By TODD MASSON | The Times-Picayune
NEW ORLEANS (AP) — Avid inshore angler Jonathan Ryan of Destrehan has noticed something lately that corroborates with the findings of many other year-round South Louisiana anglers: Our marshes are infested right now with a plague of undersized speckled trout.
On his latest trip, Ryan took his father, Dennis, out for a quick afternoon trip Sunday, and it was all they could do to get out of the peanuts.
"We caught a total of about 65 trout, but we could only keep 32," he said. "For every keeper trout, we had to catch and release at least one undersized trout."
And that was actually a better ratio than some recent trips. Ryan said it's really gotten bad over the past month.
Why the marshes have been hit with a plague of undersized trout is anyone's guess. Anglers have theorized it's the result of a really strong spawn during the summer of 2013, but it's too soon to tell whether that's the case, according to Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries biologist Jason Adriance.
"A large number of undersized trout seen by anglers alone is not necessarily indicative of a strong spawn the previous year," he said. "Anecdotal evidence may not match sampling data as to the relative strength of a size-class of fish.
"A strong year-class may not be able to be determined until further down the road when more sample data is available."
In fact, at this point, the department's data doesn't show anything unusual this year.
"Catch per unit effort of undersized trout in LDWF samples during January and February is generally the same statewide as previous years," Adriance said.
It's possible that there aren't more small speckled trout than usual, but a perfect storm of conditions conspired to drive the fish to areas anglers target, according to the biologist.
"Juvenile (speckled trout) will move into the estuary to form up in schools when the water begins to warm in the spring, which makes them more accessible," he said. "It's possible that if this move was delayed due to cooler temperatures and occurred over a short period of time that anglers may be encountering these smaller trout in greater quantities during a relatively short period of time."
Still, it's clear that something's going on. Capt. Jack Payne noted a blitz of junior-high-sized speckled trout in the marshes surrounding his Delacroix launch during the fall, and those fish have reappeared in silly numbers in recent days.
It's likely it's the same population of fish that simply didn't grow much during this unseasonably cold winter. Specks grow the least in the lean winter months, according to Adriance.
"Winter growth rates (are) generally much slower than the remainder of the year due to decreased metabolism … and reduced feeding," he said. "The cold water temperatures this winter may have contributed to slower growth than in past winters as active feeding slows down when water temperatures drop, which leads to slower growth."
That growth should kick into high gear as the fish leave the deep holes and find baitfish on the flats. The marshes in recent weeks have begun to come alive with glass minnows and even some mullet.
Soon, those baitfish will be joined by post-larval brown shrimp. The shrimp are already in the marshes, but they're too tiny to gain much notice from all but the smallest juvenile speckled trout. When temperatures are warm, however, the shrimp grow by the day.
"Much of the growth of (brown) shrimp takes place during March and April," Adriance said.
A really cold spring will retard and delay that growth process, but seasonable temperatures should put it on schedule despite the chilliness of the winter, according to Adriance.
"The cold weather in January or February should not affect the timing of the recruitment of brown shrimp … into the estuaries," he said. "The spawning occurs in waters far offshore, and temperatures there are little affected compared to coastal waters.
"We will be monitoring that growth as part of our management of the spring inshore shrimp season. It is still too early to tell how that schedule will play out, as there is too much time left to go."
When the baitfish and shrimp are fully established and the trout get the munchies, it'll be the females that grow quicker and bigger, Adriance said. Interestingly, though, males grow at roughly a constant rate after their first year, whereas females grow at a slower rate each subsequent year after their first birthdays.
In general, how quickly the fish grow will be dependent upon water temperature and how much bait the fish have access to, Adriance said.
"Growth rates will be highly reflective of environmental conditions and fishing pressure within the specific estuary during any given season," he said. "During the year, growth rates will tend to be higher when water temperature is higher and prey availability is high."
Until all these fish in the marsh get to legal size, anglers like Ryan will have to go deep into their bag of tricks to figure out ways to target the bigger specks. He said in general, bigger trout will be the first to move onto flats during a rising tide, so anglers can kind of "chase the tide" back inland when the dinks invade a productive area.
Ryan also likes to use baits that imitate finfish rather than shrimp.
"A couple of springs ago, we were fishing… about 15 feet of water with live shrimp, and the live shrimp were producing trout, but we had to catch five to keep one," he said. "I switched to a double rig with curly tails, and started catching consistently larger trout."
There aren't many anglers who would ignore available live shrimp to fish plastics, but Ryan theorized that the bigger fish wanted something more substantial than shrimp.
Live shrimp aren't available at most marinas right now, so that's not an issue yet, but anglers who are catching throwbacks under corks might remove the cork and fish the bait tight-lined to give it more of a finfish appearance.
They might also try hard-plastics rather than soft-plastics.
If none of that works, at least the little specks are aggressive, and Ryan said that's enough to keep some of his fishing buddies happy.
"If the action is just ridiculously fast, I'll give the less-experienced anglers time to catch a few," he said. "But if I'm in the boat with more-experienced anglers, I won't spend a whole lot of time and energy catching all throwback trout."
They should now be in the growing season, so they won't be throwbacks much longer.
Information from: The Times-Picayune, www.nola.com