July 15, 2011
Every time I go beach snooking, I am reminded of the time that Ted Turner ran his America's Cup yacht aground by sailing too close to the beach to check out the bikini patrol.
Sure, there's some scenery that's hard not to look at — but if you're a real snook fisherman, you bear down and pay attention to the fish. That's well worth doing from late spring through early fall, because there's nowhere you find more or bigger linesiders than a few feet from all those happy sun worshipers.
Snook stack up in the deep passes beginning around the full moon in May most years, drawn there to spawn, and the fish move in and out on the moon phases through September. The passes occur at the mouths of all large bays and rivers, as well as at various "hurricane cuts" through the barrier islands that line much of both coasts of peninsular Florida.
But where are they during the periods when they're not spawning? Most travel out along the beaches adjacent to the passes, where they offer some unique shallow-water opportunities.
The best news is that these are not the 20-inch backcountry snook you usually catch around the mangrove edges on the inside. They're often mega-fish, a yard long and bigger. If you want a bragging-size snook of 20 pounds or more, the beach is the place to look.
Capt. Mike Holliday, noted outdoors writer, editor and fishing guide in the Stuart area on Florida's east coast, is a master at the tricks of Florida snook fishing from a beach.
"A lot of times these fish are working right down the very edge where the sand is exposed with every receding wave," said Holliday. "Most people wade right past where the fish are and cast away from them."
In fact, one of Holiday's favorite tactics, when seas are calm, is to take a flats skiff out along the beach and ease along in water just deep enough to operate the trolling motor while he keeps a sharp eye on the edge of the sand for cruising snook. When he spots a target, he fires a plastic shrimp ahead of them, twitches it seaward as the next wave rolls in, and often gets a hookup.
I've had good success with the same tactic on the state's west coast from Anclote Key southward all the way to Marco. Anywhere there's a sizeable pass you can expect fish to prowl out along the edge for a mile or more on either side throughout the summer.
The action is usually best at dawn, when there have been no swimmers in the water for hours. On the west coast, the fact that the sun is over your should as you walk along the beach in the morning is also an advantage. It makes it much easier to see the snook. Some fish also move into the slough at sundown, but these are harder to see due to the light being in your eyes. If you can get out in a boat and fish back toward the beach, which is only possible when seas are calm, you do better with sundown fish.
On the Atlantic Coast, of course, the situation is reversed. It's best to get into a boat for dawn fish, and to walk the beach at dusk.
Although snook are a pale gray-green on the back and silver on the sides, they sometimes look almost black when they show up over the white sand along the beach. At other times, when the light is just right, they become almost invisible as their silver sides reflect the surrounding colors of water and sand. One thing there's no mistaking is the abrupt "pop" that's heard as one smashes a baitfish along the edge of the surf. Here, as in all sight fishing, a set of quality, polarized sunglasses is a must to allow you to see beneath the surface.
Surf conditions make all the difference in this type of fishing. In fact, if there's enough wave action to make the surf murky, you might as well forget it. Only when the seas are breaking gently and the water is clear do you get the visibility needed for finding snook along the sand visually. Fortunately these conditions are the norm along the west coast during spring and summer, barring tropical storms. On the east coast, the surf is always more vigorous, but many mornings allow for good fishing.
Capt. John Griffith of Tampa, along with friends John and Chris Romeil, is an old hand at fishing the west coast beaches for big snook. His favorite tactic is to net live sardines on grass flats inside the passes, then carry the flashy minnows to the beach where he free-lines them in front of the lunker snook. It's pretty much an automatic if you put one of these in front of a linesider. They often turn down lures, but rarely live bait.
On the west coast of Florida, some of the prime areas include the shoreline of Anclote Key, an island near New Port Richey. Just to the south, Honeymoon Island is another great area, but it's a state park and requires a long walk to the north end to the prime fishing Your other options is to go by boat out of ramps in nearby Dunedin. Nearby Caladesi Island State Park is another excellent area. A kayak can do the job in getting you to prime beaches in all of these areas in calm weather.
The entire west and south beaches of Fort DeSoto Park, on the north side of the mouth of Tampa Bay, are excellent all summer. It's easy to access all beaches on foot here. Egmont Key, between the two major passes that feed Tampa Bay, is also good early in the morning. Later in the day it's jammed with anchored partying boaters. And on the south side, the beach of Anna Maria Island is often good, from back inside to the public fishing piers all the way out to Bean Point. Access is through bridges and causeways out of Bradenton.
The beaches around Longboat Pass, New Pass and Sarasota Pass moving southward are all productive, as are those near Venice Inlet and Stump Pass, where a state park allows easy access. Boca Grande Pass, famed for tarpon, is also snook central. Fish the groins along the beach on the main island here for plenty of action.
The islands south of Boca Grande are also outstanding; Cayo Costa and North Captiva are reachable only by boat, while you can drive to the fishing at Captiva and Sanibel. Look for blow downs or other structure in the water to concentrate the fish in these areas.
Farther south, Carl Johnson City Park south of Fort Myers Beach can be good, as is Delnor Wiggins State Recreation Area north of Naples. The beaches at Marco Island are good on both the north and south ends, and Cape Romano, an undeveloped island to the south, is a famed snook beach accessible only by boat.
Many of the outside islands south and east into the Everglades are also great, but this is challenging navigation and also serious mosquito and no-see-um country in summer. Suffice it to say the bugs used to suffocate cattle in this area and you get some idea of how bad they can be. It is best to hire a guide on your first visit or two and, of course, carry a gallon or so of high-DEET insect repellant.
Pretty much the entire east coast of Florida from Cape Canaveral southward holds snook in summer, but the best of the best locations are the waters around St. Lucy Inlet near Stuart; at Jupiter Inlet just south of St. Lucy; and at Palm Beach Inlet further south yet. There are numerous rocky outcroppings along the beaches here, and anywhere you see these rocks, there are likely to be snook hanging around the beaches. There are parks at each of the inlets providing public access, and once you get on the beach itself, you can walk for miles, even though the upland areas are privately owned. Bathtub Beach Park, north of St. Lucy, is one of my favorites. From here you can walk all the way down to the point and around the corner to the east, all of which fringes excellent snook water. St. Lucie Inlet State Park on the south side also provides miles of public access, but a much longer walk to the inlet.
The summer fishery is very good throughout the southeast coast area, and then in mid-October, there's a bonus. As the mullet run pours south ahead of chilly weather, snook but tarpon, sharks and even king mackerel swarm in against the beaches to feed on them. It's a matter of working along the beaches looking for leaping mullet and diving birds. You can catch a few of the baitfish with a weighted treble hook, then put them back out into the breaking fish on a 5/0 extra-strong hook and hang on tight. You may hook up with anything from a 20-pound snook to a 100-pound tarpon.
Though it takes really stout gear to horse big snook away from dock pilings and mangrove roots, things are generally not so demanding for beach fish. The ideal rig is a medium baitcaster, like the Ambassadeur 6000, or a spinning reel in the 2500-size. For baitcasters, quality mono of about 15 to 20 pounds does the job, while for the spinning rigs 15-pound microfiber such as PowerPro is ideal. Just make sure the reel has a smooth drag, and set it at about 1/3 the break strength of the line. When a big snook takes off, let her go. She typically stops within a hundred feet or so. Trying to clamp down on the fish results in pulled hooks, broken line, because they're extremely strong on the take off.
In either case, you want to add a leader of 18 inches of 25- to 30-pound-test hard mono or fluorocarbon. Tie this to your running line with a uni-knot. If you're using microfiber, it's a good idea to double the leader before tying the knot. Otherwise, it tends to cut the leader material.
Among the many good lures for snook is the DOA Shrimp, with the 4-inch size in clear or white among the best along the beach. I've also done well with Tsunami 4-inch split-tail swimbaits in recent years. Jerkbaits are also effective, as is the MirrOlure MirrOdine. Topwaters can do the job; those with a small lip that cause them to dart and flash are ideal, but make sure the hooks are adequate to handle large saltwater fish. Those designed for freshwater bass may fail.
FLORIDA SNOOK REGULATIONS
From now through Sept. 1, snook harvest is closed on both coasts, but catch-and-release is legal. However, the season may not open this year depending on a review of the stocks by the Florida Fish and Wildlife Commission. When and if things return to normal, here are the regulations. On the west coast the season is closed May 1 to Sept. 1 and Dec. 1 to Feb. 28. The minimum size is 28 inches, and maximum size 33 inches. The bag limit is one daily.
On the east coast the season closes June 1 to Sept. 1 and Dec. 15 to Jan. 31. The minimum size is 28 inches, with a maximum of 32 inches. Again, the bag limit is one daily.
If harvest reopens, a permit is required, in addition to the saltwater license, to possess snook.
THE COLD KILL
The winter months of 2010 had a devastating effect on snook populations statewide according to both fishery scientists and anglers. Ron Taylor, the state's lead snook biologist, said that about 30 percent of the fish died in some areas, with the impact worst on the West Coast.
"We have generally shallower water here, and a cold front cools that water to a lower temperature than on the east coast where the Florida Current keeps the water warm," Taylor said.
Researchers pulling haul seines in known snook areas reported the most significant drop in numbers in small fish, which apparently were less able to survive the cold than larger fish. The loss of the small fish may not have an immediate impact, but could result in less fishing success in future years. Snook take about four to five years to reach the minimum 28-inch legal size.
Captain Scott Moore, one of the state's best-known snook specialists, said that up to 70 percent of the fish are gone in some areas where he traditionally has found them.
"There are still pockets of good fishing, but you have to work at it a lot of days," said Moore.
The state had been reporting steady upward trends in both fish numbers and sizes since tight harvest regulations were put in place more than a decade ago, but the cold seems to have set things back a few years. And, the chilly January of this year probably did not help things.
Bottom line is that Florida snook fishing can be found this spring and summer, but the numbers won't be what they were two years back. Use debarbed hooks and handle the fish gently to assure that they survive to spawn and to fight again.