Consecutive cold winters have decimated the state's spotted sea trout population, according to the S.C. Department of Natural Resources, which has called for anglers to voluntarily practice catch and release until September to protect remaining spawners.
DNR sampling from nine South Carolina estuaries showed a "consistent and dramatic decrease" in the number of spotted sea trout -- the lowest population recorded in 20 years, according to an agency news release.
Trout spawn in spring and summer in South Carolina. They are inshore fish found mainly in shallows, from just off the beach and in estuaries, rivers and creeks, said David Harter, president of the Hilton Head Island Sportfishing Club.
They are the second-most popular type of inshore species to catch in the area behind spottail bass, also referred to as red drum or redfish, Harter said.
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"Charter captains and recreational fishermen target them," Harter said. The catch-and-release request "probably will have more of an effect on certain types of fishermen, like the ones who spend time fishing on small boats up around the islands and marshes."
Harter described sea trout as sensitive fish that, along with having trouble surviving the cold, don't handle catch-and-release well.
Sea trout do not migrate. "If we wipe out the population in a certain area, it's not going to replenish naturally," Harter said.
The sea trout population took five years to recover after a similar cold-related kill, according to DNR.
Brian McCaffree , captain of Holden On Charters, said it has been at least two years since trout were plentiful in the area, and many in the industry have turned their attention to other fish.
"Three years ago, trout were everywhere," McCaffree said. "But the population just hasn't been here this year or last year. ... We've all kind of switched our efforts over and concentrated on the (spottails.)"
Still, some fisherman likely know of certain holes where they can find trout, McCaffree said.
"Those are the people we really need to depend on to release the trout," he said. "If all the anglers participate, maybe we can get our population back."
DNR will continue monitoring sea trout and other popular recreation species for abundance and size.
Most fish sampled recently were below the legal limit of 14 inches, the release said. The size limit and maximum catch of 10 trout per person per day remain unchanged, according to the release.