March 01, 2012
No other species has as devout a following as snook. From the beaches to the flats, it's all here.
Large snook roam the beaches during the summer.
For the third straight time, the mullet I cast upcurrent of the bridge made a deep run with the flow, only to come to the surface as it approached the pilings. I wound the 10-inch bait up to the leader and pitched it out again, only this time with more height in an attempt to train it to swim where I wanted.
The ploy worked, and the mullet took the low track under the bridge, stopping at my feet in a line-dancing thump!
There really is no mistaking a snook bite. When that cavernous mouth sucks in a volume of water and your bait bounces off the back of the fish's throat, the strike that's transmitted up the line will fibrillate most hearts. After the initial jolt, it was time for a little action-shocking defib. The instant the hook found its mark, I knew it was a big fish.
To say it took me to the cleaners is a bit of an understatement. Even on heavy line, the fish managed to power the 15 yards it needed to make the pilings. For a second it was up on the surface, and I'll never forget the thick shoulders or that side-to-side rodeo ride.
Sailfish and bass are two of Florida's favorite species, and while they both have their fans, the dedication with which snook anglers chase their favorite fish approaches mania. When was the last time you heard of a bass fisherman climbing down a steel ladder in a thunderstorm to get to a bridge bulkhead so his jig would flow "just right" through the light? And how many sailfish have been caught at night by anglers who still had to get up and go to work in three hours?
Fish tattoos? I have enough trouble swallowing fish tacos. But I wasn't even a little surprised by the inky rendition of a snook on my friend George Greene's forearm. Knowing the kind of dedication he puts into his fishing, I guess I should have expected he'd like to make a snook a part of his daily life.
That's the way it is with snook fishermen. They're borderline cultists, consumed with every aspect of a single species of saltwater fish. As a brotherly brethren of the lunker linesider club, I was tempted to follow tattoo suit, and even went as far as to get the newspaper I was writing for at the time to finance the project under the guise of a story angle, but wussed out at the last second.
But what is it about a snook that turns normally sane fishermen into driven anglers willing to forgo every aspect of their daily lives?
Possibly, that thump. Or maybe it's the way a snook will blast a surface plug five feet into the air, then come back and do it again on the very next twitch. Or the stop-and-go thrill of a big linesider grabbing a jig and forcing its way under a bridge, or the habit of rushing out from under a mangrove root to eat a bait, then returning back to the exact same spot before the surface detonation exposes the strike. The fact that snook are excellent on the table doesn't scare off any anglers either.
Getting four species for the price of one also has its draw. While the common snook grows the largest, the humped back and thick body of a fat snook give these chubby piling-huggers their own following. Anyone who's ever seen the elongated fin spines of a swordspine snook knew they had a rare catch, and the large eyes and deep face and body of a tarpon snook is one mutation that may combine the best features of Florida's top saltwater inshore gamefish.
I have no idea what causes the allure, but I do know I can hook a good number of fish and expect to have a reasonable shot at landing them, but I've never caught a single snook I didn't feel lucky to land. At one point in the fight, every fish had a chance to beat me, be it around an object, by throwing the hook or parting the line with its body.
A snook has the power to punch to the nearest piling with a wide, swooping tail, plus a double set of razor-sharp gill rakers. An angler has to fight tooth and nail to keep one of these fighters from cutting itself free, one way or the other. So we power up with heavy monofilament leaders, high-speed reels, braided lines and rods so thick you could remove the tips and play pool with them. And they still hand us our lunch.
The habits of snook are particularly unnerving. Nocturnal feeders that don't necessarily feed at night, they eat according to the wind or tides, or moon or food source, depending on whom you ask. And just when you've found a pattern, they change-up on you, like a major league pitcher past his prime.
They stack like cordwood under a light, eating tiny minnows but shunning everything cast their way. But tie on a hook with three or four sparse strips of silver Mylar, and the fish will fight over the first cast, only to refuse the fly the rest of the night.
And who has never heard the loud pop a snook makes when it sucks a shrimp off the surface on a cold winter night? Echoing against the backdrop of a bridge piling, it sounds like someone dropped a bait bucket perfectly on its bottom or capped off a low-caliber round close to the cement.
Bridge snook wait for the current to bring their next meal.
In the winter, snook flood the backwaters and offshore reefs, seeking creature comforts while continuing their terror tactics on just about any fish or crustacean that will fit within their maw. When a severe cold front pushes the freezing mark, they become lethargic zombies--yellow-and-white submarines listing on their sides. They're easy prey for nets and even just a pair of hands, which is why the December 15 to January 31 closure is so important.
On the warmer days, snook move from the deep water to the nearby flats, feasting on every available baitfish species that crosses their paths. Many times, it's the tiny bay anchovy that suffers their ravenous wrath a hundredfold.
As spring approaches, their thoughts turn to food, then love, like an awakening bear fresh from winter slumber. Only this bear is on a mission to thin the early arrivals of pilchards, sardines and menhaden. At night, they gather along the shadow lines of bridges and piers, waiting in ambush for meandering mullet or menhaden. They stake out the channels and cuts through the flats, popping pinfish and sand perch. The fish feed voraciously, building up their fat supplies for the summer, when they'll mass in huge schools at inlets, passes and along the beach for a warm-water "Love Connection."
During lulls in the summer spawning ritual, snook compete for the limited amount of current-swept forage and are more vulnerable to angling based on sheer numbers. Protected status through the months of June, July and August allows the species optimal chances for reproduction.
Come fall, the slimmed-down fish will follow the mullet and other baitfish back inside, building their fat reserves for the winter ahead. It's a full-bore, two-month feeding-fest, and every mullet coming around a point of land, seawall or dock can count on taking to the air. Mullet rain, the locals call it--feeding time, for the snook.
Gradually, the fish work their way up into the deeper creeks, where sun shining on the dark bottom will warm their weary bones on the coldest days. As temperatures drop, snook move around less and thus their nourishment needs diminish. They feed on warmer days, fast on the rest.
There are as many techniques for catching snook as there are food sources, but it's hard to beat a live, hand-picked shrimp. In the cooler months, when the wind and tide come together to make the shrimp run, snook stake out dock and bridge lights at night, holding motionless in the current and plucking off the tasty crustaceans riding the tide.
A live shrimp freelined across the surface is an easy snook target. Placed 24 inches behind a pencil weight, the shrimp is led down the shadow line of a bridge like a dog on a leash, only to suffer through one of those shell-crushing audible pops.
In deeper, moving water, a shrimp pinned to a jighead is hard to beat, especially around docks and rocky areas bordering sandy bottom. No pop, this time. Just a solid thump!
Snook sure do love their shrimp when they can get them. But it takes a lot of shrimp to make a meal. Given a choice, most snook would opt for larger prey.
When the members of the sardine, herring and menhaden families are around, big snook aren't ever far off. Because these baitfish have such high protein content, the lunker linesiders shadow the schools like truant officers waiting to bust anyone skipping ranks.
On light plug or spinning gear, a whitebait (Gulf Coast for Spanish sardine) cast into a sandy pothole or along a mangrove shoreline is a living snook magnet, diving and surfacing as it searches out its own demise. Hooked through the nose, back or belly, the whitebait has a life expectancy of about two-and-a-half minutes, if any snook are around.
Live mullet make good snook indicators when they're schooling. Hook one through the back so it swims downward, and it'll rush to the surface if a snook crosses its path. Finger mullet catch snook of all sizes. Larger mullet catch snook that have to be released, and a throat-hooked, 12-inch silver mullet fished on 100-pound test off a bridge is about the best ride you'll get without having bungee cords strapped to your ankles.
Take a dead mullet, cut off its head, hook it through the lips and pitch it out at the mouth of a marina or canal, and the first time the line comes tight, you'll believe in the technique but probably lose the fish because you're under-gunned. It's a fact that 70 percent of the people who purchase heavier tackle do so with the categorical "I just lost a huge snook! Einstein hairdo." The other 30 percent have either "Tarpon Fever" or are sporting a hand cramped into a claw from a deepwater grouper.
But snook don't just feed on the real deal. They're suckers for a chartreuse or white Red Tail Hawk jig, worked just above the bottom where the bushy silhouette is just "too good" for a snook to ignore. Diving plugs get their share as well, as do darters, spoons and just about any lure that mimics a baitfish, shrimp or crab.
Probably the most exciting is the topwater plug, for the main reason that snook get really creative in their approach to this type of lure. The first time, a fish might track the lure from behind, rise and gulp it down with a lightly audible "puuh!" The next one will blow it out of the water. The next will hit it from the side, leaping first and crushing the plug on the way down.
Sometimes, a snook will strike the plug repeatedly, never finding the business end of three separate treble hooks. When the lure is returned to the same spot, the bombardment begins anew, yet with the same results.
In the end, it doesn't really matter what tackle you like to use; that first good thump from a snook will draw you into the cult forever. Spin, plug or fly--who cares? Just get out and fish. Catch one snook--one really good fish--and it'll change your life forever. Really.
Snook at a Glance
Common Snook, Average Size: 3 to 15 pounds, with 16- to 30-pounders common. Usual maximum is 30 to 40 pounds. State Record: 44 pounds, 3 ounces. World Record: 53 pounds, 10 ounces. Range: A tropical species found on the larger islands of the Caribbean, including Cuba, Puerto Rico and Hispaniola. In Florida, their largest numbers are found in the southern half of the state, but individuals may range as far as Jacksonville on the Atlantic side, and the Panhandle on the Gulf side. Angling Methods: Casting with artificial lures or flies, trolling artificials or live bait and drifting or still fishing with live or dead natural baits.
Late spring and early summer produce many inlet fish over the legal size limit.
The magic combination of totally berserk behavior on the hook, tasty demeanor on the table and a love of snaggly, snarly inshore habitat that causes bass anglers to think they've gone to Heaven makes snook Florida's inshore favorite. But they're also the most frustrating of inshore fish. Often seen but not that often caught, they can be maddeningly moody when it comes to feeding. The moodiness is actually simple efficiency designed in by nature; they eat when eating is easy--often at night, or on bold tide flows--and the rest of the time they conserve their energy.
The most prominent physical characteristic of this fish is the lateral line, a sharply drawn black strip running from head to tail and earning the nickname "linesider." Coloration ranges from bright silver with a gray-green back along the coast to gold flanks and a nearly black back far up the tannin-stained creeks of the Everglades. During the spawn, the fins take on a bright yellow color. Snook have rough jaws, but no teeth. They are equipped with razor-edged gill plates, however, and these quickly bring to an end any battle not begun with a heavy shock leader as protection.
Snook spawning is one of the marvels of the natural world; on the new and full moons from May through September, the fish congregate at the passes and major sloughs where high current flow will carry their eggs. Near sundown, the males surround the females and bump them until they release their eggs, which are then fertilized. The free-floating eggs go seaward with the falling tide, come back through the pass and then go seaward again. Finally, they hatch as they return back to the inside waters on the incoming tide phase, about 18 hours after spawning.
Those lucky enough to avoid being eaten as they float over the grassflats (not many escape) work their way to the nearest brackish water creeks, marshes and ditches; tiny flows only a few feet wide provide critical habitat.
Snook start their lives in these tidal creeks narrow enough to step across, where they evade all saltwater predators; water birds are their only natural enemies here. They grow at about .7mm per day during their first eight months, faster in warm months and slower in cold months. Baby snook can survive remarkably warm weather; scientists have observed 2-inchers happily feeding in water over 95 degrees.
As the fish grow, they move out to the grassflats in summer, back to the creeks and also offshore in winter. Cold is the greatest enemy of snook. Water temperature lower than 45 degrees kills any fish it catches in the shallows. Snook can survive, barely, at water temperatures in the low 50's; they become dormant and may float to the surface, but most will recover. There has not been a major cold kill in Florida since 1989, as this is written in January of 2000.
Protection of estuaries, particularly the brackish creeks and ditches where the juveniles settle, can be critical to snook populations. Development that siphons off fresh water can be disastrous, changing the salinity level. Survival of bait species in this habitat is also important, which means more work needs to be done on mosquito control methods. Some scientists believe that large numbers of baby snook are killed each year along the ICW by aerial mosquito spraying, which could in fact be the bottleneck in modest reproductive success.
Fish smaller than 45 mm eat mostly larval shrimp and other zooplankton. Over 45 mm, they eat mostly minnows including gambusia or mosquitofish. They prefer shrimp and small anchovies after they move out to the grassflats at lengths around eight inches. Adult snook eat mostly baitfish and shrimp, but they also eat large numbers of blue crabs, a bait most anglers overlook.
Snook mature at about age 4 to 5 and lengths of 24 to 26 inches. The females all start life as males, with many converting at 20 inches and above. East coast snook are a slightly different strain from west coast fish, growing faster and heavier.
Common snook live about 15 years on the east coast and about 12 years on the west coast. They reach a maximum size of at least 53 pounds, 10 ounces, the current IGFA world record, caught in Costa Rica. Fifty-pound fish have been reported in Florida, though none has been officially weighed or photographed; the official state record is 44 pounds, 3 ounces.
The Florida range is mostly from Daytona Beach and Holmes Beach southward, though a decade of warm winters has allowed them to push northward through the 90s. They're also found throughout the Caribbean coast of Central America and the northeast coast of South America. They're part of a family that includes at least 12 closely related species, including three others here in Florida, the fat, tarpon and swordspine. The black snook, found only on the Pacific Coast of Central America, is thought to be the largest of the American snook family, with the IGFA record at 57 pounds, 12 ounces, and credible reports of fish over 70 pounds.
Scientists think all American snooks evolved from a common ancestor with the Nile perch of Africa and the barramundi of Australia.
Key Snook Locations to Know
There are places that produce snook, and there are traditional snook haunts that hold quality fish or in quantity year-round. The list of consistent snook fisheries is far too long to completely cover, but there are some areas that have become so well known they've attained legendary status among the Linesider Culture Club. Many draw serious crowds, while others are remote enough that at times, it's just you and the fish.
At the East Coast Big Five (Sebastian, Fort Pierce, St. Lucie, Jupiter and Palm Beach inlets), spring through fall are the top times, but you can catch fish all year. Anything live is a premier bait, but redtail hawk jigs and swimming plugs catch their share of fish. Also, you won't want to pass up the snook populations in Miami's Government Cut during the winter shrimp runs. Live shrimp freelined or on a Troll Rite jig catch some of the largest fish in the county.
On the Gulf Coast, you'll want to be fishing Wiggins Pass in the spring, when the big fish come out of the Cocohatchee River for the spawn. Live whitebait or sand perch drifted through the pass, or shrimp and jigs cast from shore produce the best results. Captiva Pass is another from a long list of Gulf Coast passes where each spring the snook gather before working their way into the Gulf. They're suckers for a live sardine drifted along the dropoff on the south side. Live shrimp, jigs and diving plugs are also good. Stump Pass and Passage Key Inlet are other notables.
If catching snook around mangrove-lined islands appeals to you, then Pine Island Sound is one of the best places to visit. Because of the tannic-colored water, the locals swear by black-and-gold MirrOlures or chrome-colored Reflecto spoons, but shrimp or baitfish also get the attention of snook on the prowl.
On the always snooky Indian River, Herman's Bay near the St. Lucie Nuclear Power Plant between Jensen Beach and Fort Pierce consists of a series of flats that straddle a cove on one side and the 33-foot deep Big Mud Creek on the other. Topwater plugs, shrimp, mullet or jigs all work well.
What Florida Bay lacks in huge snook, it makes up for in quantity. There's a long list of creeks and rivers with healthy snook populations, but it's hard to beat the fishing in the potholes out in front of Flamingo for shallow-water sport. Spring is tops and summer is good for anglers casting skimmer jigs, spoons, topwater plugs and flies in the sandy potholes and depressions in the grass. Island moats also hold their share of snook in good current.
If you're looking to catch numbers, it's hard to beat the live chumming with whitebait in the large sandy areas and depressions in the flats of Charlotte Harbor. Spring through fall, the fish pile up in these depressions where they'll also eat sinking plugs, jigs and topwater plugs at first light. The flats of Old Tampa Bay also rank among the best.
More snook over 40 pounds have come off the Flagler Bridge in West Palm Beach during the spring mullet run than any other South Florida structure. This bridge consistently holds some of the largest fish in the state for anglers fishing live mullet, sand perch or jigs after dark.
The two Matlacha Pass bridges on Hwy. 78 connecting mainland Cape Coralto to Little Pine Island provide excellent fishing year-round. Things really heat up during the transitional seasons of fall and spring. Shrimp, mullet and pinfish are good baits; lipped plugs and jigs are among the most effective lures. Fly fishing can also be good around the bridge fenders after dark.
Biscayne Bay bridges hold their fair share of snook for anglers using Troll Rites and live shrimp or freelined shrimp at night during the winter and spring shrimp runs. A live pinfish freelined into the current over sandy bottom is an old-time favorite.
Among the best in the state for big fish is the Sunshine Skyway Bridge (I-275) near the mouth of Tampa Bay. Livebait fishing, mostly after dark, takes heavyweight linesiders from May through October. Shorebound anglers can fish piers on the north and south sides of the bridge.
All the beaches along South Hutchinson Island and Hobe Sound Beach and Blowing Rocks on Jupiter Island are known for their summer snook populations. Walk the beach just before dawn and fish until about 8 a.m., casting plugs and flies around the beachfront rockpiles.
If you're into wading along the shore and casting out to the fish, Southwest Florida's Sanibel and Captiva Islands are a best bet for snook on the hunt along the beach at first light. The fish are most numerous from late spring through early fall.
From the East Cape to northwest Cape Sable in Florida Bay, the beaches hold snook, especially where baitfish such as finger mullet and glass minnows abound. Anglers either walk the sand, casting parallel to the beach into the trough with a variety of jigs and swimming plugs, or anchor just off the beach and still-fish with live pinfish or mullet. Spring through fall is best, and the Cape points can be especially good.
Snook may be in better supply than elbow room at the north end of Honeymoon Island State Recreation Area in Pinellas County. Off a little in recent years, this famed stretch of beach nonetheless continues to be popular among the summertime dawn-patrol set.
The Earman River in Palm Beach is home to lunker snook, but the catches don't come easy. There are several well-known docks that harbor snook as well as a spillway where mullet like to congregate. Jigs and live bait work best, and don't overlook the allure of a live sand perch freelined near the dock pilings.
Starting in April, a portion of the snook population in Everglades National Park can be found close to the mouth of Lostmans River. The fish hold tight to the mangroves, but feed out in the open during the outgoing tide. Everything from live bait to jigs and plugs will fool these fish, with the action peaking in May and June, and consistent well into September.
During the winter months, snook gather to feed in the deep holes along the bends and oxbows in the Cotee River. Jigs or shrimp-and-jig combinations are hard to beat, with the key being to work the baits slowly just above the bottom. Starting in October, snook migrate up the nearby Anclote River where they winter in the deeper holes and channels between Tarpon Springs and Salt Lake. A live shrimp on a jig bounced over the bottom is tops. When spring and summer arrive, the fish can be caught on topwater plugs and whitebaits around the islands near the mouth of the river. All five rivers that feed Tampa Bay can be cold-season hotspots; try plugcasting docks and shorelines on the Little Manatee from November through January.
There are several good bridges for snook fishing on the Peace River, but the best action can be found by working a topwater plug at first light along the shorelines or any point that has a sandbar. Snook station along these bars in the spring, and blast the lures as they come by. Slow-trolling with lipped plugs is also good. In the same neighborhood is the Caloosahatchee River. The largest snook congregate around the power plant in the winter months. Focus on the larger fish around the bridges and school fish along the shorelines with rattling plugs, jigs, live mullet or sand perch. Also check out the Seaboard Coastline trestle, and don't overlook the Cape Coral Bridge or the flats at the mouth of the river during the spring and fall. Downstream, big snook lurk around the docks in front of the Sanibel Harbor Resort and the bridge at Punta Rassa. Try live whitebait, pinfish or mullet drifted close to the pilings. Jigs work best at night, and live shrimp can be a killer in the late winter and early spring.
For sheer numbers of small to medium snook, it's hard to beat the winter months along the Tamiami Trail. The 30-mile stretch of Hwy. 41 near Marco Island is revered light tackle and flycasting territory. Small topwater or lipped balsa minnow plugs, and small minnow fly patterns top the list.
When the spring rains arrive, the water flowing over the Lake Worth Spillway is laden with shad and bream, with snook of all sizes feeding in the flow. A live representative of the natural forage works best; a shad-bodied jig or swimming plug is the next best alternative.
In the warm waters of the St. Lucie Power Plant Outflow, huge schools of snook spend the year feasting on baitfish and shrimp drawn to the currents. Live threadfins, croakers or pinfish dropped to the bottom over the outflow pipe will produce best.
Last but not least, we'd be remiss not to mention the dock and bridge lights along the Intracoastal Waterway, where insomniac snookers enjoy nighttime action just about anywhere in the southern half of the state. FS
First Published in Florida Sportsman Magazine, March, 2000.
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