Spotted Seatrout

Spotted Seatrout illustration, copyrighted by Diane Rome Peebles

Similar Species

Sand Seatrout, illustration by Diane Rome Peebles
Sand seatrout or white trout.
Copyright © Diane Rome Peebles Click for larger image.
Spotted seatrout are similar to two other species, but are easily distinguished by their spots. Sand seatrout, or white trout, Cynoscion arenarius, and the smaller silver seatrout, Cynoscion nothus, look much like spotted seatrout but have no spots at all. The weakfish, Cynoscion regalis has spots on its body, but none on the fins or tail. Weakfish are not found in the Gulf of Mexico.

Description

Spotted seatrout have an elongated, streamlined body with a slightly elevated back, long pointed head, and oblique mouth with the lower jaw extending beyond the upper. They are silvery gray or greenish on the upper sides and back, shading to white on the belly. The upper back has an iridescent sheen with light blue and purple. Dark spots appear on the upper portion of the sides and on the dorsal fin and tail. The dorsal fin and tail are dusky, and the tail is edged in black. The other fins are pale or yellowish. The overall coloration varies with water conditions, with fish from stained inshore water being darker and even somewhat golden.

The mouth often shows yellow coloration on the edges and interior, especially in older fish. There are one or two prominent canine teeth at the front of the upper jaw. The dorsal fin is long and separated by a deep notch into a spiny forward section and a soft rear section. Like other fish in the Sciaenid family (red drum, black drum, sand seatrout, ...), the lateral line extends onto the tail.

Occasionally, a "spotless speck" is encountered with no spots on the body. However, the tail and dorsal fin of spotted seatrout are always spotted.

Typical spotted seatrout weigh one to three pounds and are 14 to 20" long. A six-pound fish is considered large and ten pounders are occasionally caught.

Female spotted seatrout grow more quickly and reach larger sizes than males. Males are not as long lived as females; few live longer than five years. Females can live to age ten. Consequently, essentially all spotted seatrout weighing five pounds or more are females.

"Yellowmouth Speck" Photo provided by Captain John Kumiski, Spotted Tail Fishing Charter Service.
"Yellowmouth Speck"
Photo provided by Captain John Kumiski, Spotted Tail Fishing Charter Service.

Specks, Gators, Sows, Yellowmouths, and Papermouths

Spotted seatrout are routinely called speckled trout, specks, or simply trout. Large fish (longer than 22-24" in length) are sometimes described as "gator trout." Females are somewhat larger than males and large gravid (with eggs) females are called "sow trout."

The nickname "yellowmouth" comes from the yellow interior of the mouth, observed more often on larger fish. The spotted seatrout's relatively delicate mouth structure sometimes allows a hook to tear loose and earns the fish the nickname "papermouth."

Occurrence

The range of spotted seatrout extends from Cape Cod to both coasts of Florida and throughout the entire Gulf of Mexico, but they are most common along the northern Gulf of Mexico and the Florida Gulf coast. They are found from the nearly fresh water in upper estuaries, throughout Mississippi Sound, and out to water depths of about 30 feet in the Gulf.

Spotted seatrout are a schooling species, particularly when they are young. They favor locations where there are current discontinuities, such as mouths of water bodies, gullies and trenches, sharp bends, and changes in bottom contour. They are not particularly attracted to hard bottoms, but they are often found near seagrasses and saltmarshes which are adjacent to deeper channels.

Spotted Seatrout, Speckled Trout, Speck, Spec
Spotted Seatrout, Photo by Jim Franks, GCRL   Click for larger image


Life Cycle & Reproduction

Spawning

In Mississippi, spotted seatrout spawn over a five-month period from mid-April to mid-September, with the timing of the spawning season varying a bit from year to year, depending on temperature. Spotted seatrout can spawn multiple times throughout their reproductive season. Research has shown that spotted seatrout from the barrier islands and St. Louis Bay areas spawned more frequently (about every four days) than fish from the Biloxi Bay area (every 15-18 days). It is thought that the greater level of development in the Biloxi Bay area is responsible. Salinity, depth, and submerged habitat are not substantially different among the areas.

Mean Batch Fecundity for Spotted Seatrout in Mississippi
Age
(years)
Number of eggs/batch
1 66,200
2 98,400
3 124,300
4 153,400
5 354,000
Typical growth rates for young red drum. Growth rates vary widely.

About 30% of Mississippi female spotted seatrout reach sexual maturity at a length of 11". The fraction of sexually mature females increases to 43% at 12" and 66% at 13". 100% of females are capable of spawning at a length of 14". Males mature at a much smaller size.

The number of eggs released during each spawning event increases substantially as the females grow older. A five-year old female can produce about five times as many eggs per spawning as a one-year old. The benefit of practicing catch and release with larger female spotted seatrout is obvious.

The spawning season for spotted seatrout in Mississippi is shorter than for other areas on the Gulf Coast, and the number of eggs produced per spawning event is lower. An average two-year-old fish in Mississippi can produce three to five million eggs per year, while an average two-year-old fish in Texas can potentially release 4.5 to 14.5 million eggs per year.

Spawning takes place in nearshore and estuarine waters and begins when water temperature and salinity are favorable (77 to 86 F and 17 - 35 ppt). Hundreds or even thousands of male spotted seatrout congregate where there is good tidal current flow, in shallow bays and lagoons, or deeper channels and depressions close to grass flats. Males produce a drumming sound to attract and motivate females. Males fertilize the eggs as the females release them. Males begin drumming near sunset and spawning activity continues until about midnight. Details and sound recordings are provided in the "Drumming" section below.

Spotted seatrout eggs are spherical, measuring approximately 1/32" in diameter (0.70-0.98 mm), and contain one to four oil droplets. In saltier water, the eggs are buoyant, but they sink at salinity levels below 25 parts per thousand. The optimum salinity for survival of eggs and larvae is approximately 28 ppt.

Larvae and Juveniles

About 18 hours after fertilization, eggs hatch into larvae about 1/16" long (1.3-1.6 mm). The larvae take refuge in bottom vegetation or shell rubble to avoid predators. At 6-8 weeks of age the young fish have reached a length of one to two inches (25-50 mm in length) and begin to form schools of up to 50 individuals.

As they mature, juveniles move to seagrass beds, sandy bottoms, muddy bottoms, and shell reefs where they continue to live as adults.

Growth and Development of Aquacultured Spotted Seatrout
Growth and Development of Seatrout Cultured at GCRL, speckled trout, speckle trout

Embryo (<1 mm)

Growth and Development of Seatrout Cultured at GCRL, speckled trout, speckle trout

Day 1 (~2 mm)

Growth and Development of Seatrout Cultured at GCRL, speckled trout, speckle trout

Day 10 (~5 mm)

Growth and Development of Seatrout Cultured at GCRL, speckled trout, speckle trout

Day 15 (~10 mm)

Growth and Development of Seatrout Cultured at GCRL, speckled trout, speckle trout

Day 24 (~25 mm)

Growth and Development of Seatrout Cultured at GCRL, speckled trout, speckle trout

Day 70 (~10 cm)

Growth rates vary with location and conditions, but at the end of their first year typical spotted seatrout are about 10" long (250 mm). It takes one to two years for spotted seatrout to reach 12" (300 mm) in length and two to three years to reach 16" (400 mm). Female spotted seatrout can live 10 to 12 years, though only rarely. Most fish caught by anglers are no more than four of five years of age.

Approximate weight vs. length relationship for spotted seatrout in Mississippi.
Approximate weight vs. length relationship for spotted seatrout in Mississippi. Click for larger image.
Based on 326 male and 916 female fish collected during 2008-2013.
Hendon, J.R., J.M. Hendon & J.S. Franks. 2014. Sport Fish Studies in Mississippi Coastal Waters. Annual report to the U. S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Sport Fish Restoration Program, Project F-131.

 

Movement as Adults

Most spotted seatrout spend their entire lives in or near the estuary in which they were spawned. In a study conducted in Mississippi, 7,423 fish were tagged and released. 221 fish were recovered, with 90% being recaptured within five miles of where they were released. A study in Alabama showed that 53% of tagged fish showed no movement, while longest distance traveled by any fish was less than 20 miles. Similar results have been found from studies in Louisiana and Florida.

A few individual spotted seatrout do occasionally wander substantial distances. One fish tagged in the Apalachicola, Florida area was recovered near Grand Isle, Louisiana, having traveled about 315 miles.

Spotted seatrout do move within their home range during the year. They typically spend summers in higher-salinity waters closer to the Gulf, and winters in the lower salinity waters of the upper estuary.

During the pre-spawning period of February to early April, Mississippi spotted seatrout are scattered. By mid-April, fish old enough to spawn have moved to the higher salinity waters of the lower bays, where they remain throughout the spawning season. As cool fronts arrive in the fall, spotted seatrout move into lower-salinity estuaries, bayous, and the lower portions of rivers, often seeking warmer water temperatures in deep holes during cold weather. Similarly, spotted seatrout take refuge in cooler deep water during extremely hot weather.

Diet and Feeding Behavior

Newly hatched spotted seatrout feed on plankton, primarily copepods. As they grow, the diet shifts to larger mysids and shrimp and then to small fish. Adult spotted seatrout feed primarily on fish (including anchovies, silversides, pinfish, croakers, menhaden, and others), shrimp, and crabs. Marine worms are also eaten, particularly during winter.

Spotted seatrout are quick and aggressive ambush predators. They make short lunges to capture their prey and swallow it whole. Their large front canine teeth and a row of smaller teeth on the lower jaw help them hold on to their prey. Adult spotted seatrout typically gather in small schools, moving into shallower areas to feed with the incoming tide.

Spotted seatrout feed most actively in the early morning hours and during times of strong tidal current flow.

Predators and Parasites

Osprey with a two-fisted grasp on a spotted seatrout.
Osprey with a two-fisted grasp on a spotted seatrout.
Copyright Al Hoffacker/Half-Cracker Waterward Photography & Images

Larger fishes are the primary predators on spotted seatrout. Bottle nosed dolphins, sharks, and predatory birds such as ospreys, cormorants, pelicans, and other predatory birds also take seatrout.

Spotted seatrout sometimes harbor internal parasites popularly known as "spaghetti worms." They are more common in larger fish and appear to do no significant harm to adult fish. While visually unappealing to many people, the worms are not harmful to humans. The can be readily removed manually or simply ignored.

Drumming

The name "drum" comes from the ability of the male spotted seatrout, and the males of its drum family relatives such as the red drum and black drum, to produce a deep drumming sound by contracting muscles on either side of the swim bladder. The sound is used during courtship and sometimes when a fish is distressed.

The sonic muscle is a specialized muscle that vibrates against the swim bladder to produce sound used to attract females during the spawning season.
The sonic muscle is a specialized muscle that vibrates against the swim bladder to produce sound used to attract females during the spawning season. Photo Credit: FWRI.

Fishing for Spotted Seatrout

Happy angler with a nice speck. Photo by Captain Sonny Schindler, Shore Thing Charters.
Happy angler with a nice speck. Photo by Captain Sonny Schindler, Shore Thing Charters.

Spotted seatrout are without doubt the most popular sportfish on the Mississippi Coast. The methods of catching spotted seatrout vary as widely as the anglers who target them. Specks are caught with success by anglers using dead bait, live bait, artificial lures, and flies. Equipment varies from cane poles to sophisticated spinning and fly rods and reels. Artificial lures range from spinners and spoons to jigs to soft plastics on jig heads to sinking and topwater plugs.

On the northern Gulf coast, spotted seatrout are popularly regarded as one of the "big three" of sportfish, along with red drum (redfish) and flounder. Anglers refer to catching each species during a single trip as a "grand slam."

Spotted seatrout are a regulated sport fish in Mississippi. The daily recreational creel limit is 15 fish, with a minimum total length of 13". The commercial catch of spotted seatrout in Mississippi waters is subject to a 14" minimum length and an annual quota of 50,000 pounds for the commercial fishery.

Trout amandine, photo by Don Abrams
Trout Amandine. Click for larger image.

Spotted Seatrout on the Table

Spotted seatrout are probably the most popular table fish caught by recreational anglers on the Gulf Coast. The flesh of the spotted seatrout has excellent flavor and texture; it is typically enjoyed fried, broiled, or baked. Trout amandine, fried fish with brown butter sauce and sliced almonds, is a classic Gulf Coast favorite. Try these three versions: Brenan's Restaurant, John Besh, and Saveur Magazine

To maintain the excellent texture and flavor of spotted seatrout, they should be placed on ice promptly after being landed. After filets are removed, the carcasses can be used to make delicious fish stocks to add flavor to soups and other dishes.

Conservation Status and Management History

The spotted seatrout has not been evaluated by the IUCN Red List.

Degradation and destruction of the estuarine habitat and fishing pressure are the primary stresses to spotted seatrout populations.

Aquaculture

Aquaculture of spotted seatrout has focused primarily on providing fish for stock enhancement programs, though there are potential opportunities for growing fish for the market. Spotted seatrout have been successfully aquacultured at the Gulf Coast Research Laboratory since 2004.

2004 also marked the founding of the Seatrout Population Enhancement Cooperative (SPEC) by GCRL, the Mississippi Department of Marine Resources (DMR), and the Mississippi chapters of the Coast Conservation Association (CCA). SPEC's goal is to develop the responsible techniques that would make stock enhancement a feasible part of a comprehensive management strategy for spotted seatrout. As of 2013, SPEC has produced, tagged, and released almost 600,000 spotted seatrout juveniles into Mississippi waters.

DNA analysis suggests that spotted seatrout occur in discrete subpopulations throughout their range. Consequently, the SPEC program cultures separate stocks from the eastern and western portions of the Mississippi Coast and releases them only within their home area.

Spotted seatrout aquaculture references:

Spotted Seatrout from Bayou Cumbest, Mississippi.  Photo by Don Abrams.
Spotted Seatrout from Bayou Cumbest, Mississippi. Click for larger image.

Interesting Facts About Spotted Seatrout

  • Spotted seatrout tend to live in or near the same bay system for their entire lives.
  • Larger spotted seatrout prefer mullet as prey and can eat a mullet more than half their own size.
  • Because males do not grow as fast or live as long as females, spotted seatrout weighing five pounds or more are almost certainly female.
  • Male spotted seatrout have specialized muscles alongside their swim bladders that they use to produce a drumming sound that attracts females for spawning.
  • "Speckless" spotted seatrout with no spots on their bodies are occasionally found, though they always have spots on their fins and tails.

Resources and References

 

Spotted Seatrout Videos

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Spotted seatrout. Photo by Captain Sonny Schindler, Shore Thing Charters.
Spotted seatrout. Photo by Captain Sonny Schindler, Shore Thing Charters.