September 30, 2010
Tighter harvest limits have allowed more linesides to reach lunker size throughout South Florida. Here's your yearlong guide to tangling with one of those big fish! (March 2010)
Catching a snook of any size is a somewhat elusive accomplishment -- many who have fished Florida for years have never pulled the first linesider to the boat. That's not because snook are scarce, but simply because catching them is a specialized pursuit. Plunk a dead shrimp on bottom off a pier and you could sit there until the first notes of Gabriel's Horn sound before you're likely to reel in a "snuke," as old Cracker anglers called the fish.
Snook like Steve Furry's 44-incher are often tough to locate and even harder to boat.
Photo by Frank Sargeant.
On the other hand, if you round up a few live sardines, find a mangrove point where there's a good tide running and a deep hole right at the tip and drift those silver minnows out there on a fly-weight hook and 10-pound-test microfiber line, odds are you'll promptly be tangling with the fish some have called "largemouth bass on angel dust."
Catching a lunker snook, though, is a challenge for even the most skilled angler. As in catching big versions of any species, there's always some luck involved. But as in many things, the smarter you are and the harder you work, the luckier you get. That's true for catching truly big snook, according to most pros that specialize in the pursuit.
How big is a "big" snook? Depends on where you ask. Snook average considerably larger on Florida's Atlantic Coast than on the Gulf Coast. But on the other hand, the very largest fish have been reported from the Gulf Coast. And the landscape has changed regarding how big a trophy must be. At one time, a 30-incher was a whopper, then 36, and these days it takes a 40-incher to be designated a trophy in most circles.
Why is the definition of trophydom changing? Most anglers think it's because snook are now so tightly regulated, thus allowing more to survive to truly huge size. Over the last 25 years, Florida's fishery managers have steadily ratcheted down the harvest. These days, you can take only one fish daily, and the Gulf slot is 28 to 33 inches. On the Atlantic side, it's 28 to 32 inches. Plus, there are seven months of closed season on the Gulf, and almost five months on the Atlantic.
Not surprisingly, the rules have decreased the harvest, but improved the action. These days, those who understand where, when and how can routinely connect with a dozen or more linesiders per trip. But getting the big girls -- all of the big ones are female because the males change sex as they grow -- still takes some special knowledge.
Timing and Tactics
April through October is prime time for large snook on both coasts of Florida. Fishing the beaches and passes during the spawning period nearly always produces some of the largest fish of the year on both coasts.
The fall mullet run on the east coast is also a favorite for many seeking a last wild fling before the metabolism of these tropical fish slows and they head for deep water. On the west coast, some big fish move up coastal rivers to spend the winter in deep holes and around spring outfalls, but the majority appears to travel to nearshore reefs in the Gulf. Those are typically anywhere from a mile to five miles offshore, according to divers who have seen them stacked there in the hundreds.
During the prime warmer months, the largest fish often prefer different habitat than their smaller cousins, according to guides who specialize in chasing them.
Captain Geoff Page of Venice is one of the most skilled artificial lure guides in the state. He finds his largest fish close to deep water, and he catches them on large artificials.
"Big snook like big baitfish," Page said. "So a lure like the full-sized Zara Spook or the BFL from D.O.A. Lures is more likely to turn them on than a smaller lure."
Page also noted that big snook often travel with schools of mature mullet. Spotting those mullet is easier than spotting the snook.
"These mullet weigh 4 or 5 pounds, so the snook are not eating them, but I think they use the mullet as cover, and then feed on whatever the school stirs up," Page explained.
His favored territory is roughly from the Skyway Bridge on Tampa Bay southward through Charlotte Harbor.
Page likes to wade when possible. He's convinced that the low profile and silent approach allows him to get close to big fish without spooking them. And he's fanatical about following the tides.
"You hit a spot for the 30 minutes when it's got a prime tide and you may catch a dozen fish. Get there 10 minutes late and you'll never get a bite. It's critical to hit the peak flows," he advised.
Captain John Griffith of Tampa also catches more than his share of trophy-class fish, most in upper Tampa Bay. One important factor he noted is patience. Griffith often puts out baits in known big-fish areas and waits there quietly for up to an hour. He's much less into the run-and-gun approach that often nets big catches of smaller snook.
"I think you have to let the water settle and let those big ones forget you are there," Griffith advised.
He most often fishes with live, scaled sardines in the north end of Old Tampa Bay, but sometimes uses threadfins when sardines are tough to find.
Captain Scott Moore of Holmes Beach, a master at catching trophy fish, often finds them cruising the outside edge of the grass flats in areas like Bull Bay and Turtle Bay, both parts of Charlotte Harbor.
"If a customer wants a big fish, we go out on the edge and we sit," Moore said. "They have to be patient, because it may be an hour or so before that big fish comes along."
Moore also said that at present the larger fish seem to be hanging around manmade cover, including docks and bridges.
"I think the hurricanes have damaged some of the better mangrove areas here, so some of these big fish have changed their territory the last couple of years," Moore suggested.
Captain Mark Gore of Tampa also catches jumbos with some regularity.
"I find big fish where they can get into deep water easily," Gore offered. "Places like the Port of Tampa, around the channels of Weedon Island (in Old Tampa Bay) and that sort of terrain, more than in mangrove country."
Gore is also an advocate of patience.
"If I know a big fish is there, I like to put out a big bait, put the rod in the holder and leave it alone. Those big fish have been caught before, and they're cautious if you're pulling the bait around. Just let it swim and eventually they decide to take it," Gore said.
A nearly forgotten trick, still used occasionally by Captain James Wisner of Tampa, is to seek out the lunkers on bottom in deep water like that found in shipping basins and navigation channels. Snook found there are rarely fished by most anglers and can sometimes best be caught on dead bait.
Wisner likes to use shad or menhaden, but threadfins and other baitfish can also be quite effective. He chops up some of the bait and tosses it out as chum, and then he baits up several rods with a large chunk of the baitfish. The bait is fished right on the bottom. The big negative is that this tactic attracts lots of sail catfish, but it also catches big snook. You're also likely to be surprised by a tarpon anytime May through October.
Captain Dave Rieumont likes to use live pigfish drifted in the big passes around the new and full moons April through July.
"Be patient," he advised. "You don't get a 40-incher every trip."
Mark Nichols of Stuart, founder of D.O.A. Lures and one of Florida's best snook anglers, noted that many of his best catches come in deep passes on outgoing tides.
"Get a lure that will run deep, just off the bottom as you drift with the flow, and just give it a little hop now and then and you'll catch plenty of big fish," Nichols advised.
He likes the St. Lucie Inlet from May through August. And, of course, he happens to make the D.O.A. Deep Running Bait Buster, a plastic mullet, just for this type of fishing.
In fact, a classic tactic during summer is simply to fish the spawning aggregations that occur around nearly all gulf passes between Marco and Hudson. The same goes for the Atlantic shore from Canaveral to Key Biscayne. Though the harvest season is closed at this time, catch-and-release is legal.
Fish typically gather on the first current break inside the major passes. Places to look are around breakwaters, docks, piers and jetties. Also check around the larger inside sloughs.
Gulf Coast anglers find the fish by chumming live sardines, and catch them with the same baits. Those typically are free-lined, but sometimes also drifted deep through areas like Redfish Pass at the north tip of Captiva Island. Another good area is around the old phosphate docks at Boca Grande. On the east coast, top pass action can be found at St. Lucie, Jupiter and Palm Beach inlets.
Tips For Big Ones
Big fish seem to hang just out of the current. They're often behind points or oyster bars, or at the down-tide end of a pothole.
Prime tides come around the new and full moons throughout the warmer months. Hit falling water in sloughs and passes, or rising water along beaches, riprap and mangroves.
Big baits catch big fish. Many big snook come on live sardines of 5 inches long, and sometimes on threadfins or pinfish approaching half-a-foot in length.
Patience is a must. Fish a known big-fish hole for at least an hour straight, methodically working over every inch of the water. Keep the boat still and quiet while waiting for the fish to make a mistake.
Lively baits do the job. Anytime a sardine stops swimming at full speed, replace it.
Long casts often succeed better than short ones, because big fish tend to be boat-shy. Wading is a big advantage where conditions allow.
Corks sometimes may cause large fish to be more cautious than free-lined baits, particularly in clear water.
Rig with tackle adequate to handle the big fish when it comes along. The typical 8- to 10-pound-test inshore tackle can't control a 40-incher. Microfiber line in the 20-pound-class on a stout spinning rig is a good bet, and don't forget a couple feet of fluorocarbon for a shock leader testing at least 30 pounds.
Targeting Spawning Snook?
There's some argument over whether targeting snook during the summer spawn is ethical. In the past, biologists with the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission have done studies that show fish caught and released promptly suffer no ill effects, so long as they're handled properly. But more recent studies showed somewhat higher mortality for released fish. In any case, snooking during the closed season is legal, and the experience of most anglers suggests that few fish die as a result of being caught and released properly.
Among suggested tactics are using stout tackle so that the fish can be brought to the boat promptly, gripping the fish by the lower lip and the base of the tail, and holding it that way for a quick photo before release. Never raise a snook out of the water by gripping only the lower lip. That may dislocate the jaw. Make photos quickly, and get the fish back over the side quickly.
The use of debarbed hooks to make unhooking faster is also a suggestion from Florida's lead snook biologist, Ron Taylor at the Florida Wildlife Research Institute in St. Petersburg.
Though Florida's big snook population appears to be doing great, there are two recurring problems.
One is red tide. This noxious alga occasionally visits the west coast of Florida, killing snook and other species by the tens of thousands. One bad red tide -- as experienced in 2005-06 -- can wipe out years of growth in snook populations. The naturally occurring algae kill millions of inch-long juveniles, as well as jumbo adults. Its impact can be devastating in both short and long term.
The other nemesis is cold weather. Sustained water temperatures in the low 50-degree range can kill snook. That's rare anywhere south of a line stretching roughly east to west from Daytona Beach to Hernando Beach, but it does happen occasionally. The succession of warm winters, now stretching back more than a decade, has allowed snook to survive and actually push the "snook line" northward about a hundred miles. But all it would take is a couple of icy January days to push it back south instantly.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Frank Sargeant is a former fishing guide and the author of The Snook Book, a 160-page volume that has become a classic for snook fishers.
He has also written The Masters Book of Snook, an advanced look at the art of targeting linesides.
Both titles are available from Larsen's Outdoor Publishing. Check out the Web site at www.larsenoutdoors. com.