East Coast Snook Primer

Now's the time to target linesiders along our Atlantic coast. And here are the places and patterns that can provide you with some successful fishing trips! (September 2007)

In September, the beaches from Port Canaveral to Fort Pierce are alive with snook feeding in the surf.
Photo by Rodney Smith.

A wave of mullet rode up and over the tossing lip of a 5-foot swell and crashed into the barnacle-covered rocks lining the base of Sebastian Inlet's north jetty. As the swell receded, mullet scattered though the white water, struggling to avoid a fury of snook driven into a feeding frenzy. Pelicans joined the action, dive-bombing injured mullet from above, while anglers from the beach tried to avoid being swept by waves as they cast their lines towards the action.

The first true northeaster of the fall season had arrived to the Indian River Lagoon coast. Sure, there had been a short span of breezes from that direction earlier in August. But they were only a mere hint of what was to come as autumn arrived in these parts.

By September, it becomes obvious that each day is growing shorter. The sun is sinking farther south, and the average day- and nighttime temperatures are declining. These changes help make fishing increasingly more comfortable, especially after a long, hot Florida summer.

September also marks the start of Florida's fall snook season. Serious and novice anglers from all corners of the Sunshine State are drawn to this annual event. These fisherfolk often prepare for days and even weeks, readying their tackle, lures and baits and getting set to fulfill their snook-filled dreams

Most of Florida's east coast snook have spent their last couple of months spawning in or near Atlantic Ocean inlets. They're now through with their procreation responsibilities. Winter is on its way, and with annual high water levels here, the fish are ready to feed. There's really no better time of year to target snook than now, when all the right factors start lining up.

Because of a complex combination of tropical rainfall, the rotation of the Earth's tilt, the lessening of the Gulf Stream's influence on coastal currents, plus the arrival of fall's easterly winds and swells, Florida's east coast experiences the beginning of its high-water season by early September.

The Indian River Lagoon estuary system and points north and south become full of water pushing up and over spartina shorelines, mangrove forests, oyster beds and barrier island flats, thus soaking areas that haven't seen water since the previous fall.

This drenching sprawl pulls baitfish out and away from the protection of cover and leaves them unprotected from the hungry linesiders' calculated attacks. Snook are known to use the advantage of high water to pursuit their food. They sit and wait at the edge of flowing water, watching until the next helpless baitfish gets pulled by. Then Pow!, they launch a quick, decisive attack to grab an easy meal.

By early fall, the annual run of mullet shows up on our east coast shores. Billions of these finger-sized baitfish arrive in steady flows along our beaches and lagoon shorelines.

Snook take full benefit of this migration, foraging on the schools of minnows as rough weather and seas push, pull and throw the mullet into a panic.

September is definitely the prized time of year when you are most likely to see a snook explode though the middle of a school of confused mullet trying to push though breaking waves along one of our coastal inlets, leaving the school of bait in disarray. Seeing this type of action gives an angler the extra edge needed to bag one of these feeding fish.

Many fishermen ascribe to the theory that if you can see a fish feeding, all you have to do is toss a bait in front of it. With snook, however, this can be a difficult task at times. Probably because snook have such keen senses, they almost seem to be smart. In fact, their ability to refuse an angler's well-presented bait, lure or jig under what seem to be perfect conditions only adds to their allure as a very sought-after game fish.

Their feeding habit -- to hold in areas outside the strong flow of water, waiting and watching with their sharp vision to ambush that one injured or unaware baitfish -- often gives them the unfair advantage.

Snook can be picky eaters. I can't tell you how many times I've seen them attack jumbo shrimp or finger mullet one day, and then watch them change their tastes the next day. Under what seem to be very similar conditions, the snook then target something completely different, like pinfish, pigfish or croakers.

Figuring out why snook pull these types of tricks is not only challenging, but very rewarding -- if you can come up with an answer.

Mojarra -- also known as goatfish or sand perch -- are like candy to snook at times, and at many of the ocean inlets south of Cape Canaveral, those baitfish are usually abundant from early summer right on though September. You can often catch them with a small cast net in spots where sand and rocks meet near a flow of water. At Sebastian Inlet State Park, the cove to the northwest of the inlet and the rocks lining the southwest shore of the park are good areas to start your search to net some of these palm-sized, bright silver fish.

Another couple of excellent baitfish species you can catch and then use to entice snook are pinfish and pigfish. These fish can be caught in the Indian River Lagoon to the west of the ocean inlets. Use a small hook and pieces of cut shrimp or squid for bait. I usually fish an outgoing tide over 2- to 3-foot deep grassflats for these prized baitfish.

At times, placing a bag of menhaden chum behind the boat enhances the chances of luring baitfish to your hook. Some anglers use small wire fish traps to take pinfish and pigfish from these same areas, baiting those traps with small pieces of shrimp, clams or crabs.

The vast majority of the time, snook demand fresh, lively baits. If you're serious about catching some linesiders, you'll need a livewell full of a wide assortment of bait before you start fishing.

Croakers are one of those baits that snook can hardly turn down, but croakers can be difficult to locate. They are also fragile and don't stay alive on the hook for long.

Pilchards, menhaden and threadfin herring are also highly recommended snook baits that can be caught along most of Florida's east coast.

There are other ways to land a snook

besides going with live bait. One of the more popular methods is using a bucktail or synthetic hair jig.

Why are snook considered such great game fish? There are several reasons. These fish have earned the reputation of being hard fighters that usually make an immediate strong run with blazing speed. After the hookset, in fact, they may run at you or away from you!

Snook jump and at times, jump often. They live in tough-to-reach places, and can be very difficult to boat when hooked around docks or under mangrove limbs.

The characteristics of these fish lead some anglers to attribute personality traits to them. They're described as "moody," "smart" and "fussy eaters." Snook are sometimes quick to pick up a bait and eat it, but just as likely to refuse a perfect presentation under perfect conditions.

This certainly adds to the image they've earned as a highly sought-after trophy.

One way to cut the time and effort it'll take to discover the pleasures of hooking and landing a trophy snook is paying close attention to what triggers a snook feeding frenzy.

An approaching strong, early-season cold front; high and moving water; fresh northeast or southwest winds; a barometer reading between 30.00 and 30.10; the three or four days before and after a new or full moon; or a quick warming up of water temperatures on the heels of a southeast wind flow -- these are all factors that stimulate a snook bite.

But in my opinion, it takes a combination of at least two or three of these elements happening at once to create a true snook feeding frenzy, a type of feeding we see only a few times each fall. Then, schools of snook are literally jumping out of the water, grabbing any bait within reach.

After spending a lifetime paying homage to snook, I can honestly tell you that Florida's east-coast snook fishery is the best I've ever seen, hands down. September and October is a time of year when you can catch linesides from so many different habitats. For instance, you can target snook year 'round in the central and north Indian River Lagoon.

In much of this area, it can be very difficult to locate the fish when water temperatures push to and below 68 degrees. But by late summer, so many snook are hanging under docks, mangrove points and bridges in these areas, you'd think they had invaded from some other salty planet. In the fall, they're everywhere -- as long as the water temperatures stay warm.

One way to catch trophy snook is to learn the art of jig casting. From Jensen Beach and St. Lucie Inlet to Fort Pierce and Sebastian Inlet, you can find a loyal gang of anglers who don't use anything but bucktails or synthetic jigs to catch snook.

Usually these anglers are using a medium-heavy 8-foot spinning rod with a reel that can hold a few hundred yards of either 20-pound monofilament or braided line. Most of these snookers fishing from shore try to reach the outer edge of the inlet's cut channels with a 1 1/2-ounce jig. This way, they can fish the channel's ledges where the larger snook hold, out of the inlet's moving water, while preying on passing baitfish being pulled by the current. The majority of this fishing is done at night and is a very effective method for catching snook from shore.

Other anglers use a boat to drift the inlet's channel as they free-line live baits like croakers, threadfin herring, mullet and pin- or pigfish. While drifting these baits, it's not unusual for these boaters to encounter large redfish, jack crevalle, ladyfish and tarpon. Many anglers seem to prefer drifting though these areas during an outgoing tide. But I've found that high tide also can be productive for this type of angling, especially near the tide changes.

The current can really get running fast inside these ocean inlets, especially as you get closer to the Atlantic. Fishing from a boat under these conditions can be quite a challenge. And considering that most snook fishing is done under the cover of darkness, you need to be particularly careful and use common sense while fishing from a boat in these waters. This type of fishing certainly isn't for the inexperienced.

Other anglers spend their snook-fishing time on the beaches during the fall mullet run. All that's needed for this is rods and reels, beach chairs and a bucket full of fresh, lively finger mullet. This is a more laid-back style of fishing, but still a very productive method of targeting snook, especially between August and November. The beaches from Port Canaveral to Fort Pierce provide great access for these surf anglers.

The edge of sandbars and outflows from the beach are areas where you should start fishing during mid-tides. But when the water is high around sunset or sunrise, pay close attention to right along the edges where sand and surf meet. This is where snook hang close to shore, to feed on baitfish being disoriented by the pounding waves.

Over the years, the Jensen Beach and Stuart areas have earned a reputation for being the home of world-class snook fishing. From what I've seen, the St. Lucie Inlet is probably the epicenter of this special fishery.

While fishing this area -- either in the inlet or from the beaches -- my favor lures to use are a 4-inch glow-in-the-dark DOA Shrimp or a DOA root-beer-colored Cal jig.

On either incoming or outgoing tides, you can effectively sight-cast to snook along the edges of the channel, docks or the rocky shore of the inlet's north side using medium tackle with these lures. For snook anglers, there's no better thrill than watching a 20-pounder attack their DOA Shrimp.

I've had the pleasure of snook fishing with a handful of very good local guides, including Captains Mark Nichols, Pat Price, Robby Archer, Craig Snyder, Chris Magurie and Duber Winters, along the shores of Martin County's south Indian River Lagoon.

From them, I've learned a load of useful information. But the one most interesting thing, I think, is that in this area, snook fishing is a way of life. These students of the sport have proven that you can catch snook on any day of the year from these waters.

Jupiter Inlet has also earned some notoriety for its excellent snook fishing. My friend, Capt. Mike Peppe, is a hard-core snook angler and guide who fishes the Sebastian Inlet area. He loves to travel down to Jupiter Inlet and target lighted docks right after dark, during an outgoing tide.

Capt. Peppe prefers throwing a small white fly that probably looks most like an immature pilchard or bay anchovy. Fly-fishing these docks isn't a task for the faint-hearted.

These fish strike with terrific speed and strength, and before you realize it, a good-size snook can get away by pulling the line under a barnacle-covered pilling or boat. Even the best of anglers get this type of treatment when dock-fishing for snook.

Along th

e nearly 100-mile span from Ponce Inlet at the northern end of the Mosquito Lagoon to the Indian River's Sebastian Inlet, this dock- fishing hits a peak in late summer or early fall.

In this region, a growing number of serious snook anglers are fishing docks with plastic baits too. One of my favorite plastic lures is made by Bass Assassin. They offer a line of scented baits that are very effective for this type of fishing because they can be rigged weedless on a 5/0 circle hook. The incorporated natural scent isn't released until the bait hits the water.

There are three things that attract snook: sight, sound and smell. The Bass Assassin Saltwater Shad or Sea Shad have their scent built in and come in three colors -- Good Penny, Pearl or Electric Chicken -- to satisfy the first requirement. When using these baits, I usually add a Woody's Rattle to add the second important fish-attracting element.

Many of the snook caught in these central lagoon areas are either under or over the legal slot size limit of 27 to 34 inches, so these fish should be released quickly. A Dehooker, an incredible device made by the Aquatic Release Conservation Company, is the best tool I've found for a fast and safe release.

September is an outstanding time of year to fish snook, and Florida's east-coast fishery is a very special resource that provides plenty of world-class snook action. It's a treasure worth exploring this year.

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