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Speckled salvation

Cold water sends most fish scurrying off the flats, but spotted sea trout save the day for the Bucs' Mike Alstott.

By TERRY TOMALIN

© St. Petersburg Times, published February 2, 2001


TIERRA VERDE -- There are some things you can count on.

Live shrimp. Bad weather on the weekend. And Mike Alstott to pick up 3 yards if you hand him the ball up the middle.

But when the Bucs fullback needs a break, he heads to the grass flats and hooks anything that pulls.

"It doesn't matter to me," Alstott said as he worked a plug through the shallow water. "Snook, redfish ... I don't care. I just like to fish."

Growing up near Chicago, Alstott and his friends fished small suburban ponds for anything that would bite.

"We weren't picky," he said. "To tell you the truth, one of our favorite things was to grab a can of corn and go catch some carp. They are big, fight like a bass, just lots of fun."

On this particular Saturday morning, as the temperature hovered in the high 40s, Alstott wanted to show some Northern buddies how good the fishing is in his adopted hometown.

"If we work this area long enough, we'll catch something," said Doug Hemmer, Alstott's local fishing partner. "I can guarantee it."

After a cool night, you won't find spotted sea trout on the flats. When the temperature drops, the trout move off the flats to deep water. Their metabolism slows, and it can be hard to get them to eat. After the cold front passes and the north wind dies, the trout are quick to return to the grass beds. If the water is shallow and the sun is bright, things warm quickly. The warm water gets the trout's metabolism going, and the fish will start to eat.

But what about that in-between time? How do you entice a frozen trout? "You can always count on jigs in cool weather," Hemmer said. "The trick is to work them real slow."

Hemmer looks for dark holes in the flats. Deep water usually is warmer than shallow, and trout will move to potholes or swash channels within easy swimming distance of grass beds.

"If you can look into the hole and see grass, it is too shallow," he said. "It has to be dark and deep. The trout will be sitting on the bottom with their bellies in the sand."

Hemmer prefers jigs because their action is easy to control. Anglers should resist the temptation to lift the rod -- the normal motion with a jig -- and instead drag the lure across bottom. "Just point your rod tip at the hole and reel back real slow," Hemmer said. "These trout are moving slow, and they can't chase a bait."

Spotted sea trout can be taken with live bait or artificial lures. Every angler has a preference. Hemmer uses both, depending on water temperature.

Most anglers use a 7-foot, light- to medium-action rod and a spinning reel rigged with 6- to 8-pound line, then tie on about 2 feet of 15- to 20-pound leader without a swivel.

When the water warms, the live baits of choice are scaled sardines or whitebait. You can take cat food, mix it with wheat bread and fish oil, and start a chum slick. It won't be long before you have white bait schooled around your boat.

A sharp hook is critical. Most anglers prefer a No. 4 live-bait hook. Using a cork or float is a matter of personal preference. Many anglers free-line their bait, but that takes vigilance. A threatened sardine will seek cover, and your bait will spend more time in the grass than teasing trout.

A float, however, will restrict the movement of the bait, making it appear less natural. Corks are excellent for beginners because they give a visual signal when the bait is attacked.

Jig fishing takes more skill, especially in the winter. You need a steady hand, patience and a soft touch.

For an angler who makes a living running full speed at lineman, that can be a challenge. "Finally a fish," Alstott said 15 minutes after he tossed his first jig. "Now let's catch another one."

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