Ease up on sea trout, help population recover

Consecutive cold winters have dealt a serious blow to the state's spotted sea trout population, and the health of the local fishery is largely in the hands of local anglers.

The S.C. Department of Natural Resources has called for anglers to voluntarily practice catch and release until September to protect remaining spawners, and we heartily endorse that request.

In fact, we'll go one further -- anglers should resist pursuing the species at all over that period because the sensitive trout don't handle catch-and-release well.

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 last week.

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.

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.

At least one local charter boat captain, Brian McCaffree, says most professional guides have noticed the decline in the sea trout population and turned their attention to other species, such as spottail bass.

Good for them.

True sportsmen recognize their responsibility as stewards of natural resources. For the time being, that means more than recognizing the legal size limit of 14 inches and the limit of 10 spotted sea trout per person per day.

It means returning "specs" to local waters after they are caught, or not pulling them from the waters in the first place.