2004 Speck Forecast

Don’t look to be dazzled or disappointed with the speckled trout action this year.

Even the term “average” is relative.

A 6-foot-tall man is considered “average” in America, but compared to the “average” NBA player, the 6-footer could be the star of FOX’s hit reality show The Littlest Groom.

Nationwide, the “average” politician may take an “average” of $1.3 million a year in kickbacks and bribes, but limit that to the “average” Louisiana politician, and that number goes way up.

So it is with speckled trout fishing in the Bayou State. Tell a coastal angler from some other part of the country that he’s in for an “average” year, and he’ll probably be disappointed. He knows that on New Year’s Eve, he’ll look back at his logbook from the previous 12 months, and probably be able to show with one hand the number of fish he caught on each trip.

Not so here in Sportsman’s Paradise. An “average” year means too many anglers to number will load their boats back onto their trailers with the unparalleled satisfaction of knowing that a limit of cold, stiff trout lay in the ice chest, awaiting their inevitable encounter with a pair of reciprocating blades.

Need a light bulb changed, and don’t have a ladder handy? The “average” NBA player will do just fine.

Looking to get rich? You could do a lot worse than becoming a Louisiana politician.

Just dying for a limit of speckled trout? Then hope for an “average” year in the marshes, bayous, lakes and bays of Sportsman’s Paradise.

“Average” can indeed be a good thing, and that’s precisely what Hopedale guide Capt. Gene Dugas is predicting for this season.

“I think we’ll have a pretty good summer,” the veteran saltwater angler said. “We found lots of small trout this winter, especially in December.”

But finding lots of small trout in the wintertime is “about average,” Dugas said. “The fish were concentrated in certain areas. If the water was pretty in those areas, you’d catch them; if it wasn’t, you wouldn’t. We had some great days, and we had some bad days.”

Those bad days probably helped stockpile the trout for this spring and summer, Dugas said, especially since the 2003-04 winter was so mild.

“This wasn’t a bad winter weather-wise, so you know all those fish survived,” he said.

But although the weather wasn’t harsh, it was consistently chilly. Most days, highs struggled to reach 60 degrees, and lows were in the 30s or 40s.

This kept water temperatures low, and prevented the fish from venturing out onto the flats to feed.

That probably explains why anglers like Dugas found speckled trout schools to be concentrated in a few particular spots throughout the season. It also meant lean times for the schools.

“The fish we caught this winter were really skinny,” Dugas said. “You’d catch a trout, and you’d think for sure it was a throw-back, and then you’d put it on the ruler, and it’d measure 13 inches. They were skinny fish.”

Fortunately, though, it seems the trout have endured. There have been no major fish kills reported anywhere along the coast, and now with the warming of the coastal waters, specks are able to get onto the flats and hunt like packs of wolves.

After feasting on shrimp and schools of mullet in inshore waters, the specks will join their older brothers and sisters in the outer bays for the annual love fest known as the spawn. Many of the trout they’ll be meeting up with ought to be trophy size this year, Dugas predicts.

“Last summer, we caught all nice, quality fish,” he said. “We didn’t do well on numbers. We didn’t have many of those 100-trout days, but we’d come back to the dock with 40 or 50 fish between 2 and 4 pounds.”

The uncaught fish of those schools should be 5-pounds-plus this year, Dugas said.

The guide’s anecdotal evidence is supported by hard research conducted by Department of Wildlife and Fisheries biologists. Randy Pausina, the DWF’s finfish programs manager, said that 2004 probably won’t go down as the best trout year on record, nor will it go down as the worst.

“Nothing significant happened this past year,” he said. “We had an extremely mild winter — I don’t think we had but one or two nights below freezing — and we didn’t have a lot of tropical weather last year, no fish kills, no hypoxic zones, no extremely hot weather, so all that should mean some pretty good trout stocks this year.”

There are two important trends for anglers to look at on a statewide basis, and as would be fitting in this average year, one bears good news, the other bad.

The first is female recruitment of speckled trout, which is basically a figure representing the number of the all-important females in a particular fishery.

When studying this set of data, Pausina has reason to be optimistic. Although the numbers are complex and difficult to determine, and, therefore, somewhat dated, the most-recent figures show female recruitment being the highest since a brief spike in 1985.

That year, female recruitment measured 13 million, and it was at or above that figure during 1998, 1999 and 2000, the most recent years for which the figures are available.

That’s the good news. The bad news is that another figure — total speckled trout landings — is on somewhat of a downward trend.

Landings were sky-high in 2000, when Louisiana saltwater anglers brought home 13 million pounds of speckled trout. That was the highest number of fish harvested since 1986.

But in 2001, the number fell to 9 1/2 million pounds, and it dropped further in 2002 to just over 6 million pounds.

That would seem to be very troubling, but Pausina says this number can’t always be used to gauge the health of a fishery because atmospheric conditions play an important role in landings.

“In 2002, we had all that tropical weather, so that could be responsible for the lack of success anglers had that year,” he said. “They just weren’t able to get out on the water.”

Also, fish may have been displaced by the storm surges and strong winds, making for challenging times for anglers but not necessarily causing any long-term damage to trout stocks.

Tropical weather can wreak havoc on trout spawns because the resulting harsh tides will push or pull eggs and larvae into areas they’re not supposed to go.

But 2002’s storms — Isidore and Lili — hit during the fall, long after most trout spawning had been completed.

Assuming that year’s spawning class was not hurt by the tropical weather, there should be no noticeable gaps in year-classes, because the spawning potential ratio (SPR) for trout continues to be high.

In layman’s terms, the SPR for a particular fishery indicates what percentage of spawning-age fish exist in that fishery compared to what scientists estimate would exist in that same fishery if it had zero pressure from humans.

In Louisiana, trout are managed to have an SPR of 18 percent. That means biologists feel the fishery could totally sustain itself if 18 percent of spawning-age speckled trout existed compared to what would exist if nobody ever harvested any of them.

Trout SPR has not been below the 18 percent conservation standard since 1990, and it was at 20 percent as recently as 2001, the most-recent figures available.

A healthy SPR is crucial to the future of a fishery, but of all the data Pausina and his team of biologists gather, none gives better clues to the success anglers will have in a coming season than the 2-inch panels from the previous year.

To determine this figure, scientists place gill nets with a 2-inch-stretch mesh in areas that are likely to hold 10- to 12-inch speckled trout. Their level of success tells them how healthy that section of the population is for that particular area. For the speckled trout fishery, 10- to 12-inch fish are a crucial class of fish because they’re on the verge of becoming harvestable and of spawning size.

“Eighty percent of the spawning biomass is 12-inch fish,” Pausina said.

Scientists take the numbers gathered from the 2-inch panels and enter them into complicated formulas that standardize them at the number 1. That is, a catch per unit effort (CPUE) of 1 represents the average for that particular class. Anything above or below 1 deviates from the average.

Pausina determined the standardized CPUEs for 2003’s 2-inch panel. They are listed by area:

• Area 1 (east side of the Mississippi River, between the MRGO and the Mississippi state line): 1.33.

This is the best CPUE for any area in the state.

• Area 2 (east side of the Mississippi River from the MRGO to the mouth of the river): .43.

“This is a good bit below average,” Pausina said. “If you’re fishing the east side of the river, you might want to stay to the north side of the region.”

• Area 3 (Barataria Basin): .35.

This area has had some tough seasons the past three years, and it looks to be remaining at the bottom of the cycle.

“We’ve seen years when Barataria Bay produced more, and we’d expect it to produce more,” Pausina said.

A number of factors could be responsible, according to Pausina, including low recruitment during the drought and degradation of habitat caused by coastal erosion, which is the worst in the state in the Barataria Basin.

“I’m down there all the time (at the DWF’s marine lab on Grand Terre), so I know that estuary better than any of the others,” Pausina said. “The erosion is really significant. Little lagoons that we used to test in are now wide-open lakes.

“But the good news is that Davis Pond is about to come on line, and they’re going to be starting some projects to boost the barrier islands, so that may help return things to normal.”

It’s possible that the off-years for the Barataria Basin may be the beginnings of a long-term trend, or they may be just a short-term blip, Pausina said.

“I don’t see anything catastrophic that’s happened recently. These things always seem to cycle,” he said.

• Area 4 (Timbalier Basin): .74.

• Area 5 (Terrebonne Basin): 1.07.

“For the past few years, the Terrebonne and Timbalier basins have been holding their own, while the Barataria Basin has been slow,” Pausina said. “I don’t think any of the patterns will change drastically this year.”

• Area 6 (Atchafalaya Bay to Vermilion Bay): .56.

“That’s a little dip for them,” Pausina said.

• Area 7 (Calcasieu Lake): 1.02.

“That’s right about average, which is good,” Pausina said.

This waterbody typically does well on the bigger panels, Pausina said, but these weren’t available yet at press time.

If our speckled trout fishery were a woman, she’d be a supermodel, and this year, she’s just your average supermodel — Heidi Klum as opposed to Cindy Crawford.

That probably won’t draw any complaints from most anglers.

About Todd Masson 741 Articles
Todd Masson has covered outdoors in Louisiana for a quarter century, and is host of the Marsh Man Masson channel on YouTube.