A Guide to Properly Baiting Spotted Sea Trout

Close-up of spotted sea trout fish head

Steiger Meister Katie, USFWS / Pixnio

Like other fish species, sea trout (Cynoscion nebulosus) have a certain bait that they prefer to feed on. This bait can and does vary from region to region, so where you fish can determine what bait to use. We will cover some of the basic baits used to catch sea trout.

Live Shrimp

Perhaps the all-time favorite bait for sea trout anglers is the good old live shrimp. Whether fished under a popping float, a slip float, free-lined, or on a jig head, shrimp catch more sea trout than all other natural baits combined. They can be used with a number of different angling methods: 

  • Popping Floats Popping floats help attract the trout to your bait. They are used in shallower water than other floats, and as the name implies, they "pop" at the surface, imitating feeding fish.
  • Slip Floats Slip floats allow you to fish a bait with a float in comparatively deep water, up to 20 feet or even more. The slip knot lets the float slide up the line and stop at a predetermined knot. As the float drifts along with the current, the bait, 20 feet below, drifts along at the same speed and at the designated depth. Trout has a habit of suspending at a certain depth, depending on water conditions. These floats let you put the bait right there with them.
  • Free Lined The free lining is just what it sounds. Hook the live shrimp on your line with no weight and no float, and let it drift along with the current. This works particularly well in creeks where there is a deep bend. The bait will drift with the current right through the bend in the creek where the trout like to suspend in the water column. This method can work well drifting a mud or grass flat as well.
  • Jig Heads Hooking a live shrimp on a jig head gives you the option of longer casts and more control over your bait. When you want your bait close to the bottom in deeper water, jig heads can make the difference. Hook the shrimp through the tail vertically, so that the jig head brings it through the water backward and in an upright position. You also have the ability with a jig head to move the bait in a vertical "jigging" motion, up and down. This jigging imitates a shrimp escaping backward, which is what they do when they need to escape a predator.

Live Baitfish

Depending on your area of the country, baitfish will vary. In South Florida, pinfish is by far the most popular bait for trout. Anglers catch their own over the vast grass flats of Florida Bay. They fish them much like a live shrimp, under a float or free-lined. This is also a favorite bait in the Gulf of Mexico, from Florida all the way around to Texas. If the pinfish is too big, you can cut a filet off the side, trim it up, and drift it along under a float or free-lined. You also butterfly a medium-sized pinfish and fish this bait the same way.

In other parts of the coastal fishing communities, baitfish vary. Menhaden, porkfish, and greenies are used to catch sea trout in the same fashion as using pinfish. As mentioned, a pinfish that has been filleted or butterflied can make really good bait. The piece you use needs to be neat, clean cut, and flexible. It must look natural as it drifts long and flutters, either free-lined or under a float.

There are many days where dead bait catches just as many fish as live bait at a substantial reduction in bait cost! It is all in how you present the bait. Unnatural looking bait, ragged or spinning on the hook, just will not draw a strike. Mullet, pinfish, pigfish, and ballyhoo can make good dead bait. One of the best dead baits is a filet off the side of a ladyfish. Cut even and trimmed thin, that silvery side flashes in the light and really draws some vicious strikes.

Artificial Lures

Sea trout love topwater lures. They tend to like to feed on the surface more than other fish. Any noisy topwater lure will usually work if there are feeding trout in the area. While there are newer lures on the market, good choices include the old Dalton Special and the Boone Spinana or Castana lures. 

You also use jig heads with plastic trailers, grubs, or imitation shrimp. The pink/chartreuse color (electric chicken) is one that consistently produces.

The Bottom Line

Spotted sea trout are very cooperative fish. If they are in the area, you can usually catch them without a lot of effort. And it really does not matter which bait you use. Locate the depth at which the fish are feeding, put bait in front of them at that depth, and hold on!