March 23, 2021
In the fall of 2018, Florida closed its snook season for the first time ever. The closure came as a result of an extended red tide that the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC) determined had hurt inshore fish populations from the Hernando-Pasco county line all the way to Gordon Pass in Collier County.
That area—all of it prime snook territory—opened to snook fishing again on September 1, 2020. This two-year closure allowed surviving snook that were in the 28- to 33-inch harvest slot to grow through it, meaning they’re now fully protected and growing larger all the time.
Additionally, a number of consecutive winters without severe cold fronts reaching down into the Florida peninsula has allowed a northward migration of these cold-sensitive fish to extend rapidly along the west coast.
While 25 years ago it was rare to catch a snook north of Port Richey, except inside a few spring-fed rivers, these days the fish are abundant on the flats more than 100 miles to the north.
A recent trip with Captain William Toney of Homosassa (homosassainshorefishing.com) and fishing buddy Ray Markham—also a guide—serves as a case in point. We headed out to Chassahowitzka Point in search of big spawner trout, and we caught plenty of them sight-casting in the clear, knee-deep water. But, to Markham’s and my surprise, there was more than just big trout to be had.
"The way the tide is running out, I think we might hit a snook or two up in the backcountry," said Toney as we motored between spots. "We’ve been seeing a lot of them the last few years."
Both Markham and I are snook fanatics, and we couldn’t switch out our gear fast enough as Toney piloted his flat-bottomed Tremblay guide boat through narrow, rocky-bottom creeks in water sometimes barely a foot deep. Far into the marsh grass island morass, he shut down and began to pole. "They hang on the points as the water runs out," he said.
Markham took the bow while I manned the camera. The first three points yielded only one fat mangrove snapper, but the fourth, which had a big eddy dropping into a hole about 4 feet deep, held the jackpot. Ray stuck the fish after just one hop of his D.O.A. Shad Tail and the show was on. Even though he was fishing 15-pound-test braid on a stout spinning rod, the fish proved to be a real handful. It made a sizzling run to start, taking us around an island as Toney poled frantically to keep the line clear of projecting oyster shells and rocks.
We closed in and Markham put the pressure on. The fish sloshed on top, too heavy to jump. Her mouth looked as big as a paint can. Away she went again around the next island, as Toney poled for all he was worth and Markham high-sticked to prevent a cutoff on the oysters sticking out everywhere.
After a couple more big runs, the fish finally gave out. Markham grabbed her lower lip with a Boga Grip, cradled her tail with his free hand and hauled her in for a quick photo. The fish stretched close to 40 inches long—a beast of a snook anywhere, but truly amazing in country formerly known only for reds and trout. We released her to fight again.
A NEW GAME IN TOWN
Big snook are so common these days throughout the area from Port Richey to Crystal River that some guides now run trips specifically for them—something that would’ve been unheard of 25 years ago. While there have always been a few resident snook in the spring-warmed waters of the Homosassa and Crystal rivers, these new fish, many of them over 36 inches long, are immigrants from farther south.
A few are even showing up all the way to the oyster-dotted flats and marsh creeks around the Steinhatchee River. The Florida Barge Canal has become a hotspot, as has the outflow of the Crystal River Power Plant, particularly in winter when the fish leave the backcountry and look for deeper, warmer water. Farther south, anglers are reporting lots of big snook thanks to the extended closure. Captain Dave Pomerleau (madsnooker.com) fishes the coast from St. Petersburg Beach all the way to Boca Grande, and has made a business of targeting only giant linesiders with his clients.
"There are more huge snook on our coast now than there have been in years," says Pomerleau. "But most of the big ones are never seen, as they live in the channels under the bridges, around the jetties and in passes into the Gulf and never go into shallow water. They’re not obvious, but there are a lot of them."
GO BIG OR GO HOME
Pomerleau is an advocate of fishing after dark. "Boat traffic is down, there are no other fishermen on the water and these fish are naturally nocturnal feeders, so that all goes together to make sundown to sunup prime time for a monster," says Pomerleau.
He also believes big baits catch big fish. "If I want a 40-inch snook, I’m going to put out a 12-inch mullet or ladyfish to get that big mama’s attention," says Pomerleau. "There are a lot of smaller snook around these areas that you can catch on sardines or shrimp or lures, but if you’re targeting that giant snook, then a huge live bait is always the top offering."
And, of course, fishing big baits for big fish requires big tackle. "There’s no point in going out there with 20-pound tackle because you just aren’t going to get any of these fish in," he says. "I use 8-foot, heavy-action rods, 50-pound-test braid and 60-pound-test fluorocarbon leader to 3X-strong 5/0 or larger hooks. It takes every bit of that to pull a 30 pounder away from a bridge piling."
Because Pomerleau fishes exclusively for fish over the slot limit, he’s also fanatical about keeping them alive through the catch-and-release process. "I tell the angler to imagine they are underwater holding their breath—that’s the snook’s situation while we have it out of the water," he says. "So, we get them unhooked, we get our pictures fast—supporting both head and tail horizontally, never a lip-grip or a vertical hold-up—and then we get them back in the water. We almost never lose a fish."
FAUX FISH BAITING
For those who prefer to throw artificials, Captain Ray Markham (captainraymarkham.com) catches more than his share of lunker snook in the Tampa Bay area.
"Going at the right time is key for success on big snook with artificials," he says. "Hit those days around the new and full moons with strong outgoing tides, and fish the inside passes and points where the current is strongest because that’s where the fish will feed."
Markham fishes shallow mangrove country with lots of turtle grass and clear sand holes, so he’s an advocate of stealth. "Keep the boat quiet, stay back as far as you can from the target and make that first long cast count," he says, "those big fish are very easy to spook."
Among his favorite lures are the 5 1/2-inch D.O.A. C.A.L. Shad Tail on a 1/4-ounce head, and the MirrOlure Lil John, also on a 1/4-ounce head. He catches some lunkers on topwaters like the Rapala Skitter V, too.
WHERE TO GO
In winter, snook head into backcountry holes and up coastal rivers on Florida’s Gulf Coast. Among the top spots are the Crystal River Power Plant canal, the Cross Florida Barge Canal and the Crystal, Homosassa and Chassahowitzka rivers. At Tampa Bay, the fish move into Tampa Harbor, as well as up the Hillsborough, Alafia, Manatee and Little Manatee rivers. At Charlotte Harbor, the Peace and Myakka rivers are hot spots.
All these rivers produce best in winter with live pinfish or freshwater shiners in the holes, but it’s also possible to connect by trolling wobbling plugs or fishing plastic-tailed jigs and slow-sinking plugs around rocky points and drop-offs.
SNOOK SEASONS AND LIMITS
Targeting snook for catch-and-release fishing is legal year-round statewide. On the Gulf Coast, the harvest season is open north of the Hernando/Pasco county line and south of Gordon Pass at Naples through Monroe County from March 1 through April 31. It then closes for the spawn through August 31, reopening September 1 and continuing through November 30.
The central portion of the southwest coast remains closed to harvest until September 1, then returns to the usual west coast seasons, as above. The slot limit is not less than 28 inches or more than 33 inches total length, and the daily limit is one fish.
On the Atlantic Coast, the harvest season is open February 1 to May 31 and from September 1 to December 14. The slot is not less than 28 inches or more than 32 inches, with a limit of one fish per day. A $10 snook permit, in addition to the saltwater license, is required to possess snook. For more, visit myfwc.com.
Florida’s east coast is famed for its giant snook.
Snook on Florida’s east coast, a slightly different genetic strain from those on the west coast, regularly reach huge sizes. And because there’s no harvest of fish over 32 inches long, they just keep on getting bigger every year.
During the summer spawn, giant fish, many in the 40-inch class, stack up in the passes from West Palm Beach to Fort Pierce and can be caught by drifting live finger mullet, sardines or pinfish around the jetties.
These fish also head out along the beaches during the October mullet migration, joining sharks, Spanish and king mackerel and other predators in mauling the baitfish—sometimes right against the sand. Captain Butch Constable (561-758-6267) in Jupiter is among a number of top guides who target these fish.