Despite the cold and a few flurries, Ricky Kellum, a fishing charter captain known as “The Speckled Specialist,” and Tim Ellis, a North Carolina State University doctoral student, are braving the near-freezing temperatures to do a little fishing.

“A lot of tournaments have been won here,” says Kellum, interrupting the peaceful “swish” of fishing lines, as they drift in a small creek off the New River near Jacksonville. Kellum says his intermittent wrist flicks fool the spotted seatrout into thinking his artificial shrimp lure is alive.

Sure enough, Kellum’s line tenses, and the flipping body of a speckled fish breaks the surface. Ellis grabs a net, leans over the boat’s edge and scoops up the fish once Kellum reels it close enough.

Kellum chuckles as some other fishing boats troll by, noting how some fishermen are very secretive about their catches so others won’t know they’ve found a “good spot.”

Cynosdon nebulosus or spotted seatrout — also known as speckled trout or “specks” — are targeted more by recreational fishermen than any other fish in North Carolina. The species lures anglers to spend top dollar on charters like Kellum’s, to take advantage of the guide’s gear and advice.

Even on this wintry November day, the fish are biting.

But instead of keeping his catches during this trip — even the big ones — Ellis will return the trout to the water equipped with tags as part of a pilot research project.

Funded by the Fishery Resource Grant Program (FRG), the project tackles questions about hooking and tagging mortality, tag retention and tag reporting rates for spotted seatrout in North Carolina. FRG is funded by the N.C. General Assembly and administered by North Carolina Sea Grant.

Ellis, based at NC State’s Center for Marine Science and Technology (CMAST), hopes to use the resulting data to assess whether a multi-year tagging program for the species is feasible.

Spotted seatrout are managed under the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission’s (ASMFC) Interstate Fishery Management Plan (FMP). The N.C. Division of Marine Fisheries (DMF) also is working on the state’s first FMP for the species, slated for completion next year. The FRG study will serve as a comparison to current stock assessments and aid in the development of an effective FMP.

Tagging Trout

“My ears perked right up,” says guide David Mason, when Ellis asked him to be a part of the project. Mason, a native of Bath, also is a commercial crabber and part-time ordained minister — but he always jumps at the chance to take some clients out trout fishing.

“I’ve literally fished all my life. Growing up, I always had fishing worms in my pockets,” just in case an opportunity came along, he says.

Ellis trained Mason, Kellum and three other guides to perform the tagging procedure, which involves using a scalpel to make a small incision in the outer skin just behind the pelvic fin and then inserting an internal “anchor” tag.

Mason describes Ellis as very careful and thorough, handling each fish as if he was “holding something holy in his hands.”

Ellis pushes a plastic-coated wire tag just inside the inner membrane that surrounds the organs. The tag then holds fast with a tab. The free end of the tag has a unique identification number and contact information for those who catch the tagged trout, so they can report data to Ellis.

Of the 1,500 total fish the team plans to tag, 375 will get two tags, allowing Ellis to estimate tag-loss rates of fish in the wild.

And to help him accurately estimate reporting rates, Ellis uses two incentives for recreational and commercial fishermen to return tags. Most of the tags are yellow and worth $5, a hat or a T-shirt. But a small percentage of the tags are red and worth $100.

Last fall, the team tagged approximately 150 fish for each of the study regions, and plans to tag another 150 in each area by April.

Gill nets and haul seines are frequently and effectively used by commercial fishermen and researchers to catch trout, but Ellis says catching fish by hook and line is the best method for getting enough fish while reducing mortality from gear and handling.

Virginia Sea Grant, in partnership with the Virginia Marine Resources Commission, runs the Virginia Game Fish Tagging Program for 10 target recreational fish species, one of which is spotted seatrout.

“It would be great if we could develop a similar program in North Carolina,” says Sara Mirabilio, a fisheries specialist at Sea Grant.

“In addition to collection of biological data, voluntary tagging programs reinforce efforts to educate anglers about the benefits and proper techniques for catching, handling and releasing fish and foster general environmental stewardship.”

Sonic Surgeries

Ellis also is surgically implanting some trout with sonic telemetry tags and observing those fish in laboratory tanks to see how they tolerate the more invasive — but also more informative — tracking tools.

In their 2007 Review of the Interstate Spotted Seatrout FMP, the ASMFC identifies advanced tagging techniques like telemetry tagging as important tools for gathering estimates of fishing and natural mortality rates, stock structure and movement.

Telemetry tagging is a method in which a signal-emitting device is implanted in a fish so that submersible or portable receivers can be used for tracking. Following these fish can yield important information on where they move, as well as if they have died or have been caught and removed from a body of water.

Ellis hopes to use the sonic technology to study where N.C. speckled trout move during winter months, and whether exposure to colder water temperatures is contributing to mortality rates.

NC State veterinarian Craig Harms developed a surgical procedure specifically for implanting trout with sonic tags for the FRG study.

“Craig’s done surgeries on several different species and his patients have all done well,” Ellis says.

Trout have thinner skin and a slower healing process, Ellis explains. But two months after their surgeries, all 12 fish with implanted tags are still alive and healing as expected.

Procedures are performed very delicately and with meticulous attention to preventing contamination. The trout is placed on its back with a tube in its mouth for the surgery. The small patient gets to sleep through the whole process, which involves draping thin plastic wrap across all but a small slit on its belly where surgeons insert a cylindrical sonic tag.

“The tube in the fish’s mouth delivers a steady flow of water/anesthesia mix over the gills which keeps the fish sedated throughout the surgery,” Ellis explains. After the fish is stitched up, straight water is pumped over the gills to revive it.

Ellis is keeping these 12 trout in outdoor laboratory tanks for long-term observation of post-surgery wound healing and survival.

New Management

One goal of the Spotted Seatrout Interstate FMP is that states from Maine to Florida with an interest in the fishery maintain a spawning potential ratio of at least 20 percent. This means that the target number of spawning fish left in the system should be at least 20 percent of what would be expected if the stock were not fished.

“Until North Carolina conducted its own stock assessment of spotted seatrout, we had no way of knowing whether or not we were meeting this goal,” says Beth Burns, lead DMF biologist for spotted seatrout. Burns is assisting with the project and will present results to DMF, the N.C. Marine Fisheries Commission (MFC) and the ASMFC.

Currently, anglers are allowed to keep 10 trout per day per person, as long as each trout measures at least 12 inches. Burns says the new N.C. Spotted Seatrout Fishery Management Plan will help better assess the health of the fishery, including the possibility of overfishing.

Continued monitoring is essential for improved management to the fishery, Burns says. “Without monitoring, we would not have enough data to adequately assess the stock.”

In addition to Ellis’ data, the new FMP will be based on stock assessment information from commercial and recreational harvest, fishery-independent sampling programs, a DMF aging database, the N.C. Trip Ticket Program and the Marine Recreational Fishery Statistics Survey (MRFSS).

Local Response

As of early February, 20 tags had been returned, according to Ellis. Those reported were distributed evenly among the study areas.

Four of the 20 were red, $100 tags. Steve Sasser, a building supply company owner from La Grange, caught a red-tagged trout while surf fishing at the Cape Lookout Rock Jetty in mid-December.

“I was somewhat thrilled,” says Sasser, who fishes about three times a month in the fall and winter. “I had caught a tagged fish before, but it didn’t have a reward with it.”

The project team is posting flyers at tackle shops and boat ramps to raise awareness about the tagging project. Ellis also is speaking to area fishing groups and hosting a forum on the N.C. Waterman’s Web site. So far, the forum has received more than 1,000 views.

“The support and excitement I’ve received over this tagging program has been incredible,” Ellis says.

It remains unclear if the new state FMP will result in changes or additions to the existing interstate regulations. Some commercial fishermen like Mason are hesitant about the possibility of new regulations that could affect their livelihoods. But, he says: “We should be good stewards of this resource. I’m grateful to be a part of it and I hope it will be helpful.”

Based on preliminary results, Ellis will receive funds from N.C. Coastal Recreational Fishing License proceeds to continue the project at least another year. The seatrout project is one of 11 selected by the MFC and N.C. Wildlife Resources Commission to receive grants this year.

For more information on the FRG program, go online to and click on “Research.”

A spotted seatrout advisory committee started to work with DMF staff on the state FMP in February 2009, with a draft FMP expected around July. Once a draft of the FMP (with proposed rules) is accepted by the N.C. Marine Fisheries Commission, it will be open for public comment. Adoption of a final FMP and rules are expected by April 2010. Follow news and information on the process online at:

To learn more about the FMP process and how to get involved, check out Fisheries Management and You: A Guide to Public Involvement in North Carolina Marine Fisheries Management. To order this free publication, visit  Or call 919/515-9101.

This article was published in the Spring 2009 issue of Coastwatch.

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