As a biologist, Jerald Horst has cut out the livers of speckled trout, and examined them under microscopes.

He's run his fingers through gravid ovaries packed with ripe, orange roe.

He's opened stomachs to discover their contents.

But there was nothing scientific about Horst's reaction last month when a trout as long as a man's arm carved a hole in the water with its gaping maw, and sucked in his She Dog.

The sounds were loud enough to be heard on the other side of the small marsh lake — first from the fish crashing the bait, then from Horst, who jumped to his feet and squealed like a schoolgirl who just caught a glimpse of her favorite boy-band member.

After several earlier near-misses from other fish, Horst practiced great restraint in letting the big trout take the bait for a second or two before yanking the rod upward like Paul Bunyan starting a swing of his axe.

The light-action rod bowed like a noodle, its tip seeming to crawl along the line, refusing to miss a moment of the action.

A veteran angler who has logged more hours than he'd ever admit in the surf at Grand Isle, Fourchon and Elmer's Island, Horst had caught bigger trout in his life, but this one was special, just like all fish lured to the surface by a topwater plug.

Line peeled from the small spinning reel, and Horst just watched and grinned. He held the rod back until the fish took a break, and then Horst reeled until the fish found a little more fight within itself.

Horst was loving every minute of it.

Finally, the fish was exhausted and could fight no more. It surrendered to a net at boatside, and Horst hoisted his prize. It was a 3-pounder, nothing that would make the newspaper or set the trout community abuzz, but it was a topwater treat that was a harbinger of the coming spring.

Horst and other avid trout anglers await the springtime like 5-year-olds looking forward to their next birthday.

When day lilies blossom, peaches fill fruit stands and baseball gloves come out of storage, love is in the air. It's also apparently in the water, because trout get the signal, like a fiery dart shot from Cupid's bow, that it's time to take the Love Boat to the sandy beaches.

"In the late spring and early summer, trout are very susceptible to harvest," said Harry Blanchet, marine finfish program manager for the Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries. "There are great, big schools of very hungry speckled trout all grouped up together, and everybody knows where they are."

So, no matter what, there will be fish caught this spring and summer — lots of fish — but the question on every trout angler's mind this time of year is: How easy will the fishing be?

Biologists, like Blanchet, are averse to making such predictions because Mother Nature is as fickle as that same 5-year-old anticipating his birthday. She may, on a whim, throw a biting curve that falls off the table, and is completely unforeseen by even her most adept student.

But nature does tend to tip her hand and give clues to those, like Blanchet, who stroke her just the way she likes.

So what do the tea leaves say about this year?

Well, basically, anglers who like extremes will probably be bored out of their skulls.

"I look for it to be an average year," Blanchet said.

Ho hum.


Blanchet bases his milquetoast prediction on many factors, chief among them being seine samples conducted from July through October.

DWF biologists take seine samples during every month of the year, but those from July through October give a particularly strong indication of fishing success anglers will find during the spring and summer months.

In making his prediction for the 2005 fishing season, Blanchet studied seine samples from that time period in 2003. That year is important because fish caught in those samples will almost universally be of a harvestable size this spring and summer.

The numbers of 1- to 4-inch fish caught in the samples in 2003 indicate 2005 will be just an average, run-of-the-mill South Louisiana trout season, Blanchet said.

Some anglers may view that as disappointing.

"We were really dry in the late 1990s, so we had strong seine samples," Blanchet said. "Anglers reaped the benefits of that in 2000, 2001, 2002. When you have that many good years back-to-back-to-back, anglers begin to think that every year should be like that. They're not. Trout stocks are very variable. We have some good years and some bad years. This one should be somewhere in the middle."

But actually, that's good news, Blanchet added.

"When you compare Louisiana's average (speckled trout) landings with those of other Gulf States, it's not even close," he said. "And there are a number of reasons for that: We have generous limits, and we have tremendous marshes, just huge estuaries compared to those other states. We have so much habitat."

He further explained that seine data indicated 2001 was an off year for spawn success, and anglers endured the consequences during 2002 and, particularly, 2003. Last year, 2004, was also a below average year for angler success, Blanchet said.

So anglers may see the trout action of 2005 as somewhat of an improvement over the past two or three years.

There are two other factors — one positive, one potentially negative — that could have a significant impact on angler success this season, Blanchet said.

One is the relatively warm winter experienced across South Louisiana in 2004-05.

"We had a mild winter this year," Blanchet said, "so in terms of juvenile trout, that's a good thing. They had a good chance to survive."

Trout, particularly juvenile trout, are susceptible to starvation during winters with extended period of cold, or can be shocked by severe Arctic blasts that plummet water temperatures. South Louisiana hasn't seen such extreme cold since December 1989.

The other factor, which Blanchet said could have a profound negative impact in the short run, is the high Mississippi River.

That's because fresh water from the Mississippi, which swelled to near flood stage in New Orleans during early February, infiltrates areas from the Louisiana Marsh all the way around the delta to the marshes of Terrebonne Parish.

Farther west, the bays of St. Mary, Iberia and Vermilion parishes are equally impacted by the Atchafalaya River, which has also been high this year.

High rivers don't harm trout stocks in the short run, Blanchet explained, but they do disperse the fish, often forcing them into areas anglers don't normally look for them.

"Trout numbers won't be as high in April, May and June in the usual spawning areas if they have low salinity," Blanchet said. "Also, what trout are there will be more difficult to catch because the water's more likely to be muddy. Trout can be caught in muddy water, but anglers have really taught themselves how to fish in clear water."

During the spawning season, trout seek out areas with higher salinities because their eggs are not buoyant in fresh water.

As a result, a high river or substantial rainfall in the late spring and early summer can adversely impact trout stocks in coming years, Blanchet explained.

Since trout must have salty water for a successful spawn, they will move as far off the coast as need be to find it. That makes the area substantially greater that trout larvae and juvenile fish must cross to reach the safety of the interior marshes, where they'll spend their existence growing until they're old enough to spawn.

"There's lots of stuff that's out there that's bigger and meaner than those little trout," Blanchet said. "If they're in those marshes, they have plenty to eat, and they can hide from the stuff that wants to eat them. Out in the open water, they're fair game."

Blanchet said in the marshes, juvenile trout eat a nearly endless supply of grass shrimp and amphipods, among other things, and they grow rapidly.

But, of course, the height of the Mississippi River this spring is impossible to predict.

"The rainwater that will be in the river in April, May and June hasn't even fallen yet," Blanchet said. "So we really can't say with any certainty what specific conditions anglers will find."

To be sure, an extended period where the river is higher than normal will make for a slow trout season, probably one that's substantially inferior to Blanchet's prediction of an average year.

That's because a high river impacts the fishery during the time anglers normally have their best success — April, May and June.

Blanchet said angler success has always fallen hard in July, August and September for a number of reasons.

"The heat makes the trout disperse, they feed less," he said. "Also, they're learning to be smarter about what they bite and don't bite. They learn to recognize the sound of a boat engine.

"And another thing, which a lot of anglers don't think about, by the end of summer, we've reduced the number of trout that are out there. When a trout enters an ice chest, that's it. He's not available to be caught again."

Blanchet said some estuaries looked stronger than others for this coming speck season.

The east side of the river, namely the marshes of Venice, Pointe a la Hache, Delacroix and Hopedale, looked to continue a trend of above-average fishing the last several years.

Blanchet based that prediction on recent gill-net samples, which showed plenty of fish approaching the 12-inch minimum size needed for harvest.

The caveat, however, is that the east side of the river is heavily influenced by fresh water flowing out of Baptiste Collette and Main Pass. If the river stays high, fishing may be off in the estuary until it retreats.

"So much over there depends on the river," Blanchet said.

The Barataria Estuary, just to the west of the Mississippi, is also greatly influenced by the river, and that could bode ominous for this fishery, which has struggled the past few years.

"I'm expecting a year similar to last year (in the Barataria Estuary), which was tough," Blanchet said. "If anything, there is a slight increase in the data, but it's very slight."

The Timbalier and Terrebonne estuaries should also have similar production as last year.

"It should be similar or slightly above," Blanchet said.

The Vermilion Estuary is greatly influenced by the height of the Atchafalaya River.

"It's more of a fall fishery," Blanchet said. "Sometimes they have a short spring fishery, but this year, that's very unlikely."

Farther west, in Calcasieu Lake, anglers should see a slight improvement over last year, Blanchet said.

"The (seine) samples were very low in '01 and '02. In '03, they were somewhat better," he said.

That means there should be at least a few more fish available this year than were around last year.

Blanchet said the 2004 seine samples were very strong, which bodes well for next year, but many of those fish won't be of a harvestable size this year.

He wouldn't be surprised if a top-10 fish or two comes out of Calcasieu this season.

"Calcasieu has been living off the good spawns of the late 1990s (during the drought)," he said. "We had some very strong year-classes then. Those are getting to be old fish. There won't be many of them around, but you could end up with some very big fish this year."

And if you hear a loud scream coming from the southwest corner of the state, you know that Horst has probably hooked one.