May 16, 2011
Sanibel and Captiva islands are ground zero for springtime snook fishing in Southwest Florida.
There is no mistaking the ferocity of a snook strike. Even in the predawn darkness I saw my father's 7-foot rod double over. The morning coffee had not yet taken effect, but when he yelled, “Fish on!” my crusted eyelids popped wide open. About that time my line went tight and it took every ounce of control I had to not yank up on the rod for a quick set, as I had been accustomed to doing for so many years. “Gently raise the rodtip and the circle hook will do the work, setting itself perfectly in the corner of the mouth,” our host Ozzie Fischer had repeatedly beat into our brains all morning.
Line was singing off of both reels like a beehive in summer. A couple of minutes later we had two snook at the boat. Both fish fell slightly under the minimum size of 26 inches, and after a quick release we were re-baited and ready for another drift. It was not yet 6:30 a.m., and the sunlight was ever so slowly revealing the pristine, aqua-green water of Redfish Pass in southwest Florida.
Although I live on the southeast coast of Florida, I'd made a return trip to my home waters around Sanibel and Captiva islands for the May snook bite. The snook action in Lee County is phenomenal at this time of year—in the passes, on the beaches and around the docks—and it all revolves around the spawning activities of this incredible gamefish. A combination of factors brings snook by the thousands to this area to spawn. The swift current in the local passes serves a two-fold function. The fast water pulls large schools of migrating baitfish through the passes with each tide, and at the same time carries the millions of eggs shed by the female snook into the safer backwaters to hatch. The diverse habitat ranging from mangrove-lined grassflats and oyster beds, to beaches and man-made structure, offers the perfect environment for the spawning fish. The environment is pretty good for anglers, too, with boat ramps and plenty of places to fish. Shorebound anglers, as well, are happy to pay the $3 toll to drive over the Sanibel Causeway to access some excellent wading and shoreline opportunities.
The snook spawning season on the Gulf Coast generally begins in mid April and continues through mid September. Water temperature determines when the fish begin to spawn. When it hits a consistent 75.2 degrees, it's like the green flag dropping at Daytona and it's off to the races for the snook. Typically in May, Sanibel and Captiva islands become prime territory for members of the Linesiders Fan Club. The fish have only two things on their minds in May: love and food, and not necessarily in that order. Add to that the fact that the fisherman's dinner table clock is winding down—June, July and August are catch and release only—and you have all the ingredients to induce May mayhem.
An early start is essential during this month. From first light of day through midmorning the snook are feeding like mad. The females begin to hydrate their eggs between noon and two in the afternoon and then other tactics must be used for continued tight line action. Last May when my father and I joined up with Ozzie Fischer, our old friend and second-generation guide out of Captiva Island, my father mentioned that he had to cut out early to make a flight. Ozzie told him his arms would be aching from fighting snook by 9:30 a.m. In the darkness we traveled the quick two-minute ride to Ozzie's favorite bait spot—a channel marker just off the entrance to South Seas Plantation's Bayside Marina. Ozzie began chumming with a mixture that included oats and cat food, among other ingredients. The concoction seemed to bring the baitfish in from miles. With three tosses of the net we had a bountiful assortment of scaled sardines (a.k.a. shiners, or pilchards) and pinfish. Ozzie's choice bait for the month of May is pinfish in the passes and a feisty shiner for potholes on the flats and oyster beds. The snook in the passes tend to sit down in holes and shiners have a tendency to swim up and away from the fish, while pinfish typically swim downward. When bait is scarce, a cut ladyfish will suffice. Shrimp are preferred in the winter, when Ozzie finds most of his action wrestling snook out of the mangroves. With a full livewell we sped off to beat the crowd to our first stop, Redfish Pass.
Redfish Pass is a mid-sized cut (about 1⁄4 mile at its widest point) that reaches 40 feet at its deepest point. The south side offers a mix of terrain owned by the luxury resort South Seas Plantation, ranging from a rocky incline, to smooth sand, to a 200-foot-long seawall. Snook pile up along the shoreline here at various locations depending on whether the tide is rising or falling. The north shore of the pass, North Captiva Island, offers a different landscape enticing snook with undeveloped beaches and fallen trees that offer shade and protection from predators, not to mention easy access to the masses of baitfish being pulled through the pass during each incoming tide. Unlike mangrove fishing, where finesse casting is the key to getting your bait back under the roots, heavier tackle can and should be used in the passes, especially when you're fishing with larger baits in the 4- to 7-inch range. Ozzie rigged us up with 20-pound-test line and tied on 40-pound shock leaders with 4/0 circle hooks. We freelined a couple of feisty 4-inch pinfish a few feet from the shore into the murky, ripping current and we were set for battle.
After the double hookup that started off the morning, we consistently pulled in fish in the 24- to 25-inch range for the next hour drifting both sides of the pass. The action reached a frenzied period where for 30 minutes straight we had a strike on every drift. Two other boats had joined the early morning party and like an assembly line we politely followed each other one by one through the pass. I bet our whoops and hollers could be heard up in Pine Island as we cheered each other on, watching linesiders boogie and two-step across the surface.
The huge schools that are readily accessible tend to produce lots of smaller fish. The hogs will typically be found in ones and twos away from the masses. The incline from the shore to the ledge-like dropoff on the south side of the pass has several deep holes where one or two of these submarines will settle and ambush passing schools of bait. Time was ticking away for my Pop to get to the airport , so we decided to move on after one last drift. About midway through I found myself reeling in my line as fast as my hand could crank because my father was battling a monster. The fish screamed to the surface about 25 feet from the boat and launched into the air, shaking massive shoulders like a bucking bronco. Pops instinctively dropped his rodtip and released some slack, but this was one savvy snook. I would almost swear he winked at us just before he spit the hook half the distance back to the boat and disappeared into the abyss.
The incoming tide was still in our favor as we moved around the corner to the open Gulf just inside the jetty. On a rising tide baitfish are pushed along the beaches until they reach the jetty. From there they move away from the shoreline and are forced around the tip of the jetty and then continue on through Redfish Pass. It takes a keen knowledge of the bottom and currents in this area to successfully drift the tip of the jetty, but done correctly the drill will almost always provide a strike or two. With the exception of a lone angler trying his luck from the shore we had the jetty to ourselves. Baitfish were plentiful here, and the snook were going wild. As one snook would break the surface chasing a bait, a domino effect would take place sending thousands of baitfish and dozens of snook in every direction above the surfac
e. The water would ripple for a second, then quickly build into a bubbling boil. For five seconds sheer pandemonium set in as backs and tails of snook could be seen darting at random in a 30-foot circle. The snook closest to the jetty were trapping and smashing the bait against the rocks, often flipping most of their bodies out of the water and getting wedged in the rocks. Flopping and wiggling they would plop back in and start all over again. It was truly an amazing sight. A few drifts past the jetty point provided six strikes and three fish to the boat, but again all smaller fish.
Snook have built an undeniable reputation for knowing exactly where the nearest structure can be found and burning to it in a hurry once hooked. The larger fish we hooked near the jetty would instinctively turn and run for the rocks, where even our 40-pound mono leaders severed like pasta noodles. Knowing that sometimes a large, loner snook will sit up next to shore on the beach and feed on passing schools, we moved up the beach about 100 yards. With a fresh shiner on I cast a long shot about two feet off the beach. Before my dad flipped his bail to cast I had a fish on, and judging by the amount of line it was carrying down the beach we could tell it was a hog. Ozzie quickly poled the skiff after the fish and I held on for the ride. The beach was wide open with no docks, rocks, or mangroves for the snook to run to and I felt I stood a good chance of landing her. After a solid seven-minute struggle I turned the fish and knew it was only a matter of time before she was in the net. She gave up some line and I managed to put half back on the reel. The current was still pushing up the beach toward the jetty at a good pace. I got the fish within five feet of the boat and glimpsed her massive head and dark green back. It was without a doubt my personal best—over 40 inches and somewhere in the 20- to 25-pound range. At this point I noticed we were within casting distance of the shore fisherman. Watching us scramble to boat our fish he cast directly in our path. Within seconds the man had hooked a juvenile snook. Suddenly, my fish made one last run, wrapping the man's line in the process. Ozzie yelled to the man to open his bail, but he got confused and instead raised his rodtip and reeled tight. My line parted instantly. I felt sick to my stomach. The sun had moved overhead, and it was time for my dad to head in, and Ozzie and I to regroup and plan our strategy for the midday action.
Snook are not the perfectly designed predators many think they are. Ron Taylor, a veteran researcher with the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, once told me snook are unable to adjust their eyes to bright sunlight. For this reason the fish seek the shade of bridges and docks during the brightest hours of the day, where they may continue feeding if tide and forage abundance are to their liking. One spot where this is evident is Blind Pass, where a small bridge connects Sanibel to Captiva. Wade fishermen used to cast live baits to the scores of snook piled up in the shade, until a hurricane in 1998 filled in the pass with sand. It was scheduled for dredging and reopening this spring, and may be a spot worth checking this summer.
With the nearest bridge, Sanibel Causeway, a long run from us, Ozzie and I bounced around the plethora of docks surrounding North Captiva Island on the Pine Island Sound side. This time of year the docks and the next pass up, Captiva Pass, offer ample opportunity between noon and four o'clock. When we anchored up near a dock just off the small airstrip on the island we got on a good bite. We had five takes and released
three fish within twenty minutes.
We spent the rest of the afternoon trying different nooks and crannies around the three islands. A local favorite spot for shore fishermen is the fishing pier on the south end of Sanibel Island. In many areas erosion has caused trees to fall into the water. These are always potential linesider hangouts during the afternoon hours of the spawn season. One of my all-time favorites is the increasingly crowded shoreline of Bowmans Beach on the Gulf side of Sanibel. A gold spoon pulled along the beach and around the trees is a solid bet. A point of interest: Don't be shocked if you catch an eyeful of sagging middle-aged flesh, as many sunbathers are sporting their birthday suits. Although nudity is not legal in the area, this stretch of beach is an openly accepted nudist hangout.
One of the most interesting aspects of fishing this area during May is the diversity of bait and lures one can try out. Because the snook are stacked so heavily, typical livebait anglers can take the opportunity to toss plugs, spoons, poppers and jigs. Ozzie mentioned he regularly puts his flyfishing charters on snook during May. It's a great time to have some fun and try something different.
My personal favorite artificial lure for this area is a 3⁄8- to 1⁄2-ounce red-and-white bucktail jig. It works well for casting at those hard-to-reach spots—under trees, mangroves and docks. Slowly retrieved, lightly bouncing off the bottom along the beaches, this setup seems to work for a couple of strikes. After one or two takes I may switch to a spoon or go back to live bait. Snook never seem to take any one lure for very long.
Sanibel and Captiva islands offer a magnificent backdrop to the fishing. The sunset over the Gulf of Mexico is stunning, and the mysterious “green flash” is not an uncommon sight, yet somehow the majestic surroundings become all the more phenomenal when the snook are spawning and stacked up so thick you'd think you can walk on them. Although
I no longer call these beautiful islands home, I plan to continue returning each spring for some of the state's best