2007 Speck Forecast

Most trout anglers made quick work of limits last year, but will the great fishing continue in the coming season? That’s the question we posed to the state’s foremost trout biologist.

Last year, specked trout along most of the coast almost jumped in anglers’ boats. Catching limits was simply assumed.

“I probably had the best year I’ve had in 10 years,” Capt. Owen Langridge of Big O Charters said. “I caught a lot of fish, and quality fish. I didn’t have the numbers of 6-pound-plus fish, but I had lots and lots of 3s and 4s.”

Langridge said he’s optimistic about this year, but is being realistic about the chances for another over-the-top season.

“My gut feeling is it won’t be quite as good as last year, but I think it’s going to be good,” he said. “It was so good, it would be hard to beat the quality and quantity.

“But I don’t see any reason why we shouldn’t have another banner year; I just don’t think it will match last year.”

Does Langridge’s “gut feeling” line up with what science has to say? Should we all run out and stock up on jigheads, cocahoes, Top Dogs, MirrOLures and Spooks? Will easy limits continue? Will there be lots of lunkers? Nothing but schoolies?

To get those answers, Louisiana Sportsman went to the man best able to provide all of the answers.

The Department of Wildlife & Fisheries’ Finfish Programs Manager Harry Blanchet spends his time gathering and crunching data. He might be in the field much of the time, but he has at his fingertips all the information needed to make the call on exactly what anglers should expect.

Just consider him the weatherman of speckled trout fishing.

OK, so he’s usually a lot more accurate than a lowly meteorologist. But like any self-respecting weatherman, Blanchet is too smart to make hard-and-fast predictions.

“There are just too many variables,” he said in mid February, looking over incredible amounts of research and data stacked on every inch of his desk. “How high are our rivers going to be? We’ve got lots of snow pack up north. I don’t know what spring rains will be like up north, and goodness knows what will be our local rainfall.”

Fortunately, amid all of the caveats and “fudge factors,” Blanchet offered some insightful information about what the coming season holds.

The upshot: There should be plenty of fish out there to withstand the annual onslaught. Even while delivering such good news, however, Blanchet said Langridge is probably on point.

“Our overall harvest, I think, is going to be good, but for the individual fisherman probably nothing like they saw last year because they will have more competition,” he said.

Fishing pressure, or rather the relative lack thereof, was key to the stories of last year’s quick limits, he said.

“So many of our launch sites have been lost, and population has been displaced,” Blanchet said, noting that many of those who did return after 2005’s hurricanes were sidelined from much of the season by home repairs.

That situation is changing quickly, however.

“People are getting to the point where they’ve completed a lot of that repair work, so they’re ready to get out and do some fishing,” he said. “They probably have some extra money that they don’t have to spend on drywall.”

This return to normalcy likely will mean more anglers on the water, which will pressure fish and could result in fewer trout for individual anglers. But Blanchet and other managers were still grappling with exactly how the smaller fleet of anglers affected overall harvest.

“What individual fishermen saw was great catch effort, but they had so little effort that we still don’t have a handle on how that related to total harvest,” he said.

As to the actual health of the fishery, Blanchet said there were no real indications of trouble.

It was too early in the year for the spawning potential ratio (SPR) from 2006 to have been computed, but Blanchet said he didn’t expect that benchmark to have changed much from the past year.

“You usually don’t have wide swings in that number,” Blanchet said.

The SPR — which compares the number of eggs produced during spawning in a fished population to that of an unfished population — was tagged at just less than 18 percent in 2005.

If that baseline remained unchanged, it might seem to signal trouble since it’s less than the 18 percent set as the target in 1991. However, Blanchet said that he suspects the numbers might rise.

“If anything, because we had lower (overall) effort last year, we should have had more survival,” he said. “By implication, the SPR should have been up.”

By the same token, however, the number could be skewed if there is a flush of young-of-the-year trout that enter the fishery.

“If we’re seeing a whole bunch of young recruits coming into a basin, that could make it appear that the SPR is down,” Blanchet said. “You get more young fish (which won’t be ready to spawn) than old fish.”

At any rate, Blanchet said his office is reevaluating the process used to estimate the SPR of the trout fishery over the past few years, so the numbers could be a little irrelevant.

“You want to use the best techniques available,” he explained. “We want to provide a better estimate, and the new process should give us a range. Instead of an SPR of 15.2, we might get an estimate of between 14 and 16 percent.”

He also was waiting on biomass estimates, which reflect the poundage of fish in the water and are associated with the same data used to figure out a fishery’s SPR.

However, Blanchet said he could talk about the “relative abundance” of trout based on seine and gill-net samples in the various basins. Samples have been collected annually in set locations since 1986, and provide a starting point for discussions about the fishery’s health.

“The most-recent information was that in 2006 it was similar to what we saw in ’05 and a little lower than what was seen in 2000 or ’01,” he said.

He said seines generally collect smaller fish in their nursery areas, while gill nets are used to sample larger fish.

“Gill nets tend to be more characteristic of what’s presently available or will shortly be available to fishermen,” Blanchet said.

He said he puts a lot more stock in the gill-net numbers than the seine samples for the simple reason that lots can happen to a young-of-the-year trout. In addition to predation by birds and other fish species, the young trout even have to fend off their brethren.

“Trout are carnivorous. I’ve done gut analysis on a 2-inch trout, and I’ve seen a 1-inch speckled trout in its gut,” Blanchet said. “That’s aggressive.

“Only so many fish will survive.”

So what do the gill-net samples tell us? Blanchet said the 2006 samples, though not completely analyzed, were comparable to those in 2005. That means there’s great potential in the fishery.

“During the past couple of years, looking at ’06 compared to prior years, the summertime catch efforts in gill nets, especially in smaller meshes, have been good, have been higher than what we were seeing prior to 2000,” Blanchet said. “We’re also seeing increases in (catches in) larger mesh sizes.

“It basically seems like we’re on a bit of an upcurve.”

He added that the samples were “basically back to what you saw in 1998, which was the middle of that drought.”

Looking forward into the coming months, however, Blanchet said this potential could be disrupted if fresh water dilutes the salinity of coastal waters.

“There is a very strong linkage between the trout we see and the salinities,” he said.

In fact, high rivers and heavy rainfalls already have changed conditions.

“The rains have really come down,” Blanchet said. “That certainly could make a big difference in what you see, especially in Lake Pontchartrain, Venice, Vermilion Bay and Calcasieu Lake.”

That doesn’t mean trout will disappear altogether; instead, anglers will probably have to move farther and search harder to find them.

“The trout may be there, but you have to be in the right spot,” Blanchet said. “Instead of fishing between the bridges in Pontchartrain, you may be out in the Chandeleur Sound.”

With all that said, let’s look at the different areas of the coastal zone and discover what Blanchet and his fellow biologists predict.

The waters between the Mississippi coast and the Mississippi River Gulf Outlet were extremely productive during the past 12 months, and Blanchet said regional biologists expect the good fishing to continue.

Again, however, anglers should not look for catches to be as crazy as last year.

“It was just so exceptional,” he said.

The masses of small trout produced since Hurricane Katrina should finally make an impact on the harvest, but regional sampling didn’t show as many young-of-the-year trout in 2006, Blanchet said.

That probably will translate into fewer schoolies.

“I would expect more larger trout and less school trout,” Blanchet said.

Moving southwest of the MRGO into the waters stretching to the Mississippi River, Blanchet said schoolies probably will be more numerous.

“There were a lot of 10- to 12-inch trout (in last year’s samples) that should be available by springtime,” he said. “You’re going to see more school fish.”

Infrastructure is still a question mark in this entire region, with only a couple of launches reopened. That could keep angler pressure down, Blanchet said.

The total population of trout in the Barataria Basin seemed to bottom out in 2002-03, but Blanchet said managers have watched numbers steadily increase during succeeding years.

“It seems to be coming up again,” he said, saying that school trout likely will make up the vast majority of all fish caught.

“They saw an increase in their small fish (measuring 10 to 12 inches),” he said. “Again, that’s a very good indication of what anglers will find.”

Of course, that’s not a real surprise to anyone who knows the history of the system.

“In the Barataria Basin, you don’t get a whole lot of big fish,” Blanchet said. “Unless you get down to the mouth of the river, where you don’t have as much fishing pressure, you’re not going to have as many big fish.”

Moving farther west, the Terrebonne system was the one real disappointment last year, he said.

“They didn’t see as good of a season in 2006 as in 2005 in terms of both gill-net data and recreational catch data,” Blanchet said.

He said a variety of factors seemed to be in play.

“There were differences in weather, salinity and water temperatures, and they had more low tide levels,” Blanchet said.

That last issue was particularly difficult for anglers to overcome, he said.

“That affects the ability of the fishermen to get at the fish,” Blanchet said.

Unfortunately, regional biologists predict lower catches to continue this year, Blanchet explained.

“They’re still expecting (trout) to be abundant, unless we get heavy rainfall or high Atchafalaya and Mississippi river stages,” he explained. “But instead of fishing in Cocodrie, you might have to be at Timbalier. You’ll have to look harder.”

Vermilion Bay already was being impacted in late winter by the fresh water being poured into the basin by a high Atchafalaya River.

“It’s had a bad start,” Blanchet said. “That river was way up.”

Because the bay is located basically at the mouth of the river, angler success depends on just how long the river remains high. But there certainly won’t be many trout in the bay itself during the beginning of the season.

“They can expect to start fishing well offshore,” he said. “There’s a good local population, but if you end up with high river stages, you’re going to have to get out in the Gulf to find fish.”

Blanchet said Tiger Shoal and Diamond Reef are great offshore options.

“Those areas tend to clean up first,” he said.

Once the river subsides and clean salt water moves into the bay, anglers shouldn’t have to make such long runs, he said.

“If at the end of the season you end up with a lower river, you get the trout moving up into the upper system,” he said.

The Trash Pile and the new artificial reefs at Redfish Point then come into play at that point.

The Calcasieu system has really benefited from the changes wrought by Hurricane Rita, which blasted open weirs and levees that had blocked off thousands of acres of nursery marshes to trout, Blanchet said.

“Last year, we found high numbers of the younger age classes with some large trout,” he explained. “They had been seeing a lot of larger trout with not many younger fish (in years past).”

The key is that trout have seemingly returned to the marshes, where they found refuge and plenty of food. That allowed great survival rates and an influx of schoolies into Big Lake.

The only concern Blanchet had for the area was the effect of this winter’s weather on continued survival of the smallest trout.

“This winter’s been cold and wet, which is not real good for survival,” he said. “Once things get warm and winter eases up, we’ll see the impact of that.”

However, the so-called “Rita trout” could really boost the fishery.

“You should see those trout come into the fishery this year and next year,” Blanchet said. “Those fish will be available, especially as you get to the end of the season: Those fish are active and will continue to grow during the year.”

About Andy Crawford 863 Articles
Andy Crawford has spent nearly his entire career writing about and photographing Louisiana’s hunting and fishing community. While he has written for national publications, even spending four years as a senior writer for B.A.S.S., Crawford never strayed far from the pages of Louisiana Sportsman. Learn more about his work at www.AndyCrawford.Photography.