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Ultimate Guide • Updated Wed, Jan 17, 2024

The Ultimate Guide to Spotted Sea Trout

Get ready for an amazing sea trout fishing expedition with AnyCreek’s Ultimate Guide to Sea Trout. This guide is here to give you the skills and knowledge you need for a successful and unforgettable experience. Explore sea trout behavior, strategies, and the best fishing spots. Find and book inshore sea trout fishing guides all in one place to make sure you make the most of your time on the water.

Captain Owen Armstrong holding a massive sea trout. Courtesy of Shallow Water Angling.

Captain Owen Armstrong holding a massive sea trout. Courtesy of Shallow Water Angling.

This article covers:

  • Sea Trout Behavior
  • Sea Trout Hotspots
  • Pro Sea Trout Fishing Tips
  • Sea Trout Fishing Equipment and Gear
  • Sea Trout Seasons
  • Sea Trout Fishing Regulations
  • Sea Trout FAQ

Sea Trout Behavior

Sea trout (Cynoscion nebulosus), also known as spotted sea trout or speckled sea trout, is a popular gamefish that can be found across the Mid-Atlantic and southern United States. Contrary to what their name would indicate, sea trout are more closely related to drum than other trout species. They inhabit shallow inshore waters — primarily flats — spanning across the Gulf of Mexico down to Florida and back up the coast to Maryland. One of the top ten species for recreational fishing in the United States, sea trout are on average 15-25 inches and around 5 pounds, but have been caught as large as 37 inches and weighing in at 17 pounds.

As opportunistic carnivores, sea trout will bite almost anything you throw at them. They’re feeding habits scale with size. Small sea trout eat only crustaceans, medium sea trout prefer shrimp and smaller fish, and large sea trout only target other fish — namely mullet, pinfish, and other baitfish. 

As an anadromous fish, sea trout migrate from the ocean back into rivers and freshwater sources to spawn. Aside from this journey, sea trout are non-migratory meaning they’ll primarily spend their lives in or around the same bays or waterways they themselves spawned from. Sea trout spawn from late spring to early fall, making early spring to late fall some of the best times to catch this species. Their ideal water temperature range is between 69 degrees and 80 degrees Fahrenheit, making them more active on the outskirts of their spawning seasons — when the water’s warming up and not too cold.

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Sea Trout Hotspots

With their range spanning the Gulf of Mexico and most of the Atlantic coast, sea trout can be caught in abundance in most coastal southern states. While Texas all the way up to Maryland offers excellent fishing, our guides have found some of the best spots to fish for sea trout in Florida and South Carolina. These two states provide a wealth of habitat for the fish to feed, grow, and eventually spawn in the connecting rivers.

Fort Myers, Florida

Fort Myers, Florida is a treasure trove for the sea trout seeker. With an abundance of mangroves, grass flats, and channels, Fort Myers provides the ideal habitat not just for sea trout, but for a variety of baitfish. The connecting channels and rivers give the species access to rivers for spawning, making Fort Myers the perfect convergence of sea trout’s ideal conditions. This diverse environment offers plentiful fishing opportunities best seized by skiff which can be maneuvered into the grassy flats with precision. Book a trip with a seasoned, local guide for the best fishing experience in Fort Myers.

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Sea trout putting up a fight on fly. Courtesy of Capt. Kevin Grainger.

The Everglades, Florida

The Everglades swell with too many species to count — sea trout among those and in great abundance too. This wealth of life abounds from the biodiversity which feeds each branching chain of the ecosystem. These healthy waters and habitats provide some of the best fishing this country has to offer, with some of the largest sea trout in the region. Navigate the intricate waterways, mangroves, and flats of the Everglades with the guidance of one of our local, veteran guides.

Additionally, the neighboring Florida Keys are home to excellent fishing and are of a similar caliber to the Everglades when it comes to sea trout. Areas like Key WestMarathonIslamorada, and Key Largo hold abundant populations of sea trout as well.

Hilton Head, South Carolina

Outside of Florida, South Carolina — and Hilton Head specifically — has some of the best sea trout fishing available. The Lowcountry provides the ideal conditions for sea trout to spawn and grow to maturity. This healthy sea trout fishery comes alive around the spring and fall months, although fishing is ideal year-round. Seek out the experience of a guide to maximize your time on the water.

Pro Sea Trout Fishing Tips

Being the opportunistic feeders that they are, sea trout are relatively easy to catch and can be caught with bait, flies, or lures. If using bait, our guides recommend trying to match the fish or crustaceans sea trout would naturally target — shrimp, pinfish, or mullet. As sea trout’s eating habits grow with size, keep in mind that if you’re targeting larger specimens, larger live baitfish work best, especially mullet. 

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Captain Tim Disano with sea trout in hand. Courtesy of Tideline Charters.

If your preference is to use artificial tackle, the same principle applies where imitation shrimp and baitfish will work best to entice sea trout. Sea trout are attracted to almost any agitation in the water, making saltwater poppers, topwater plugs, and popping corks excellent choices. Shrimp pattern flies are perfect for smaller sea trout, allowing for more technical play in your presentation and casting. For larger trout, baitfish imitation flies work best, and are what some of the current record holders have been caught on. 

Our guides have found success with a truly astounding range of setups, so have fun experimenting for yourself to find what works best for you. When you have your gear ready, target sea trout in grassy flats when tides become high to increase your chances of success. This species more readily bites in low light, making cloudy days and night fishing great options. Sea trout school so be conscious while fishing that one bite may lead to more. 

Sea Trout Fishing Equipment and Gear

Selecting the appropriate fishing gear can determine the success of a sea trout fishing expedition. Consider the finesse required for this pursuit and the strength needed to handle the aggressive bites of this ever-opportunistic feeder. Tailoring your rod and reel combo to the unique characteristics of sea trout will significantly increase your chances of a rewarding catch.

For targeting sea trout — especially larger specimens — our guides recommend a 3000 to 4000 size reel paired with a 7-foot, medium-light to medium power, fast-action rod. You’ll want to spool your reel with a 10 to 15-pound braided line and utilize a fluorocarbon leader in the range of 10 to 15 pounds for added stealth and durability. When pursuing smaller sea trout, a 2500 size reel with a medium-light power rod, 8 to 10-pound braided line, and a fluorocarbon leader of 10 to 15 pounds will provide the finesse needed for a successful encounter.

Our guides have found the best success with reels such as the Shimano Stradic CI4+, known for its lightweight design and smooth drag system. Additionally, the Penn Battle II series offers reliable performance with features like a full metal body and HT-100 carbon fiber drag washers, making them well-suited for sea trout fishing.

When preparing for a day on the water targeting sea trout, ensure you have the right clothing to protect yourself from the elements. Polarized sunglasses are indispensable, especially for sight-fishing in varying conditions. Equip yourself with a brimmed hat, clothes with UPF protection, and consider packing a neck gaiter and sun gloves for an extra layer of defense against sunburn. Being well-prepared with the right gear and clothing will contribute to a more enjoyable and successful sea trout fishing experience.

Sea Trout Seasons

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A toothy spotted sea trout from the kayak.

Being non-migratory, sea trout are able to be found year-round across their natural habitat. However, with their spawning from late spring to early fall and temperature preferences, certain seasons create more opportune fishing conditions when targeting sea trout. 

Season Best Time
SpringMarch — in early spring the waters warm after colder winter conditions. The warmer water is also calmer, making navigation easier.
SummerApril to September — peak of the spawning season for sea trout and when you’ll be able to find more action in rivers and surrounding inlets rather than flats. Early morning and late evening allow for lower light, enticing more bites.
FallOctober — directly after spawning, sea trout return to their flats and the swell of new life across species serves as a feeding frenzy.
WinterSunny days — providing the warmth these fish prefer. Areas with darker bottoms will warm faster and may prove more successful.

Sea Trout Fishing Regulations

As sea trout span across multiple state lines, regulations vary depending on which state you’re in, and can even vary depending on the county. We recommend checking the specific state and county you’ll be fishing out of when the time comes. Go to any state’s Fish and Wildlife regulations section, searching specifically for sea trout, and be sure to stay within the guidelines to allow for the fishery to thrive once you’ve left. When fishing with an AnyCreek guide, they’ll be knowledgeable of any and all local regulations and are a great resource to understand what you’ll need when it comes to licensing. 

Sea Trout FAQ

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