September 30, 2010
Snook are abundant, exciting to catch and very popular with anglers in South Florida. Here's your primer for catching these battlers in the region this year.
Wade Osborne shows off a snook he took while wade-fishing in Tampa Bay. Photo by Capt. Rodney Smith.
Of all the species we fish for here in Florida, snook is one of the favorites. These fish are only found in the American tropics and subtropics. Six species of snook live throughout portions of the Atlantic Ocean, Gulf of Mexico and Caribbean Sea. In the Pacific Ocean, six different species are found from Mexico south past Panama. All snook species sport the same dominant features: a single body-length black pinstripe; an extended bottom hooked jaw; razor-sharp gill plate covers; and a shallow v-tail.
There may be smarter fish swimming in our inshore waters, but none is more respected than the snook. At our home, we believe there are few better-tasting or harder-fighting fish to be caught. The average snook angler probably spends 10 times more energy and time pursuing a keeper-sized snook to place on the dinner table than he does chasing most other Florida game fish.
There was a time well before Disney and professional football came to Florida when anglers did not consider snook the prized game fish that it is today. Back then, there were no bag or size limits on snook.
A story recalls one old-timer standing on Fort Myers Beach fishing all night catching and piling snook on top of each other until they were stacked chest-high beside him. Back in those days, these fish were referred to as “soap fish” because when cooked with their skins on they had a soapy taste. In fact, they do have a soapy slime you can see on them after they are dead for a couple hours. At the time, snook were considered no more than a trash fish. Once folks discovered that removing their skin before cooking improved the taste of the filets, things changed completely. Snook quickly became the fish to eat.
Back in the 1960s, regulations were needed partly because of increased angling pressure and the snook population’s sensitivity to cold weather and water temperatures. To give you an example of how well regarded snook have been through Florida’s history, back when you could keep 50 redfish per day per angler, snook were protected with a strict four-fish limit.
The difference between Florida west coast and east coast snook populations is not easily detected. But the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission has found enough differences to regulate these two fisheries separately.
Today anglers are allowed only one snook per person on the Gulf coast, while east coasters can keep two per day. Also the spring snook season closes May 1 along the west coast, a month earlier than on the eastern shore.
When we were boys growing up in Florida, we tried to learn the details of snook fishing from experienced anglers fishing around bridges and piers, from Indian Rocks Beach Pier to Clearwater’s Big Pier 60. Back in those days, there was no closed season for snook, but honestly it was rare for us to ever see anyone catch more than one or two of these gamesters from the Gulf beach areas we fished.
As we grew older, Florida’s closed seasons better protected spawning snook, and this quickly began to have a compounding positive effect on their populations. Soon it was not such a rarity to catch increasing numbers of snook on both coasts of Florida.
Snook are very sensitive to cold water and prefer the water temperature to be above 70 degrees. These fish have a difficult time surviving in water temperatures below 60 degrees for any extended period of time. However, it seems each year coastal populations of snook are migrating farther north along both coasts of the Sunshine State. This is usually reversed in years when a couple of arctic blasts freeze Florida.
During warm winters, snook can be taken as far north as Amelia Island just below the Georgia/Florida border, but during hard freezes they can sometimes be found floating stunned in the northern Everglades. Year to year under normal conditions, you can expect to find decent numbers of snook living from just north of the Tampa Bay area along the west coast south and around the Florida Keys, then north to the far reaches of the Indian River Lagoon’s Ponce De Leon Inlet at New Smyrna Beach.
TACKLE AND TACTICS
The techniques, tackle and tactics used to pursue snook vary nearly as much as the productive areas in which one can find these gamesters. There is no better way to judge this diversity than talking with some veteran Florida snook anglers.
David and Tommy Williams have been pursuing snook since they were young boys fishing with their doctor dad in Tampa Bay. Dr. Williams was a veterinarian in the Bay area and spent lots of time outdoors with his family. Like many area anglers, the Williams crew spent weekends fishing the Cockroach Bay area along Tampa Bay’s southeast side.
The family used cast nets to catch “white bait” (pilchers) on the bay’s shallow flats and then focused their attention on fishing the cuts that fed through sandbars to the open bay or over potholes scattered over the flats. They had their best success during strong outgoing tides each spring and fall. Very little has changed regarding fishing this area today for snook.
Bruce Tuttle fishes pretty darn near the same area, but strictly with artificial baits. On a couple of sticky summer mornings last year, Bruce showed me and my youngest son, Jacob, just how entertaining snook fishing can be as we canoed this part of Tampa Bay. Casting 3- to 4-inch gold and root-beer-colored plastic DOA Shrimp and loud topwater plugs along mangrove shorelines and points in Bishop Harbor, we experienced excellent snook action while not seeing any other anglers. One trick we used with these lures was to bend down the barbs on their treble hooks. It makes it much easier to release the many undersized snook we encountered.
These same tactics and lures proved equally successful while we were fishing along the Port St. Lucie Inlet at the southern end of the Indian River. On that day I was fishing with Capt. Rick De Paiva.
Jigging along backcountry shorelines after heavy rainfalls is another productive way to catch snook — sometimes by accident. While fishing the edge of a shoreline
packed with dense red mangroves for redfish and trout on the backwaters of the Banana River Lagoon’s 1000 Islands in Cocoa Beach, I had such an experience last year. It was Aug. 30, the day before snook season opened, when a keeper-sized fish slammed a 4-inch glow-in-the-dark Rip Tide Shrimp rigged on a 1/4-ounce red Cotee jighead. The fish not only jumped a few times, but it did everything possible to get to the mangrove’s barnacle- covered roots. Keeping the rod tip down and away from the over-hanging limbs, the snook made several blazing runs before tiring and swimming towards the boat. Once in, it was revived to swim away.
A light to medium spinning rod and reel spooled with mono or braided line is all that is needed for snook fishing. On one hand, I prefer the braided line because of its extra strength and sensitivity to strikes. That is because it has less stretch in the line.
On the other hand, mono does not seem to tangle as often as braided line and is much easier to untangle while on the water.
Many snook anglers swear by using live shrimp for bait. They are excellent baits and catch snook in varying circumstances. I once followed this line of thinking, but over the last decade or so have found that artificial shrimp have a few distinct advantages over the real thing. First and foremost, they are convenient. It cannot be any easier than reaching into your tackle box or pocket to grab a pre-rigged plastic shrimp. Another advantage of the imitations is that you can cover more area in less time by casting and continuously retrieving an artificial shrimp.
Capt. Mike Peppe does a load of charters in the Sebastian Inlet area for snook each year, and he does not use live bait. He recommends his clients cast DOA glow-in-the-dark shrimp to mangrove shorelines, docks and other structure. Why? Because they catch more fish this way. For Capt. Peppe, it is the simplicity of these baits that clinches the deal.
“It’s a no-brainier,” he noted. “They just cast it out and slowly retrieve it.”
Over the years, I have found one of the most simple and effective methods to catch large snook from ocean inlets along Florida’s east coast is one of the least used. This is trolling large diving plugs in the current from a stationary position. This type of fishing can be successfully performed from the shore, a jetty or a bridge, or even from the back of a boat.
There are many different lures that work well for this technique, and there are just as many that do not. I prefer using a long jerkbait. What is important is that the lure you use must be able to maintain its position in a fast current without pulling to the surface or tangling.
For this type of action, first find a “snooky” spot where you can feed your plug into a current without imposing on other anglers’ lines. By using this method, you should be able to get your plug to areas that you are not able to reach by casting. From Sebastian’s north and south jetties, you can let a plug run out with the tide into the ocean at the inlet’s mouth. That is where snook stage to feed on baitfish pulled out by the current. This technique has helped my clients catch several snook weighing more 25 pounds.
Such fish are typically harder to land in a swift current. When fishing this way, you should use a heavier outfit spooled with at least 200 to 300 yards of 20-pound-test line.
WHERE TO FIND THEM?
Snook are sensitive to the elements. Paying close attention to tides, moon phases and barometric pressure can help your success rate. During cold weather, snook move to areas with warmer water. Rivers and deep creeks featuring freshwater run-off or springs that seep water from the earth at a comfortable 72 degrees often attract snook. Deep-water canals and port facilities can also offer an insulated blanket for these fish. Slower to cool, snook can use these manmade holes to stay away from the rapid cooling of the shallower waters.
Florida Power Company electric generation plants and their extremely warm warmwater discharges often provide an area of refuge for winter snook lucky enough to find them.
A snook’s metabolism slows during the winter months. Already lazy by nature — at least until hooked — and with the lower metabolism, snook are not likely to chase a frisky live bait or a lure on a fast retrieve. It is best to slow your fishing down under cooler or cold conditions.
As spring arrives and the periods of daylight increase, snook begin to move to shallower waters. Because of their need to regain lost body fat and the necessity to store protein in preparation to spawn, these fish are driven to the mouths of rivers, inlets, creeks and flats in reckless search for food. Snook occasionally go into a wild feeding frenzy after several warm days in the early spring preceding the arrival of a strong cold front. But the majority of east coast snook anglers prefer the early- to mid-fall months for targeting linesiders.
By August or early September, droves of finger mullet start their annual southward migration along Florida’s Indian River Lagoon coast. Anglers following this action start focusing their attention on catching snook after the three-month closed season of June through September. After a few cold fronts or tropical cyclones have passed, you can bet there are hordes of mullet and other baitfish packed into Port Canaveral, Sebastian, Fort Pierce, Port St. Lucie and Jupiter inlets. This time of year, finger mullet are good baits, but pigfish and croakers probably catch more snook by a ratio of 2-to-1 over mullet.
When fishing live baits for snook at this time, I prefer 30- to 40-pound leaders of 12- to 16-inch monofilament attached to a 3/0 or 4/0 circle hook. Use a 1/4- to 1-ounce sliding egg sinker, depending on the amount of current, above the leader to keep the baitfish down. I also double the last six feet of my line before tying on a leader for extra abrasion resistance.
When grabbing a hooked snook, you better be careful of their sharp fins and gill plate covers. They can easily cut you. In fact, it is probably best not to handle snook at all, especially if you plan on releasing them. I use a DEHOOKER, a stainless steel hooking removal device that takes the hook from any fish without having to touch them. To revive a fish that is being released, I hold it by the tail, keeping its head into the current until it swims away.