For snook, you fish on top for show, and smack on bottom for dough.
Long gone are the good old days when a Florida angler could legally tote home a leg-long snook and feed half the neighborhood. And that’s precisely why a lot more leg-long snook are being caught on a regular basis nowadays.
I would be willing to wager that nine of ten slot-size, and bigger snook, are caught on the bottom. That’s where the big gals wanna be. And that’s where you need to be, presenting artificial lures and live bait alike, to bag that fish for the table or to catch and release a real whopper.
I learned that as a boy during the ‘60s on family beach vacations in Naples. My dad and I had scant snook fishing experience when we first walked into a rustic, “old Florida” bait shop, Trader Zeke’s. Located about a block behind Vanderbilt Beach just a couple of miles from Wiggins Pass, Zeke’s largely catered to snook anglers during the summer. What I remember most is hundreds upon hundreds of custom-tied bucktail jigs strung on fishing line from wall to wall. Sure, there were some topwater plugs and spoons on pegboards, but my gosh, the jigs! White and yellow, and just a few pink jigs as I recall. Upperman-style and bullet-shaped jigheads mostly, ranging from 1⁄2 to 3 ouncers, for banging the sand bottom in the nearby Gulf passes. Smaller ones, too, for shallower backcountry and surf work.
“If you want a big pass snook, son, toss this big jig upcurrent, keep a tight line and let the tide roll it along the bottom,” I recall the counter man saying as he flipped me a big, bushy yellow jig tied on a stout 5/0 hook. I took his advice and tried not to stare at the space where his ring finger (reportedly donated to a snook’s razor-sharp gill plate on a dark night) used to be. Now, I would consider that a snook fisherman’s Purple Heart! When the locals went to famed Wiggins Pass in those days, it was in 4-wheel-drive Jeeps and pickups. At first light, or at sunset for the night shift, caravans of Jeeps with custom rod racks festooned with rods rigged with those white and yellow bucktails plowed down the soft sugar-sand trail. That beach trail ate our family station wagon alive on more than one occasion, but it is paved today for better or worse, depending on who you talk to.
Refuge plus Structure plus Food equals Slots
Snook that reach and surpass slot size have learned to avoid exposing themselves to dangers in the shallows—porpoises and sharks that can pin them against a sand bar, and flats boats and personal watercraft running over their heads. Though big snook occasionally venture into skinny water to chase up a meal, they’re largely ambush feeders that love home delivery. They set up shop where current brings food their way, particularly around structure that provides refuge from snook predators.
The biggest snook of all feed near the bottom in passes and inlets from May until October. Some days it seems all the fish you land are oversize, which is hard to classify as a problem, unless you’re out for a snook dinner. Same goes for the deepest holes of backcountry rivers and creeks, residential canals and even in the surf—presenting lures and baits that reach bottom are best. Snook are very efficient “up-feeders” but that underslung jaw is designed for pinning prey to the bottom, too.
If you sight cast for snook on the flats or in the surf, how often do you see big specimens swimming right at the surface? Probably not often, unless there is a surface feeding frenzy. Snook usually cruise along just above bottom, or they may park in a pothole or defined grass edge practically “standing” on their pectoral fins. In the absence of migrating, surface bait schools, snook eat lots of whiting, croakers and crabs, all of which are bottom-dwellers. Take a look at the next big snook you catch. Notice that its underside is somewhat flat, or boxy, from its lower jaw to about its rib cage. It’s the perfect body contour for bottom-hugging, not to mention hydrodynamic in current.
Around bridges, docks and jetties—all prime snook structure—the biggest fish are typically hooked by anglers fishing deep. In passes and inlets big snook prefer the slower moving water smack on bottom where they can feed with less exertion. The fish especially hang tight to bottom structure, be it riprap, boulders, depressions, dredge holes, displaced jetty rocks, manmade junk or natural depressions. The fish hold position just downcurrent of such current buffers. At tide changes a snook can meander about a bit before getting back into peak-tide position.
What’s Your Line?
So let’s fish deep. Choose lures that get down there and stay there. Consider depth and current strength when choosing either jigs, swimbaits, diving plugs, or sinker sizes for natural and live baits. Whatever you send down, keep in mind that your choice of line—type and diameter—can greatly affect your ability to keep your offering near the bottom. Heavier monofilament, say in the 25- to 40-pound-test class or higher, certainly gets pushed around by current more than 12- to 17-pound test does. When you’re casting and retrieving a lure cross-current, as you do when casting from the bank of a pass or inlet, the tidal flow can create a big belly in your line, not only slowing the sink rate, but diminishing your contact with the lure or bait, so you don’t detect pickups or set the hook as well. You can somewhat avoid these shortcomings when casting straight upcurrent, as you typically do when standing on, or anchored under, a bridge. Many snook anglers prefer GSP lines (gel spun polyethylene) because the lines are thinner and help lures sink faster. Plus GSP does not stretch, which helps you feel those subtle snook taps and helps you drive the hook home. The abrasion resistance comes in handy around structure.
Jig ’Em Up
The hair jig is the oldest conventional artificial lure known and is hands-down the best lure for snook. It’s the universal choice for bridges, docks, inlets, passes, wrecks, rivers or the surf. The granddaddy of big snook jigs, the Flare Hawk, is a nylon-skirted, leadhead jig that sinks quickly (due to the non-absorbent nature of nylon) yet is dressed heavily to present a big silhouette. It’s a super night-fishing jig, and among top big snook lures for bridge fishing along the East Central Florida coast. It may have suffered a dive in popularity now that we have a 32-inch maximum size on snook on this coast, but plenty of slot-size fish still fall to the 1⁄2- to 2-ounce sizes.
The Hawk normally has an arrow-shaped head with the hookeye located well back from the point of the jighead, making it ideal for vertical jigging. The jighead comes in sizes from 1⁄4 to 3 ounces, and has a bullet-shaped head, designed to dive straight for the bottom. Some have part of the nylon skirts tied “forward style” so that the hair really flares and pulsates in
the water, presenting the illusion of a really big baitfish. Top colors are all-chartreuse, red-and-white and yellow-and-white.
The larger Flare Hawks have 6/0 or 7/0 stainless or cadmium hooks, but lunker seekers have been known to fish models with 8/0 or 9/0 4X-strong hooks to prevent hook-straightening when fishing with 25-pound-class tackle. Another “hawk,” the Red Tail Hawk, is simply a white bucktail or nylon-skirted jig, accented with a single red saddle hackle, or strand of red material ( some makers use red Mylar or similar flash material) a bit longer than the skirt. Suggestions are that the red hackle represents a baitfish’s lateral line.
Of course, many other jigs take big snook. Most have a bullet head, like the Flare Hawk, or round, boxing glove, arrow, or something similar to the standard Upperman head, which is narrow and keel-shaped so that it sinks fast, offering little resistance to the water. Bulky bucktail skirts present a big profile, but if you prefer this material, it is important to buy or dress your jigs on heads heavy enough to compensate for bucktail’s natural buoyancy.
In this plastic age, you’ll find countless plastic grub tails and twister tails and other undulating tails of all descriptions to stick on a jighead. If there is a major advantage to plastic-tail jigs, it is that they sink faster and resist being carried by current as quickly as natural or artificial hair-dressed jigs, jighead weight being equal. Scented plastic and biodegradable tails are the rage, and many snookers are convinced they increase the bite, particularly at night or in turbid water. Don’t discount pinning a plastic worm to your hair jig—it’s an old trick that increases the lure’s bulk.
Lipped Plugs and Crankbaits
Lipped diving plugs and crankbaits are great snook lures that require little operator manipulation. The longer the lip the deeper they dive (particularly when worked across or against the current). And some of these plugs are heavy enough to sink while you pause in the retrieve. Many divers and crankbaits have rattle chambers, and some of the “slab-side” style crankbaits shaped like bunker (menhaden) wobble and give off lots of vibration. The only downside is you have to deal with treble hooks, and if an oversize snook inhales one, gill raker and gullet damage is likely. You might consider snipping off one of three prongs, or replacing the treble with a good single hook that does not throw off the lure’s balance and action.
If fishing live or fresh-dead baitfish, sliding egg sinkers come into play. Weights ranging from 1⁄2 to 3 ounces are used, depending on depth and current strength, and whether you are drift-fishing or at anchor. If anchored, and fishing live mullet, pinfish, croakers (a choice big-snook bait) or whitebaits downcurrent, the flow will cause your line to rise. Adequate weight is needed to keep your bait near bottom. A knocker rig (where the egg sinker slides freely to the hookeye) is not as effective as a fishfinder rig (the sliding egg sinker stops at a swivel above the bite leader). The knocker rig does suffice when you soak a whole or half ladyfish or mullet, or a mullet head on the bottom, which is a deadly method for trophy snook in passes or backcountry river holes.
Live shrimp are hard to beat for slot fish. The best way to present one is via a bare jighead. The Troll Rite is a time-honored jig; it has a torpedo-shaped head, an eye located so that the jig rides hook up, and (normally) a stout hook in sizes 1/0 through 4/0. Most are white or yellow, but color is an afterthought because you pin a frisky live shrimp to the jig. To keep it alive, and ensure it swims headfirst in a natural manner, you run the hook through the head from underneath, avoiding the brain. This rig casts well and, more importantly, sinks fast, which allows you to bump bottom. There may not be a better search bait for snook under bridges, and in passes and inlets. Large live shrimp are best, if not hand-picks—be sure to use a Troll Rite with a hook large enough to protrude from the shrimp’s head.
Big Snook Tackle
Slot and trophy snook tackle basically falls into the 12- to 25-pound class. Spin or casting tackle has its place, with artificial lure casters tending to go with rods on the light side of the spectrum, and livebaiters opting for bigger sticks. Nothing is worse than undergunning when you expect to hook oversize snook. It does the fish no good, and in some situations, anglers end up struggling to set big hooks with light rods. Always add a bite leader of at least 30-pound-test mono or fluorocarbon, and go to at least 50- or 60-pound for night fishing with big lures and baits. A leader in the 24- to 30-inch range, tied to a double line is ideal for casting lures, and it pays to go longer wherever you expect to encounter lots of rough structure such as bridge or dock pilings or jetties.
And Finally, for Fly Guys
There is no rule that says flyrod snook have to be small. Rather, Florida fly rodders specializing in snook have it figured out. There are limitations, however, in places like big, deep inlets and passes. It is all but impossible to get big flies down in big current. Fly fishers do rely on chumming with live baits to coax big snook to the surface to eat streamers. But in reality, this does not qualify as real fly fishing for traditional fly rodders. There are purer ways to catch slot and bigger snook, such as dredging streamers from just below the surface or deeper in bridge shadowlines at night. This calls for 9- to 11-weight rods, and clear intermediate- or medium-rate sinking lines or shooting heads. Baitfish streamers tied on 1/0 to 3/0 hooks get the nod, tied to 40- to 50-pound-test bite tippets.
Plenty of slot-size snook also roam the beaches, particularly from late August through October during the baitfish migration. Then, fly rodders score with topwater poppers and mullet patterns. Sight casting is terrific, too, on September days when the surf is light enough to allow for it.
Bottom line is, you can target keeper snook, no matter how much complaining you hear from anglers who maintain that the slot is too restrictive to allow for a table snook. Or that 9 of 10 snook they catch is a half-inch short. Go deep, and you’ll get your slot fish. And you’ll enjoy some lively conversation over your snook dinner about those oversize beauties you released along the way.