This maze of mangroves to the south of Marco Island offers prime snook habitat. Here's how the fishing action stacks up there in the fall months. (September 2008)
The Ten Thousand Islands are loaded with places for snook to hide amid the mangroves.
Photo by Ron Sinfelt.
Are there really 10,000 isles in the Ten Thousand Islands? As far as I know, no one has ever counted.
Frankly, it would take too much valuable fishing time to sit down with a chart or aerial photograph and try to count the number of mangrove islands that extend along Florida's southwest coastline for 20 miles from Marco Island to Chokoloskee.
What's important to know is that the Ten Thousand Islands is one great place to fish. If you've never been there, then you've missed an awe-inspiring angling experience.
In addition to the fishing action, the abundance of wildlife to observe leaves most first-time visitors torn between concentrating on their next cast and turning their heads to watch pink-feathered roseate spoonbills probing for food on a mud bar, staring at the manatee that just surfaced only a few feet from their boat, or searching for one of the many other species that call the Ten Thousand Islands home.
But once your attention drifts back to angling, this place will drive you crazy with the countless "snooky-looking" places to throw a bait.
Bring along some aspirin in case you get a headache from the constant twisting and turning of your head as you try to take it all in.
This is also a place where your sense of direction and location are easily disrupted. Everywhere you turn appears the just same as where you were looking last. The tannin-stained waters provide a vivid contrast to the evergreen leaves of red, black and white mangroves. Comparing the Ten Thousand Islands to a green and dark amber maze with the sky providing a blue backdrop gives you some idea of how it feels to be there.
The moment you slip on polarized sunglasses, the effect is only enhanced. The glare off the water's surface dissolves, and the green of the mangroves brightens, creating a three-dimensional feeling to your surroundings.
After a while in this environment, your mind grows numb to the background. You become keenly aware of anything different: from the snowy white feathers of a great egret perched in the mangroves to your guide jolting you out of your trance with the command, "Look to your right! Cast towards that overhanging branch."
And with that, you are back on track with your purpose of being in this wilderness -- to catch some fish.
There's little doubt that the snook population in the Ten Thousand Islands is very healthy. But don't expect to catch a fish on every cast.
There may not be 10,000 islands, but in addition to hundreds of oyster bars, there's more than 1,000 miles of mangrove-fringed shoreline.
Those are the two most popular snook hangouts. That means the fish can be in many places.
Two other factors contribute to this part of the Florida peninsula being a hotspot for snook -- the remoteness of the Ten Thousand Islands and the regulations governing when anglers can legally keep a snook and the size of the fish they're allowed to harvest.
The area is a roadless estuarine wilderness so vast that seldom, if ever, will you feel like other anglers are crowding in on you. Access to 99.9 percent of this region is by boat. And because of the maze of waterways, anglers unfamiliar with the area will seldom venture far from the few marked channels. That leaves thousands of good fishing spots to the few who know the waters.
Finally, throw in the strict regulations enacted by the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission.
The current slot limit allows anglers to keep one snook not less than 28 inches or more than 33 inches in total length, measured in a straight line from the most forward part of the head (with the mouth closed) to the farthest tip of the tail when compressed. In addition, you cannot legally possess a snook from Dec. 1 through Feb. 28, or in the months of June, July and August.
These restrictions are intended to keep the big breeding females in the population and to prevent snook from being harvested during the summer spawning season.
The restricted winter season is intended to protect these tropical fish when they can be stressed due to cool water temperatures.
WHAT ARE SNOOK DOING UNTIL NOVEMBER?
From an angler's perspective, the Ten Thousand Islands is a big area. But from a snook's point of view, it is huge. Catching one or more fish is not difficult if you know where the snook are.
But knowing that is not something you'll pick up in a day's fishing. So if you're serious about fishing here and are not familiar with the region, hire a guide. If there's anywhere the cost of having a guide is worth it, it's in the Ten Thousand Islands.
After the three-month closed summer season, Sept. 1 marks the first day that anglers may keep a snook. It's also the date by which most of the spawning activity is over.
"This begins the second transitional period of the year," explained Capt. Jesse Karen. "In the spring, the snook are moving from the backcountry towards the passes to spawn. Come September, the spawn is mostly over. The fish begin to spread out and gradually move towards the backwaters where they spend the winter."
Though the pattern is unmistakable, once the snook begin to move -- and because there are so many places they can go as they head to the backwaters -- Karen said you have to work a bit harder to find them than during the summer months, when they are concentrated in and around the passes.
"Once you find the fish," Capt. T.J. Reuther said, "they will be feeding with some vigor."
Depleted of energy from spawning, the snook are looking to fatten up for the colder winter days, when these warm-water fish become lethargic and less interested in eating.
In September, Capt. Karen recommended starting your day's fishing in or near the passes.
"If the breeding season is still active or if the baitfish are around, you might find some fish in the vicinity of the passes," he sugge
"If you don't get any action, then move up the tidal rivers and creeks in search of fish. This works best for me when I can follow the rising tide towards the backwaters."
Toward November and into the winter, another place you can find some big snook is in the near-shore waters off the Ten Thousand Islands.
"If you've ever fished for reds in Louisiana," Capt. Reuther said, "then you'll understand. A certain portion of the snook population migrates to the shallow offshore waters and will spend the winter hanging around submerged structure, just as the reds do in Louisiana."
Reuther has a number of special places he likes to fish.
"The best time to hit these offshore sites is when the tide is just after the slack tide," he offered.
"Watch for when the 'brown' water that flushes out from the backwaters on the falling tide begins to move back inshore and is replaced with the clearer blue Gulf water."
LACES AND PATTERNS
Don't let the Ten Thousand Islands' vastness discourage you when from finding fall snook. There are definitely places you want to fish -- and other areas you can overlook.
"If you're a bass angler," Capt. Reuther said, "the same tactics you use to find a bass can be used to locate a snook. Pretend you are fishing a river for bass and look for ambush points."
Snook are ambush feeders, so they are often lay up in an eddy off the tip of a mangrove island, waiting for the moving water to bring their next meal within quick striking distance.
"This is a good situation to be using a live baitfish, if you can find some," Capt. Reuther said.
"The problem is that as the fall progresses, getting live bait becomes increasingly difficult. The schools of baitfish that we find throughout the area during the summer move offshore as winter approaches."
Also, there are countless miles of mangrove shoreline that hold snook, but which lack the current seen in the main tidal channels.
"The key to finding fish here," noted Capt. Karen, "is to locate structure along the shoreline.
"Dead trees or live branches that have fallen into the water are spots you don't want to pass up.
"There might not be an eddy there with a snook in it, but the structure provides just as good an ambush point as an eddy," Karen added.
"To really know where to fish and catch snook in the Ten Thousand Islands, you have to put in your time on the water."
Live minnows are always a good choice, as are live shrimp. Capt. Reuther prefers live shrimp or jigs tipped with a small piece of shrimp.
"I'm rather partial to a 'bottom bumper' rig," he explained. "That's a live shrimp hooked all the way through on an extra-long shank hook so that it's weedless. It's a Carolina rig that you can twitch as you creep it along the bottom, or use as a still bait fished on the bottom."
There are also plenty of choices when it comes to lures. Capt. Karen said his absolute favorite lure is a 1/4-ounce red jighead with a white Berkley Gulp! tailer.
"Snook can't resist the scent of a Gulp!" he emphasized.
"Snook have a pair of big nostrils on their snouts, and when they see this rig and then smell it, they're convinced it is worth eating."
For anglers who want to use a hard-bodied lure, try a popper or other floating lure. September is one of the hottest months of the year, so the snook still are looking for live bait.
A surface lure that makes some noise and resembles a wounded baitfish will get the attention of any snook that happens to be nearby.
About the only style of hard-sided lure that won't work are the deep divers.
"I seldom fish in more than three feet of water," Capt. Karen said. "The fish may be right under the mangroves or, in some places, up to 20 feet from the mangroves in a trough surrounded by oysters."
In the fall, water isn't as clear as other times of year, so sight-casting is out and blind-casting is in. Though it requires considerably more energy output by the angler than the "wait till you see the fish" sight-casting technique, there is one distinct advantage.
"If you happen to be casting a live shrimp," Capt. Karen said, "the snook may smell it before it sees it. That's good, because snook are smart enough to know that shrimp don't fall from the sky into the water."
With regard to fishing gear, Capt. Karen has some guidelines as well.
"No matter how good an angler you think you are, if you want to catch big snook, put aside dreams of light-tackle fishing," he emphasized. "To do this properly, you need appropriate gear -- a stout 7-foot rod with an 8- to 20-pound-test rating, a 3000 to 4000 series high-quality reel like Shimano and Diawa, and at least 20-pound-test braided line and 40-pound-test fluorocarbon leader.
"You need this because in the first 30 seconds of the fight, you must turn the snook's head and get it away from structure," Capt. Karen continued.
"Snook know their habitat and how to wrap your line around a submerged branch or oyster bar and break you off. With the right gear -- and by using your trolling motor to back away from the mangroves -- you can get the big fish out in the open where you will win the battle and get the fish to the boat."
SUMMING IT UP
In the Ten Thousand Islands, sometimes it's not just the fishing action that makes the day.
"One day while I was fishing, I saw an osprey make a mistake," Capt. Reuther recalled. "The bird had its eyes on a small fish. When it tucked in its wings and plunged into the water to snatch its meal, apparently it didn't see the snook that was also eyeing the small fish as its next meal.
"The bird hit the water and disappeared. Moments later, a big snook jumped, and I could see the osprey had its talons firmly embedded in the snook. The fish and bird went under for a second time. When it surfaced, the osprey managed to release its grip and get back into the air.
"The stunned bird landed in a nearby mangrove, no doubt wondering what exactly went wrong."
Just another day in the Ten Thousand Islands -- a paradise for snook anglers, but not always for birds!