A Year of the Snook
September 30, 2010
No, this is not some sign from the Chinese calendar. It is a look at where to find and how to catch snook beginning in March and continuing through the year in South Florida.
By Kris Thoemke
Creeping along the mangrove shoreline of Mound Key, I let Steve Layton and his brother-in-law Barry Vermeychuck cast their lures along the irregular shoreline, hoping one of them would connect with a big snook. From experience, I knew this stretch of the island to be especially productive. While concentrating on the adults, I had Steve's 7-year-old son, Jonathan, tossing a shrimp off the back of my flats boat, figuring he would be thrilled to catch a ladyfish or jack.
Suddenly, I heard the steady sound of line peeling off Jonathan's reel. It matched the forward motion generated by the boat's trolling motor. Figuring that Jonathan was hung up on a submerged branch, I switched the trolling motor off.
"Hold on. You're hung up," I cautioned. "I'm on my way back there to help you."
"I think I've got a fish on," he said before I could reach him.
By the time I'd traversed the 18-foot length of the boat, it was clear that the boy had hooked up with something substantial.
"Jonathan, you don't have just a fish on - you've got a huge fish on your line. Start reeling," I said as my voice pitched up an octave and Steve and Barry stopped fishing to watch the unfolding action.
The splash the log-sized snook made as it struggled against the resistance of the reel's drag was our first clue as to the size of what we now realized was a fish of a lifetime. Instant cries of encouragement and instructions flowed from our mouths. In the end, the only help Jonathan needed was my hand on the rod for a few moments when it looked like the fish was going to pull the rod and maybe Jonathan into the water.
Photo by Bob McNally
Several minutes later, as Steve and his brother-in-law went green with envy, 7-year-old Jonathan had a 47-incher at the boat for us to admire and release. As the adults learned that day, snook fishing is great fun even if you don't catch the big fish.
Fortunately, scenes like this are likely to happen this year and for years to come. It's too soon to say that snook have recovered from years of overfishing and destruction of their habitat, but the numbers of Mr. Linesides seem to be increasing. With the recent changes made to the snook regulations by the state's Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWCC), chances are good that the population will increase and anglers will have a reasonable chance at hooking a big snook for years to come.
Snook are widely distributed in the tropical and subtropical waters of the western Atlantic Ocean. Warmwater fish, snook cannot survive when water temperatures drop and stay below 60 F. This effectively limits them to the southern half of Florida in the continental United States. Along the east coast, snook are common in the waters south of Cape Canaveral. The Indian River Lagoon, especially the southern end, is where the most snook are taken each year. On the Gulf Coast side, snook are common from Tarpon Springs southward to the tip of the state. Southwest Florida, from Charlotte Harbor to the Ten Thousands Islands, is the state's hotbed for snook activity, with more fish landed in this area than in any other region in the state.
When anglers say they've caught a snook, in most instances this means they hooked the common snook, one of 12 species of snook in the Western Hemisphere and the most common of the four species found in Florida. The largest of the four, it is also the most wide-ranging and most sought after. Common snook inhabit coastal waters and range from the nearshore waters throughout the brackish-water estuaries.
The smallest and rarest snook is the sword-spined snook, so named because of the extra-long second spine on the anal fin. Because it does not grow much past 12 inches, the fish is well below the minimum size for keepers of 26 inches and thus is never harvested by recreational anglers. Sword-spined snook are absent from the west coast and appear to be limited to the waters south of the St. Lucie River on the east coast.
The tarpon snook is another Florida inhabitant and has an upturned snout that resembles that of a tarpon. Reaching a maximum of 20 inches, this species lives mostly in the estuaries.
Finally, the fat snook has a similar maximum length but prefers fresh water to low-salinity habitats. Drawings of the four snook species are on the FWCC Web site, located at www.marinefisheries.org. Once there, click on the fish identification link.
CATCHING EAST COAST SNOOK Statistics compiled by the FWCC show that snook living along the east coast are genetically different from those found on the west coast. These fish grow more quickly and reach a larger size than their west coast counterparts.
Perhaps no one knows more about east coast snook than Capt. Mark Nichols. Nichols has an advantage over the average angler and most guides. He owns DOA Lures and, in the name of work, spends a part of just about every day on the water conducting "research" - or what everyone else refers to as fishing.
"From the Ft. Pierce to St. Lucie inlets, we expect windy weather in March," he says, "but the water is warm enough for snook to be around."
This southernmost part of the Indian River Lagoon, in St. Lucie and Martin counties, is the hotbed of snook activity along the east coast.
"This is a good time of year to wade the flats and fish for snook in the potholes or fish for them along mangrove shorelines," Nichols notes. "They are coming out of the deeper waters where they've been while the water is cold, so the fish are hungry and starting to build up reserves for the upcoming spawn."
Live baits such as greenies are always a good bet. Nichols throws a DOA shrimp or a shallow-running Baitbuster.
By mid-May, perhaps sooner if the there was a warm spring and water temperatures reach 80 degrees or more, most big snook arrive in the inlets at Sebastian, Jupiter, Ft. Pierce, Stuart and Lake Worth where they spawn. Maturing when they're about 2 years old and 18 inches long, the adult fish remain in the passes and along the beaches near the passes until mid-September.
Under ideal conditions the same female snook can spawn every two days. Each late afternoon or evening, females, depending on their size, release a half million to one and a quarter million eggs. When the fertile eggs hatch, the juvenile snook that don't become a meal
for the slew of other marine predators eventually find their way to the brackish or fresh backwaters where the youngsters grow until they are about 10 to 14 inches long. At that time they move towards the saltier waters along the coast and assume their role as breeding males or females.
As snook anglers know, the season for possessing a snook is closed along the Atlantic coast during the peak spawning months of June, July and August. While anglers may target the fish this month, the fish must be release unharmed.
"This time of year the fish are as dumb as rocks," Nichols says. "They are in the passes to spawn and need to eat so they can continue to spawn."
Just about anything works for bait, including live shrimp, any baitfish, jigs with split-tailed grubs, and DOA's Swimming Mullet, which Nichols says works best in lower light conditions.
As the spawn subsides, the snook move away from the passes and return to flats and docks along the Indian River Lagoon and the canals that connect to the long, thin lagoon that extends from the Cape Canaveral area to Stuart.
"Even though most of the fish are near the inlets in the summer," Nichols adds, "there are always some big snook in the deep channels throughout the year."
These channels, especially the Intracoastal Waterway, which runs the entire length of the lagoon, are from 8 to 25 feet deep
In October, any snook that moved north for the summer migrate south in search of warmer water. According to Nichols, this is a good time to fish the trough that parallels the beach.
"The snook are feeding on the mullet and can be quite aggressive. This continues into early November."
In December and for the next three months, as the weather turns cold by snook standards, Nichols recommends looking for the prized game fish in stiller waters and over darker bottoms.
"The darker bottoms heat up faster than light-colored bottoms, and that's important when the water temperatures get down into the range where the fish are subject to cold-shock. They also move up the St. Lucie River, feeding on finger mullet," he says. "Good places to try include the edges of the channels and around the Roosevelt Bridge."
Nichols adds that it is important to fish your lure much slower because the fish are not as aggressive as when the water is warm.
"I also switch to smaller baits and shrimp," he adds.
ANGLING FOR WEST COAST SNOOK With more rivers and tidal creeks that penetrate farther inland than on the east coast, west coast snook follow a rather predictable pattern for fish that don't venture too far from the area in which they were spawned. In March, the snook that spent their winters in the fresh to slightly brackish upper reaches of the rivers and creeks begin the annual trip out of the backwaters and into the salty bays near the numerous passes and inlets. Capt. Al Keller of Naples believes this pattern is very predictable.
"These fish seem to follow a rather specific route along some shorelines, and if you can learn the pattern you should be able to catch more big fish," he says.
As it was for east coast snook, water temperature is the key to knowing if the fish are on the move toward the passes or lingering in the backwaters.
"There are about a dozen creeks and streams flowing into Lemon Bay," says Capt. Dan Spisak of Englewood. "The average depth of these is only 2 feet, but the water does have some 4-foot-deep potholes. If the snook are still here, they'll be about 100 feet from the mangroves and swimming over the sea grass beds. Whitebait is the bait of choice if you can find it."
By May most Gulf snook are in the passes, and in the Ten Thousand Islands some females may already have a jump on the breeding season. Many of the fish move through the passes each day and cruise the beach looking for food.
"This is my one of my favorite months for snook fishing along the beach and the passes," notes Capt. Roan Zumfelde of Naples.
Zumfelde, a flyfishing specialist, suggests going out early in the morning.
"Even though snook season is now closed along the west coast in May, this remains one of the best months to get big fish on the fly," he says. "You can watch them jump out of the water and come down on top of the bait in places like Gordon Pass."
The presence of snook in the passes and along the beaches continues throughout the summer.
"You find snook consistently along the outside of the Ten Thousand Islands," says Capt. Jeff Brown of Naples. "They are especially prevalent on the points of the outermost mangrove islands and in the passes."
Brown fishes early in the mornings and begins with a topwater lure.
"About three out of every four snook we catch on topwater plugs are legal size," Brown points out. "These lures work real good until the sun's been up for a couple of hours."
After that, Brown switches to a 1/4- or 3/8-ounce smoke or root-beer-colored jig and works it along the mangrove shoreline.
When the summer heat breaks, usually in October, the snook turn tail and begin heading inland.
"The fish will be in the creeks and potholes along the eastern part of Pine Island Sound, just like they were in February and March," explains Capt. Paul Hobby of Ft. Myers.
The clear waters usually present in the early fall creates a challenge.
"The fish can see you and they seem to know what you're trying to do," says Hobby. "It really helps if you can make long casts so you don't get too close and spook the fish. I use 10-pound-test braided line with two to three feet of 20-pound-test mono leader."
Hobby prefers artificial baits.
"DOA CAL jigs are good because they are easy to rig to be weedless, but my favorite bait is the clear with red glitter DOA shrimp.
When it gets cold, which for snook and snook anglers along the lower west coast of Florida is anything below 65 degrees, most snook are either far up the backwaters - often as far as into fresh water - or stacked up like cordwood around nearshore artificial reefs and hard-bottom areas. Though scuba divers frequently report seeing large numbers of jumbo snook at these locations, anglers seldom catch the fish. Eating doesn't seem to be high on their list of things to do.
Anglers venturing into the backwaters don't have the same problem.
"From January through the end of February, we often find snook la
id up in shallow muddy bays," says Capt. Kevin Mihailoff of Naples. "It's fun to catch them on flies or topwater plugs when they do this."
Mihailoff adds that getting up early is not necessary, because snook won't move into these shallow bays early in the morning, especially when it is cold.
"The snook don't come onto the flats until 9 or 10," he notes. "They wait for the sun to rise high enough in the sky to warm the water before moving onto the flats to feed."
One popular technique that works year 'round is to fish for snook at night. The undisputed champion of this technique is St. Petersburg's Capt. Dave Pomerleau.
"I fish at night because snook feed better at night," Pomerleau argues.
With Pomerleau's anglers averaging 30 to 50 fish per night, few can dispute his success. Fishing from St. Petersburg to Tierra Verde, "The Mad Snooker," as most folks refer to Pomerleau, says the key to finding fish is locating snook feeding stations.
"These are places where a 2- to 5-knot current produced by either an incoming or outgoing tide flows by structure such as a dock," he says. "The pilings make perfect ambush points for the snook."
For bait, Pomerleau prefers to free-line a live pinfish or shrimp so that it drifts by the ambush points. As for keeping blurry-eyed anglers awake during his normal fishing hours of 5 p.m. to 4 a.m., Pomerleau makes sure they drink a lot of coffee.
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Angling for snook, whether it's skipping jigs under docks along the Indian River Lagoon, tossing live baits into snook-filled passes in the summer, or winding your way into the freshwater reaches of one of the rivers flowing out of the Everglades, is a treat anglers seldom forget and usually desire to repeat.
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