October 16, 2013
I did it just the other day. I walked outside, stretched my arms, took a deep breath and literally said "aaahhh!"
That's the human reaction to fall's arrival. We think cooler temperatures, football season, holiday season's coming.
Snook don't share that view. They feel that first tinge of cooling water and they think, "Oh crap, it's about to get cold."
No doubt, as a subtropical fish at the upper end of its sustainable range, Florida's Gulf Coast snook do not like even our mild winters. But here's what anglers should know: Not only do snook disdain the drop in water temps, they're also bummed about the dramatic decline in forage that comes with autumn's arrival.
Click the image to see the snook photo gallery
After several months of gobbling scaled sardines (whitebait) and threadfin herring (greenbacks) pretty much at will, those voluminous baitfish schools that have kept them fat and happy through the warm months will soon vanish.
Sure, snook can always find a shrimp, crab or pinfish to eat, but the easy buffet line will soon dwindle, so guess what? An early fall snook is one food-motivated critter. That means outstanding angling opportunity.
This time of year, shorter days tell all of the earth’s wild things that the winter’s leanness is just around the corner. Even when fall remain mild in Florida, the snook are busily on their way to winter mode.
These fish survive winter by packing into coastal rivers, creeks, canals and any deep basin they can find, huddling together in huge masses and doing their best to stay warm. Deep, stable water out of the wind helps keep their internal thermometers at a doable level, but the fish need to remain as still as possible so they use minimal energy and simply live off the fat that they packed on fall.
The linesiders will eat every baitfish they can catch, but they’ll become far less fixated than they are during summer’s abundance. Perennial baits like pinfish, grunts and live shrimp gain prominence during the fall season.
This is also a great time to throw artificials for snook. Topwater plugs can draw vicious strikes in early mornings and late afternoons. During the day, anglers fare well with white or chartreuse bucktail jigs and soft plastic jerk baits on 1/8- ¼-ounce jig heads or weedless hooks. The latter affords the option of adding or removing pinch-on weights for variable depth retrieves.
Snook are generally spread out this time of year, as they’re moving through the bays and estuaries en route to their ultimate winter destinations. Mangrove edges, sand bars, oyster bars and sandy potholes amid grass flats are likely haunts; and until the water gets too cold, approaching fish on foot is a great way to get close to fall snook.
You'll also find plenty of snook holding around bridges on the way back to their wintering spots. Fish peak tidal flows which occur around new and full moons for the best snook action. Daytime fishing is usually better during a new moon period, as snook may feed at night under a clear sky and a bright full moon. When the cold fronts start their regimented march, your best fishing occurs ahead of an approaching front or a couple of days after one passes and the barometer stabilizes.
Fall snook still have plenty of vigor, and they’ll fight to exhaustion. Particularly in heavily fished areas like Tampa Bay and Sarasota Bay, dolphins have learned to target fishing boats and pick off weak snook after release. Give your fish a chance to recharge its batteries by thoroughly reviving it at boatside.
Grip the stout lower jaw with thumb and forefinger and support the midsection with your other hand. Gently move the fish back and forth to wash oxygen over its gills. You’ll know when a snook’s ready to go because it will clamp down on your thumb. The toothless jaws do no damage, but the pressure signals a healthy fall snook.
On Florida's Gulf Coast and in Monroe County, anglers with a saltwater license and a snook stamp may keep one snook measuring 28-33 inches total length per person, per day. Closed seasons are Dec. 1 through the end of February and May 1-Aug. 31. Atlantic recreational snook season closes June 1-Aug. 31 and Dec. 15-Jan. 31. Daily bag limit is one per person, per day with a slot limit of 28-32 inches total length.