Two Ways For Sanibel Spring Snook

Whether you target big snook in the passes or go for numbers of them in the mangrove backcountry, this area of southwest Florida can accommodate you. Here's what the action is like. (March 2009)

Capt. Mark Westra shows off an average-sized snook taken at the railroad trestle on the Caloosahatchee River. Photo by Ron Sinfelt

Capt. Mike Smith guided his boat through the narrow creek channels of the J.N. "Ding" Darling National Wildlife Refuge. After winding through the mangrove islands for a time, we anchored in an opening within the refuge. The captain dipped the bait net into the livewell, scooped up a mess of pilchards and began chunking them into the mangroves.

Once those baitfish hit the water, we heard the welcome pop that's the distinctive sound of snook attacking them near the surface.

We knew the fish were here!

I tossed a line with a pilchard hooked through the tail into the mouth of a narrow side creek and let the baitfish swim along the mangroves, a distance from the boat.

I let the bait swim freely as long as it cooperated, working its way along the edge where a snook might lay waiting. The tidal current drifted the line and its attached offering past an overhanging mangrove branch.

As I pondered how I would ever get a snook out of those trees, I felt one hit! I pulled back hard and cranked as fast as possible, knowing that I couldn't let the fish retreat into the cover of those tangled mangrove roots.

Reeling a 30-inch snook back to the boat, I was thankful for the advice that Capt. Smith had given my fishing partner, Ken Freel, earlier that morning. I'd have never put the initial pressure on that fish needed to pull it out of the mangroves, if Freel hadn't asked Mike, "How much is too much?" when it comes to setting the hook and fighting a snook.

Well, to answer his question, Capt. Mike said that you can't put too much pressure on a snook. You lose more snook by babying them." Even if you believe that you aren't babying the fish, according to Capt. Smith, you probably are!

"Snook are like us Southern boys around a pretty woman," he said. "Give them an inch, and they'll take a mile."

And in this habitat, a snook doesn't need a mile to get into a tangle of mangrove roots and break your line.

MANGROVE BACKCOUNTRY
The waterways and mangrove islands of the Ding Darling NWR provide ideal habitat for snook to grow to maturity. These fish require a brackish estuary to thrive, and the freshwater inflow of the Caloosahatchee River into San Carlos Bay and Pine Island Sound provides the conditions that snook prefer.

Snook spawn in the open water of the Gulf of Mexico around beaches and in the passes. Their eggs hatch offshore, and the baby snook make their way back to the inland estuaries and mangrove islands in the sound along Sanibel and Captiva islands. The mangroves provide shelter for maturing snook.

Even though these tight quarters aren't known for holding the largest of linesides, they can give up a greater quantity of fish, with some of decent size ó such as my 30-incher.

Capt. Smith likes to "test" an area to see if any snook are present.

Before we get out our rods, he'll toss a handful of pilchards (also known as whitebaits, but technically scaled sardines) or pinfish into the mangrove trees and listens for that pop of feeding snook.

He does this for two reasons: to see if the snook are feeding, and to find out where the fish are. If he doesn't hear any pops, we move on.

Back in the mangrove islands, the water tends to be calmer, providing ideal conditions for free-swimming a pilchard along the edges of the trees.

Hooking a pilchard in the tail so that it can swim in a natural manner entices any snook waiting up under the overhanging mangroves to ambush its next meal.

The trick is to keep a fine balance between not enough slack line and too much. You need enough slack to let the bait can swim freely, but not so much slack that you can't set the hook. That involves opening the bale, letting out some line and then flipping it closed. At the same time, it's important to keep your rod pointed at the bait.

Keep repeating the process as long as the bait is swimming where you want it to.

If the bait just won't stay close to the edge, pick it up and cast again.

Also watch for the pilchard to take off running, all the while giving it line so it can do so naturally.

That usually means a snook is not far behind.

CALOOSAHATCHEE RIVER
Earlier the same day, Capt. Mike had taken us up the Caloosahatchee for a shot at some bigger snook.

We accessed the mouth of the Caloosahatchee just across San Carlos Bay northeast of Sanibel Island. Originating at Lake Okeechobee, the river flows west between Fort Myers and North Fort Myers before emptying into the bay. In winter and early spring, the Caloosahatchee is a good destination for snook.

We headed upstream alongside the boat of Capt. Mark Westra, another Sanibel-area guide and a good friend of Smith. The two men often collaborate on techniques and ideas for catching more fish. With their combined years of experience and knowledge of these waters, they know how to put clients on snook.

Both guides had begun the morning by filling their livewells with pinfish and pilchards. The two captains like baits in the 3- to 4-inch size.

Pilchards are lively baitfish, favored because of their hardiness. They can last in a baitwell for a long period. Pilchards are also ideal for free-swimming along mangrove shores or other cover.

Snook are "ambush" feeders and attack an active pilchard on most days. But on other days, according to Capt. Smith, snook take the lazy route, when a pinfish just sitting there is an easier and preferred target.

Pinfish are known to eat snook's eggs, so a lineside that is not otherwise feeding may take a pinfish out of defense, rather than hunger.

As we headed up the Caloosahatchee River, Smith pointed to a royal poinciana tree in full bloom. According to local lore, its bright red flowers meant that

it was the time for snook to be here.

We continued several miles upriver. But unfortunately, what makes the Caloosahatchee appealing to snook in the cooler months was not what we needed on this very warm day. The Florida Power and Light plant was generating electricity, and the warm flow out of its cooling vents was heating the water ó to the point that the baitfish began to wilt in our aerated livewell.

We turned back to head to the sound, but just downriver of the Seminole Gulf Railroad trestle at Beautiful Island, we stopped and tossed our lines.

The snook were there. We caught a couple in the 25-inch range and lost a couple ó hence that lesson about "babying" them. We also boated and released a good-sized jack crevalle and a 3-foot gar!

THE PASSES
When the water temperatures begin to warm to a steady 74 to 75 degrees, snook move to the beaches and into the passes.

Fishing a pass generally requires heavier gear, due to the faster currents and bigger fish in these locations.

Capt. Smith recommended spooling with at least 15- to 20-pound braided line and a 40-pound fluorocarbon leader. Snook always prefer a moving tide, and with the water bottlenecking through the passes, the current can get pretty swift.

A favorite location is Redfish Pass, between Captiva and North Captiva islands. On the south side of the pass is a rock jetty. Snook like to lie in the cover of the sunken rocks, waiting for baitfish to come by. Capt. Mike drifts through the pass, drifting along the bottom a pinfish hooked through the nose. In this situation, he prefers the pinfish hooked up front. With the heavier current, the pinfish is more apt to stay down near the bottom.

Other baitfish or even cut baits also work. But in the deeper water and stronger current, a pinfish appears more natural to the predator.

Capt. Smith's technique is to drift through the pass, run back upcurrent and get in line for anther float. Once word gets out that snook are feeding there, it's rare for his to be the only boat targeting this pass.

Any moving tide will do, but Capt. Smith and most other anglers prefer drifting the outgoing phase at Redfish and the other passes connecting Pine Island Sound to the Gulf.

Artificial lures such as a broken-back Bomber in red and white can be used, but according to Capt. Smith, an "old secret" is to drift a 1/4- to 1/2-ounce bucktail jig tipped with a pinfish, bouncing it along the bottom.

THE BEACHES
Snook also frequent the beaches.

During spring and summer months, you can see the fish cruising along the sandy shores of Sanibel and Captiva. On either of these places, but particularly on Sanibel, targeting snook very early in the morning can be productive and easiest. You want to get out there before sunbathers and "shellers" arrive.

Cast a live shrimp parallel to the shore. The snook will stay in close to the beach, not farther out in the surf.

On the beach, you can also use artificial lures.

Capt. Smith suggested Zara Spooks and especially recommended a Mirr-Olure 19MR in any color.

The sand is also an excellent place to cast a fly rod. A 7-weight rod will do, and a 9-weight is not too much for handling a snook. It also helps when casting larger flies into a stiff wind. Smith also suggested throwing Puglisi- or Deceiver-style flies in teal or olive colors with lots of flash.

In fact, also taking your fly gear into mangrove backcountry is also ideal. The narrow mangrove-lined creeks afford extra protection from the wind, making them good targets, regardless of the wind direction.

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