Spotted seatrout, otherwise known as speckled or winter trout, are one of the most sought-after saltwater species and a mainstay of fall and winter inshore fishing in South Carolina. If it seems like you’ve caught more trout this year than in the past, you’re not alone.
“Spotted seatrout are on the upswing across coastal South Carolina,” according to Dr. Joey Ballenger, who oversees inshore fisheries research at the South Carolina Department of Natural Resources (SCDNR). Trout populations are heavily influenced by extreme cold weather events, when water temperatures plunge too low for trout to survive. These natural events can not only kill some fish but stun others so that they’re easily picked off by birds, dolphins and other predators.
The good news: Ballenger says the last cold weather event in 2018 “wasn’t as extreme as we feared and was less extreme than [winter kills] in 2001 or 2010-2011.” The cold winter in 2018 has been followed by good spring and summer conditions, along with mild winters the last few years. The result is the most abundant population of spotted seatrout in South Carolina waters since the agency began its population study four decades ago.
While these natural weather events may be the main driver of seatrout populations, conservation actions by South Carolina anglers can still have a positive impact. Following the winter cold events of 2011-2012, anglers rallied behind the “Let ‘Em Spawn, Let ‘Em Live” campaign that asked anglers to voluntarily release all trout throughout the spring and summer. This temporary amnesty allowed the fish that survived the cold winter an opportunity to spawn and help rebuild the population. The program garnered enough positive publicity that when cold weather struck again in 2018, anglers were once again ready to answer the call and help the population recover.
But why should anglers wait until a crisis emerges to help seatrout populations in South Carolina? That’s a question asked by Dave Fladd, co-owner of Eye Strike Fishing and a man who loves to target big trout. Many years back, the Summerville resident decided to release all of his trout over 20”. He encouraged others in the fishing community and on social media to do the same. Dave’s reasoning is that large trout are almost exclusively females — and a 20” trout can produce more eggs than several smaller trout combined. By protecting these largest fish, he’s helping to ensure that seatrout population will thrive for years to come.
Releasing large seatrout is no longer just a personal creed for Dave — it’s become a movement. Last year, Eye Strike Fishing partnered with the Coastal Conservation Association of North Carolina to promote the Release Over 20” initiative. Anglers that enter their fish at releaseover20.com are eligible for a free decal and entered in a monthly giveaway contest featuring equipment from brands such as Eye Strike, Z-Man, Toadfish, Bubba and more.
“We’re trying to change mindsets by rewarding conservation,” Fladd said.
In 2020, 1,439 spotted seatrout over 20” were released by 520 participating anglers. Recently, the initiative expanded to include releases of southern flounder over 20”, recognizing the decline of the population over its range.
Release Over 20 is a great example of how anglers can benefit the fisheries they love while setting a great example for the next generation. There may be little that humans can do to protect trout populations from a cold weather event, but that doesn’t mean they can’t improve the fishery by handling fish properly and making their own choices about what to keep and what to release. A population that is healthy will recover more quickly from a cold event — and the record number of trout in South Carolina waters today is a testament to the species’ resilience. Sometimes they just need a helping hand.
This is part one of a two-part series. Later this week, we’ll dive deeper into Dave’s philosophy on fishing and conservation.
About the Author: Matt Perkinson spent a decade as a research biologist with SCDNR before becoming the agency’s outreach coordinator for saltwater anglers. An avid fisherman himself, Perkinson lives on James Island with his family.
Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed on South Carolina Wild are solely those of the authors, and do not reflect official policies, positions, or endorsements of activity or products by the South Carolina Department of Natural Resources.