Everglades Snook

The village of Flamingo is the gateway to the Everglades wilderness -- and some great snook fishing. Here's how to become part of the action! (March 2007)

Whether using fly or spinning gear, the key is targeting the troughs along the mangrove islands.
Photo by Polly Dean

Brrrrrrup! Brrrrup! Mike Livera worked a Devil's Horse plug along a mangrove shoreline, its propellers throwing spray noisily. Suddenly the rhythmic whirring sound stopped with a distinctive POP!

Then Livera's line came tight, and 10 pounds of muscled missile erupted from the water.

Snook offer anglers one of Florida's most exciting and intriguing inshore targets. And one of the best places in the state to encounter them is near Flamingo in Everglades National Park.

The park covers nearly two million acres, and a third of that is water, so plenty of habitat is available for linesiders of all sizes. While motor skiffs designed for shallow-water use are probably the most popular choice of vessels by fishermen searching for snook here, canoes and kayaks definitely have a place in the scheme of things, too.

If you have a sense of adventure, you can paddle into the no-motors-allowed areas to the west of Flamingo. Or if that's not adventurous enough, you can take an extensive canoe camping trip into the Everglades backcountry, camping on deserted beaches or in chickees like the Seminoles used, fishing your way along whatever route you choose to take.

Bob Stearns lives in Miami. When he's not flying around the world on magazine assignments, he fishes out of Flamingo several times a week. He shared with me some of what he's learned in 25-plus years of fishing for snook in the park's waters.

"March can be a tough month for snook," he cautioned. "During the winter, depending on the weather, they're usually somewhere up into the backcountry. During the summer, they're usually out along the outside shorelines. March is one of those transition months when they're moving from one area to the other, so they can be just about anywhere.

"They do like mangrove shorelines when the water is clean, and they prefer those shorelines on higher stages of the tide," Stearns pointed out. "You have to understand that working a mangrove shoreline, especially this time of year, is simply a matter of patience. Use a push pole or an electric motor to work your way down the shoreline, trying to cover distance.

"If you do this, you'll hit a fish here and a fish there, but you're going to work for them. Only rarely will you find them concentrated then."

This angler does have some other tricks and locations up his sleeve as well.

"Another good place to look for snook during March is around the mangrove islands in Florida Bay," Stearns explained. "Most of these islands are in the middle of shallow flats, but they have deeper moats surrounding them, where the water can be as much as 8 feet deep. These moats hold fish and can be fished the same way as any other mangrove shoreline.

"Sometimes you'll find surprisingly dense concentrations of fish in these places. You have to pay your dues if you do this, though -- visiting one island after another, looking for the one that holds fish, because they definitely will not all hold fish. (Cont.)

"I like to fish channels and runoffs on real low tides," he continued, to add options. "Low water forces fish into these areas, concentrating them so they're easier to find. At high tide, they could be anywhere -- up on mangrove shorelines, in potholes on the flats, even on the flats themselves.

"At low water, they have to use the available deeper water, and there's not that much of that in places like Snake Bight. Any deeper area surrounded by extensive shallows can hold a lot of fish at low tide.

"Finally, I like to fish the sandy beaches found along Cape Sable, and the canal mouths nearby. The beaches cover a lot of area and some searching is needed. But again, if you cover enough water, you eventually find fish. If I don't have a favorable tide for fishing mangrove shorelines or canal mouths, then my next choice would be sandy beaches."

In addition to the cape, some of the islands in Florida Bay have beaches and they hold fish as well, the angler added. If you find fish in such places, they're more likely to be concentrated than they would be anyplace else.

"But you have to realize that snook are snook," Stearns resumed. "They could be anywhere. They might not be concentrated anywhere. You need to make -- and stick to -- a game plan that will follow the tides as best you can and will take you to the places your gut tells you are most likely to be good at that time of year."

My own experience along the Cape Sable beaches has been good, especially on those stretches of sand where stumps and blown-down trees are in the water. Those places seem to hold fish more consistently. But I've gotten snook all along the cape's beaches, both fishing from the shore itself and from boats of all sizes just off the beach.

When asked about tide preferences Stearns is ambivalent.

"I fish all the tides," he offered. "I like higher tides for mangrove shorelines, and low tides for channels and run-outs. Along the beaches, it doesn't seem to matter much; any stage of tide can work there. Moving water seems to help, though.

"Another place where you can go is back along the Bear Lake Canoe Trail, in Bear Lake, Mud Lake, the Fox Lakes, Gator Lake, and the other marshes back there," Stearns said.

"March is a good time to do it because the fish are back there then, and the bugs are nowhere near as bad as they'll be a couple of months later.

"If you go back there, bring plenty of water as well as a compass and a nautical chart. It's a big place and it's pretty easy to get turned around. Bringing some bug spray and even a head net wouldn't be a bad idea, either.

"All of the river systems north of Flamingo have large bays that will hold fish in March," Stearns said. "The back bays themselves between Flamingo and Chokoloskee have extensive mangrove shorelines that hold fish, too. The water is usually a reasonable depth, and surface plugs work real well in those kinds of places."

The discussion next turned to fishing techniques.

"I like to fish channels and runoffs on real low tides," he continued, to add options. "Low water forces fish into these areas, concentrating them so they're easier to

find. At high tide, they could be anywhere -- up on mangrove shorelines, in potholes on the flats, even on the flats themselves.

"At low water, they have to use the available deeper water, and there's not that much of that in places like Snake Bight. Any deeper area surrounded by extensive shallows can hold a lot of fish at low tide.

"Finally, I like to fish the sandy beaches found along Cape Sable, and the canal mouths nearby. The beaches cover a lot of area and some searching is needed. But again, if you cover enough water, you eventually find fish. If I don't have a favorable tide for fishing mangrove shorelines or canal mouths, then my next choice would be sandy beaches."

In addition to the cape, some of the islands in Florida Bay have beaches and they hold fish as well, the angler added. If you find fish in such places, they're more likely to be concentrated than they would be anyplace else.

"But you have to realize that snook are snook," Stearns resumed. "They could be anywhere. They might not be concentrated anywhere. You need to make -- and stick to -- a game plan that will follow the tides as best you can and will take you to the places your gut tells you are most likely to be good at that time of year."

My own experience along the Cape Sable beaches has been good, especially on those stretches of sand where stumps and blown-down trees are in the water. Those places seem to hold fish more consistently. But I've gotten snook all along the cape's beaches, both fishing from the shore itself and from boats of all sizes just off the beach.

When asked about tide preferences Stearns is ambivalent.

"I fish all the tides," he offered. "I like higher tides for mangrove shorelines, and low tides for channels and run-outs. Along the beaches, it doesn't seem to matter much; any stage of tide can work there. Moving water seems to help, though.

"Another place where you can go is back along the Bear Lake Canoe Trail, in Bear Lake, Mud Lake, the Fox Lakes, Gator Lake, and the other marshes back there," Stearns said.

"March is a good time to do it because the fish are back there then, and the bugs are nowhere near as bad as they'll be a couple of months later.

"If you go back there, bring plenty of water as well as a compass and a nautical chart. It's a big place and it's pretty easy to get turned around. Bringing some bug spray and even a head net wouldn't be a bad idea, either.

"All of the river systems north of Flamingo have large bays that will hold fish in March," Stearns said. "The back bays themselves between Flamingo and Chokoloskee have extensive mangrove shorelines that hold fish, too. The water is usually a reasonable depth, and surface plugs work real well in those kinds of places."

The discussion next turned to fishing techniques.

"You can certainly catch these fish with fly tackle, but it can be a lot of work if you're searching for them," Stearns warned. "I like topwater plugs if the water is not too deep, and 'too deep' is 5 or 6 feet or more. I don't think the fish usually come up any more than that, no matter what you're using. Two or 3 feet of water is perfect.

"I think the noise of a surface plug attracts the fish. My favorites include the Poppa Dog that MirrOlure makes, and the Heddon Super Spook. I also like the big Chug Bug from Storm Lures," he pointed out. "All three of those really get the job done. Any number of lures will work, though. If you get 20 good anglers using 20 different lures in an area that holds fish, they're all going to get some. I don't think that the fish key in on any particular kind of lure."

And, of course, a lure does not have to be on the surface to be effective.

"If you're trying to cover a lot of water and make a lot of noise, and you want to get the lure down, then the Rat-L-Trap still works really well," Stearns agreed. "It has always been a good plug. One of my friends calls it 'snook candy.'

"Jigs also take a lot of fish," he continued. "You can use an Upperman or other similar style of bucktail jig tipped with a piece of shrimp, or a jighead with a soft-plastic tail attached. If I'm using a soft-plastic tail on a jig, I like a 1/2- or 3/4-ounce head in red, white, or hot pink with a soft-plastic body.

"I've used all kinds of soft-plastic bodies on jigs in all different colors and I've never noticed that any one works any better than any other one. I've never found one the fish won't eat. But you should use the one you have the most faith in. That having been said, I like darker color soft-plastic tails, regardless of the head color."

The angler does favor another variation on that theme as well.

"The DOA TerrorEyz, which is just another form of soft-plastic jig, can be very effective here, too, when the water is a little bit deeper," Stearns emphasized. "Again, I like the darker colors. I generally like a larger bait, but this lure can really put some fish in the boat.

"Flyfishermen can catch fish if they're willing to put in the time," Stearns noted, turning to another technique. "If the water is off-color at all, a large black streamer fly is hard to beat. I do well with yellow-and-red, red-and-white, and natural color patterns. Seaducers and Deceivers have been standards, but Puglisi's patterns and others like that work well, too, as will poppers. Having a few weighted flies like Clouser Minnows is never a bad idea. All flies need weedguards if you're planning on fishing along the mangroves."

In most situations, it is hard to beat live baits for catching most game fish. But Stearns sees a downside to using bait for this action.

"I have strong feelings about using live finfish for bait," he said. "I am against it. We have closed seasons and minimum and maximum sizes. A lot of fish have to be released, and I think that when using fish for bait, way too many snook get gut-hooked and end up dying.

While a lot of the younger guides are fishing this way, most of the older guys are against it because they think it's really bad for the resource. They've seen what it used to be like and how it is now, and they're not real happy about the trend they see."

The conversation then steered towards fishing techniques.

"The snook can often be lazy," Stearns mused. "Sometimes they're aggressive and take a fast-moving lure. But a lot of the time if you want a bite, you've got to work the lure fairly slowly. You've got to be patient. On any given day, it's a matter of trial and error -- working the bait faster, slower, in between, erratic, until you find something that works. Then stay with that until it's not working any more."

He also thinks that cleaner water and the lower light levels make for better fishing conditions.

"We seldom have water that is clear like it is in the Keys. Bu

t we have clean water that doesn't have particulate matter -- mud, if you will -- suspended in it. Windy days can definitely make the water very muddy here, but snook fishing is best when the water is clean.

"Low light levels are good, too. So early and late in the day, or on cloudy days, the snook bite is usually best," he continued. "Of course you can catch fish in the middle of the day, and I've caught a lot of them then. But you're just going to have to work a lot harder."

Stearns prefers to use fluorocarbon for his leader material because it's more resistant to abrasion. He likes a fairly stout leader of 30- or 40-pound-test. If there are a lot of snags and current, he'll even use 50-pound.

"If you get in a tug of war around snags with a big fish, you're going to have to pull him out of there. And the snags are covered with barnacles and oysters. You need a leader that is fairly stout. Plus, there's always the chance you'll run into a tarpon," he added.

"I like to use plugging tackle for these fish. I fill the reel with 15- to 20-pound gel braid. When fishing with a jig, the fish usually take it on the drop. You just can't feel that with mono.

"While plug tackle is my preference, a lot of guys use spinning tackle, and of course it works just as well. A 6- or 6 1/2-foot rod with some backbone is good. But you can use any variety of rod you like."

Stearns fishes for Everglades snook from a Maverick HPX, using a push pole and a trolling motor as appropriate.

"Any deeper area surrounded by extensive shallows can hold

a lot of fish at low tide."

-- Bob Stearns

Flamingo has two separate boat ramps right next to each other. One gives access to Florida Bay and the Gulf beaches, while the other leads to Whitewater Bay and the backcountry. Either choice can work in March, but the wind may make your decision for you. As already mentioned, the water on the outside can become very muddy when the wind blows hard, and that mud puts the fish off.

Whether running a motor skiff or paddling a canoe or kayak, any boater should visit www.nps.gov/ever, the Everglades National Park's Web site, especially if you're planning your first visit. There you can find information about fishing regulations, boating and camping in the park, maps, fees, closures, and much more.

As mentioned earlier, canoes and kayaks can also work well for accessing snook spots. Though it's entirely possible to fish the same places the skiffs do, the best use of a hand-powered boat is probably to go where those other craft can't. Paddlers have several different options, depending on how much time they want to invest. Those without their own boats can rent one at the Flamingo Marina, although you have to launch it right there. They won't allow you to transport it by vehicle. This gives you access to the waters out front including Snake Bight, and to any waters in back -- if you're willing to paddle up the Buttonwood Canal.

For a single day trip, the boat ramp at West Lake allows you to fish that body of water. Small outboards are allowed in West Lake, so folks with small boats can fish here, too.

One thing to keep in mind -- and this is true no matter where in the park you may be fishing -- is that other species of fish will be encountered. These include tarpon of all sizes, redfish, seatrout, jack crevalle, and more. This is particularly true in West Lake.

Another possibility is to launch at Coot Bay Pond. Paddle into Coot Bay and look along the north shoreline for fish. If you find none, cross the bay and enter the creek that leads into Mud Lake, and from there proceed into Bear Lake.

If you are really motivated and willing to put in a long day, you can go farther back along the Bear Lake Canoe Trail. But if there are fish in either Mud Lake or Bear Lake, there's not much sense in doing this.

If you're a paddler interested in a longer expedition, you need to go to the Everglades National Park Web site, mentioned above. It's possible, and extremely rewarding, to take trips of as long as two weeks, and see parts of the park that most people never visit. On a trip like this, the fish -- while not an afterthought -- are certainly a bonus.

Finally, some anglers might like a guide to show them around before heading out onto such large waters on their own.

Bob Stearns recommends Capt. Chris Dean, who can be contacted at (305) 666-0908, or Capt. Rick Murphy at (305) 242-0099 --whom it's best to call well in advance. Murphy stays quite busy.

Find more about Florida

fishing and hunting at:

FloridaGameandFish.com

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