Don’t knock whitey

Jerald Horst

December 01, 2012 at 7:00 am  | Mobile Reader | Pring this storyPrint 

White trout populations are especially common in waters near the state’s beaches
White trout populations are especially common in waters near the state’s beaches
Jerald Horst
There are lots of reasons to fish. Some fish for food. Others fish strictly for the pull. For those who love the fight, but could care less about the table qualities of their catch, the Good Lord put jack crevalle’s on earth. They get big and they are mean.

Exactly opposite is the humble white trout. They hit the bait like a ton of bricks, but then give up. Anything under a pound and a half gets reeled in hydroplaning on the water’s surface without resisting.

A lot of speck anglers, snort disdainfully, "ug-umph, just a white trout," and flip them back overboard after unhooking.

White trout certainly don’t fight as gamely as their speckled first cousin, but anglers tossing the fish overboard are throwing away some good eatin’. The tender-fleshed fish, most of its followers agree, is tastier than the more-popular speckled trout.

Unfortunately, its tender flesh also means that it fares poorly in a freezer. Ice crystals that form in the flesh of fish while freezing cause damage to cells. This causes any fish to become softer when frozen, an especially noticeable effect on white trout.

Fortunately, fish iced immediately after capture, cleaned the same or the next day, and then stored in a plastic bag buried in ice (and kept buried) will keep over a week with little appreciable effect on quality.

What we call the white trout is actually two species of fish: the sand seatrout and the smaller and less common silver seatrout. Both are closely related to the speckled trout, Cynoscion nebulosus.

A hobby of mine is figuring out why scientists give fish their scientific names. All three species carry the genus name of Cynoscion. None of my references or searches reveal the root of that part of their name, so I will leave it.

But the specific names are more revealing. The sand seatrout is named Cynoscion arenarius. "Arena" means "sand" in Latin, so arenarius interprets as "full of sand." That is actually pretty accurate because the species is a bottom-lover and is most especially common on sandy or sandy-muddy bottoms, the same type of water bottoms preferred by shrimp.

The silver seatrout is Cynoscion nothus. "Nothus" is a Latinized Greek word essentially meaning "illegitimate" or "bastard." "Nothos," a closely related word, means "nothing, false" or "wrong." Evidently, the scientist naming the silver seatrout held a very poor opinion of the fish.

Silver seatrout are completely silver in color, lacking the yellow coloration in the fins and the lavender body-color overtones obvious in the sand seatrout. The silver seatrout also has many rows of very small upward and backward-sloping black dots on the upper half of the body.

They are small fish, seldom growing over 10 inches long. Larger and more common is the sand seatrout, the fish to which most of the rest of the column will be devoted.

Sand seatrout are incredibly common fish in the northern Gulf of Mexico, more common from the beaches outward than in inshore waters.

Before the collapse in numbers of shrimp trawlers, trawl bycatch of the fish was a worry to some fisheries managers. Study after study revealed that they and croakers were the dominant fish (by number) in that bycatch.

In spite of all that bycatch, sand seatrout numbers never seemed to diminish. At one time, biologists estimated that 600 million pounds were caught and discarded annually — just between Point Au Fer Island and Florida’s Perdido Key. Of course, that number has been drastically reduced.

Interestingly, in spite of much less bycatch of the species in shrimp trawls, overall numbers of white trout seen by anglers has not increased.

Mainly because of their huge numbers, sand seatrout have been ticked off as the dominant shrimp predator in the northern Gulf. They tend to feed more heavily on shrimp at smaller sizes and shift their diet somewhat toward fish as they grow larger.

Anchovies are noted as the dominant prey in some studies and menhaden in others. They also commonly cannibalize their own species.

There also is a shift in diet with season and habitat. In the fall and winter, sand seatrout feed more heavily on shrimp than during the rest of the year. Also, sand seatrout offshore feed more heavily on shrimp than do those in inshore waters.

Little cousin silver seatrout specializes more heavily in dining on fish than shrimp. Silver seatrout populations are also centered more offshore than are those of sand seatrout, so silver seatrout are seldom caught in coastal bays.

Sand seatrout are found in both offshore and estuarine waters. They show a distinct migratory pattern, moving offshore during the fall and winter, and returning to the beach zones, bays and estuaries in spring and summer. Scientists believe that the movement occurs because the fish is unable to change its metabolic rate to compensate for lower water temperatures.

Sand seatrout dominate habitat farther offshore than spotted seatrout, which spawn in passes and waterways along the coast. Sand seatrout spawning occurs from March through September, with distinct peaks during March/April and August/September.

Research indicates that early season spawning off Texas occurs in 150 to 240 feet of water and off Mississippi in 240 to 300 feet of water. Spawning activity moves shoreward as the season progresses, and much spawning eventually takes place right along the coast and in lower estuaries.

The main "nursery area" for their free-floating eggs is waters less than 60 feet deep. After hatching, their tiny larvae are free-floating, but tend to orient toward the bottom as they grow. The larvae tend to migrate into shallow estuarine areas such as bayous, ponds and channels, but move to deeper waters as they become larger.

Before their first birthday, and at 6 inches long, they begin spawning. An average 6- to 11-inch sand seatrout lays 101,000 eggs per season. Like with their speckled relative, most spawning takes place shortly after sunset.

Scientists believe that the maximum life span for sand seatrout is two to three years and that few grow over 12 inches in length. But many certainly live longer. Two- to 4-pounders are often caught at rigs off of the mouth of the Mississippi River, and the state record is an 11-pound behemoth.

For numbers geeks, it is interesting to note that eight of the other nine top-10 white trout on the books were caught in a six-year span of 1973 to 1978. Seven of the top-10 fish were caught from January to March.

Small white trout fillets make absolutely delicious eating — if they are stored correctly.
 





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