When run-off is flowing through the water-control structures in this part of the state, snook go on a feeding frenzy. Here's how to find and fish these spillways.
By Jerry Gerardi
The morning had been a productive one. I was fishing with Dave Messer, a longtime resident of South Florida's Palm Beach County, and we were targeting snook in Lake Boca Raton.
The lake, in the city of the same name, has always produced snook, but in the last several years you really have had to work for them. Boat traffic, fishing pressure and general habitat destruction have taken their toll on the elusive linesiders.
Dave and I both have been fishing the area since the early 1960s for snook and tarpon. Dave, a retired Boca Raton cop, always has tales of fishing the way it was - especially on the midnight shift. That's when all the hard-core snook fishermen of the time chose to pursue their quarry.
We had both caught and released several small snook while drifting live pilchards, a baitfish common to the area, during the summer months. But now the sun was getting higher and boat traffic was increasing. We had plenty of live baits left in the well, so Dave suggested we try the spillway on the Hillsboro Canal. It had rained the night before and there was an outside chance that the gates would be open.
This particular spillway was one of the first water control devices built in South Florida. Originally called the Deerfield Locks, it was a true lock structure used to get cargo and vegetable barges from Lake Okeechobee to supply the eastern communities or rail shipment to the north. This was in the early 1900s. The spillway has been there a long time, and Dave and I both fished it extensively as kids. Now we decided to see if the fishing was as good as we remembered.
As we made our way west on the Hillsboro Canal, we saw distinct signs that the gates were open. Water hyacinths were floating by, and bits of foam were here and there on the dark-stained Everglades water that was pouring through. The gates were in fact open, but just a little. It was perfect for fishing, and we even saw some snook breaking on the surface.
Dave got the first bait - a lively pilchard hooked through the nostrils - in the water. It was hit almost immediately. After a short fight, the fish got away. I quickly shot a bait out while Dave was hooking on another pilchard. My bait was taken, but I missed the fish.
Boynton Beach's Dave Messer took this 34-inch snook from the Hillsboro Canal spillway while fishing with the author. Photo by Jerry Gerardi
Dave's second cast resulted in another snook hookup. This fish fought hard on the surface, thrashing a couple of times but not clearing the water enough for us to get a true idea of its size. Then the snook sounded and headed downstream. Next came the tricky part.
Most spillways have a cable with barrels stretched across them to keep boaters a safe distance from the gates. This is to keep boats from being swamped should the spillway open suddenly. You can't tie off to the cable. That's against the law and also dangerous.
The trick is to just nudge the cable with your boat's bow and either leave your engine in gear or rest the cable on the bow. If you're lucky, your boat will stay in place.
When Dave's fish headed downstream, he had to stick his rod tip into the water to get the line away from the cable and a sure cutoff. While the fish was pulling out drag, Dave had to lean over the side, pass his rod under the cable, grab the tip, pull it back into the boat, and continue the fight. It took some degree of dexterity, but having performed the trick many, many times, he pulled it off almost like he knew what he was doing.
After another fight at the stern of the boat, I was finally able to net the fish for him. It was a beautiful snook and it was a keeper. Florida now has a slot limit for the species. They must be between 26 and 34 inches long. This fish was right at 34 inches. That was the good news. The bad news was that I had to listen to Messer's gloating for the rest of the morning.
We kept getting hits and hooked several more snook. I lost a nice fish at the boat, Dave released a snook that was just undersize, and then I caught a gar.
Eventually we went through all our live baits and started fishing with pilchards that had died in the well. They really didn't work that well, although we have caught snook on dead baits in spillways before.
We threw a few lures and heavy jigs but didn't get any hits. The snook were being picky and wanted only live bait, so we called it a day.
RAIN'S THE NAME OF THE GAME
This spillway action was taking place because of rain. After a heavy rainfall, the locks that protect inland areas from saltwater intrusion into South Florida canals open up to prevent flooding. When that happens, it's as thought a dinner bell is ringing for both snook and snook fishermen. The action can be fantastic, not only in Palm Beach County, but throughout the southern half of the state.
By design, a spillway opens from the bottom. As water rushes through the opening, many forms of freshwater life are swept into the brackish waters of coastal canals.
Shad, bream, speckled perch, largemouth bass, channel catfish and crawfish all become food for predatory snook that reside in the area.
As the freshwater bait passes through the spillway, it's subjected to tremendous turbulence. The rough water serves to disorient and injure the bait, making it an easy mark for snook. Turbulent water also serves to stir up sediment, making it difficult for baitfish to see and avoid snook.
Snook, on the other hand, find the dirty water an advantage. They possess an excellent sonar system that enables them to find prey even in pitch darkness. The large black lateral stripe on each side is a sensory organ that allows them to detect the slightest vibrations in the water. They don't have to see their prey; they can feel it.
Even after spillways close, snook remain around them. Freshwater fish congregate around the closed gates because of a pocket of fresh water that will stay there for days. Until it disperses, bass, bream, shad and anything else that was swept through stays there to survive. That congregation provides, in effect, a continued smorgasbord for marauding snook.
When you're fishing spillways for snook, tackle should be no less than medium class with lines of at least 15-pound test. Many anglers even use the
superbraids that are much thinner than monofilament, enabling them to put 30- to 40-pound-test line on relatively small reels. Spillway snook are not sports. They seize every opportunity to drag lines over rocks, barrels, cables or anything else that might cause it to break.
Line capacity isn't that important. A reel holding 200 yards will suffice. If a spillway snook takes more than that, it will be under the barrels, around a piling or into the rocks, and gone.
Rods should be stiff, with good backbone. Spillways are no place for limber "noodle sticks." In addition to battling fish that might very well run into the 30-pound class, there is a swift current to contend with. The first thing a spillway snook will do when hooked is run into the current and turn sideways to it. Water pressure, along with the snook's resistance, results in a tremendous strain on equipment.
Rods need to be tough enough to turn and pull a fish out of the current. Many anglers prefer a rod with an extended butt section for added leverage. Spillway fishermen need all the help they can get.
Reels should be capable of casting small lures without much difficulty. Outfits such as medium-weight spinning or baitcasting rigs work well. Leave the heavy saltwater rods home unless you plan on fishing live bait.
Live-baiting requires considerably heavier tackle, but the extra investment can produce outstanding results. For live bait, consider a saltwater reel loaded with 40-pound-test or heavier line. Some anglers wouldn't dream of live-baiting snook with less than 80-pound line. Here again, the superbraids are becoming more and more popular.
Snook fishermen are believers in the axiom "Big baits for big fish." It's not unusual to see a 10- or 12-inch shad used for bait.
Hooks also play a critical role in spillway snook fishing. They should be extra strong and extremely sharp - sharp to the extent that just looking at them hurts. Spillway snook can be picky eaters at times. If a hungry fish happens to hook itself, no problem. Many times, though, the fish are full, having gorged on the spillway smorgasbord, and hit very lightly, almost imperceptibly. It's as though they are just sampling the bait as it drifts by. That's where sharp hooks are needed. You may not have time to react with a bone-jarring set.
Circle hooks work well in spillways when the snook are actually swallowing the bait. With a sharp circle hook, all you need to do is put the reel in gear and wind. Most snook will then be hooked in the corner of the mouth.
Hooks should not be tied directly to the line. A leader must be used, unless you are fishing 80-pound line. Heavy monofilament or fluorocarbon is by far the best leader material. Use at least 40-pound-test leaders.
Snook can cut through light line two ways. They have fine, sharp teeth that can wear through, and they have sharp gill plates that can shear a line instantly.
To prevent injury to fish and fisherman, a wet rag proves useful in handling small fish for release, as does a sturdy landing net. One of the many clamp-type devices on the market, like the Boga Grip, also are perfect for lifting large fish from the water.
Traditionally thought of as a warm-weather fish, snook defy that stereotype when spillways open. Any month of the year, warm or cold, can be productive for snook when the gates open.
Spillway snook fishing techniques are as varied as the anglers trying them. When the water is flowing, try using artificial hard-plastic jerkbaits that imitate baitfish, or other hardplastic swimming lures. Choose one with a lip that will get you down to where the fish are holding. Soft-plastic baits well too. Remember that the snook are going to be close to the bottom and out of the current, waiting in ambush for something to be swept by in the current. Also, snook almost always feed up.
Another way to get down to where the snook are lurking is with a heavy jig of 2 to 4 ounces. If it does not draw strikes, tip it with a white, yellow or chartreuse artificial worm or grub.
Artificial lures should be cast into the current and worked back with a jigging action to simulate an injured baitfish. Keep a tight line. Many times the strike comes as your lure is falling.
Fish jigs slightly differently. Let them sink to the bottom and then hop them back along the bottom. Hits feel like bumps, so be alert for any sensations out of the ordinary. This is another good time for the new braided lines. You feel every tap. When employing this technique, however, be prepared to lose a few jigs to the rocks that have been sunk to stabilize the bottom. That is a cost of spillway snook fishing.
After the gates close and the fish stop hitting lures, switch to live bait. Plenty of snook are caught days after the spillway flow ceases. Most live-bait fishermen prefer shad or bream for bait. They are somewhat inconvenient to get, but well worth the effort. Or, like Messer and me, you can use live pilchards, which are easily caught with cast nets in the ocean.
Shad can be netted at the spillways themselves or in nearby freshwater canals. Bream, however, must be caught on hook and line. It's illegal to net freshwater panfish in Florida.
There are three methods for fishing with live bait: freelining, using a jighead, or fishing with a float. Freelining allows the bait to swim to the bottom, where most snook lie. But it also allows your line to settle into rocks and occasionally become tangled.
Using a jighead and live bait is a deadly tactic. Hook the baitfish through the nose and then retrieve it slowly close to the bottom. This technique is quite effective.
Float-fishing keeps the line out of the rocks and makes it easier to follow the bait movement. Unfortunately, floats can hamper the natural swimming of bait and cause missed strikes. Because of resistance floats cause while passing through the water, snook often drop the bait before you can set the hook.
There are several spillways in South Florida that are particularly productive for snook. Some are accessible on foot, while others require a boat. Starting in northern Palm Beach County, we find that one productive site is the Earman River Spillway, in North Palm Beach. This one is fishable both by boat and on foot. The next one south is the Lake Worth Spillway, on the West Palm Beach Canal, which divides the cities of Lake Worth and West Palm Beach. This spillway is very popular with shore-bound fishermen. In fact, it can only be fished from shore, as barrels keep boaters hundreds of yards from the structure. The South Florida Water Management District has constructed two excellent piers from which to fish here.
The next three spillways are on canal C-16, in Boynton Beach; C-15, at Boca Raton; and the Hillsboro Canal, in Deerfield Beach. All three are most commonly fished from a boat
. That's not to say an occasional angler hasn't managed to find his way to the snook while on foot, it's just that these spillways are easiest to fish from the water.
Pompano Beach has a popular spillway in the area of Palm Aire on the C-14 canal. There are several smaller, secondary spillways in the area too, but this one is the most productive.
Finally, Miami-Dade County has the Snapper Creek Spillway, in Coral Gables.
Are there other productive spillways? Of course there are. Some are better than others. Your best bet to find them would be to stop in at local tackle shops and just ask. Advice is free - especially if you buy something while you ask.
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