September 30, 2010
It's time for these game fish to shake off the doldrums of the cooler months and get hungry. Where should you be fishing to take advantage of the situation? (March 2006)
Captain Paul Hobby prepares to release a big snook taken in the Fort Myers area.
Photo by Capt. John Kumiski.
In March, the observant angler notices that the days are getting longer. The water temperatures are rising. The equinox is this month, and it's time to start targeting spring snook.
What have the snook been doing all winter, and where will we find them now? I put this question to three of Florida's best snook guides. I also asked one of the state's foremost snook biologists.
"Mature snook, especially those on the Gulf Coast, do not normally migrate great distances. However, in the late spring and early summer, they leave their over-wintering locations, which are usually in the low-salinity portions of the upper estuary, and move onto their spawning grounds where they spend the remainder of the summer."
That is according to Ron Taylor of the Florida Fish and Wildlife Research Institute.
"Sometime in late summer or early fall, they return to the upper estuary, where they remain during the colder winter months," he continued. "Because snook are tropical fishes, they become lethargic in water cooler than 65 degrees, and the upper estuary provides sanctuary from some of their major predators -- sharks, porpoises, barracudas."
From this, we can see that during the month of March, the snook are frequently in backcountry locations where they have spent the winter. They are only just beginning to move to their summer haunts, and that movement doesn't really get strongly under way until April.
The Treasure Coast
Marcia Foosaner, who guides the Stuart area, between the Fort Pierce and Saint Lucie inlets, agrees with the biologist's view.
"I ignore these fish in the winter. I usually don't think about them until at least April, unless some unusually warm water shows up," Foosaner explained.
"Once the mullet run is over in the fall, I think that plenty of these fish go to some nearshore reefs in the ocean, somewhere where the water has depth to keep them warm. I think the majority end up in the north and south forks of the Saint Lucie River, where the water is dark, deep, and warm. Many places in the channels and canals there have water depths from 14 and 20 feet. I have looked for them there during the winter, and I have caught a few on occasion.
"Storm's soft-plastic swim baits and the DOA TerrorEyz seem to be the best way to go. Fly-fishers should use a large Clouser Minnow in red and white or yellow and brown, tied fairly full, with a full sinking or intermediate line.
"Regardless of whether you use conventional or fly tackle, lures should be worked slowly, bumped on the bottom. Snook are warm-water critters and hate the cold," she noted. "They become very lethargic during the winter, so slower is better.
Night-fishermen also find these winter fish around the deeper boat docks in the Saint Lucie River. These structures hold warmth from a sunny day, and the lights on them attract forage, which in turn draw snook.
"When our first warm spell comes in March or early April, I look for snook to start coming up on the flats after the sun comes up and warms the water," Foosaner resumed. "They seem to enjoy the sunbathing. Most of these first fish are the smaller ones. A 10-pounder would be a large one. Most are between 2 and 5 pounds and are usually parked in a sand hole in the grass.
There are several options for fooling these early arrivals.
"The best way to pursue them is subtly, with a fly. A small Clouser in yellow and white seems to work well when tossed with a 6-weight. I guess a DOA shrimp would work on those shallow guys.
"By May, when you should be fishing for them, it's big flies or topwater lures. Skitterwalks, MirrOlure's Dog series, and other similar lures work well then."
Paul Hobby is a veteran guide who targets Pine Island Sound in the Fort Myers area on Florida's west coast.
"During the winter, finding the fish is as easy as playing the stock market," said the former stockbroker, now turned fishing guide. "In theory, you buy low and sell high, and that's what the fishing is like.
"When it's cold, really cold, 'Coldest day of the year' cold, the fish are very consistent and go to the same places every year. They get out of the wind into water that's at least 4 feet deep, and that place has to have a soft, muddy, black bottom. If you can shove your push pole into 4 or 5 feet of black mud, that's potentially a wintertime snook spot."
Hobby added that these conditions produce the easiest days of the year to catch snook. The fish are all jammed up in a few spots and easy to find. "I don't think I've ever been skunked on a day like that," he noted.
"I'm sure there are thousands of such spots in the back country, but I know only a few. You don't get too many coldest days of the year to research for new spots, and once you know a few, you really don't need to find any more anyway. The fish are there only on cold days, but they're always there when the weather is like that."
The conditions also affect the angling tactics that are required.
"The fish will not hit a shiner in this cold weather," Hobby emphasized. "Your lure has to be small and worked right along the bottom. There are lots of things you could use, but I use only the DOA TerrorEyz. It works great when the conditions are like this.
"When you start getting into March, you can count on snook being in potholes in the grassflats, along mangrove shorelines, or in the most prime places -- potholes along the mangroves."
The best of those are the ones exposed to the sun on the south side of a mangrove island, Hobby added.
"Fortunately, we have lots of those in Pine Island Sound. There are a lot of creeks around here, and they are also good places during March. You want the water temperatures to be in the upper 60s and rising.
"I prefer to fish with a south wind, on the south side of the mangrove islands. I anchor as far away as I can cast and still reach the potholes, in about 2 or 3 feet of water. I don
't want the fish to be able to see me, and the water is usually really clean at that time of year. You can toss a live shiner in there, or a DOA Shrimp, TerrorEyz, or soft-plastic jerkbaits. They'll all work, and the lures are a lot less trouble."
The technique is a bit different for the moving waters -- "in the creeks, like those in the Ding Darling refuge, Shell Creek, or any of the others," Hobby resumed.
"You can throw shiners and let the current sweep them towards the trees. If I'm using lures, I always use the DOA Shrimp. I toss the bait uptide of the mangroves and let the current sweep it back under the trees as far as it can. With the DOA Shrimp, you can also use the skip-casting technique to throw it back under the shadows as far as you can get it.
"You're at a disadvantage casting your bait back up under the trees. They have all kinds of snags that your line can hang onto. When fishing along these mangrove shorelines, you seldom get any fish longer than about 30 inches. There are bigger ones in there; you just can't get them out."
In March, there is another option in this area as well.
"Oyster bars are another excellent place to fish for snook. Snook congregate there. I don't know if the shells warm up the water a little bit or not, but it seems like they must, because they certainly attract the fish and they're great springtime spots. Again, you can fish these places with either shiners or lures.
"If the water temperature is in the upper 60s and rising, you can get them to come up for surface lures, too. Seventy is really the magic temperature for surface plugs, but even if it hasn't quite reached that mark, they'll come up if the temperature is rising."
Capt. Ray Markam fishes the south side of Tampa Bay, and especially the Terra Ceia Bay area.
"During the winter, snook have two basic needs. They need to eat, but more importantly, they need to survive the cold. This they do by moving to a habitat that's warm enough for them to live. They also survive the cold by eating voraciously and packing on insulation-providing fat in the fall, prior to severe cold fronts.
"Their winter habitat must hold food -- not necessarily large, but small food like shrimp and small minnows. There is very little food available in the winter, as most of our baitfish migrate south or to deep water offshore. What generally remains is the small stuff."
Those facts of life narrow down the places where Capt. Markam finds the linesiders.
"In the winter, around west central Florida, snook can be found where there is good depth of water inshore. And in that same water, there must be a food source," he reasoned. "Likely places include residential canals with boat docks, mangrove-lined bays, creeks and rivers, and channel edges adjacent to dark or black muddy bottoms, preferably with structure close by. Being ambush predators, snook prefer some moving water, but that's not totally necessary.
"Winter food favorites," he continued, "include glass minnows, bay shrimp, finger mullet, and killifish, also known as tiger minnows or mud minnows. Channel edges with dark-bottomed flats close by are probably the best places, particularly if the flat has numerous deep potholes. The depth of the channels provides some insulation during cold fronts, which is important on those cold days when the wind howls.
"As winds subside and temperatures rise, the water on the shallow dark flats begins to heat quickly, and the snook ease back onto it. As soon as they begin to warm up, they look to begin feeding."
The equation is a bit different in some of the deeper inshore haunts.
"Snook usually prefer those residential canals that run north and south," the guide offered. "They use the western exposure in the morning to get early sunlight, and an eastern exposure to absorb the sun's heat in the afternoon. Dead-end canals can hold large numbers of snook on the coldest of days because of the build-up of detritus near the ends. In itself, the process of vegetation decaying generates heat. The darkness of the bottom with the decomposing material, in addition to the tannin-stained water, will absorb heat from the sun.
"In the winter, a good temperature gauge is paramount to finding feeding fish. Once water temperatures rises to a point where the fishes' metabolism kicks in, they begin to have a desire to eat because stored fat cells are beginning to be used and they need to replenish them to survive the next cold front."
Catching these feeding linesiders requires matching what they eat.
"In the winter, snook's main forage includes glass minnows, killifish, and shrimp," said Capt. Markam. "The imitations I use for glass minnows include fly patterns like the Carl Hanson Glass Minnow, the Jack Montague Epoxy Minnow, and the Gummi Minnow. To imitate killifish, the DOA CAL Shad tail on a CAL 1/4-ounce jig is excellent. However, the number one prey for cold-weather snook is shrimp.
"Shrimp are fairly slow-moving and cannot escape easily, so the fish don't have to expend much energy to eat them. This is one reason I like using the DOA Shrimp. Fish get very lethargic, so their strike zones shrink to a very small area. One of the few baits that looks natural when moving very slowly or not at all is a shrimp. It looks natural doing nothing but lying on the bottom."
However, the hue of the bait may make a difference.
"My favorite color is the Night Glow DOA Shrimp. I think the luminescence factor is all-important, and looks natural to feeding fish," the captain suggested. "During a severe cold snap, shrimp bury themselves in the mud tail-first. They begin to emerge from the mud when the water begins to warm up or the sun comes out and shines brightly. When they do emerge, their tails are discolored -- either pink, brown, or green -- so after a cold front, I tend to throw a DOA Shrimp with either the pink or chartreuse tail.
"The DOA Shrimp stuffed with a Woodie's worm rattle is my most productive winter bait," he went on. "However, I will throw the Night Glow colored CAL Shad with a 1/4-ounce chartreuse jighead to locate fish. I move the bait deliberately -- not fast, but at a medium speed to cover a lot of water. I want to run the bait right by the fish's nose to elicit a reaction strike. The fish will not chase the bait down to eat it. But if I make rapid presentations to enough fish while covering lots of water, I will at least get hits.
"Once I locate fish that will hit the moving bait, I zero in with the shrimp and saturate the area with a painfully slow methodical presentation."
Capt. Markam's next indicator for fishing this time of year is botanical.
"Once the temperatures rise to the point where orange blossoms begin to bloom, the snook begin to move out of their winter haunts in backwater areas and ou
t to the mouths of creeks, rivers, and residential canals. They continue to feed on shrimp, glass minnows, and killifish, but needlefish begin to congregate at the mouths of canals. The rising temperature creates a demand for more protein and an increasing appetite, so the snook will target the needlefish.
"As a bait imitation, I throw jerkbaits, specifically the DOA CAL 5.5 or smaller size jerkbait, rigged on a worm hook or on a Woodie's Rattlin' Hook. The same bait may also be effective when rigged on a lightweight jighead of 1/8 ounce or less.
"The fish move out on the open flats as water temperatures get into the upper 60s to low 70s. Snook then look for larger baits, like finger mullet. When the water is still crystal-clear, the small MirrOlure She Pup, Top Dog Jr., or She Dog are my choices. But in dirty water or rough water, I opt for the MirrOlure He Dog or Top Dog, which are larger baits.
"Where I target depends on the weather. On nice days, I fish Terra Ceia Bay, the Manatee River, and surrounding waters."
If the weather is foul, expect to find Markam on mangrove-lined shores in the lee of the wind. He also looks for boat docks in rivers and residential canals.
"The docks that have the largest boats and have been established for some time are best -- especially the wooden ones, since they have more bait-attracting marine growth. Deep-drafting sailboats are good targets, as well as large pleasure yachts."
Around those big boats, cast to the transom at the back. Kicking on the motor has probably blown out a deeper area under the stern.