Spring Snook Sensation
Warming weather ignites seasonal feeding flurry
Article and photos by David A. Brown
"Let the fish take the blistering runs and make those acrobatic jumps . Finesse the snook and you will win" - Capt. Jason Stock
Many reasons justify Florida's reputation as "Sport Fishing Capital of the World" and one of them has a long, black stripe down each of its muscular flanks.
Centropomus undecimalis, better known as snook but often called "linesiders," is a pedal-to-the-metal predator that brings its a game on every down. Sleek and streamlined, the snook is built for feeding efficiency and fighting fury, and spring unleashes both traits.
"The snook are charged back up after a couple cold months of winter," said Capt. Jason Stock, who guides in the Bradenton area from a flats skiff or kayak. "They'll be fattening up on finger mullet and whitebaits (scaled sardines) to get ready for the summer spawn."
For a subtropical species, the Greater Tampa Bay area represents the upper end of the snook's geographic range. Smaller populations thrive as far north as Crystal River, but the state's left coast sees consistent snook fishing from Tarpon Springs down through Florida Bay. Wherever they roam, snook are extremely cold-sensitive, so they'll pass the frigid winter months way back in the deep, stable waters of coastal rivers, creeks, canals and port basins.
Once spring delivers stable weather and rising air/water temperatures, snook emerge from their winter haunts with rumbling bellies and plans of moving progressively closer to the coastal pass where they'll stage for their summer spawn. Having eaten very little during their cold-season retreats, linesiders will feed voraciously on just about anything they can catch, but their primary spring target is the voluminous schools of whitebait and threadfin herring (greenbacks) that show up each spring.
“Everything depends on the weather and water temperature,” said Charlotte Harbor Capt. Van Hubbard. “The cooler it is, the slower the fish will be moving toward the Gulf. The warmer it is, the faster they’ll be moving toward the Gulf. Also, food will determine how fast they move through an area. If there is a lot of food in the area, they’ll hold longer.”
As Hubbard notes, snook metabolism starts picking up when water temperature reaches about 75 degrees. Until the water warms, the fish will remain sluggish, lethargic, lazy – kinda like fishermen on a cold morning.
“That’s not to say that they won’t move around and feed, but they won’t be very aggressive,” Hubbard said. “Once the water temperature rises, those fish will be more active.”
Spring snook will be feeding heavily as they move toward coastal passes for their summer spawn.
From Tampa Bay through the Charlotte Harbor and Pine Island Sound area, spring finds emergent snook moving toward the outer mangrove islands. Cuts, troughs and potholes on the flats adjacent to these islands are likely spots to find savvy fish, which lie in these low spots and pick off tide-borne meals that wash overhead. Also look for ambush points along mangrove shorelines where the tide pushes baitfish to these locations.
Fertile grass flats outside these areas provide inviting opportunities for snook to soak up some rays and chase prey in shallow habitat. These "sunning" spots adjacent to deeper water will be key locations for early spring snook, which stick close to the safety of deep water until they're comfortable that lengthening days and rising temperatures are here to stay.
Capt. Paul Hobby of Fort Myers notes that all of the coastal mangrove islands hold snook potential, but the ones with additional structure like oyster bars will be most productive. Add a deeper cut near the bar and you have a prime snook spot.
“It seems like the (best) mangrove spots are the ones where snook have some access to deep water that allows them to travel to and from those spots. They don’t have to cross over shallow water to get to. They can ease up and ease off without being detected, so the deep water gives them that safety.”
Chumming with a net full of live pilchards is a great way to jump start the snook bite.
For free lining or floating a live baitfish in slow water, insert the hook behind the pectoral fin.
Hefty bait like the pinfish appeals to larger snook.
Artificials like the DOA Shrimp offer a viable alternative for spring snook.
With snook keying heavily on finfish forage, offering them the real thing is usually most productive. Good thing is that baitfish are so
thick this time of year, anglers often idle along grass flats and sling their cast nets over a school. Anchoring uptide of a flats edge, channel marker or bridge piling and chumming with canned cat food or a mix of fish meal, oats and sea water will bring plenty of bait into range of a cast net.
Floats offer instant strike detectors that also help control your bait's depth and range – important when fishing around mangroves. However, experienced anglers like the direct connection of a free-lined bait. In shallow water scenarios, hook a baitfish through the soft tissue behind the pectoral fin to hide the hook under the bait. For casting uptide and bringing a bait down current in swifter water, nose-hooking works best.
With either method, tossing out a handful of live baitfish can jumpstart the action and point you toward the hotspots. Slinging these chummers by hand is fine, but a day of doing so will leave your arm aching. Bait shops often sell "chum bats" – essentially plastic bats with the ends removed at an angle. Load a dozen or so baits, give them a disorienting shake and toss them toward your target area. Boils, wakes and the unmistakable SMACK! of a snook nabbing one of the freebies at the surface are like a "Cast Here" sign.
Spring snook will also gobble live shrimp and larger baits like pinfish and grass grunts. Artificials that closely mimic natural forage enable you to cover large areas to dial in the sweet spots. Minnow imitators like MirrOlure's MirrOdine and 52M or a Maverick Golden Eye, as well as topwaters like Zara Spooks, Rapala Skitterwalks and MirrOlure She Dog or MirrOmullet often fool feeding snook.
The DOA shrimp is Hobby’s top bait for mangrove shorelines. As the tide rises, he’ll use the push pole or trolling motor to ease down the edge, making long casts and retrieving his baits nearly parallel to the shoreline. But when snook push deep into the bushes, it’s time to pull a page from the bass fisherman’s playbook and send those baits into close range.
“If you can learn to skip that bait under the mangroves, that’s highly effective,” Hobby said. “You’ll double what other guys are catching if you can skip a bait under the mangroves.”
The skipping thing is most important when sunny skies push the fish well into that shadow pockets. On cloudy and/or windy days, when visibility declines, you’ll find snook roaming the mangrove edges with less need for darker havens. In any scenario, Hobby recommends keeping maximum casting distance between yourself and the mangrove.
Complementing natural snook habitat, manmade structures like docks and piers inside the bays and Intracoastal Waterway see plenty of snook. Here, the combination of deeper water, shade and ambush points offers cozy digs for the pin-striped predators.
Hobby uses his trolling motor to parallel the perimeter and bounces a ¼-ounce root beer colored DOA TerrorEyz along the bottom. This is most effective for snook holding close to the bottom, or those hugging the structure during strong tides. Hobby works his bait in short hops and expects bites on the fall.
Snook could be anywhere along the dock, so start shallow, work out to the end and then make a return pass. Pay attention to obvious gathering points like gaps in understructure where snook can sit and ambush tide-borne prey. Also, lights attract snook at night and the fish often tarry in the same areas well into daylight hours. Contour changes are always attractive to fish, so docks with turns or angles usually see fish grouping around these transitional points.
During slack tides, snook tend to spread out so Hobby will venture a few casts away from the dock. However, when the water picks up, he’s most likely to skip a 3-inch DOA shrimp (Gold Glitter or Nite Glow) into the shadows.
“I prefer the shrimp because I can get it way up under there and fish it in so many different points in the water column,” he said. “The snook may be three or four feet under the surface or they may be on the bottom. That shrimp covers it all.”
Late spring finds snook approaching the passes where they'll stage for their summer spawns on the strong tides of new and full moons. On their way to these gulf side destinations, many snook will hang out by the bridges linking coastal land masses. Snook need current to bring food past a bridge's many ambush spots, so incoming or outgoing tides will be productive – anything but slack water.
Spring snook could be anywhere along a bridge, so check pilings from shallow to deep, as well as both sides of the fenders – especially the downtide eddies. For live baits, Stock swings for the fences by fishing a live ladyfish or grass grunt on heavy tackle. This is particularly effective at night under the bridge lights where big snook target easy meals. Bouncing a ¼- to ½-ounce bucktail jig or 3/8-ounce TerrorEyz along the structure also produces. Idle uptide and work your baits downcurrent, as you slow your drift with the trolling motor.
Snook are tough fighters, so expect a spirited struggle.
ENGAGE AND RELEASE
For most snook pursuits, medium-action 7- to 7 ½-foot spinning outfits with 30- to 40-pound braided line and 40-pound fluorocarbon leaders will suffice. Stock offers this advice for subduing the fish best known for its incredible fighting ability.
"Let the fish take the blistering runs and make those acrobatic jumps" he said. "Finesse the snook and you will win. The harder you pull, the harder a big snook will run. I have also landed many big snook with braided line after they have wrapped around the mangroves. When you release the pressure, you can untangle the wrapped line and land the snook."
Spring snook usually do well upon release, but handle with care. Avoid touching the eyes or gills and try not to rub away the protective slime coating. Long-handled hook removers offer a safe and effective way to liberate your catch, but lacking such tools, the snook’s stout lower jaw makes a good handle.
If the fish appears tired, give it a few seconds to recharge at boatside before releasing. Maintain the lip grip and support the fish with your other hand. When a snook is about ready to go, it will squeeze its toothless jaws around your thumb. A few shakes and maybe a light thump on the tail usually sends them off none the worse for wear.
A Look at Snook
Currently, snook harvest is only permitted on Florida's Atlantic Coast, with two seasonal closures of Dec. 15-Jan. 31 and June 1-Aug. 31. In the Gulf of Mexico, Monroe County and Everglades National Park, the species' open season has been suspended since an extended freeze in Jan. 2010 claimed hundreds of thousands of snook, both juvenile and adult brood stock.
On January 16, 2010, the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission issued an executive order effective January 16 that extended the current winter snook closure through August 31 of that year. Eliminating the spring harvest ensured the maximum number of snook would survive for the summer spawn.Subsequent actions continued the closure through at least Sept. 2013 (as of this writing). Catch-and-release fishing for snook remains legal during closed seasons on both coasts. For updates on snook status, seasons and Atlantic coast size limits, visit http://myfwc.com/fishing/saltwater/recreational/snook/.
A Case For Circle Hooks
While hooked and caught fish are released back into the water on a regular basis, some of those fish don’t recover as well as the others. Tops on the list of recovery issues is throat or “gut” hooking of fish, a problem that occurs when anglers using live bait “feed” the fish or give it time to swallow the bait before setting the hook.
The best way to avoid hooking a snook deep is to use non-offset circle hooks, which are designed to slide out of the fish’s throat area and catch it in the corner of the mouth.
Anglers should also keep the reel engaged so if a fish grabs a bait and runs, the hook will immediately set itself, avoiding any chance the fish can swallow the bait or get it deep into its throat.
Occasionally fish will be guthooked or hooked in the throat with the point sticking up. When that happens, anglers should never try to pull the hook out as it may cause serious bleeding. Instead, cut the leader and leave the hook in the fish before releasing it. The hook will erode and the wound has a better chance to heal.