West Coast Snook Action

West Coast Snook Action

The mid portion of the west coast has come on strong in recent years for snook. Here's a look at the fishing you'll find there this month! (September 2009)

Snook are probably the most sought and least caught of Florida's game fish. Everybody wants to tangle with Centropomis undecimalis, but it ain't all that easy; snook are among the most "moody" of fish, What pleases them today sends them fleeing tomorrow, and some days, nothing at all seems to tempt their appetites.

This 39-inch snook fell for a swimbait on an overcast fall day near Bradenton.
Photo by Frank Sargeant.

Fortunately, anglers who understand snook habits and habitat have a lot more opportunities to test their skills against the linesider than a few years back. Thanks to ever-tighter fishery regulations, Florida probably now has more snook than at any time in the past 25 years, and there are also more fish over 30 inches long than there have been in many decades.

On Tampa Bay, among other hotspots, because of a combination of improved management and a remarkable increase in water quality that began in 1984, state biologists say snook numbers are at a modern high, and continuing to increase. Cities around the bay began cleaning up their sewage outfalls in that year, and each summer, the water got clearer. Soon, sea grasses began to grow back across the flats where up to 80 percent of the bottom vegetation had disappeared due to pollution. Dozens of restoration projects around the bay in more recent years have created hundreds of acres of new estuarine habitat that's ideal for snook fingerlings to grow up in.

On Florida's West Coast, snook are now managed by a slot limit that's a scant 5 inches wide, only fish between 28 and 33 inches total length may be taken. That means there are tons of "too small" 4- and 5-pounders out there ready to test your tackle, and an uncommon number of true torpedoes. Fish over 40 inches long used to make major headlines in the fishing magazines, but these days they're not all that rare.

Most snooking experts catch two or three over that mark every summer. It seems not at all unlikely that the longstanding world record for the common snook of 54 pounds, 2 ounces could be broken at any moment, But it would take some doing, since the fish would have to be weighed immediately on a certified scales when and where it was caught and then released.

But, regardless, the big ones are getting bigger every year, and snook are known to live up to 19 years, according to Ron Taylor, Florida's longtime lead snook researcher at the Florida Wildlife Research Institute in St. Petersburg. So, it's not at all unlikely that there are a number of these huge old females -- all large snook are females -- cruising the waters of both of Florida's coasts these days.

It was not that way 30 years ago. Once people learned that a skinned snook was anything but the fabled "soapfish," the demand for snook on the table went ballistic and every legal snook went in the icebox. With the first size limit (circa 1970) at just 18 inches, most snook never reached spawning age before they were cozying up to some grits and hushpuppies.

One other factor that appears to be in the snook's favor is a series of warm winters stretching back some 14 years. In some years before that, snook at the northern end of their range (roughly up to New Port Richey on the West Coast and to Daytona Beach on the East Coast) often died by the thousands on winter cold fronts. The species can tolerate temperatures no lower than the mid-50s. On Tampa Bay alone, one terrible freeze in 1989 caused a kill that biologist Ron Taylor estimated to be in excess of 10,000 fish. Dead snook hung from the mangroves like big silver Christmas ornaments for weeks afterward.

The succession of years without a killing freeze has now allowed thousands of snook to survive to spawning size, and they are also expanding their range northward. Until this last winter, which was cooler than usual, catchable numbers of snook were being found at least as far north as Homosassa, close to 80 miles beyond their historical range.

How To Catch Them
How do you catch them? That's the $65 question because even the experts get bamboozled at times. But in general, if you fish good snook habitat anytime between April and October with live sardines, both on the hook and as live chum, you've almost got a lock on it.

Here's how it works. You prowl grassy areas with water 2 to 4 feet deep on the outside edge of the flats and chum with bits of whole wheat bread, sardines packed in oil and canned jack mackerel made into a smelly paste. A few handfuls of this stuff in the right place will quickly have hundreds of baitfish flashing behind the boat. You now toss a cast net over them, haul them aboard and quickly dump them into a big, flow-through livewell that can keep them happy until the snook make them sad.

Where The Fish Are
Now you find a likely spot. April through early June, and again from mid-September through October, some of the best are potholes and mangrove creeks, anywhere a good current flow makes feeding easy. They're particularly partial to holes around the points of mangrove islands, where an eddy often forms on the down current side. Run-outs or sloughs through the outside bar on any flat are also highly productive. This is all typically water 2 to 4 feet deep.

In these areas, you can often catch fish by simply hooking up a sardine through the nose on a size 1/0 short shank live bait hook attached to 18 inches of 25-pound-test monofilament leader, pitching it to the hole and letting the current sweep it through. No bite? You reel in and do it over again, slightly to one side or the other, until your drifts have covered all the reachable spots.

But if the bite is slow -- and it often can be when snook are found in clear, calm water, or if they've been pressured -- you can usually make things happen by chumming with crippled sardines.

Basically, you simply grab a handful of the silvery baitfish, squeeze slightly, and fling them toward the spot you expect the fish to be. As they whirl and flash on the surface, any snook around gets the message, as will any nearby trout or redfish. Another nice thing about this live chum is that, if it doesn't get intercepted, it continues to prospect for you as it drifts hundreds of yards downcurrent. If you keep your eyes and ears open, you may see or hear strikes well outside of what you expect to be the hotspot, and can quietly move to put your bait in that kill zone.

Many guides who chum every day use a "chum bat" to extend their range. This is basically a hollow plastic toy bat, out of which they cut the end. Fill it up with shiners, give it a mighty swing stopping at about the 11 o'clock positi

on, and the shiners go sailing out there to snookland. For those of us over 40, it's a blessing on the shoulder joints.

If you choose not to fish live baits, then snook take a wide assortment of artificial lures. Some of the best include the MirrOdine, a slow-sinking sardine imitation; the DOA Shrimp, which is a plastic shrimp that's fished just like the real thing; and the Tsunami Swimbait. I especially like the 4-inch split tail for fish in the 5- to 10-pound range, but sometimes throw a 6-incher where I expect larger fish.

In shallow, grassy areas, a 5-inch jerkbait rigged weedless is also effective, and if you encounter a hot bite in relatively shallow water, you'll experience snooking at its finest if you throw a big topwater like the Top Dog and work it back fast with the classic zigzag known as "walking the dog."

With all treble-hook lures, it's best to reduce the barbs by flattening them slightly with pliers; this makes it much easier to release fish unharmed.

During the heart of the summer, snook are spawning, which is why the season is closed from May through August on the West Coast. But you can still enjoy exercising them briefly, and some of the largest fish of the year are landed during this period.

Spawning areas include large sloughs leading into major bays, as well as nearly all the passes between the barrier islands along the West Coast from Anclote Key all the way into the Everglades. The fish often stack up around piers, bridges, side sloughs or riprap breakwaters in the larger passes, while in the smaller flows they may be out in the deepest part of the flow.

Heavy jigs bounced on bottom are sometimes the ticket for spawning fish, and plastic shrimp and baitfish imitations from DOA and others are also highly effective for this venue. Of course, you can't beat a live sardine or pinfish, weighted and drifted near bottom.

Spawning fish are typically most abundant around the new and full moons when tide flows are strongest. In the interim periods, the fish still are in or near the passes, but perhaps not actively spawning. They'll be cruising the beach, and this bite often lasts all the way through September. You can often do well at these times by walking the beaches close to the cuts and sight-fishing. It's not uncommon to see a 3-footer cruising along just a couple feet off dry sand.

In this situation, the snook may hit just about anything you put in front of them, so long as you stay well back and make long casts. The best trick is to toss a plastic shrimp or jig well ahead of the fish, let it swim up to within 10 feet or so, and then give the bait a couple of short hops. You can score this way with a topwater lure as well, letting it float still until the fish is close enough to see it, and then activating it like a fleeing baitfish.

And, once again, live baitfish work well. Some anglers add a small foam cork about 2 feet up the leader so they can keep track of where the bait swims relative to the fish.

When water chills down starting in early November, snook head for winter refuges to keep warm. They travel far up coastal rivers or settle into deep residential canals and ship-turning basins where water temperature is likely to remain fairly constant. At this time of year, finding snook is mostly a matter of tossing jigs or live shrimp around docks, sea walls or riprap, and fishing them slowly.

There are winter closed seasons for harvesting snook on both coasts. These closures are aimed at protecting cold-stunned fish from being scooped up in dip nets, as they were years ago during tough winters.

Snook Tackle
For most situations, a medium-action graphite spinning rod 6 1/2 to 7 feet long, matched with a 2500-size reel and loaded with 10- to 15-pound-test microfiber line will do the job on snook. Note that the no-stretch microfiber lines are rated much lighter than their actual strength. In many brands, 10-pound has the strength of 20, so if you opt for mono line instead, choose a heavier test. That's usually not a good plan, but some of us have to be convinced.

As mentioned above, you need a length of hard mono or fluorocarbon leader to prevent cutoffs on the rough mouths and sharp gill plates of these fish -- 25-pound-test is about right for most fishing, but up to 40 in the deep passes or where you expect fish over 10 pounds.

A stout 6-foot baitcasting rod and a reel loaded with 60-pound microfiber is not too much for the biggest fish in tough situations, such as in the mangrove creeks and snaggy oyster bars of the Everglades. I like the stouter tackle in deep passes when fishing live bait, too. It gives you more authority to shorten the fight and thus release the fish in better condition.

The typical fight with a sizeable snook includes a jolting strike, followed by a jump, though the largest ones just wallow, and then a blazing run when the fish feels the barb. This run is likely to be into open water.

Then, as you start pumping the fish back, it truly panics and you'll experience the species' uncanny ability to head for the nearest cover, even if that cover is hundreds of feet away. They make a freight train run that is very difficult to stop. Most snook are lost at this point because they make it into the mangroves, around a dock piling or across an oyster bar and cut the line. It's here that you have to thumb the spool and do your best to stop the fish before it gets to the refuge -- otherwise, it's goodbye snook and goodbye lure.

A Few Hotspots
Some good areas for summer and fall snooking are Anclote Key, reachable only by boat, near Tarpon Springs; Honeymoon Island, where you can catch them from the beach, near Dunedin; Pinellas Point, which has lots of docks, around the south end of St. Petersburg; the South Shore on Tampa Bay's east side near Ruskin; the Manatee River and flats near Bradenton; North Sarasota Bay near Sarasota; Bull Bay and Turtle Bay, both on the north side of Charlotte Harbor; Pine Island Sound near Fort Myers; or all the rivers and adjoining flats south and east of Marco Island.

Snook Regulations
The statewide bag limit is one fish per day. Anglers must have a snook stamp in addition to a saltwater license to possess snook.

On the West Coast, the closed seasons are May through August and December through February. The slot limit is 28 to 33 inches.

On the Atlantic Coast, the closed seasons are June through August and Dec. 15 through January. The slot limit is 28 to 32 inches.

For details on snook harvest rules, visit www.myfwc.com.

Contacts
Most guides on Florida's West Coast from Tarpon Springs southward target snook regularly. You can find a complete list at www.florida-guides.com.

The Snook Foundation is a non-profit group dedicated to preserving and increasing snook populations, and it also sends out an informative newsletter on the species. Check them out at www.snookfoundation.org.

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