In the spring, the waters around Sanibel and Captiva islands abound with snook. Whether on the beaches or in the passes, the fishing can be great.
Photo by Ron Sinfelt
By Jan Maizler
As the fronts of winter slowly disappear around late March, the Gulf of Mexico's frothy waters flatten and start to warm. In bird's-eye fashion, if we zoom in to the eastern Gulf Coast just off southwest Florida, we find the beautiful barrier islands of Sanibel and Captiva. These crescent-shaped keys lie offshore of historic Fort Myers, and they quickly feel the warming effects of spring's emergence. Luckily for anglers, so do the abundant snook of these islands as they shake off their winter lethargy and "get ready to rumble." This time of year also quickens the pulse of snook anglers and pulls them like a magnet to these islands. In order to understand this phenomenon, let's look at some background.
LEARNING THESE WATERS
As stated previously, the two islands lie west of Fort Myers in the Gulf of Mexico. The mainland connects to Sanibel by a causeway that is positioned east to west as it proceeds seaward. By the time Sanibel connects to Captiva at Blind Pass (which is actually silted in, leaving the two islands connected beneath the bridge) these barrier islands lie in a north-to-northwest direction.
The crescent sweep of Sanibel and Captiva creates many fishy locations and provides wind protection. Yet the configuration of these islands is only a part of what makes this area "Snook Central." The primary reason for the excellence of this area is that the ecosystem's snook are drawn to come together in almost total perfection.
Snook are coastal-estuary fish that thrive in the presence of a brackish and mangrove ecology. The power source of this area's "brackishness" is the freshwater inflow of the Caloosahatchee River, which runs from Florida's center southwesterly into San Carlos Bay and Pine Island Sound. A lot of the river water also flows under the Sanibel Causeway to mix with the saltier Gulf of Mexico. This provides the proper freshwater-saltwater mix snook like.
Unfortunately, government management has corrupted the natural flow of the river. At times, millions of gallons of fresh water are dumped into the area in the name of flood control. The manmade overabundance of fresh water temporarily causes the snook to scatter, which can be a real problem for the fishery, especially if the snook had gathered for spawning. However, when the river is functioning at a steadier level, it does produce the necessary conditions for snook.
The second factor is the presence of mangroves and the role these "tree-plants" play in the life cycle of linesides. Though fertile snook eggs are thought to hatch offshore, baby snook make their way back into the inside mangrove waters. It is here that they grow to maturity, feeding on minnows and bugs that are excellent protein sources. These particular conditions are found on the inland side of Sanibel Island, which is composed of the mangrove forests of J.N "Ding" Darling National Wildlife Refuge. The snook grow up in the inside mangrove shelters of the "Ding," most notably around Tarpon Bay. There are also mangrove islands supporting snook in Pine Island Sound.
The third necessary factor is the presence of inlets or passes connecting to the open Gulf for snook to spawn in. Beginning in late springtime until the summer peaks, mature snook move from the inside waters towards the Gulf as they focus on spawning. They generally congregate in the passes and along beaches fronting Sanibel and Captiva. Redfish Pass, to the north of Captiva, hosts large numbers of spawning snook and is often the first choice for springtime beach fishing.
A diving friend confirmed that hundreds of snook congregate under parts of the Sanibel Causeway in the late spring and early summer as well. Evidently, this wide area, which is really San Carlos Bay, produces enough current to support snook spawning activity.
Incidentally, I have encountered groups of male fish circling an obviously larger female snook along the beach as much as two miles from any pass or inlet. I now believe that not all snook spawning activity in this area occurs directly in the inlets.
All these necessary eco-factors combine to make Sanibel and Captiva Snook Central on Florida's southwest coast. Yet the area has one additional feature that makes fishing for snook here so distinctive. This is the beach fishery, along the shore that rims the Gulf side of both islands.
While many anglers opt for the "bush" in nearby Everglades, they are also encountering frequently cramped casting quarters, clouds of mosquitoes, and navigational problems. That contrasts with the simplicity of fishing the beaches of Sanibel and Captiva.
Indeed, the beach in this area can be paradise for snook fishing. I first got started years ago on a random June getaway from Miami to the Westwind Inn, midway on Sanibel's Gulf beach. My first exploratory cast, right behind the inn, was blasted by a 7-pound snook headed skyward, just a rod length from my feet. On 6-pound spinning tackle with light drag, the fish ran another 50 feet in the emerald surf and jumped again. Back and forth we fought until I released him five minutes after the strike. From that time, I was hooked on Sanibel beach-snooking.
There are three likely spots that produce results far more often when beach fishing than does random casting.
The first thing you want to look for that attracts snook is some form of structure along the beach. There are two types of such structure - solid and contour.
Solid structure is any submerged objects that snook use as hiding places to ambush their prey. Two beach hotspots on Sanibel are called the "Rocks" and the "Sticks" areas. Both spots lie a bit west of Sanibel's midpoint. The Rocks are submerged below the surface, so you have to get a little local advice to locate them. The Sticks sector of the beach is composed of a series of submerged but visible trees that attract loads of snook. They are, however, best fished from a boat anchored a short distance offshore.
|LEE ISLAND SNOOK GUIDES |
Capt. Joyce May Rehr
Capt. Mike Smith
Good contour structure is found along the entire length of both islands' beaches. This kind of structure is composed of anomalies in bottom configuration that are caused by the ever-present wave pattern, beach currents, and the direction and force of the wind.
For the most part, learning this kind of structure comes with experience, through observation. For instance, if you have an area of consistently calm water between waves, this may indicate a deeper slough running perpendicular to the shore. Such a site can attract snook.
There is also a relatively perpetual slough only a few feet from the shoreline and inside the first sandbar. This also runs parallel to the beach. On the high tide, you may find some of your most productive beach-snooking by casting artificial lures along the slough. This water can often be as shallow as 2 or 3 feet. This past summer in such a juncture of contours, I caught 14 snook on as many consecutive casts.
In either case, expect to find that snook facing into the wind or current, whichever is stronger.
The second site for action is found were whitebait and other minnows are schooling right off the beachfront. On calm mornings it is obvious when snook are feeding on the baitfish. Vigorous boiling, surface popping, and tail slapping can be seen only a few feet from the water's edge.
On windier, rougher days, when the surf is discolored, use the diving pelicans and wheeling gulls to help you pinpoint the bait schools. The snook will inevitably be under the bait, driving the minnows to the surface, which attracts the birds.
A third location for snook action is at either the Sanibel Causeway or Redfish Pass, where snook school for the spawn. A well-placed pinfish, herring or white bucktail bait in these inlets is quickly taken. These snook are basically bottom-dwellers, so your inlet presentation must be down in their midst for results.
If you opt for artificial lures, your choice should be governed by the size of the bait that the snook are chasing and by the clarity of the water. For instance, if the water is extremely clear and the snook are showering minnows around you, use a 30-pound fluorocarbon leader and a small spoon or a white bucktail. On the other hand, in rougher surf you need a lure that is more visible by virtue of its larger profile. In these circumstances, obviously you can get away with a heavier leader, like 50-pound monofilament.
Tackle for beach fishing can be as light as 6-pound spinning or 10-pound baitcasting, as long as you have a large line capacity when you hook the occasional monster. After all, on what are the fish going to cut you off?
The time you must "beef up" your tackle with heavier line or leaders is around solid structure such as submerged rocks or trees. This is also the case if you choose to fish the mangrove forests on the inside of Sanibel. That is because when he's hooked, Mr. Linesides uses any structure he can reach to cut you off.
A DAY ON THE WATER
The wind was blowing frothy wavelets when I met Capt. Mike Smith at the boat ramp adjacent to Sanibel Causeway. The captain offered that his livewell was full of pilchard and pinfish and he was ready to go. Which meant go inside, considering the strong onshore winds pummeling Sanibel's Gulf shore.
The first thing to notice about a guide is the boat he uses. Smith's skiff was immaculate and laid out efficiently. He had an electric trolling motor on the bow that would take us quietly along mangrove edges and flats without spooking the snook. Also, the outboard motor powering his skiff featured a power trim and a jackplate. The latter device is necessary for running over super-shallow flats in order to save time or to reach fishy places.
Our destination was to be the Darling NWR. As the mangrove shoreline flew towards us, Mike eased back on his throttle.
"I'll be tossing pilchards into the mangrove pockets to wake up these fish," the guide explained, "and then we'll follow with the main course, a pinfish."
At that moment we passed through an opening in the mangrove forest and entered the refuge. Immediately, Mike raised the engine on the jackplate to adjust for shallower water and idled for 10 minutes through a jungle of channels, islands and creeks.
"A lot of people get lost in here, but I've fished this area since I was a kid," he offered as the featureless wall of mangroves slipped past. Deep in the Darling refuge, there was but a hint of the harsh winds. As the sun got higher, it also got hotter.
Smith finally lowered the electric motor, steering to a mangrove pocket, where he dropped anchor. After dipping out a few pilchards from the livewell, he tossed them into the trees from which they rained down on the surface. One of those "rain drops" was met with a loud pop.
Quickly I had a line baited with a pinfish headed for the same spot. The strike and hookup were immediate. The fight was brief and we next released a brown-colored 6-pound snook back into its watery home. That scenario was repeated again and again during the day - the perfect way to spend another day in the mangrove paradise that is Sanibel and Captiva!
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