Common wisdom, although often common, is not always wise, so might be the case with the comings and goings of one of the most important recreational fisheries here in North Carolina, the spotted sea trout.
Graduate student, Tim Ellis, has been working on his Ph.D. in “speckled trout” for NC State University’s Center for Marine Sciences and Technology in Morehead City, NC. Ellis is now in the forth year of the Center’s tagging study of the spotted seatrout, whose goals include determination of the seasonal movement of the species and to get an accurate estimate on their mortality.
The common wisdom for years was that the speckled trout were mostly homebodies and didn’t wander very far from their spawning grounds. In the first three-years of the study, Ellis, colleagues, and many local fishing guides along a wide area of the NC coast, have tagged over 5,000 speckled trout. To date, they have had nearly 300 tags returned, by commercial and recreational anglers alike, finally giving some real data on the mobility of these fish, removing myth, or indeed, common wisdom, from this new body of scientific data.
Although there were some homebody fish that were caught, tagged, released and re-caught very close to their tag and release zone, but that by no means was the standard, as Ellis pointed out.
“Last year,” said Ellis, “we reported on two fish that went from Ft. Fisher and Carolina Beach all the way to Virginia which is around 285- to 300-miles. And that’s still the farthest distance traveled that we have for the study. This year we saw a lot of northern migration as well. We’ve had fish that moved all the way from the New River all the way to the Piankatank River in Virginia, which is about 280-miles. So there is some considerable movement. We also had four-fish that we tagged in February in the New River all go to the Northern Outer Banks, Kitty Hawk, Kill Devil Hills, Nags Head, some 130- to 180-miles straight line distance.”
“For those particular fish,” said Ellis, “it was from February until summer, some May, some June. We had another fish that went all the way to the Potomac River, which is pretty amazing, that’s about 260-miles. The one thing I’m really excited about this year, that we’ve seen is that a lot of fish that we tagged this summer in the Northern Outer Banks around Oregon Inlet that ALL went north to Virginia and they continue to go north even through October. We’ve had eight fish so far that were tagged in the summertime to the early fall in the Northern Outer Banks around Oregon Inlet to Virginia, one as far as up the Chesapeake to Cambridge Maryland, which is the farthest north we’ve had one of our tagged fish go.”
But wait, maybe not ALL of those fish went north. While fishing the Emerald Isle surf recently, I met a fellow long time trout fisherman, Don Haas, from Newport, NC. He has fished these waters for speckled trout for nearly 16 years. “Guess what?” asked Haas, “I got a red tagged trout last week (12/6/11), and a friend got a yellow tag the day before, and we found out that they were from the same fish that were tagged and released from Pea Island (near Oregon Inlet), and they’re still traveling together in the same school.”
As Haas exclaimed, “that was a Christmas present,” since his returned red tag was worth $100 finder’s fee!
According to Ellis, those fish were tagged and released last August near Pea Island.
One concern, after last year’s back-to-back cold kills of speckled trout in January 2010 and December 2010, was that the cold kills would devastate local trout stocks in the kill zones. To this end NC Division of Marine Fisheries took drastic measures, closing the season for keeping trout until mid June 2011 to ensure a successful spawning season and lowered the daily bag limit to six- then down to four-trout per day, where is currently stands. I asked Haas how this year’s fall trout season was going.
“This year,” he commented enthusiastically, “it’s the best I’ve seen in probably 5-years, it’s been absolutely fabulous, both in number and size. Most fish are 16-, 17-inches to 21-inches and not that many small ones. Today we had some little ones, but there are so many two-, two-and-a-half and three-pounders right now, that a few little ones now and then, don’t even bother you. We were expecting a poor year after the events of last two winters but most everybody I’ve talked with can’t believe how good the year has been.”
So much for common wisdom! Somehow nature often seems to overcome the odds.