target them for the dinner table to be honest!
I like to freeline shrimp on a 1/0 hook while fishing for Specks. It’s fun to clearly feel the bite, pull, and the hook set with them. I usually wade-fish for specks in a place like Fort De Soto Park in St. Petersburg, Florida down around the Sunshine Skyway Bridge and pier.
There are plenty of grassy flats areas that make for perfect fishing. Though they do prefer an incoming or outgoing active tide, I’ve caught them during anytime because the allure of a big live shrimp is too much for them to pass up.
Thing is, with shrimp you’ll have the bait stealers (pinfish) robbing you often. If you have baitfish, it can be just as good fishing or better.
A couple of trout in the cooler is a nice feeling. The flesh is super tender, especially when broiled in butter with scallops.
Are They Good Eating?
I think most anglers know that Specks are great on the frying pan or in the oven. They don’t have a strong smell, but they do have a unique taste that goes really well with real butter, garlic, and scallops (my own preference).
Because of the light flavor, you can often get kids to like trout on the dinner table – so don’t miss your opportunity to get the little ones eating good fish.
Where To Find Specks?
As you can see by the range map above, you can find these fish along the entire coast of Florida. I’ve had the most success on the west coast, probably because I live on this side and fish it the most.
Ideal areas are anywhere with sea grass, though you’ll also find them over oyster beds and near structure on structure if you’re offshore. Meaning, if you can find a shallow ledge, and then something on top of that shallow ledge, you’ll typically find some trout there if not too far offshore.
With Inshore Fishing, you’ll need to toss your lines in a number of different depths to find out where they are because they will stay at a certain depth to thermoregulate. Once you find them, you’ll probably catch your limit of them because they seem to always be hungry for small baitfish or shrimp of any size.
What Do TheyEat?
Top live baits are shrimp of any size and baitfish under the size of a large pinfish. There are big 39″ Gator Trout that will eat a large baitfish or mullet, but they’re not all that common and you probably would rather catch fish than just have endless patience waiting for a lunker to bite.
I like fishing with small pinfish if I can net them, they’re getting expensive for a dozen at the bait shop!
Artificial lures can also work, and I almost always use a clear shrimp with bits or reflective foil in them to catch specks (sometimes called specks!). Either way you gotta spend the money if using shrimp lures or live shrimp, right?
Learn to throw a cast net and catch small baitfish and you’ll be able to freeze them for next time. Small mullet freeze well and you can use them for weeks and save some money.
Speckled Seatrout Preferred Prey
- baitfish of all sizes
- pinfish and other small fish
- mullet up to 12″ long (for huge Gator Trout)
- shrimp (any size)
How to Catch Seatrout—Techniques
From a Small Boat – Kayak, Canoe
As long as the tide isn’t too strong, or if you’re in an area protected from strong currents and can cast to the fish, Kayak Fishing is the perfect way to catch specks.
You may be able to tie your kayak to a mangrove tree branch or root to keep you stationary while you fish. Typically, seatrout are in shallow water near the shores when the weather isn’t too hot, like in the spring and fall.
You might find them in just two meters of water in the grass on the flats.
From the Shore (Wade-fishing)
Fishing for seatrout from the shore is how I usually did it because it was super-easy and if I had a craving for some for a meal, it was easier than loading up the kayak on the roof of the car.
Walk out to about waist-deep and start throwing toward the deeper water to see if your spot holds any of these fish or not. Freelining a shrimp works great, and like I mentioned, it’s easy to feel the bites and give a little twitch to set the hook.
Don’t set the hook hard, you’ll probably rip right through the trout’s weak mouth tissue. For as big as the Gator-Trout get, they are quite fragile fish. You’ll see when you first pick one up.
The softness of the fish is a little weird. Be careful to only touch the fish when your hands are very wet.
They have a protective layer of slime that keeps them safe from infection. If you remove it, they can easily perish. Another thing, make sure you never hold the Speck up by its jaw! The jaw is not strong enough, and you’ll injure the fish.
When Is the Best Time to Catch Speckled Seatrout?
The best time of day for catching these fish is in the early morning before sunrise and up to a few hours after sunrise. I usually target a different fish after the specks stop biting in the morning. You can also catch specks from around 10 pm. to after midnight.
They really do like the hours when light is at a minimum for feeding. This may be because they are slower fish who rely on stealth to blindside their prey.
A slower tide works best so you can present the bait or lure for a longer period of time. These fish are not that fast to act, and they need a couple seconds.
When targeting big Gator Trout, look for shallow areas on low tide where they are resting in 6″ to 1′ of water.
Present the lure or bait far ahead and fish from a distance so as not to spook them. Some big fish are in very shallow spots even during the cold winter when they come up to the shallows to get warm in the sun during the daylight hours.
These trout are active almost all year, and are accessible from the shore until the water gets too cold and they go deeper and offshore to mitigate the harsh temperature.
I know, we don’t get ‘harsh’ temps here in Florida, but the fish do because the water gets chilly! Have you ever wade-fished in 60°F water? It’s cold!
Gear for Speckled Trout?
The good news is, you need very little. You could probably fish with a bamboo pole, a 6 lb. monofilament line, and a 1/0 hook and catch seatrout. It’s that minimalistic!
Here’s what I do. I usually buy a dozen shrimp for some ungodly amount of money from the bait shop close to my home. I Take my cast net down close to Weedon Island in Pinellas Country (St. Pete) and I throw until I get enough bait to last me for 2-3 hours.
It’s never enough, so I plan on throwing the net again when I get to where I’m going. I throw the shrimp and pinfish and other baitfish into different aerated buckets and I hit the road. I drive straight to Fort De Soto Park because I know a great spot for specks there and there is rarely anyone else there wade-fishing, like I prefer for this species.
I anchor the buckets on me with line and wade out there to somewhere between waist and chest deep and start tossing a shrimp around to see where the trout are. There is a lot of grass there, so I usually know where they’ll be, but it might take me five minutes to find them.
If there’s any tide at all, and especially if it’s morning before 9 a.m., I’ll have caught a bunch of fish within two hours for sure. If you enjoy eating them, you’ll find a productive grass flat and guard the information with your life.
Did you know, Specks are one of the TOP 10 GAMEFISH for all saltwater anglers in Florida?
Best Rod for Specks?
It doesn’t really matter. Ideally, you’d have a light to light-medium action rod and some sort of reel. It doesn’t matter what kind, as long as it is good in saltwater and won’t rust together on the way home. A 6-7-foot long rod would be great.
Catching these small fish on smaller rods with lighter gear is more fun, but you probably shouldn’t outfit one of your rods to specifically target seatrout, unless you can afford it.
If you insist on knowing which rod might work really well – HERE’S one.
Best Reel for Specks?
The one you have on your rod. Spinning reel? OK. Baitcasting reel? OK.
A lightweight spinning reel would be real sweet for catching these fish, but don’t go to the effort if you don’t already have one. Just use whatever you have.
Six pound test is good, but anything from 6 to 12 lb. test will work great. Here’s an 8 lb. braided line at Amazon that works great for nearly all fish and smaller Florida fish species.
I always used 1/0 hooks. I honestly never experimented with anything different because they worked. The best hooks for trout are these.
Top Vanadium Steel Hooks Our recommendation. They are simply the best.
Best Speck Rigs?
No rig necessary! Freeline a live or dead shrimp or baitfish. That’s it. No really, that’s all.
Some people use a popping cork 2-4 feet from the shrimp, and this is also very effective. Pop it once or twice and let the shrimp fall.
Best Artifical Lure for Specks?
Use a lure that looks like a shrimp or small bait fish. Some people use top-water plugs, but I never have. I just like to drop the lure or bait in front of them through the water column and feel them hit.
Seeing a fish hit a lure on the top is exciting to some people, but I guess I don’t get that much out of it unless we’re talking about tarpon or mahi-mahi.
Technique with artificial lures? Cast, let sink to desired depth, bump, bump, let it fall, retrieve some, let it fall, bump, bump, let it fall some, retrieve. Work the lure slowly.
These Lures work like magic with Speckled Trout.
These DOA LURES also are always in my tacklebox for seatrout, but also many other species.
Speckled Trout Laws in Florida
NOTE – See red text at top of page for current status of fishing in Florida on the West Coast.
Legal Harvest Limits
Florida Seatrout fishing is broken down into 5 regions with slightly different laws regarding the legal limit of fish you can keep and some other restrictions which apply for Key Biscayne fishing.
These Restrictions are COMMON in All Regions:
- Captain and crew cannot keep any trout when on a for-hire fishing trip.
- Fish kept must be more than 15″ and less than 19″.
- One fish is allowed to be over 19″ per boat. Not per angler, per BOAT.
These Restrictions Apply to Each Area Specifically:
- Western Panhandle – 3 fish allowed per harvester (angler with license); Closed in February.
- Big Bend – 5 fish allowed per harvester; Open year-round.
- South – 3 fish allowed per harvester; Open year-round. Go here to read about Key Biscayne’s additional restrictions.
- Central East – 2 fish allowed per harvester; Closed Nov 1 through Dec 31 (2020).
- Northeast – 5 fish allowed per harvester; Open year-round.
Legal Gear for Harvesting Speckled Trout in Florida
- Hook and Line
Seatrout Fishing Laws in Other States
NOTE – a full list of rules for fishing for Florida Speckled Trout can be found at the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission website here.
Farming seatrout is done in many jurisdictions, it is a delicious and fast-growing fish. If you’re interested in learning more about how seatrout are farmed, this link (Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations) will provide everything you want to know.
How to Cook Speckled Trout?
This is one of my top 10 fish to catch and eat. They are relatively easy to catch and plentiful, they have less mercury than most fish because they grow quickly and don’t have a chance to collect very much in their system.
I bleed the fish after killing it by cutting the gills with a knife or scissors just after catching it. I put it on ice in a cooler as soon as possible (I bring a cooler and leave it on the beach if wade-fishing). At home I’ll remove the scales and leave the skin on the fish.
I prefer broiling fish to any other method because I can taste the freshness of the fish and lightly season it so I can taste its essence. Frying or adding a sauce usually destroys the taste, so you might as well be eating catfish. You won’t know the difference.
I get a big piece of foil and coat the bottom in olive oil lightly. I put the whole fish skin side down and fill the empty cavity (I gut it, of course) with butter and garlic and some black pepper usually. I just love that taste for my trout. It’s light and it’s delicious.
I coat the top with butter and I make about a half-dozen cuts into the flesh so the butter can soak in through the fish. I may add some curry powder, cumin, or some other dry spice if I’m in the mood – just sprinkle all over the skin on the top to give it the aroma as it cooks.
I close up the foil, cinching it at the top and leaving about an inch of air between the top of the fish and the foil. Using a fork, I jab the foil about 3 times to make holes for the steam to escape while cooking.
I set the oven on broil or bake and make sure the pan I’ve set my fish in foil on is away from the head source as much as possible to prevent burning.
I preheat the oven by cranking up the heat to very hot – over 500°F and I give it about 7 minutes before I do my first check to make sure it isn’t burning, and it is cooked through. Even with a bigger trout it won’t hardly take 10 minutes at these temperatures.
PRO TIP – Be careful as some seatrout will have worms along the backbone. These are unable to fully develop except in sharks. It cannot survive in the human body except if eaten raw, so don’t do that. You can just remove them before cooking and enjoy your meal.
Speckled Trout Guide Resources
- NOAA Photo Library
- OAR/National Undersea Research Program (NURP); University of North Carolina at Wilmington.
- Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, and here.
- IUCN Redlist – The International Union for the Conservation of Nature.
- Food and Agricultural Organization of the United Nations
Get the Fishing App
Trout fishing laws can change at any time so it’s a good idea to be ready for anything. Nothing quite like the marine patrol rolling up to you in their little speedboat asking to see your fishing license, driver’s license, catch, and rigs. Information on our site is up-to-date the day we publish it, but that can change tomorrow. If fishing from 3 to 200 nautical miles off the coast of Florida, Georgia, South or North Carolina, you can use this mobile application to stay up to date on the fishing rules on the Atlantic Coast.
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